Jorge Cruz of TRAX Records on Reclaiming Dance Music for the Marginalized

The artist and former Creative Director of TRAX Records reflects on his most important compilation and his legacy at the label.

by Britt Julious
Sep 24 2016, 3:15pm

Photo courtesy of Jorge Cruz.

It is hard to believe Jorge Cruz is only 27 years old. The artist, photographer, design, and musician has created a name for themselves by always staying busy. Most recently, that meant serving as the Creative Director of TRAX Records, the beloved Chicago house music label founded in 1983 and relaunched in the late 2000s by label co-owner Rachael Cain (aka Screamin' Rachael, the Queen of House Music).

Cruz's stint at the label began with an internship and expanded to encompass a variety of different positions and responsibilities. "It was a lot of, like: we're here, we're here, we're here. Pay attention! Pay attention!" Cruz said. They regularly threw parties, utilized their industry connects and grew the label's social media presence through Twitter and Facebook. "I reconnected it to the people who were looking for it," they began. "And then on top of that, I released a shit ton of records."

Cruz also redesigned the label's logo and directed its new aesthetic, regularly produced tracks for artists on and off the label, and signed artists. Notably, they curated compilations including curating the label's 25th anniversary collection and SUMMERTRAX, a collection featuring Jamie Principle, Adonis, Phuture and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk.

Since leaving the label, Cruz has now focused on expanding their art practice, their original production work, and a move out of the Midwest. "What they do in Illinois is they set the prairies on fire and then whatever dies helps the plants keep growing. And then whatever stays, stays," they said. "So that's sort of my life motto."

Here, Cruz reflects on their time at the label, how the most important collection of music they curated was a soundtrack for outsiders, and how the marginalized can reclaim their space in dance music's legacy by staying true to theirselves.

I joined TRAX Records in 2009. A friend of mine asked, "Oh, do you want an internship or something?" I said, "I might as well stay busy." But it grew and I stuck around. I don't know why I stuck around.

At TRAX, I more or less went on a personal journey through work. I learned not only about house music, but really, about the city. I learned about myself. I learned about the history.

I took things step by step. I started learning about the label. Then, I saw what needed to be done at the label, and I chipped away at those things little by little. In the first two years, I archived all the music that Rachael (a.k.a. Screamin' Rachael) had on CDs, except for ones that are in storage. And later, I took the label and put it into the 21st century by promoting and curating. Like a whole rebranding visually [and] business-wise.

The last album for me was important and the most poignant because it left that legacy, and it also expanded on the label. It's called TransTrax. But the idea of TransTrax for me wasn't necessarily [about being] transgender. It was just more about the suffix, and all these murky life things that nobody really talks about. A lot of the songs on there are like that. They're about experiences. They're about things that we don't have labels for or some white lady hasn't figured out how to put that into a genre yet. It's about those intricate sort of moments not in the mainstream. They're things that happen when you're underground or the Other. I love it. I love the album.

Talent, I think for myself, is all of the privileges that I've had and that I've grown up with combined with things that my parents have instilled in me because of their own backgrounds. My parents both had parents who left them when they were young, so my mom had this work ethic. It's not that it's a talent; it's more like I just come from this specific background that makes me kind of a workhorse. And I understand that people want to take advantage of people sometimes, and so I'm very sensitive to everyone's backgrounds, especially because I come from that trans, brown, youthful background.

I can't really hide who I am visually to people. I can't go into a room and just sort of exist as a light-skinned person. I'm always going to stick out. I have a lisp in my voice. So I've had to navigate that and also navigate that with my artists and sell my artists. Without them, I obviously wouldn't be where I am.

I think that maybe my ethics comes from knowing and understanding that people of color and queer people were not invited to the party, and if we're invited to the party, we're really performers. Other people like us to shut up and I'm not about that. People of color, I think, are starting to realize that in order for anything to change, we can't just come up the same avenues and try to fit into the same system that has been failing and never was there to serve us. So really, the solution is how do I exist without having all these middle people? You can't just keep trying to make the same thing work and over and over again.

I've always said that I'm like the Princess of House because Rachael is the Queen of House. I was the person who was able to bring house music back in a way that empowered it. I wasn't building myself up from the label. I did it for the community, and so the community itself is back with its own power. They have the ball in their court. I gave not just the label, but the queers power back. I gave them rights that were cut off for a long time.