LADY BUSINESS: New York City’s DJ Miss Merenda

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Music will always expand, retract and evolve. But many of us, no matter what, find a place in time and mentally lock onto the sounds that exemplify it. Music is the most fittingly descriptive and beautiful diary one could write or read.

Deejays tend to play music that mirrors their audience, they play what the people want to hear. Many of them fit into an easy box and there really isn’t much wrong with that. DJ Miss Merenda has isolated a moment in time that is pure euphoria: the upbeat movements of early nineties hip hop and R&B, and encapsulated it into neat sets that can bring a smile and an ass-shake to anybody.

As a woman, she plays down the femininity without ramping up her masculinity. She may be a woman scratching records, but at her core she is just a person who has a passion for music and a mind to meld it all together.

I sat down with DJ Miss Merenda at a trendy Bushwick mixology bar in Brooklyn to talk music like a couple of geeks.

Check out the exclusive Ladybud Mix by DJ Miss Merenda:

ANGELA BACCA: So what are your favorite records to play?

CHERI MERENDA: I play a lot of different stuff, but mainly I play house, funk, hip-hop and New Jack Swing. I like house tracks with obscure r&b samples, or quirky electronica and… I hate to say it “trap”–

AB: Trap?

CM: It is essentially chopped and screwed, heavy on the 808 hip-hop, but it’s just gritty, grimy, newer… Someone yesterday played a Mambo Italiano trap mix and I bugged out because I am Calabrese and the sample they used was “all you Calabrese do the mambo like a crazy”. Maybe it was just that remix that made my ears perk. I started out playing house music in 1998 and then I kinda evolved… I was always into hip hop. My first record when I was five was Run DMC. I have always been into hip-hop, R&B and dance pop because my mother was a disco dancer.

When I first started deejaying I would play house music because that was what was around, my boyfriend at the time was a big house DJ in Philly. I wasn’t really into house music at first, but it grew on me.

AB: Yeah I know, it sounds really bad until you get high and then something clicks in your brain. I kinda like house music now. 

CM: I actually wasn’t that way, with the “high” thing. Back in the day people would do crazy stuff and I would just get weirded out more, I was always into hip hop. House music has evolved over the years, there has been a lot of faces of house, it’s actually making a great resurgence lately.

AB: How would you describe your sound and what are your influences?

CM: Hip-hop, nineties R&B, jazz, and funk. When I first started deejaying back in the day I had my two turntables and my mixer, but everyone was into house music. All I wanted to do was play nineties R&B which at the time was not cool, it wasn’t old enough yet to be considered cool.

AB: What year was it?

CM: 1998. So if you were playing mainstream stuff, you were like… ehh.

I was in the underground scene, it was not something you would want to say ‘hey lets play this’, but I lived and breathed that shit. It was my everything. And other people would play it but they would play it along with other top 40 stuff, it was just never really cool.

New Jack Swing - "Basically anything the Fly Girls from In Living Color would dance to."

New Jack Swing – “Basically anything the Fly Girls from In Living Color would dance to.”

When I moved to New York in 2006, all my friends were playing vinyl. I started out playing vinyl IN Philly but I had all house music. When I moved to NYC, everyone was playing disco, funk and disco boogie. I joined up with a bunch of my friends I knew from back in Philly that lived here now for the disco boogie night at East River Bar in Williamsburg and they would let me come play like once a month, but I would play New Jack Swing– which was all late 80′s early 90s dancy R&B.

When I first moved to Brooklyn everybody played vinyl and they all went to second hand shops and record stores and were all digging for disco boogie– Evelyn Champagne King. I was getting excited about Jodeci and Bell Biv DeVoe. I would sit there and say I was looking for disco boogie but instead would be setting aside Guy and Salt n’ Pepa records. I would always wonder why that stuff was still there. Dollar bins, two dollar bins, nobody wanted it, I took all of it. I got a pretty big New Jack Swing collection.

