Hong Kong gigs

Who shall I be today? The many faces of DJ Janette Slack

From baggy pants and baseball caps to latex dresses and killer heels, the Hong Kong-born Eurasian has worn different guises on stage, but for her it’s the music that’s front and centre

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2015, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2015, 11:33am

In the two years since she returned to Hong Kong, DJ/producer Janette Slack has gone from strength to strength - and she’s further cemented her position with this month’s release of EP Lost.

Prior to returning she had spent 15 years in London, where she cultivated an outlandish image influenced by the BDSM scene and an eclectic electro-dance sound during a career-defining residency at the Torture Garden in Brixton, Europe’s largest fetish club.

Of the latex dresses, bright hair extensions and killer heels she wears onstage, Slack says: “People think that’s my life 24/7, but it’s not.”

Today, she’s sitting on a sofa in her Lai Chi Kok studio, which serves as the base for her Slack Trax label. Her hair is in its natural black and has recently been cut short, so she looks anything but eccentric. “I have two distinct lives,” she explains. “I spend most of my time in the studio alone.”

Slack’s high-intensity electronic dance music and gregarious personality catapulted her on to the world stages in her twenties, yet she was surprised how much Hong Kong welcomed her when she returned.

Though the local dance scene has improved immeasurably since Slack left these shores as a 17-year-old, she attributes her return to a growing sense of duty to her ageing parents. Regardless, she timed it well: the city has become a pulsing font of sonic innovation, where big-name international DJs flock to play clubs, warehouses and junks.

When Slack left Hong Kong, the selection of clubs was sparse. For a fledgling DJ, London’s millennial, up-all-night culture was irresistible. It was more than that, she says. “I wanted to explore Europe. I’ve now been to Croatia 15 times – although when I go there, I get asked ‘Where are your Chinese clothes?’ I just say ‘Where are your Croatian clothes?’”

The Eurasian laughs: “There’s no malice. I find it endearing.”

Her indifference is the sign of an artist used to sometimes dealing with much worse. “Racism exists, but I’ve only experienced it once in 15 years. I’ve always surrounded myself with good people.”

Instead, her gender has proven the main obstacle in a male-centric industry. “Sometimes they’ll ask for a ‘hotter picture’, and I’ll tell them to f**k off. It’s unbelievable how much this happens,” she says. “I’m not going to be purposely provocative to get gigs.”

“Either that, or Asian clubs ask for a more ‘western’ picture. I send them this photo of me in a cheongsam with chopsticks in my hair doing this,” she grins, raising her middle finger. “I just want them to listen to my mix. I don’t see it getting better.”

She is frustrated by the trend for booking former models who DJ using laptops, though Slack insists the venues and promoters are the problem. “It’s 90 per cent guys holding their phones, thinking the DJ is going to get them out. If I was going to do that, I’d be a stripper.”

I just want them to listen to my mix. I don’t see it getting better
Janette Slack

The way she speaks makes it sound as if Slack tries to avoid the limelight at her gigs, but eye-catching, racy outfits are very much part of her image. Like many young female artists struggling to make their mark in the aggressive, competitive music industry, she was under pressure to present a sexy image. But sexism would rear its head regardless of what she wore.

“The first seven years, I wore baggy pants and baseball caps. I didn’t feel the need to show myself off. I heard these guys bitching, ‘Janette’s only getting the gig because she has tits.’ And I was sat there in my brother’s oversized No Fear T-shirt.”

It was Torture Garden that inspired her to dress more outlandishly. “They booked me because of my music, but they ended up boosting my confidence. I ended up in an amazing latex dress, looking like a cartoon character with crazy hair and contacts.”

“I’d been hiding myself, but when I started dressing like that, female DJs and fans would say they loved it. And it’s the girls I don’t want to alienate. You don’t want a club full of blokes – you need girls to dance.”

She’s also proud that her DJ school has been popular among women looking to learn how to mix.

Slack has earned a reputation for helping to boost others in the industry, instead of pushing rivals down, and the launch party for her Lost EP at Central nightclub Fly on October 24 also served as a showcase for up-and-coming artist such as Too Much and DJ Cyrus. “I’m not going to be around forever,” she laughs.

She didn’t think the title track of the EP, written during a break-up, was worth releasing until the right collaborators came along. “[UK producers] Ben Remember, Breaks Mafia and I have always talked about working together, so I asked them to do a remix. Ben’s one is a nice, cruising track, whereas Breaks Mafia’s has a ploddy vibe like the music of [UK breakbeat duo] Stanton Warriors.”

Next on Slack’s list is another EP, as well as a remix for one of her heroes, drag queen Manila Luzon. But first there’s a Halloween show at Stockton in Central this Saturday night - which presents an opportunity to revisit the extravagant get-up she’s toned down somewhat since returning to Hong Kong. “It’s just a little thing in a bar, so I’m not sure how to dress up,” she says. “Before a show I think, ‘who shall I be today?’”