For over 20 years now, Lisa Smith AKA DJ Shiva has been a pillar of the Midwest techno scene. A movement that built and sustained itself in the ‘90s on underground principles, from the bones of punk and industrial sounds, the rave landscape she learned the ropes in was entirely DIY, totally covert, foraged, nomadic and, more often than not, completely illegal. The nature of the scene made it inherently defiant and countercultural, political by virtue of simply being and unshakeably raw as those punks learned to play records – fast, tough, battering techno records.
It’s no surprise then that two decades on, in 2016, DJ Shiva (by now a regular at Chicago’s magisterial Smart Bar) adopted a new moniker in Noncompliant, a name she lifted from Bitch Planet, a feminist comic book by Kelly Sue DeConnick in which “non-compliant” or disobedient women were sent to a prison planet. Now more than ever, the Indianapolis-based DJ/producer wields her punk roots, both behind the decks and in her day job at an advocacy organisation. An activist in every sense, a quick glance at her social media will show you a politically charged and passionate speaker. Meanwhile her music is triumphant and tough, angular and vicious but always joyous enough to make a crowd feel as though they are winning, or at the very least, standing up against the adversities that push people down – particularly marginalised folks –in this era of the man she calls “our Cheeto in Chief”.
In December 2017 she released ‘More Than Surviving’ on Valence, the second EP under the Noncompliant alias following 'Airless Spaces' from earlier that year. The four-track assault of Detroit inspired dynamism came with a simple reminder, “We have to find joy and love and goodness even when we are fighting to survive. In fact, sometimes those are the things that keep us fighting, that make it worth fighting in the first place.”
Does she believe now, that in these trying times that pursuit of joy, escape and catharsis that is so embedded in club culture is reclaiming its sense of defiance, that dance music is reclaiming its identity as a culture of resistance?
“In some corners it has,” she tells DJ Mag. “There is definitely much more of that feeling of resistance to it now. There are more and more women and people of colour and queer and trans folx reclaiming space and being visible and vocal and I feel less like an outcast and more a part of a community now, and that means a lot to me.”
By extension then, is there a responsibility that rests on producers, DJs and promoters to use whatever platform or influence they may have to speak truth to power, to make art that blatantly or otherwise reflects that resistance?
“As far as promoters go,” she says. “How you structure your space and events and who you welcome and engage as participants can be a huge part of that. For anyone, especially artists, speaking out via social media or in interviews is the easiest way and I think you should try to use your platform to speak out because staying silent in the face of fascism and cruelty is wrong. But then, that also can be dangerous if you are an already marginalized person. I am careful about saying how I think other people should engage in resistance or channel it through their creativity. Resistance and creativity can be intensely personal and people have things to say about their experiences that might be far different than mine and which could even put their safety at risk.”
“As a politically active and aware person,” she continues. “Is your music required to be blatantly political? Can it simply be your own personal escape and release from fear and oppression? The space I am making music for and playing music in is essentially a dance space historically rooted in communities of marginalized people. Marginalized bodies existing and moving in a communal dance space has its own form of resistance built right in. Should you attempt to channel that in an explicitly political way? Can you? Is the joy and release already resistance? I don’t have all the answers to these questions. I tend to ask more than I answer.”
After years of operating on an incredibly underground and under celebrated scale, it has been in these recent years that Noncompliant’s voice has become pivotal in the dance music sphere, particularly among fellow female and LGBT artists. Not only that, but her prowess as a producer and DJ has finally been given its due credit, having only made her first trip to Europe in that capacity in 2016. Having made her Berghain debut in Panorama Bar last year, she has since gone on to play the hallowed main room and will return to play again at the end of this month (July).
“I am super excited, as always,” she says. “I had played Panorama Bar first, which was an interesting challenge because I definitely tend toward the bangy side of things. It was a blast because I got to play more funky and jacky stuff, which I also love.”
“Berghain the first time though. WOW. You hear all these things about how great it is and then you play there and realize it’s all true. It’s techno Mecca to me, and the first time there I walked up in the booth, looked out at the crowd, and went back and had a little cry because it was a dream of mine that actually came true. And the crowd there thus far has been nothing but wonderful. I found that there is an outside perception of what people think Berghain music should be, and then there is the reality that the crowd there are pretty much up for anything as long as it’s good.”
The differences between that sacred techno haven and the clubbing environment in Indiana are insurmountable of course. But then again, Smith is quick to remind us that the Midwest she cut her teeth in was really not a “club” environment at all, but a different beast entirely.
“Outside of Chicago and Detroit, Midwest clubs mostly play Top 40 and much more commercial dance music,” she says. “That’s why the rave scene here was so special. It was mostly very detached from clubs (and mostly all-ages, so there was no alcohol). It allowed us to really experiment musically in ways that a much more commercial, profit-oriented space really couldn’t. And there are still those one-offs that happen around the U.S., whether in clubs or in other spaces, and they’re still a bazillion times more interesting than some super cishet meatmarket with $15 drink prices and bad music made to appeal to drunks looking to get laid.”
