Freedom on the Dancefloor: A Conversation with Mystic Waters

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If you’ve been in Durham for any stretch of time, you’ve likely noticed a fabulous man (usually rocking a large fan) radiating positive energy around town, either with his New Orleans-style parade band the Bulltown Strutters, or perhaps at a dance party at the Pinhook. The first time I saw Chauncey aka Mystic Waters, I was DJing, and I witnessed him walk in and transform the entire dancefloor within seconds with his energetic shouting and fierce tambourine beat. I sat down with Mystic at Cocoa Cinnamon the other day so we could get to know each other better and so you all could get to know this extraordinary Durham-ite.

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JESS: Thanks for meeting with me, and for throwing DOWN at the last 80’s party.

MYSTIC: Thank YOU. You know, people come to the dancefloor to get a release, they come here as if it’s a church and they lay down so much of all the week and as the DJ you control the house. There is nothing more satisfying that leaving the dancefloor COVERED from head to toe in sweat not just because, well I’m big so Imma drip anyway, but when you come outta there refreshed. So if you’re a DJ, watch your people. They dance the language of what you’re playing. It’s a marriage. The husband is the DJ and the bride is the body. If y’all not communicating, the magic is not gonna be there. You’re gonna have a divorce. And the divorce is the end of the dancefloor.

Your energy is contagious for the crowd, and great for the DJ, because you walk in and make everyone who wasn’t already dancing dance, and it encourages me to really GO THERE because I know people are listening and open to release.

Yeah, and oh god it is amazing, how you watch the dancefloor and you can switch it to 80s and 90s and people are STILL with you, they are still with you all the way.

I love taking people on a journey, and it’s all stuff I like too. I never play music I don’t like. So I’m playing my favorites from the 80s, my favorites from the 90s, and seeing people have that release while I’m having it is like “Ahhhhhh – it’s amazing.”

It’s beautiful. Beautiful.

When you walk into a club and hear a track you like, what’s your experience like? Like, when things are going well?

My first instinct is like, let’s dance…let’s GET it! Why are we acting like we don’t know how this made us feel back when we first heard it, like “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-n-Effect. Like, I mean, C’MON. When you was back in the day and you heard that, you hit the floor, you didn’t think! When it was like shake it, shake it, shake it, don’t break it you just went freakin’ WILD man, so when you hear it now you all like, ARE YOU SERIOUS?!! I can’t believe this DJ just brought me to that time! Back to a time when you didn’t have a care – you didn’t care what you look like, it didn’t matter. The only thing is that you had a good time. Channel that, man and just bring people with you. That’s what happens when I hear a song that I like, it’s like, let’s go IN.

And, um…that tambourine…

Hahaha. Oh the tambourine…

Seriously, we all hear the tambourine in the club and we’re like, “Ohhhhhh shit! Here comes Chauncey…”

Hahaha the interesting thing is…my mother would say the piano was my first instrument, but I’ll never forget my first tambourine. I was 6 years old. I’ll never forget it. It was a lambskin tambourine and I grew up in the Holiness Church so it was an accompaniment to have one. And I’ll never forget, I watched this woman who was the head lead singer of our church and she had a cherry wood tambourine and you could tune with it. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life and I was just awed by it. And I thought, I want one. And then Christmas my mother gave me this tambourine and I was in love with it. Now the crazy thing is, we didn’t stay with the church and so I hadn’t used the tambourine until I joined the Bulltown Strutters. So when they gave me one, I started taking it everywhere, including the club. And it adds to the DJ – it gives it a little MORE, you know?

Oh yes it definitely does…

It gives that thump and that bump. And then there’s a break and you just hear the boom boomp boomp boomp and the clap and the pound and it just gets people hype because there’s a connection to the heartbeat, and so when your adrenaline is pumping, you hear it, and it bounces back and it, ideally, bounces from one person to the next person to the next person.

Yeah! That’s something I’ve been really interested in in regards to social movements too – when people are marching with drums and chanting, it seems to create a collective “heartbeat” that provides a profound and contagious energy.

Absolutely! Actually in the African-American traditional folk music, we only had a handclap, stomping your feet and probably a stick.

Oh yeah because drums were banned….

Yeah so we had to use what we could and sometimes it could be nothing but stones, two sticks, or a mini-tambourine, so we had no choice – we had to make our own beats in a syncopated rhythm. That’s why you have the thing called “soul clapping,” when you hear it just does something to you; it gyrates. So when you add in that tambourine, it’s a tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation. And the thing is, you can take out the religious aspect and take it to the dancefloor. What’s more freeing than that? So many people are BOUND; I never get it. Like at The Pinhook, so many people are scared to dance…but when they do, there’s so much freedom in it.

Does the energy of the crowd help or is it purely the music that takes you to that special place?

