We Asked Two Quintessential NYC Queer DJs About the Art of the All-Night Set

Sharon White and Nita Aviance come from different eras in New York nightlife—but their endurance-testing DJ sets have turned them both into legends.

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Nov 20 2015, 6:45pm

Nita Aviance and Sharon White (Photo by Oron Pejic)

Sharon White and Nita Aviance have spent decades turning out masterful sets for their devoted followings in New York and beyond. But the two DJs own their own corners of this city's underground queer scene, and come from entirely places both musically and personally—so maybe that's why teaming them up for a b2b headlining set at "Night People," a party that commemorates the 35th anniversary of legendary gay club the Saint, is such an intriguing idea.

When the Saint opened in 1980 in New York's East Village, owner Bruce Mailman spared no expense in transforming the former rock concert hall Fillmore East into the ultimate nightclub. Every Saturday night, thousands of men would dance well into the next afternoon. White had her heart set on joining the club's roster, but Mailman severely restricted the number of women allowed into his members-only club, which he envisioned as an all-male paradise—and that vision extended into the DJ booth.

The Saint in the 80s. The club was a state-of-the-art planetarium with a star machine at the center of its dancefloor. (Photo courtesy of The Saint at Large)

White's lucky break came when the club's biggest DJ, Jim Burgess, left the Saint at 8AM while the dancefloor was still teeming with partygoers. She took his place, saving the night and becoming one of the Saint's most popular DJs until it closed in 1988. White became the first woman to make it big on New York's club scene—and she is the only DJ with the bragging rights to say that she's spun at both the Saint and Paradise Garage, the other predominantly gay club ruling over the city at the time.

When Nita Aviance arrived in New York City in the late-90s from Rochester for college, he began performing as a dancer with the House of Aviance, one of the major houses in the city's ballroom and vogue scene. Within a few years, he had moved from dancefloor to DJ booth and production studio, frequently teaming up with fellow DJ/producer Will Automagic as The Carry Nation. (Aviance is also half of two other production teams, BOOKWRMZ and Brooklyn Is Burning.)

In addition to throwing their own parties, the Carry Nation is known for their prolific studio output, including original compositions for the "tranny hip-hop band" La'mady that includes Aviance. They have remixed Beyonce and Scissor Sisters, and their own productions have been flipped by Severino and Horse Meat Disco.

Aviance and White both played the back room separately at last year's Black Party, the giant leather- and fetish party produced by the Saint's party production arm. But Night People, which lands at the Wick in Brooklyn on Saturday, November 21, will be their first time spinning together. The party will also pair Ryan Smith of Wrecked with another Saint alumnus, Michael Fierman.

Below, we chatted with Aviance and White about how they each got started, the luxury of all-night sets, and why they love partnering up behind the decks.

THUMP: Tell us about what the DJ and dance music world was like when you got started.

Sharon White: I started in radio. Allison Steele [pioneer of the album-oriented format at New York's WNEW-FM] was my mentor. My background was rock and roll, British rock. That's where I came from.

Nita Aviance: When I started, CDs were just starting to permeate. They were taking the turntables out. Track times keep getting shorter and shorter. Because of the technology, you're able to flip through songs so quickly. Sets become bits of ideas.

SW: I remember the first time I walked into a club and there were no turntables. I was like, "I'm afraid of that." But whatever you're working on, it's just a vehicle for creativity. It's all about how you use what you have. I have no records. Sold them all.

You both are big on taking the dancefloor on an all-night journey, aren't you?

SW: When the gay DJs went in, we changed the vibe. We brought the journey. One time I played a set at the Saint from 10 PM to 7 AM. In the morning, people started applauding, and I freaked. I said, "Omigod, stop. I'm not done!"

Nowadays, people put one record on after another and think they're DJs. But it's all about the journey. And if you're just slamming tracks together, you've got a lot to learn.

They say, "I can't do a journey because there aren't a lot of vocals." I'm like, honey, let the music speak to you. There are so many ways to tell a story and words are only part of it.

NA: These days you don't have the luxury of a long set, so people are trying to get in so many ideas in such a short period of time that maybe you're only getting half an idea. No one hears a whole song anymore.

For us, it's about the time. The kids coming up now, they've never been exposed to something like that—six, seven, eight hours into the morning. We always put a wink at the end of the songs we produce as Carry Nation. We laugh when we put it in, because we know no one on the dance floor will ever hear that last piece of the song.

SW: I like to play songs. Larry [Levan] was the master of pulling in pieces. He'd be like, "Ooh, I like that section." Then he'd pull out the piano section. By the time he was done, he played the whole thing.

Photo by Oron Pejic

What's the most important part of the all-night journey?

SW: The end. I could do a downtrip for days.

NA: Absolutely. You want to take them and land them. You get to that point, and there's that release. When we come to the end of a set, I want everybody done.

For me, it's always a runway. Once there's room on the dance floor, the girls can start working the room and owning it. That's always my favorite moment. It's vocal and churchy.

SW: When you go adagio, it lets the girls stretch out.

What do you think about producer-DJs who limit their sets to their own music?

NA: The last thing I want to play at my parties are my own productions. I do productions so I can keep DJ'ing. I don't want to go out and hear a concert, I want to hear what you hear.

SW: They're so disconnected from the dancefloor because they're studio rats. All this is not going to make any sense, and they're not going to feel it at all because you're just throwing it at them. There's a DJ who makes several thousand a night, and he's so all over the place, he gives you whiplash.

What kind of music are you playing now?

SW: A lot of German stuff. But not trance. I hate labels. At the Black Party, people would come up to me and say, "At least they had the sense to hire Sharon White." I said, "Don't go there." They'd ask what I meant, and I'd tell them I was hired for what I'm doing now. I said, "I would rather starve than have you crying on the dance floor to Marlena Shaw [singer whose live rendition of "Touch Me in the Morning" closed the old Saint]. Let it go." I don't play the same stuff I played 35 years ago. The [gay] Circuit sound hasn't progressed. There are DJs that do retro nights really well. I'm just not doing it.

NA: There are so many names for genres, they don't mean anything anymore. At the end, it's all dance music. I will play techno in a heartbeat if it's got that flavor. The problem with younger DJs is that they label themselves. "I'm a deep house DJ." What does that even mean?

The tagged-up doors of the Saint (Photo courtesy of the Saint at Large)

How do you play across genres without ending up with a set that goes all over the place?

SW: I was the only DJ who played at both the Garage and the Saint. The sounds were different. I loved that. I'm a drummer, a percussionist, so for me, it's all about which beat you're catching.

How are you going to divvy up your gig at Night People?

NA: I love working with a partner. I love my solo moment, but when you're working someone else, it keeps you fresh. And the excitement can't help but transfer to the audience.

It's like that summer camp game where everyone tells pieces of a story. You've got to pick up what you get from the person before you, and make sense of it. That's exciting, because when you play by yourself, you rely on the tricks that you know. Collaboration keeps you on your toes.

SW: Susan [Morabito] and I used to play a lot together. It was fun. We worked well together. It's not like we have to stick to three and three, more like go with the flow. It really keeps you on your toes, working with someone else.

Night People is on Saturday, November 21, at The Wick in Brooklyn. For more information and tickets, visit the website.

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