As on the sociopolitical scale, Smith makes no bones of calling out the just-plain-silliness that runs amok in dance music too. For instance, she has previously spoken briefly about the irritating habits of certain DJs who feel within their rights to protect the identities of the tracks they play, turning other people’s music into their own “secret weapons”. As it was enough for us to go so far as publish a whole diatribe on the topic, it felt apt to ask what more she had to say on the matter…
“I mean, I get the value of finding super dope jams and not wanting everyone to play them to death,” she admits. “But I definitely remember DJs with stickers on the labels of their ‘secret weapons’ and while I personally enjoyed the hunt, trying to find those jams, deep digging into used bins and all that, I did find it a bit silly and ‘boys’ club collector-ish’. I maintain to this day, if you give 10 different DJs the same crate of 50 records, they’re all going to play them in different order, in different ways, with different ideas.”
“At its core, it’s a competitiveness which I do understand,” she adds. “And I do love a challenge, but if I’m playing someone else’s tune, I’m doing so because I think it’s great and wouldn’t I like other people to think that and want to buy it too? Don’t I want that great producer to sell tunes so they can keep doing this? This is why I am obsessive about tracklists. Go buy the music. Enjoy it. Tell others about it.”
Meanwhile, Noncompliant’s 2018 progresses, and with its progress comes exciting things on the horizon, with new releases predicted to come out of sessions in “the synth cave”, to a round up of very exciting gigs. “I will be in Paris for Red Bull Music Academy in September,” she tells us. “Doing a B2B with Courtesy, which I am excited about. B2B sets are such an interesting challenge that make you pull different tunes than you might otherwise, and I love having to work hard and dig deeper. Playing Maximum Pressure in Glasgow for Halloween also, with a lineup of techno legends that is rather humbling for me. That is going to be nuts!!”
And despite living in an era where hope is scarce, Smith has managed to find it in the adversity and resistance that anger has inspired. “I don’t know how much the rest of the world is seeing it, but there are a lot of people in the US who are engaged and working hard to overcome the cruelty and incompetence of the Trump administration,” she says.
“I haven’t seen anything like this in years,” she continues. “It’s even bigger and more organized than during the GW Bush years. From protesting police violence toward black people, people protesting the Muslim ban at airports, the Women’s Marches, to the protests and organization to help immigrants during this latest round of viciously racist policy, people are angry and they’re doing something about it. They’re flooding the streets, crowding into the offices of politicians, organizing and resisting. I hate that we ever have to respond to this kind of fascist brutality, but here we are. And we’re not going away. And that gives me a lot of hope, even as I struggle with despair that we are in this situation.”
There is a moment in Noncompliant’s DJ Mag podcast mix where the spoken call to action in Shaun J Wright and Alinka’s rumbling techno anthem ‘Time For Action’ rings like the track she was born to play. In an hour of tough, cathartic and expressive techno, it sits as just one of several special moments, calling out for respect and action in the name of the oppressed and marginalized.
“I heard that tune recently and lost my mind. It’s so good. It’s the kind of track I wish I had made,” she says. “And that’s the perfect example of a tune that can be political and still shake the dancefloor. I was feeling particularly angry because of the separation of immigrant children from their parents, which is just stunningly cruel. This country has really been shaken up by that. And so it had been a particularly horrifying week of news and I just...I needed that tune right then. I wasn’t sure what else I was going to play in this mix, but that one was a definite right then. So that mix is really me just...putting those feelings into the mix while also enjoying an escape from the overwhelming parade of horrible news. It’s so much we can’t keep up, all the time, every day. So I let myself get lost in techno for a little while.”
There are few people in dance music in 2018 who mean it, really mean it, quite as much as Lisa Smith AKA DJ Shiva AKA Noncompliant. You’d do well to hear what she has to say. Or at the very least, do as she does, and let yourself get lost in techno. Even just for a little while.
Anything else before we go?
“I love techno, cats are rad, and resistance is never futile. That is all.”
John Heckle - Landing Gear [Chiwax]
Lewski - 'Folkloric Human' [Wolfskuil]
Shaun J Wright & Alinka - 'Time For Action' [Jackathon Jams]
Bernard Badie - 'Earth Shattering' [Jupiter4]
Dar Embarks - 'Verldsrymden' [Acid Camp]
Kirk Degiorgio - 'Burning Stone (Petter B Remix)' [On Edge Society]
Juxta Position - 'Stepping' [Figure]
Kristian Heikkila - 'Hardware' [Joiku]
Moteka - 'Space Nation' (Jeroen Search Remix) [Skryptom]
Developer - 'Torn Apart' [Eclectic Limited]
Greenjack - 'Metropoly' [IAMT]
Kloves - 'Clash' [FLASH]
Rommek - 'Grintstone' [Blueprint]
Concentrate - 'Move Off (Forest People Replant)' [Translucent]
Lars Huisman - 'High Voltage' [Bipolar Disorder]
The Advent - 'Bad Boy (Planetary Assault Systems Remix)' [Internal]
Lead/press photos: Seze Devres
Live Photos: Tim Evans