There is no party without the marriage of music and people – it doesn’t exist. You can play the best music in the world, but if the people aren’t moving, you’re not going to have a party.

So one house-pleaser is definitely Deee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.”

Oh I love Deee-lite!!

People just lose their minds over that one!! Because Deee-lite…I mean even in the video it was funky, it was psychedelic, it was – she [Lady Miss Kier] had on these big old platforms and she didn’t care, it was FREEDOM. So when you hear “Groove is in the Heart…” I mean just the name of it: groove is in the heart…you already have a groove in your heart and then you hear that bassline – boom boom da boom boom da boooom – and then you hear that shout ahhhhhhhahhhhhh – it CALLS – that’s a CALL. Hit the damn dancefloor; what are you waiting for? The song jumps from one spirit to the next spirit, so not only is it the music – it is an awakening of the people. If you a collective like that, man that’s a MOVEMENT. It’s not just a party; it’s a movement. And it’s called a movement of freedom.

The person playing the music adds a very significant element to the party and the movement of spirit. Cuz that’s the only thing you’re doing is moving spirits. A lot of DJs don’t understand that. If there is spirituality within music, and within dance, it’s like a holy trinity almost. [laughs] Spirit, music, dance – it’s a holy trinity. And so you can tap into that, and you know how that affects people cuz there’s a certain spirit that comes out of each song. Like you have, for instance, Björk. There’s a certain element that comes with her music – some people can connect this element to dance to indicate the language of that music and you can feel them saying ohhh okay; or you have Q-tip and Tribe Called Quest, where it’s a language that it’s delivering, so it’s nothing without the other.

Yep, I agree. Without the people, it’s just me listening to music when I DJ. And that’s boring.

Yes that’s TRUE. The people make the party. The music is the soup, the way people move is the cayenne pepper to the pot.

[We both burst out into laughter]

So did you grow up in Durham?

I grew up in Durham, I’m an original Durhamite. I was here when there was tobacco in downtown; you could smell it. I was here when Rigsbee Avenue was somewhere you would not go at 9pm. I was here back in the 80s. Has it changed? ABSOLUTELY. You wouldn’t have seen any of this (points to Cocoa Cinnamon) back in the 80s. This used to be a place people FEARED coming. And let me tell you about the history of The Pinhook: The Pinhook in the 1800’s was a place where all the riff-raff, non-conformists, and the Billy the Kids hung out. It was a place where, if you was a badass, that’s where you hung out at. The social outcasts. The people who did not fit in. Right there by the railroad tracks. Durham started right where that neon bull sign is and those railroad tracks; it was called Durham Station. It all happened there, that’s where everything was. Back then, they was about to move Meredith College here. But they thought Durham was not a place for a southern white Christian woman to be raised in “piety.” It had less morals. Before Durham had its “downfall,” it already had that reputation even back then. However, it had a revival with the Black Wall St. Downtown Durham was a one-way street; it had streetcars. People used to come from all the way from other counties just to come do shopping here. It was busy like New York; I lie to you not. I remember it that way, when the Woolworth was here. So then we went through the depression, when crack came on the scene in the 80s, with Reagan, and all of downtown just shut down. SHUT DOWN. Then somehow or another a lot of people started relocating from the north back down here and even though all of that southern bullshit – you know segregation and shit – is still underlying, over the past ten years Durham has blossomed into so much.

You had briefly mentioned instruments you used to play as a kid and your experience growing up in the church – how does this play into your experiences on the dancefloor today?  

Coming from the Holiness tradition, we did what we call “shouting,” when you get possessed by the Spirit (and we could use that term in two ways, as in the spirit of dance, or when the spirit takes over and you start dancing) and you would tap your feet to the beat, but you couldn’t cross your feet cuz it was just a shuffle. The ring shout was just a shuffle that you did and you were dancing – that’s the ring shout. Shouting came from Virginia and North Carolina and I grew up in it. I understand how music influences dancing because the pianists and the organists in the church just rev it up, and it takes over, and ushers your body to bring in the Spirit. And then sometimes you lose control. You get what they call – you catch the Holy Ghost. And so you catch the Holy Ghost, which YOU’VE witnessed (laughs), right there in the club. Because you allow yourself to be a vessel, and that’s all it is. And when the music takes over, you’re opening yourself up to God and so dancing is nothing but another form of worship. Whether it’s in the church or whether it’s on the dance floor in the club. You can still open yourself up to the Divine and allow him to use your body as a medium to communicate a message. And that’s what happens.

