DJ Sliink on Racial Inequality in the Dance Industry: 'How Can We Be Legends If They Don’t Give Us a Chance?'

DJ Sliink
Devin Blaskovich

DJ Sliink

In 2014, DJ Sliink did an experiment. He and fellow producer Nadus took two days to make Jersey Club remixes of tracks including Aaliyah's "Rock The Boat" and Destiny's Child's "Cater 2 U", then he posted these tracks to Soundcloud under the name "Tinaturnup."

In the bio section, he created a quick backstory for this fake producer, making her a 17-year-old Danish woman who was just getting into producing Jersey Club music, the dance sub-genre that boomed out of Newark in the late '90s, taking heavy inspiration from the Baltimore club scene and defining itself with massive kick drums and chopped vocals.

Sliink retweeted the Tinaturnup tracks and then saw them go viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of plays. Comparatively, most of the tracks by Sliink -- the 29 year old producer who's long been considered a leader of the Jersey Club scene -- have gotten plays largely in the 30,00-60,000 range.

For the Newark native born Stacey White, the situation -- seeing his music go viral when people thought it was made by a young white woman -- was just another example of the racial inequality he's experienced for much of his decade-plus year career. While Skrillex called Sliink's sound "one of the most influential styles in mainstream music," Flosstradamus tabbed him to help develop their style, and thousands of fans show up to his club shows in Newark, Sliink hasn't risen to the level of these dance stars (and others like Disclosure) who've called him an inspiration. Meanwhile, his collabs with scene stars like Skrillex ("St. Laurent,"also featuring Wale) have garnered millions of plays.

"For Sliink to get bigger looks and playlist support, he’s had to partner with the larger artist," says Sliink's longtime manager Johnny Maroney, "and it's appreciated when it happens. Skrillex has been very righteous to Stacey. Worked with him on music, provided a platform, went into Newark with him, shot a video, provided money for all of this and gave back to the community. We’re thankful for those things. But if a Skrillex or Diplo's name isn't on the track with him, what are we supposed to do?"

What Sliink has done is talk about it, using Twitter to address what he feels are issues with industry gatekeepers, particularly those at influential streaming platforms like Spotify, who he feels don't offer equal opportunities for artists making Jersey Club, Baltimore Club, soflo (Florida) jook and other styles largely created by black producers. (Of course, as many producers have acknowledged in the wake of global protests following the death of George Floyd on May 25, all dance music is ultimately a product of black culture -- with house, techno and disco being created by black artists in the '70s and '80s.)

"Jersey club music, I feel like it needs more recognition. Also juke and house," says Sliink. "I feel like we don’t get the recognition we deserve as a whole. We get a little bit there, a little bit there, and I don’t feel that’s fair... How can we aspire if we’re not equal on these platforms?"

Indeed, in a dance music marketplace where success is often predicated by streaming numbers, it's hard for artists to get noticed when their music doesn't land on influential playlists. "Can we get some people of color in those curated @Spotify playlist? Do you support? We could damn sure use it. Asking for some friends," Sliink tweeted to Austin Kramer, Spotify's Global head of Dance/electronic, on June 3. (As of the publishing date of this article, Sliink says he has not yet received a response, although his track "Omm" was added to Spotify's Friday Cratediggers playlist on June 5. Spotify declined to comment on record for this piece.)

Meanwhile, Sliink's tweet to Geronimo, the Vice President of EDM Music Programming at SiriusXM, led to a conversation during which Sliink proposed additional dance programming to highlight what he calls "Global Club Music" -- including genres like Jersey club, Baltimore club, Philly club, footwork, soflo jook, ballroom/vogue, slowflo, Miami jook, UK funky, New Orleans bounce and more.

As Sliink has raised this conversation on Twitter and in private conversations, many dance world gatekeepers have gotten in touch to support. Dillon Francis reached out. Anna Lunoe expressed her support. With Sliink's help, Diplo assembled the "Black to the Future" playlist that he posted to Spotify yesterday (June 10). But during this moment in which the music industry is soul searching its own issues with systemic racism, Sliink says it's time for dance world gatekeepers to consider their own responsibility in creating equity for artists of color.

"This bothers me, and it’s been bothering me for a long time," he says. "It seems like when I used to speak out about it or when I tried it to it was like, 'Oh I’m being angry or I’m trying to start something or now’s not the time to talk about that.' I always wondered when would be the time to talk about it, and with all of this going on right now, I felt like now’s the time to talk about it... I’m not trying to chase behind nobody for any validation, but I do want to talk about fairness. I do want things to be fair."

