Photos by Cait Oppermann.
MikeQ is weaving down Central Avenue in a pale gold SUV, trying to catch rare Pokemon on Pokemon Go. As we drive into East Orange, New Jerseycruising past chain stores and a park that’s deserted despite the mid-July heathe aims his phone at a brick building on our right. “That’s my elementary school,” he notes. “And right next to it is a Pokestop.”
When he picked me up from the Newark Path Train station moments before, I noticed that the car’s license plate read CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST. Dressed in a grey T-shirt, denim shorts, and black Puma sliders, he apologized to me as soon as I hopped in. “Sorry, the air-conditioning is broken,” he said. “It’s my grandmother’s car.”
MikeQ, born Michael Cox, is the soft-spoken ambassador of America’s flashiest subculture, ballroom. There is no party in the worldno velvet-roped VIP club, no grime-covered warehousethat can compare to a ball. On any given evening, if you know where to look, you’ll see drag queens, butch queens, trans women, and other queer people of color flocking to clubs or rental venues, decked out in everything from head-to-toe Ferragamo, to an LED-lit corset, to trash bags stitched into a gown. The night unfolds as a series of battles for cash prizes and glory, some dancers twisting their bodies into spine-snapping drops to the floor, others swanning around like Naomi Campbell on a Parisian runway.
Even though ballroom dates back to the 60s, the scene has largely flown under the radarnot only of mainstream America, but of the gay community itself. “Stop 20 gay men, and ask them about the icons in the ballroom scene,” ballroom veteran Power Infiniti lamented to the Miami New Times in 2014. “Most of them wouldn’t even know.”
In recent years, however, this oversight is being slowly rectified thanks to prominent advocates like MikeQ, a 30-year-old DJ and producer who has dedicated his decade-long career to championing ballroom’s allureand its commercial viability. He’s toured cities where local ballroom scenes are sprouting up, like Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, Mexico, and Seoul. He’s invaded living rooms across the globe with his live-streamed Boiler Room sets, and seduced the heads by linking up with the Fade to Mind label and GHE20G0TH1K partyboth bulwarks of the experimental avant-garde. Even Missy Elliott slid into his DMs once, hitting up Mike in 2013 to collaborate on a ballroom track.
In some ways, my visit to Mike’s suburban hometown couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. He’s just flown home from a gig in LA. Later this week, he’ll DJ at a party called Vogue Knights and attend the Latex Ball, an annual ballroom extravaganza co-founded by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis nonprofit at the height of the 80s AIDS epidemic to spread awareness of HIV prevention in the scene. He’s also preparing for the August 12 release of his label Qween Beat’s first album, an 11-track compilation of ballroom-affiliated artists that Mike thinks deserve more shine. On top of everything, he’s in the middle of moving out of the home where he’s lived with his family since 1990, and into his longtime boyfriend’s apartment a few blocks down the street.
The house where Mike grew up is three stories tall, with curved white walls and windows with navy blue trim. A beaten-up box of toys lies on the spacious front porch, and more boxes line the entrance hallway. Two calendars of the Obama familyfor the same yearare pinned to the bright yellow wall by the door.
Stepping over a hamburger recipe book, I follow Mike up the creaky wooden stairs and come face-to-face with his 83-year-old grandmother, who is perched in a chair on the second-floor landing. Smiling sweetly, she grasps my hand with a trembling grip, mumbling a greeting I can’t quite catch. Mike tells me his mother and grandfather used to live here but moved out a few years ago, leaving him and his grandmother to support his aunt and her two young kids, who also reside with them. “That’s why I hadn’t moved out soonerI wanted to be here helping with this house,” he says.
Up on the top floor, Mike’s room is nearly empty save for his bed, his studio gear, and mountains of Nike boxes. Taking a seat at his desk next to two large computer screens, he swivels his black office chair to gaze around the room. “I get sad on and off about it,” he says. “Sometime next week, I’ll probably never be able to come in here. But it’s time for change.”
Mike was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and moved to the house here in East Orange when he was four. His dad lives fifteen minutes away, in Paterson”the same town where Fetty Wap is from,” Mike notesand they would hang out on the weekends when he was growing up. Mike says he’s been the “quiet, geeky nerdy type” since childhood, and sang in the choir in elementary school.
