This was originally supposed to be a story about music and music alone. But it soon became apparent that the undisputable theme was love and relationships.
Casual encounters and good first dates. I first met Dee Jay Alicia a few days shy of exactly one year ago. I was enjoying a first date with my now boyfriend, also a DJ (Jackie Moon) at the Time Out Lounge, on the South Side of Chicago. It was Soulfisticated’s weekly House music night, a Tuesday to be exact. As we talked over drinks, this woman entered. She seemed to know everyone. It was Alicia. She greeted us with a 100 Watt smile. If you have ever seen Alicia out, you have experienced this smile. I remember thinking; this woman is different from others. As a woman it is not uncommon to initially encounter not so friendly women. We can be hard on one another. Sizing up our “opponent” with a chilled demeanor, women can be a bit tough towards other women. This was not the case with Alicia. She was warm and inviting. My date raved about her and how quickly she had embraced him. This has been my experience with Alicia. She is a good woman.
Meeting Mickey Calvin is another story, in that I cannot remember meeting him at all. It was after Alicia, I can say for a fact, but that’s about it. He is one of those people you just know. The details are sketchy as to when we were initially introduced. What I can say is the name Mickey Calvin is synonymous with the word Energy. When I have seen Mickey at a party, he is dancing. He is the type of guy who wears sunglasses inside. Yet, it never seems obnoxious with him. If he is DJing, he is moving more. Watching Mickey Calvin spin, there is no doubt that he enjoys it. Music moves him.
Add a little friendship and compatibility. It is the humanity of both Dee Jay Alicia and Mickey Calvin that drives this story. It is that same humanity that makes them fan favorites. Friendship and respect for each other’s ability is what brought them together. Love of “the music” is what fueled their latest venture- MAC Productions. I sat down with the two of them in Alicia’s home, the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the historical second term inauguration of President Obama. It was a lazy day for me and admittedly I wanted to spend my evening on the couch vegging out, watching Netflix. I woke up early and sent Alicia an instant message via Facebook confirming our interview. She replied several hours later (waking from a long night after a gig that went well into the morning). Regretfully, she would have to postpone. She was doing an internet radio show that afternoon and asked if I wanted to meet her there. I didn’t. I wanted to reschedule and just when it seemed she was falling prey to my evil plan, I got her next message. She was on the phone with Mickey; he said let’s go ahead and do it today. Be at her house at 6pm. Damn.
That is what makes their partnership golden. Where Alicia may want to take the laid back approach, skillfully handling you with her easygoing charm, not trying to ruffle feathers, Mickey likes to, in his words, “kick in the door.” MAC Productions came to be in August of 2012. Although less than a year old, the duo has cranked out 16 new edits, and currently working on the final touches of three more. They credit Albeton Live, a software program for creating, producing and performing music, for the creation of MAC Productions. At first the partnership was a bit challenging, until they discovered the balance between the skill set of each. With an MBA under her belt, Alicia brings business savvy and marketing to the table. Mickey- has a managerial style that keeps the two focused, history and a knack for networking. With a combined 40 plus years of working in this industry; both bring experience.
What makes this pair special is that they absolutely admire each other. Mickey enjoys hearing Alicia play. “Other DJs don’t take chances and opportunity, Alicia does.” He says part of the winning formula is they share the same focus. But this does not exempt them from disagreements. “We have debates, she calls them arguments,” says Mickey. The “magic” happens as a result of their mutual respect for each other. That respect was obvious during this interview. Each takes their turn talking, neither eager to step on the other’s toes. There is an underlying agreement that shadows the room. Alicia adds, “he appreciates what I do musically, my DJ style.” Of Mickey’s DJing, Alicia says, “it’s almost like he’s singing to you. I like more raw beats, Afro beats, he’s more melodic.” That is their simple recipe for editing: Alicia starts with a heavy beat, and then hands it over to Mickey for the finishing effects. They usually work separately; trust being the key. “My partner has drive. If I pass the track off, she does her thing and it will be complete. I work well with someone with the same drive as mine,” says Mickey of this process. “[We both bring] 110%”. Alicia has tried other partners in the past, but always felt they wanted to “bottle my lightening. Mickey focuses my energy where it’s most effective.” She feels her personality “gels well” with Mickey’s and takes comfort in the fact that he does not take offense to “my suggestions”.
