When you hear stories of Chicago’s golden days of House Music whether it be in the late ’80s through the late ’90s, you learn to appreciate the multifaceted talent behind the big names. These weren’t just DJs – they were party purveyors, responsible for creating an entire experience that went beyond the sounds you danced to. Psycho-Bitch (known to her friends as Val) has been down in the trenches for over 25+ years, and to hear her play even today you see that she still has that It factor that made her one of the supreme House DJs of Chicago.
Many people associate you with the other powerhouse Teri Bristol. How did the two of you meet and what was that meeting like? (I understand she taught you the ropes and you used to bring her records to try out for her sets?)
Teri and I met waaaay back in the early ’80s. There was a gay bar right by O’Hare called Celebrity Club. It started out as a mixed bar – gay men and women. When Hunters opened nearby all the boys went to Hunters and all the women stayed at Celebrity Club.
This place was tacky beyond imagination! However I met some great people there who I am still friends with today – one of them being my bestest best friend of ever, Teri Bristol. To this day I tease Teri because Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby” was huge back then and the first line in the song is “I was working as a waitress in a COCKTAIL BAR when I met you.” That is exactly how I met Teri. She was the waitress, but ended up playing records because the DJ there got fired. I had been collecting records since I was a child and at this point I already had several hundred 12″ singles in addition to albums, cassettes and 8 tracks. Teri was playing the records the club had so I would bring her really good dance stuff. A lot of it was heard on the WBMX mixes as well as different clubs in the city: Medusa’s, Neo and SmartBar to name a few. I recognized instantly that Teri had a gift but she was so shy.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] I never thought of it as, “I want to be a DJ.” I have always thought of it as, “I want to be able to touch people the way I saw them being touched by Frankie.” [/quote]
I still really had no idea I wanted to DJ – I was too wrapped up in collecting every single record I heard that I liked. Then it happened: one night when Teri worked at The Annex 2 next to the Baton, a friend of ours Billy told us he wanted to take us to meet Frankie (Knuckles) at his after-hours club.
So here’s Teri and I – the only white people and the only women walking into this place at 6am on a bright, extremely hot summer Sunday morning. Billy walks us into the booth introduces us to Frankie. Wow! That beautiful man with the warmest smile I have ever seen in my life! Frankie gives us the biggest most welcoming hug and tells us how nice it is to meet us. I stood in the booth watching that man get pure pleasure from his heart and soul as the dancefloor had the exact same reaction. This was my AHA moment! That was the moment I realized what I wanted to do with all my records and the passion I had for music.
Funny thing is, I never thought of it as, “I want to be a DJ.” I have always thought of it as, “I want to be able to touch people the way I saw them being touched by Frankie.”
What years did you used to work at Gramaphone? That place is truly legendary as the spot that bred so many future stars.
I started shopping at Gramaphone in 1980. I worked there from 1990-2000. I worked at Midwest Stereo for several years as well. Both places are awesome and to this day I still send them both business.
You’re known for the coalminer light you wear when you spin…
Although a lot of people remember me from Medusa’s, Cairo was really the place where my career started to really take off. So many first things happened to me here – the first time I was a music director, the first time I was in complete control of promoting my night… The first time I started to use three turntables in my sets and the headlight and siren were both born here back around 1987 or so! I have always preferred to play in the dark. I used to have certain small flashlights that I would hold with my teeth when spinning. I even carried gels in my bag that I would cover the little lights on the turntables with! But then we did a lights out party at Cairo and handed out headlights and I kept mine and haven’t stopped using it since.
One time I was playing in Hawaii and someone came up to the booth and said, “I saw the headlight bobbin’ from the back of the dancefloor… There is only one DJ in the world I know of that wears a headlight and you must be her!”
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] I promoted them, did the guest lists, thought of the themes and even made the decorations a lot of the times. I started my own mailing list and would sit in my kitchen every week calling hundreds of people promoting my gigs and giving away cocktail reception parties to get people in the clubs early. [/quote]
Back in the late ’80s and ’90s I take it producing wasn’t so much of a big thing as it is now. Now it’s almost mandatory. Then it was all about the art of DJing… are you currently doing any production or plan to?