I’m spiritual so I allow myself to open up as a vessel to express whatever needs to come out, whether it be for the DJ or for the people dancing. When people see me caught up in the spirit, they see the freedom in that and it breaks down the barriers. And when you have people who understand that communication, there’s no FEAR, because you’re protected always. It’s just like a B-boy cypher, or a capoeira cypher. Like you know, they get real close and stuff but you know they’re not gonna hurt each other because they understand the language and it’s the Spirit that allows them to open up to move, so they’re always protected by that. So yes, I grew up in the Holiness tradition – although we separated from the church, but I still have that foundation and I understand a scene where people just fall DOWN on the dancefloor (me being one of them) and I can see other people getting caught up in the music. Whether it’s in a church or whether it’s on the dancefloor, you can connect to the Divine, and the DJ has a LOT to do with that.

When you’re not taking the entire dance floor to a higher plane of existence, what are you up to (during the day)?

I’m in school right now, working for my second degree, basically trying to get that under control. That’s what I do in my spare time, but what I DO – what I was sent here to DO – is to help people see that they are DIVINE creations. That they can love themselves exactly how they are, that they are divine creations of God. So I want them to see love through a whole different aspect, through the hugs, through me feeding them, through sitting and talking with them, through them pouring out their soul like the water in this glass (pours water out of a Cocoa Cinnamon glass). Get it out, get it out. That’s what I DO; that’s my mission. I want people to get this French-European concept of beauty out of their heads and get to the soul beauty and see that and embrace that. And it comes in all different shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, sexualities, nationalities, beliefs – but it’s still all Divine. And that’s all I want people to do. What I also want to do is to let them know that it’s okay to open yourself up and laugh and dance and…just be you. Don’t be afraid to be you, stop worrying about what other people are gonna say because they gonna talk about you anyway. It doesn’t matter. Do YOU love you?

So that’s what I do. That’s what MATTERS.

Yeah degrees don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I have a master’s that I don’t even use.

Yep my mama got two. I’m just like uh blah blah blahhhh.

Haaaa yep. I mean, I do like learning things, which was why I was drawn to the degree in the first place. But at the end of the day, I just want…music.

And see that’s why – instead of going to school, why don’t people just buy a book that interests them and LEARN it. Instead of actually having to take a class, teach YOURSELF what you are interested in. Whether it be Reiki, or understanding genres of music and where it comes from – the HISTORY of this music.

Yep! That’s what I’ve been really interested in lately. I’ve been working on this protest music series for Clarion Content and the first thing I began to look at was tracing protest music back to its original roots, and I learned more about how many of the protest songs of the civil rights era borrow from slave spirituals.

Yeah there was a lot of sharing and collaborating, yes indeed. I did research on blues gospel, because gospel today is not what it used to be, which is unfortunate. I wanted to understand these songs and the art of wailing. The queen of the wail was Mahalia Jackson. How she wailed…it was like a MOURN and it just SWELLED and then she’d come back real soft and those dynamics….so I try to research who the wailers are, not like Bob Marley’s wailers, but the NATURAL wailers…where did they all come from? I get that passion [of wailing]; I get it.

Finally, what are some of your favorite songs – the ones that just take you there?

Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”

Yes! Knew you were gonna say that one. [I heard him shriek when I played that one at the 80’s party.]

Another song that just takes me there is “Wait for Love” by Luther Vandross

Cool, I’m compiling what I’m gonna play the next time I see you….

Oh yeah and “Think” by Lyn Collins. You betta think.

It gives me such a warm feeling to see you having such a great time through music – I love people who can tap into music on this level….

Yes, dancing is HEALING! That’s what people just don’t get. The whole thing I want people to do is just to stop caring what people think about you when you dance. Just let your soul express itself through your movement.

Yeah, dancing makes you pretty vulnerable and a lot of people are afraid of putting themselves out there like that.

Yep, here’s the thing about vulnerability. People do not want to expose their vulnerability but THAT IS THE BEAUTY OF WHO THEY ARE! It doesn’t even matter how they move, it’s their SOUL expressing and moving and communicating what’s inside of them, waiting to come out through movement. And its so beautiful because you see the natural person that they are. They can’t hide behind Gucci, FUBU, their friends – they’re themselves. Now if they need a little nip, well then by all means, liquor them up. Whatever it takes. And then let them be free. Let it go. That’s where the healing comes from.

That’s where a lot of the lyrics talk about being “free”, like I’m thinking here of 90’s soulful house music specifically – like “Everybody’s Free,” “Freedom,” “Set Me Free,”the list goes on and on…

Oh YES, oh my GOD, yes. I went to a gay club and they started playing gospel house and it just came dowwwwn on people. They were all in trances and they’re freeing their spirit. People don’t understand – you can have church ANYWHERE. I’ve seen where God shows up in the club – DJs can tap into places that preachers can’t.

I just want to tap into that place where you’re gone…I can’t explain it, but you’re just in a whole other dimension. I wanna be able to tap into that. Basically I wanna do exactly what YOU did when you played that song [Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”] – I want that to happen all the time. ALL THE TIME. I don’t wanna come out of that. This is the connection to the Divine. I love that.

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