Honey Dijon Steps Up From Dance Music’s Underground

Honey Dijon is easy to talk to — if you can get in touch with her. Nearly 25 years into a career as a D.J. and electronic music producer, she is seemingly everywhere at once. During just one November week that included Manchester, England (where she played the 10,000-capacity venue Depot Mayfield); London; New York (where she was honored at the L.G.B.T.Q.-focused Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art); her hometown Chicago; and Berlin, where she lives — at least for the moment.

In a penthouse suite in a Lower East Side hotel, Dijon (legal name: Honey Redmond) took a rare moment to pause and reflect, while unsurprisingly multitasking, getting her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot in a white terry cloth robe. “I’d rather be exhausted from work than looking for it,” she said, pausing perhaps for effect.

During her early days in nightlife, Dijon scraped by on $150 gigs. In 2022 alone, she estimates she’s played 180 shows between club nights, festivals, fashion events and “private corporate things” — almost a full return to prepandemic levels, when she was spinning some 200 times a year.

This summer, she contributed to “Finally Enough Love,” the remix album from Madonna, who has called Dijon “my favorite D.J. in the whole world.” She curated the opening club night of Grace Jones’‌s Meltdown festival‌ in June‌, which brought artists including Sippin’ T and Josey Rebelle to London’s Southbank Centre. And she was a writer and producer on Beyoncé’s acclaimed “Renaissance,” receiving her first Grammy nomination this month as an album of the year contributor. Three days later, she released “Black Girl Magic,” her own collection of vocal-laden pure house songs.

House music, known for its steady four-four thump and electronic essence, was born in Chicago — specifically at the Warehouse club, where Frankie Knuckles spun a mélange of dance music, including American and European disco, from 1977 to 1982. Soon after, some local producers attempted to replicate the suave and heavily orchestrated sounds of disco with drum machines and synthesizers. Eventually, house evolved into lusher forms while maintaining its insistent pulse.

Dijon is a fastidious house-music griot, a musical historian who will not let anyone forget the form’s Black and queer roots, even as subgenres like EDM and tech house have strayed far from its origins. “Past, present, and future exist on a continuum,” she said. “And it’s just reintroducing things into now.”

DIJON LIKES TO say that she was born in Chicago but grew up in New York, where she moved in the late ’90s. (She does not, however, like to say her age, calling the question “really sexist and horribly boring.”) As she does in her music, Dijon seeds her speech with references: During our two conversations, she quoted Laverne Cox, Marc Jacobs, Quincy Jones and Pepper LaBeija, best known for her wisdom-spouting turn in the 1990 ballroom documentary “Paris Is Burning.”

In New York, she said, she found her people. From early on she was “a very effeminate child,” she said, in a video interview from her hotel room in Manchester, before her Depot Mayfield gig. She withstood bullying and assumed she was gay “because I was attracted to men and I really didn’t have any mirrors of affirmation of trans femme energy.”

Clubland did not just provide a community and information — it was a lifeline. Dijon said that as a trans woman of color, she couldn’t just go and get a job with benefits, as her mother had encouraged: “So clubbing at that time was really a great place for you to make a quote-unquote honest living.”

The trans women she met working in nightlife took her under their wing, filling her in on how to obtain black-market hormones and what doctors to see. “I’m Frankenstein,” Dijon said. “There’s a lot of different countries in this body.”

Music was ever-present, she noted — even in utero: “I think that was really where I fell in love with the vibration of sound and music.” During our interview in New York, Dijon revealed that she sneaked into the legendary Chicago house nightclub the Music Box when she was 13.

“When I talk about all of the things that I’ve gone through as a trans person, and as a queer person, and as an underground D.J., to be able to occupy these spaces with these artists, it’s still mind-blowing for me,” Dijon said.Credit…Myles Loftin for The New York Times

She’s been a professional D.J. since 1998, consistently waving the banner for classic-sounding house even when it wasn’t in vogue. (This year, house music itself has been having a moment in pop, with Drake dropping a predominantly house-oriented album called “Honestly, Nevermind” ‌and Beyoncé releasing “Renaissance” about a month later.) A turning point came when Dijon accepted her first residency in 2008, at the now-shuttered venue Hiro in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district.

Another major shift came 10 years later, ‌after her set recorded at Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain festival for the massively popular dance music broadcasting platform Boiler Room was uploaded to YouTube‌, where it now has nearly 10 million views‌. It’s an impassioned performance, in which Dijon remixes a cappella vocals from Stevie Wonder and the “I Have a Dream” speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the fly, her body perpetually vibrating to her endlessly pounding beats.

“Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce, Honey Redmond has Honey Dijon,” she said of her musical persona.

“She is performing these pieces of music,” said Nita Aviance, one half of the New York D.J. and production duo the Carry Nation, who recalled working alongside Dijon as far back as 2006. “She embodies the whole of everything that she’s playing.”

