"I remember the days when I would walk out of a club late at night and a bouncer would be looking over my shoulder. He was protecting me. Otherwise, I'd have all of my stuff stolen or I'd get my ass kicked," says Michael Babb. "Back then, there was no Glee, no Will and Grace, no room for a guy dressed in drag. None of that." He pauses briefly. "Some people peg Pride as just a big dance party, but to me...it's so much more."
Michael Babb is Deko-ze, the indispensable Toronto-grounded DJ with a storied and triumphant history in Canada's dance music hub. Babb, who is openly gay, has been a fundamental element not only in Toronto's fruitful house and techno music scene, but also in Toronto Pride Week. His annual Dirty Disco South Stage block party, held in the heart of Toronto's gay district The Village, is the lifeblood to a weeks-long celebration. The festivities are far from over, but Babb's pride for Pride is already at its peak. "It used to be only a celebration of the gay community, now it's a complete mix. Not only do you see people who are much a part of the community, you get friends, supporters, allies, and everyone in between," he says. "Even though we have The Village, nowadays you don't need to be labeled to a particular area of the city in order to have a good time."
Anyone who's privy to the beaming, shirtless, torso-thrashing display of a Deko-ze set surely knows a good time; rousing good times is a focal part of Babb's ethos. "This is going to sound weird, but it really started for me in grade two," says Babb. "In art class, the teacher let us bring in music and play it for the class. I would bring my dad's 45s, LPs and tapes, and sit at the record player, changing each individual track. My teacher would beg me to do my assignments, but I could never just play a whole tape. I wanted people to hear the best songs. I was known as 'that guy with the music.'"
'That guy with the music' has since matured, as has his title, now dubbed "Canada's Hardest Working DJ." Despite his apparent pre-pubescent potential, Babb's professional career kick-started in Saskatchewan, where his Trinidad and Barbados descended parents emigrated from England to when he was two-years-old. By 16, to the ignorance of his parents, Babb was frequenting the only gay bar in Saskatoon, called Numbers. "It was the only place playing a mix of techno, trance, new energy, industrial, and so on. I would hear Prodigy, Madonna, and Pet Shop Boys all mixed to perfection," says Babb. "The manager let me in because she knew I was really there for the music." Numbers' then resident DJ, Techno Tom, was the city's topmost turntablist and Babb's personal idol. But when Tom fell ill, he appointed a then 17-year-old Babb as the heir to Numbers' throne. "When he told me that, I had two different mindsets. On one hand, I was like 'are you out of your fucking mind?' and on the other I was like 'OOOHHH MY GOD! WOOHOOOO!'" (For the record, his imitation of that reaction was as if he had just heard the news all over again.)
After some practice and a few catastrophic sets, Babb began etching his high-energy sound and equally ambitious career path. Throughout the 90s, Babb was at the wheel of a five-year running radio show called Techno Prisoners on CFCR 90.5. He was an active columnist for Tribe Magazine, a music and culture print publication based in Toronto from 1993 to 2005. Babb also ran a nightclub and a series of two-day music events. Eventually, he felt he ran Saskatoon dry and made a move for Toronto in 1998. "I needed something new," he says. "Toronto had some much happening, so much for me to get my hands into, so much wonderful input I could be surrounded by. It was time."
He dove headfirst into an unforgiving wave pool of musical competition. The late Don Berns, aka Dr. Trance, was an ally to Babb, helping him snag one-off gigs when he arrived. Under the watchful eye of Berns, the godfather of Toronto's rave scene, and boosts from two legendary figures in Toronto's dance music heritage—Ryan Kruger of Destiny Events and DJ Citrus of the famed Ontario Science Centre raves—Babb was soon a DJ in high demand. "I just really pushed hard, took any takes possible, and was willing to play anywhere to everywhere—from dirty afterhours to more upfront clubs. I just pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed." In more ways than one, Babb embraced diversity, and his range in sound is exemplary of such. At the turn of the century, he capably encapsulated the rolling evolution of dance music's ebbs and flows while preserving his own unrepentant drive. As well as his own brand of scantily clad dance moves. "Honestly, I could never imagine playing just one side of dance music," says Babb. "There are a lot of people who say that they have been able to identify when I start playing, just by my sound and that makes me very, very happy."
"I like to think that one of the things that sets me apart is that my love for music and what I do, shows. I'm into it, I dance. To DJ, you need to understand the dynamics of the dancefloor and the only way to do that is to dance," he says. "To me, it's all about a party, so why not celebrate?"
Over the last decade or so, Babb earned residencies at legendary venues like Prism, Comfort Zone, Fly, Ryze, and Coda. More recently, he started a label with longtime friend and collaborate, Jerome Robins, called Jungle Funk Recordings, which was ranked #28 in Beatport's Top Selling House Labels of 2014.
But as dance music progressed and popularized, Babb says it was the late Guvernment nightclub in Toronto that kept him drinking from the fountain of youth. "Don't get me wrong, I always have had my loyal following. It's pivotal in keeping them," he says, "but as they crowd gets older, it's important to stay connected to the younger generation coming through. I'm forever grateful to that place. It was a place of its own." He even goes as far as flattering the questionable dungeon afterhours, Comfort Zone, calling it his "second crazy, messed up, dysfunctional, awesome home."
Babb's effusive fondness of Toronto and its venues percolates almost instinctively back to the topic of Pride. But he's able to cut through the revelry and see Pride and The Village for what it is—something that's changed, too. That Toronto can boast of a gay village is an accomplishment unto itself, but over the years, increased property taxes and the demand for retail spaces has in some ways commercialized the area. Some of this is reflective of Pride, as well. "On some levels, I think the gay clubbing scene [in Toronto] has gotten worse. It's less about coming to Church street and is more spread out," says Babb. "Five, ten years ago there used to be so many more gay clubs. Now, there's really only Fly, looking on a large scale. It just goes to show that there isn't as much support within the Church street community as there was before."
"On the other hand," he continues, "mixed events happen all throughout this city now and the underground is stronger than ever. You no longer need to feel worried about being in a place that's not specifically gay."
As he sheds his muscle tees for leatherette accessories, en route to conquer his massive schedule of Pride Week events, Babb says he still gawks in awe at the crowd Pride draws every year. "The fact that I can play for a crowd of thousands of people—a complete mix of people—gays, straight, black, white, and everyone in between...and everyone is dancing, enjoying each other's company, getting to know one another...it still blows my mind."
For a teaser taste of all that is Deko-ze, listen to his NORTHMIX above.
Upcoming Tour Dates
June 26: Greenspace - One World with Sandy Rivera and Rosabel, Toronto Pride Week
June 26: Comfort Zone (7:30AM), Toronto Pride Week
June 27: Steamworks Boat Cruise, Toronto Pride Week
June 27: Prism at The Carlu, Toronto Pride Week
June 28: Psac Pride Parade Float, Toronto Pride Week
June 28: Dirty Disco South Stage, Toronto Pride Week
June 28: Digital Dreams Unofficial Afterparty at CODA
June 29: Come Get Your Fcuk'in Beats: Pride Edition at Comfort Zone, Toronto Pride Week
June 30: Ensoul at XY in Vancouver, BC
July 1: Canada Day at The Den in Fort McMurray, Alberta