I have produced a few things in the past but honestly most of the reason I didn’t spend a lot of time in the studio in the ’80s and ’90s is because I not only spun all my gigs, – which by the way were not 1 hour guest spots they were entire nights (my favorite way to play) – but I promoted them, did the guest lists, thought of the themes and even made the decorations a lot of the times. I started my own mailing list and would sit in my kitchen every week calling hundreds of people promoting my gigs and giving away cocktail reception parties to get people in the clubs early. When all the other club owners saw that I could have a few hundred people in the club by midnight they started hiring in-house teams to do what I had been doing all by myself for years. But I must admit I have been itching to get back in the studio…
The origin of your name? I’ve been dying to ask…
It was very difficult trying to DJ in clubs back then. There were maybe ten cool clubs in the city and each club had one resident who played all night. So trying to get a gig was darn near impossible, especially as a woman! There were two other women DJs: Teri and a video jock named Casey who worked at Berlin. When I did get gigs, trying to get my name on a flyer was another story. I was in an article in the Sun-Times and they called me “some DJ”, then I did a guest spot somewhere and they spelled my goofy last name right and put “Van” for my first name. That just plain-and-simply pissed me off!
So on a day off I was making a mixtape for someone in the DJ booth at Medusa’s and I had really bad PMS. I was grumbling under my breath in between mixes and Teri walks in the booth. She’s like, “What the hell is wrong with you?” I told her I was pissed that I didn’t feel like I was ever going to move forward getting more gigs when nobody can spell my name right or know who was even in the booth. I was telling her I was trying to think of a DJ name and I was spewing things out like “Crazy Girl” or “Mad Woman” – something so someone knew I was a woman.
Teri was like, “Oh girl please…..you are nothing less than a Psycho-Bitch!” I screamed out, “Yeah! That’s it!”
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] To all the downtalkers about our Chicago scene, I’d like to ask: What are YOU doing to make it better? Anything? [/quote]
I don’t often ask this question of DJs because the answers are usually the same, but with you I feel like I’ll hear something different: where do you normally shop for your music and how much do you rely on rare recorded vinyl for use as your secret weapons? What’s your method of staying up on all new music? Promos, digital sites, Soundcloud feeds?
As far as where I find my music I’m sure I search the same sites as everyone else. I have a few friends who have amazing taste in music so in addition to what I find they download CDs for me to that I listen to and pick what I like. I have so much rare and amazing vinyl that I can probably play things that hardly anyone knows for hours. If any promoters are hearing this, hopefully this will encourage you to have some turntables (that work) available!
I was watching an interview you did in St. Louis about four years ago and you talked about how during your seven year Crobar residency with Teri, you were in charge of everything – the promotions, the guest list, the production, all of it. Very few residencies are afforded that kind of freedom, and if there are there’s usually management breathing down your neck pretty hard with a clicker on hand. Was it always smooth sailing during those golden days and do you think something like that can be done again?
Nothing in the industry is ever perfect or smooth sailing. However the key to the success was that the owners believed in us and pretty much left us alone. We planned that night for 3 months. When Teri and I took over, one of my personal tasks for the night was to not only increase the crowd but to increase the early arrivals. Within the first year I had 800 coming before midnight and between 2000-3000 coming all night. Our birthday, anniversary and six turntable shows were absolutely insane there. By 10pm the line would wrap a whole city block. We were so devoted and committed to this night that we turned down all out-of-town guest spots to be there for our loyal fans who came and supported every single Saturday. I had to hire 4 people to answer 3 phones and email every week to compile the guest list with me. I absolutely think this is possible again if we can find the right space and the right owner who believes in it and understands nothing happens overnight. It’s like a garden that has to grow.
To all the downtalkers about our Chicago scene, I’d like to ask: What are you doing to make it better? Anything? Instead of talking down about this great city where oh my gosh there are so many incredible DJs – stop spending your time and energy being negative and either support the quality events that there are or start your own!