On Friday, June 5, Sliink and DJ Jayhood released their track "Jersey" via Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to Funding For Jannah on Grafton, an organization developing a sustainable garden on an unoccupied city lot in Newwark so locals can access fresh produce. Here, Sliink, speaking via FaceTime -- his OWSLA tattoo visible on his forearm -- discusses representation, change, and how white members of the dance music industry can be better allies to artists of color.

What are the essential issues you're considering in this moment?

My problem is with representation. I’m speaking for my people. How can we be legends if they don’t give us a chance? How can the sound build if they don’t give us a chance? I remember when I first started out and said that I wanted to do music. First it was Jersey Club, then I wanted to expand, and I was kind of scared and discouraged. It was like, “I’m never going to get to go and play those big festivals.”

The reason is that they were dominated by people that don’t look like me. But knowing that that music came from people of my color, and other people, it was like, “Why not?” And that’s what kind of made me go hard -- and not just for me. I think other people deserve a chance as well.

How has this moment affected you on a personal level?

I asked my mother about how she feels about everything that’s going on regarding George Floyd. She’s like, “I care about everything’s that’s going on, but I have to be a strong woman for my kids.” I was laying down, and the next thing you know -- because I woke up with a heavy heart -- I just busted out crying. She was like, “Stacey what’s wrong?!” I just had to let it out, full-blown crying.

What really sparked that was just inequality in general. I just feel like there’s no better time to step up than now, because I always used to get shut down. Everyone gets shut down when they try to talk about inequality and race in dance music. Two years ago or even a couple months ago, I’d sound like an angry black man just trying to start trouble.

You've taken particular issue with Spotify and the way that its electronic playlists, particularly its marquee dance playlist, Mint, is curated. What do you want to say about that?

My feeling is: How can you be the head of this whole thing if you’re not touching genres? If you’re the head of a global thing, I think you need to be more involved. I’ve tried reaching out to [Austin], and I’ve heard people with similar stories that have tried reaching out... By him being silent, it’s not a good look, and I kind of felt disrespected when he stayed silent but put the songs up overnight. Geronimo [at Sirius XM] reached right back and said, “Let’s do it.” Maybe they’re just uneducated. I want to educate them on it.

As a dance artist, how important is Spotify?

Spotify is important! It’s like, the biggest outlet. A lot of people thrived off of Soundcloud. Soundcloud is still a thing, but it’s not a super-crazy thing. Spotify and these playlists, that’s a thing. That’s how people get informed. If you’re not informed of all the global dance [genres], how’s anybody supposed to thrive? Where do we fit in? I’m not trying to call anybody racist at all. I just feel like they’re uneducated.

How can white people in the dance industry be better allies?

If you see something, say something. Even Dillon Francis, I’ve been on tour with him... [he] felt compelled to reach out, because he sees what’s going on, and it’s been going on for too long. But I think certain people feel like, “Oh it has nothing to do with me. I’m good.” Dillon said he supported me; I think we need more of that. When Dillon does that, or Marshmello, or Diplo... I think people need to step up and say something if we’re associates and friends, because us not getting chances is a real thing that’s happening.

What would meaningful change look like to you?

I think one person shouldn’t be the head of something. I think it should be a whole team, so y’all can hit each corner of dance music. I just can’t see how you can run something so big [as Spotify], it’s supposed to be global, and you’re not hitting every corner that you need to hit. I think these programs need to be more diverse and bigger when taking into consideration what’s going to be on these playlists. Spotify has definitely taken over, and that’s all anyone listens to, but if everyone’s not on there, then everyone’s not getting a fair chance.

What about festivals? Most event lineups are overwhelmingly populated by straight, white men. Do you feel like influential black artists have a responsibility to younger artists?

How are we supposed to move forward if they just keep putting the same black people on these stages? It’s showing no growth, you know what I’m saying? When there are millions of other artists and songs that could be getting played at these festivals -- and all respect to these legendary artists, but when are the next legends going to be made? How are we going to get a platform to even be a legend? I think these people definitely have a responsibility -- and I don’t want to make it about race, I want to make it about music, and just pushing good music and culture forward.

Is there anything else you want to say?

Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. I’m very soft-spoken, but I’m going to stand for what I believe in, for everybody. I always said to myself, "If the shoe was on the other foot and a person not of color needed help, I would have no problem helping them." I just want all dance music to be treated fairly.