“I didn’t dress nice,” he says about his adolescence. “I never had a haircut. I wasn’t loud and out-and-about.” But he also had a rebellious streak. On the first day of middle school, he erased the name of the school his mother had written on his enrollment form because the building was “so dingy and ghetto,” replacing it with one he liked better. Somehow, he never got into trouble. In high school, Mike started smoking weed and skipping class, which got him held back a year. Still, he excelled at his job as a manager at Domino’s Pizza. “Work was more important to me,” Mike says, “It wasn’t that I was stupidI just got over school in a way.”
Mike’s life changed when he first walked into The Globe, a no-frills club that was the throbbing heart of Newark’s gay scene in early to mid-2000s. “I was scared to go thereI have always been who I am but never in a public space,” he says, hinting at how suburban New Jersey isn’t the most friendly environment for black gay kids like him.
But one Friday night when he was 17 years old, Mike mustered his courage and hit the club with a friend. Walking onto the The Globe’s black-and-white checkered floor, Mike recognized the familiar staccato chants and taut bass wallops of Jersey club, a hip-hop-influenced genre from Newark that Mike had often heard at local block parties and family barbeques growing up. But at the end of the night, the DJ started playing a he’d never heard before, full of cut-up vocal samples peppered over thunderous crash cymbals and tribal drumming. “All these drag queens came out and started doing this dance,” Mike recalls. ” with me,” Mike says.
From the way he talks about the label, I can sense that Mike has a complicated relationship with the spotlight.He tells me that Qween Beat’s first release only features one of his tracksa collab with the late Daft Punk collaborator Romanthonybecause he doesn’t want the focus to be on him. “Everybody can’t get signed to Fade to Mind the same way I was,” he says. “That’s what Qween Beat is for.” But in the same breath, he confesses that managing the egos and resolving conflicts of the ever-growing Qween Beat family can have its toll. “Sometimes I get discouraged and want to end it, because I could just be doing MikeQwhich not everybody understands,” he says. But he’s determined to soldier on. “I’m not gonna stop. Ballroom was a place for me to find myself and take those talents outside,” he says. “I think that should be the goal for everyone in ballroom.”
Even as the most prominent member of the Qween Beat roster, achieving that goal hasn’t always been straightforward for Mike. For one thing, the support he receives inside the scene doesn’t necessarily translate beyond the ballroom floor. “It’s really hard to get ballroom people to support anything outside of ballroom,” Mike says, explaining that many people in the community don’t even knowor carewho the DJ is. “At a ball, your name can barely even get on a flyer. A lot of people don’t really know what I look like.”
Mike’s stature in the ballroom scene doesn’t necessarily translate to success in the wider music industry, either. On a rainy Tuesday night in July, he plays at a show at Baby’s Alright that is part of Red Bull Sound Selects, a program that uses bigger acts to draw attention to its roster of emerging artists. Tonight’s event was put together by Sound Select artist Cakes da Killa, who asked Big Freedia to play as the headliner and put Mike, his friend, at the end of the night. Unfortunately for Mike, most of the crowd ends up filing out after Big Freedia’s set, leaving him to open his set playing Byrell the Great’s “Legendary Children”the opening track off Qweendomto a nearly empty room, scattered with a handful of sweaty dancers.
After the show, hanging around outside the venue waiting to get paid, his frustration is clear. “Big Freedia ruined my set!,” he says to Cakes, loud enough for the dozen or so friends clustered around them to hear. “Next time, don’t book Freedia. You coulda booked Qween Beat!” He proceeds to rattle off names of his artists, telling Cakes they could have used the opportunity to fly out the ones living outside of New York. Cakes contritely asks if they can all just hang out now that the show is over, but Mike says he has to pack for a trip to Toronto the next day.
In 2013, Mike almost had a breakout moment when Missy Elliott hit him up to work on a ballroom track for her protg Sharayawho grew up going to balls in New York City. Mike says she ended up going with another producer named DJ Jayhood who makes Jersey Cluba genre he thinks Missy felt had broader appeal. (The song ended up being Sharaya’s hit single, “Banji.”)