Here’s the start of something special. Mickey started collecting music sometime around 1983 or 1984, but did not go pro until 1990. He has always played House music, but would dabble with different genres for certain gigs and people. His dad bought him his first set of turntables, but the DJing was something he was just good at, it was not planned. It was while working for Loop Records from 1991 to about 1994 that he met and began working closely with LiL John, his mentor, and Freddie Bain. Both John and Bain spun at Red Dog; Mickey joined them a couple of years later. Red Dog allowed him to hone his DJing and networking skills.
Alicia’s DJing career began with the Chicago Steppers community, 17 years ago. She found the same intensity she sees with Househeads. The only difference being where that intensity is focused. For steppers, there were impassioned dance contests. The House community is simply intense with the music. You have seen them, eyes closed, carried away by the sound- hypnotic head nod and body bounce that seems to be uncontrollable. For Alicia, feeding that insatiable craving of the music lovers can be “a lot of pressure”. Mickey agrees, the “pressure comes from focusing on your crowd.” Alicia chimes in, “trying to satisfy them”. Mickey goes on to explain the challenge a DJ faces when trying to introduce new music to a crowd that could include everyone from other DJs, seasoned Househeads and newbies who just came out to hear some of their favorite party anthems and have a drink and a good time. “Some people”, he says, “haven’t heard ‘Hey Hey’ (Dennis Ferrer’s 2010 hit single) but about two times. You have to respect that.”
Enter the Licorice Lounge. Alicia, with pride in her voice, introduces MAC Productions’ newest venture: building a weekly party on Thursdays at the Licorice Lounge. An unassuming, quaint little (emphasis on little) space, the Licorice has become a hotspot for those on the verge of wrapping up their 9 to 5 work week with heavy-thumping, soul inspiring music. The atmosphere is comparable to the 1980s hit show Cheers. In the short span of two visits, you will become familiar with just about everyone in this South Side lounge. For fans who are followers of the music or even the unbreakable fans of Alicia and Mickey, Thursdays at the Licorice are like weekly family and friend reunions. The pair likes it this way. Mickey feels it’s important to “make ourselves attainable.” The family atmosphere is maintained because both make a point to greet patrons at the door. You can expect to sit next to either at the bar, or be pulled to the makeshift dance floor at any given time. The focus is not on money, rather everyone (themselves included) having a good time. A fun night is a successful night. Mickey’s philosophy is: “[if you] give a good product; you’re going to get paid”. Luckily for the Licorice Lounge owner, they have. I remember the first time I walked in the Licorice Lounge door for Tasty House Thursdays. I could count the people on one hand- that’s including the bartender and DJ. In just a few short months, it has become the place to be every Thursday night- and it’s still growing. Just last week, I had to post up against a wall because seating at the bar and elsewhere were all taken.
MAC Productions, like a heat seeking missile, is quietly building an unshakable following. It is a steady uphill climb, riddled with many traps. The first and most critical is what some would call the finicky tastes of the House community, in particular the Chicago House community. They have an unbridled need to dance, and they will not settle for just anyone giving themselves the title of DJ. You have to earn it. Furthermore, the House community is indeed a community. Mickey jokingly compares them to Jehovah’s Witnesses, “you can be banned and blackballed.” Within this network of fans and DJs alike are cliques, elders and even a mayor. There are breakups and makeups, like with any family. Major events like the annual Chosen Few picnic brings everyone together. Alicia likens it to “Christmas dinner”. Under the “elders” everyone is on their best behavior.