Since 2019, Dijon has had her own Honey ____ Dijon clothing line for Comme des Garçons; much of the apparel has been printed with explicit references to disco and house, effectively creating merch for genres that never had much of it. For Dijon, clothing is a tool to communicate subculture. “It’s celebrating art by people of color that created culture and art from nothing,” she explained.

Alyssa Nitchun, the executive director of the Leslie-Lohman museum, which honored Dijon at a gala in November, called her a “queer visionary.”

“Every facet of her life is acting and moving forward new possibilities for living,” Nitchun said. “Queer people since the beginning of time, have been organizing, loving and living in ways that I think the whole world has a lot to learn from. And, you know, Honey is a woman for our time.”

Dijon’s work ethic is rivaled only by her capacity for reference, and as a curator and broadcaster of existing sounds, these two skills are often one and the same. “Black Girl Magic,” her second album, was inspired by the 1989 debut full-length from the Chicago house auteur Lil Louis, “From the Mind of Lil Louis,” and the New York house producer Danny Tenaglia’s 1998 album, “Tourism.” Its cover depicts a 3-D digital sculpture of a nude Dijon, which she worked on with the artist Jam Sutton. It’s partly a reference to Grace Jones’s 1981 release “Nightclubbing,” but also a statement of self-determination: “I have a beautiful Black body, and I wanted to celebrate this,” she said, adding an expletive.

“Magic” is rich in callbacks to the past, with egalitarian messaging at the heart of its invitations to the dance floor. Dijon worked on the album alongside the veteran producers Luke Solomon and Chris Penny. The three bonded about five years ago over their love of what Penny called “golden-era house,” which he places around ’88 to ’95. Solomon said he met Dijon in the early ’90s when he was at a friend’s house in Chicago, where Dijon danced in a plastic tube.

Penny described their working relationship as “co-piloting a vision” that comes from Dijon. Summarizing the division of labor, Penny called Solomon, who programmed the beats, the “captain.” Penny’s work on the other musical elements, like keyboards, makes him “co-captain.” And Dijon? “She’s the ship,” Penny said. Dijon is responsible for conceptualizing, pulling in references, driving the grand vision, and working on the selection of guest vocalists. The album’s contributors include the rapper Eve (who sings on “In the Club”), the Chicago producer Mike Dunn (who adds vocals to “Work”) and the flamboyant Compton-based M.C. Channel Tres.

“There’s not one way to be a producer or musician or singer or an artist,” Dijon said. “And so, I think we need to demystify what that looks like.” Likewise, she said, collaborating with two straight white men on the project shouldn’t diminish its house bona fides: “We need to stop limiting people on their gender identity or race.”

AFTER MOVING BODIES underground for nearly two decades, Dijon’s work has entered the light of the mainstream. She hooked up with Madonna via Ricardo Gomes, who briefly managed Dijon’s touring before taking a role as Madonna’s documentarian/photographer. Dijon learned that Madonna was interested in a remix from her, then went rogue and picked “I Don’t Search I Find,” a throwback to the queen of pop’s early ’90s work with Shep Pettibone. Dijon dropped her remix, a collaboration with Sebastian Manuel, at a Pride party in 2019, and a video of the moment made its way to Madonna.

“You have to create opportunities — you can’t wait for someone to give it to you,” Dijon said simply.

Dijon at the decks at Moogfest 2018. She estimated that she spins nearly 200 dates a year.Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

When word came from Beyoncé’s company, Parkwood, that she was interested in making a dance album, Dijon recalled being “gagged” that the pop superstar turned to her as a primary source of Chicago house. Dijon, Penny and Solomon ultimately teamed up on two tracks that ended up on “Renaissance”: “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar.” Dijon said she sent Beyoncé a playlist of “iconic New York tracks” for potential reference (including a Kevin Aviance song that is sampled on “Pure/Honey”) and some literature on vogueing ball culture.

Working on the songs involved months of back-and-forth with Beyoncé’s team, as the songs were tweaked and adjusted. Dijon and Co. had no idea which of the 20 or so pieces they’d been laboring over would end up on “Renaissance” until its track list dropped the week before the album’s release.

Dijon finally met Beyoncé twice after the production work wrapped; in Paris, she spun at the Club Renaissance party celebrating the album’s release. While she described contributing to one of the year’s defining releases as “a good day at the office” she also said the experience was life changing.

“When I talk about all of the things that I’ve gone through as a trans person, and as a queer person, and as an underground D.J., to be able to occupy these spaces with these artists, it’s still mind-blowing for me,” she said. She added, “And I’ve gotten to do it through my love of house music.”

And her days of scrambling for $150 gigs are well in the past. “I’m good,” she said. “I can go to Cartier if I want to. Twice in one day.”

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