As a gesture of friendship, Missy recorded a secret ballroom track for Mike where she tries her hand at ballroom-style rapping, throwing in its choice slang terms like “cunt!” along with her own trademark “BRRRR!” Although the song was never released, Mike says he played it at one of his Boiler Room sets and it immediately went viral, after a fan ripped the song off the stream and posted it online. In some ways, the track feels like a symbol of ballroom’s position in the pop culture world: instantly appealing with plenty of commercial potential, but lacking in institutional support.
In many ways, Mike reflects the tensions within ballroom culture at largeeager to break out into the mainstream but fiercely loyal to the scene and its traditions, frustrated with the lack of outside recognition by unwilling to give up where he came from in order to get there. After all, voguing is both a fantasy and an act of defiancethe dancers know they will probably never end up on the cover of Vogue, but engage in a performance of upward-mobility in the face of systematic injustice, reclaiming feminine beauty from rich white women. For better or worse, despite the waves of press declaring ballroom’s imminent breakout into the mainstream, and all of its celebrity endorsements, ballroom has remained stubbornly underground.
But if there’s one aspect of the culture that can transcend above its insular customs and appeal to a broad range of people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s the musicand if there’s one person who can be trusted to bring this music to a wider audience without watering it down, it’s MikeQ.
For his part, Mike says doesn’t need to actively participate in ball culture to stay connected to the scene. “I don’t really go to house meetings and I don’t travel for balls. Especially because I don’t enjoy being out in public much,” he says, calling his job as a DJ who travels everywhere for gigs is “ironic.” “I’m more of a smoker,” he says with a deep inhale of the blunt we shared in his room. “I’d rather just be in the house chilling.”
Mike is a study in contradictionsa shy introvert who found himself in an extremely extroverted scene that’s all about peacocking. Maybe this is why he turned to DJing, which allowed him to engage with a culture that took him out of suburban New Jersey and into the thriving gay, black underground of New York City, without having to be at the center of attention.
Still, when I meet him to the Latex Ball, I find him surrounded by his Qween Beat fam at the end of the runway, cheering on the dancers on stage. Suddenly, a fight breaks out between a dancer and a judge over a perceived slight. The dancer leaps onto the judges’ table, sending drinks spilling everywhere. She gets dragged offstage by security, kicking and punching, but two seconds later she’s back, spitting water at her target. 3,000 people on the dancefloor and hanging off the balconies erupt into hoots over the spilled bloodor in this case, spilled tequila sodaand Mike takes a Snapchat of the chaos. Then he shakes his head. “This is embarrassing,” he says to me in a low voice, like a father whose child is throwing a tantrum at church.
Near the end of the night, he goes to pay his respects to Vjuan Allure, who DJs the ball every year. Sitting on stage with his arms splayed across two CDJs, Vjuan cuts a striking figure, wearing a glittery cap that says “READ” and wiggling his hefty frame in his chair to the music. Every few minutes, Vjuanwho also dances at ballscan’t help himself from breaking into vogue hands when playing a particularly hot track. His exuberance is a total contrast to Mike, who stands next to him reverently, like a statue. Before he leaves to catch his train, Mike slips a CD of the Qween Beat compilation to Vjuan.
At the end of our day in New Jersey together, Mike drives me back to the PATH station in Newark. In contrast to our sunny drive to his house, the lengthening shadows imbue the streets of the city with an air of danger, and at one traffic light, Mike casually mentions that he was once shot at while waiting at the same intersection. A few minutes later, he points to a street crawling with rugged men, calling it the “weed and xanax corner.”
As we approach the train station, the towering blue glass windows of a flashy stadium called the Prudential Center come into view. “I saw Rihanna there,” Mike tells me, explaining that many northern New Jersey residents have come to view the multi-million-dollar venue a bubble of privilege in the middle of Newark. “They only built up the city until where the stadium is, and put a train station right next it so visitors don’t have to interact with the locals.” Despite this, Mike is clearly proud of where he comes from. Coasting down the streets he knows well enough to drive blind, he rattles off all the celebrities who’ve come out of Newark: Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Faith Evans, Paul Simon, Whitney Houston…” He stops catching Pokemon and smiles into the distance: “MikeQ.”
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP’s Features Editor. She walks the runway of Twitter.