The second and perhaps most obvious challenge is presented when Alicia enters the room. Being a woman DJ, even in 2013, still poses a problem. “[It’s] the best of both worlds. You may be chosen because you’re a female”, she says. But in more cases than not, she still feels she has to prove herself, “every time”. When I ask who it is she has to prove herself to the most: male DJs, partygoers or female DJs, she nearly cuts me off, replying, “all of them”. She admits to having an “intense desire” to silence the naysayers. Regardless of her skills and finesse, “it’s [still] a boys club, [you can be] ten times as good.”
Finally, there is the issue of vinyl verses CDs verses Serato (digital DJing software). Alicia, who has been using Serato for two years and admits that it will “spoil you”, recalls a time in the not-so-distant past where a normal gig required her lugging up to nine crates of vinyl just to perform. But she clarifies, “I’m not dependent on it.” Mickey adds, “people see me as a ‘new cat’, [but] you can tell the difference when I play.” He goes on to muse, “I’ve developed a craft.” A “club DJ”, he loves remixing the record while playing live, “on the fly”.
They lived happily ever after. Alicia makes a point not to focus on the negative. “They talked about Jesus.” Instead, she focuses on doing “what makes me happy.” With all of the hard work that is involved, I asked, what do you enjoy most? Alicia quickly answers, “all of it, physically; it’s everything.” Mickey, delving deeper, replies, “I enjoy the way I execute. The way I play.” Both agree there is a definite love of the music, the fans and the instant unmistakable reaction they receive from the crowd. Innocently, I follow-up with, Is it a power trip? To which Alicia makes it clear, “DJs are servants. What power do you have if no one is there to hear you?” Momentarily in their own world, they start comparing stories and discuss Alicia “black[ing] out, like the Matrix”. Mickey confesses he does not like being bothered when he plays, “I try to zone [out]”.
With their new MAC Productions editing business, they admit it’s hard to listen to music in the same way as before. The only difference now is, anything they don’t like, they just change it. One thing that has not changed is their understanding of business and its importance in the music industry. “Business is business”, says Alicia. “You can have a passion in the basement- it’s all personality. I just play records. Our personality is an asset to what we do.” There is an obvious abundant amount of love that goes into what they do. Mickey and Alicia equally acknowledge their fans and followers, who in most cases tip a fine line into friendship, as one of their main motivation. Alicia’s Muffins go as far as to bring food and gifts such as boots and perfume, to leaving encouraging messages on any number of her Facebook pages. It is hard to give up when “other people believe in you,” says Mickey.
The work is hard, they both admit, “I have a breakdown every day,” says Alicia. But doesn’t every love story have its ups and downs? The future for MAC Productions looks bright. This year they hope to find their edits frequently included on Traxsource and other sites featuring downloadable underground House and Electronic music. Further down the line Alicia hopes to focus less on DJing and more on production. Mickey, casually and very confident, confides, “I would love to win a Grammy.” To which Alicia replies, “Mickey thinks big. I’m more [of] if it happens, it happens.” At the rate their going, why wouldn’t it?
Five Questions for Mickey Calvin and Alicia
1. What’s something few people know/understand about making a great edit?Dee Jay Alicia: Quantization. Both start laughing.
Mickey Calvin: A song has a beginning, middle and end.
2. I consider myself a novice to the house world. What five songs will teach me everything I need to know about the music/culture?
A: You have to go in eras.
-Jingo- “I’ll House You”
-Donna Summer- “I Feel Love”
-Lil’ Louis- “’Video Crash”
M: You have to have the steps. House is the synthetic version of disco.
-Phyllis Hyman- “You Know How to Love Me”
-Chaka Khan- “I’m Every Woman”
3. What House song did you first fall in love with?
A: “I Feel Love”- Donna Summer
M: “Bad Luck”- Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and 2nd “You Know How to Love Me”- Phyllis Hyman
4. You’re stranded on an island, you have all of your DJ equipment, but you’re unable to play yourself. Which DJ do you want to be on that island with you to play instead?
M: My mentor, LiL John.
A: Mike Dunn
5. Do dating and DJing mix well?
M: Simultaneously, shakes head no.
A: Scheduling issues; I live at night.
M: I work and DJ.