Teddy Riley was the one to coin that term. a popular example is Bell Biv DeVoe “Poison”, that sound is Teddy Riley. Think of In Living Color, what the Fly Girls were dancing to every week, that was what I was playing all vinyl sets of. When everyone was playing disco boogie, I was playing New Jack. In my head, everyone was going to love New Jack.

Teddy Riley was from Blackstreet, but he produced a lot of people. When he started producing he came out with a sound that was what became New Jack Swing: dancy vibes, like Tony! Toni! Tone!. A lot of people don’t know the genre has a name, its R&B with more of a dancy beat.

After awhile, people loved it. We were on the cusp of everyone getting into digital, not playing vinyl anymore.

AB: Like with laptops? Every deejay I see now is playing a Macbook, not a record player.

CM: Yes. I do digital too, I can play any medium… CDJ’s, controllers, turntables, etc. There are a lot of media you can use to deejay, but if you start by playing vinyl first you can pretty much play everything.

AB: It is interesting to me you are saying you brought back a lot of the nineties stuff when it wasn’t popular, because it seems like now it’s everywhere. The nineties are trendy again.

CM: And I love it. My sound has evolved because now there is a whole bunch of people, young kids, who have started playing lots of bass-heavy stuff with nineties samples.

AB: Right, there is the nostalgia factor. Kids of the nineties… everyone loves to throw back to the music of their childhood. I was obsessed with Paula Abdul myself. 

CM: It’s great for me because I like electronic music, house music and they never used to incorporate that. Samples all used to be disco…

AB: I could see that getting old fast.

CM: The nineties is the decade now that everyone is into. I am in my zone right now. My time has come. I have been waiting for this moment for people to be incorporating this stuff.

AB: Ten years ago everyone was resurrecting the eighties.

CM: It takes 10-15 years after the fact for things to be cool again.


"I've always loved Biggie"

“I’ve always loved Biggie”

AB: Yeah, I remember when I was a kid, seventies stuff was coming back into fashion, all of a sudden people were wearing bell bottoms, which is pretty much the worst fashion trend of the last century.

CM: I loved them! When I was a kid I had chicken legs and the skinniest ankles on the planet. Anytime anyone wore tight little pants or leggings they would be loose on the bottoms, it looked terrible.

AB: Well skinny jeans are in now…

CM: Yeah, my skinny ankles come in handy now. I loved the bell bottoms cause all you saw was booty and not my chicken legs.

AB: When you first bought the turntables in 1998, what inspired that purchase?

CM: Well, my cousin had turntables when I was growing up. Not anything like he got paid for, he just deejayed house parties. I would beg him to let me scratch. I would ruin every record.

In 98 I started dating a deejay. He was one of the best deejays and to this day is still one of the best deejays I know. He taught me how to do it. I was still terrified, everyone he knew were well established people in the music industry. I never felt comfortable playing out because he was so good. I didn’t start playing out until a couple years before I moved to New York.

It took me a good six years to get comfortable.

AB: As a female deejay, do you feel like it is different for you, that you are received differently?

CM: Yes, it is different. With the digital era of deejaying, so many people can just pick it up and go. The art of learning how to beat match is very time-consuming and tedious. A lot of people give up before they have a chance to really learn it, cause it takes time and you have to have an ear for it.

Now, in the digital era, anyone can just pick up a laptop and deejay. Even back then a lot of the girl deejays would sex it up. Now, everybody can be a deejay so there are a lot more girls who don’t know much about music and just pre-record a set and then sex it up.

It makes people like me, who actually know what’s going on, a lot better when we play gigs. People are more surprised, they don’t expect you to know what you are doing–

AB: Because you are a woman?

CM: Yeah, it’s a male dominated industry. It may never come to the point where girls are immediately considered equally as talented by guys in this industry. Although, I know some females who could SON the hell out of dudes so effortlessly, you never know how the tides with shift. I am just happy to be a part of this culture.

AB: Is it harder to get gigs because you are a woman?

CM: Sometimes yeah. That’s why I put mixes out a lot, I let what i do speak for itself. If they like me, they like me, if they don’t they don’t. A lot of the gigs I have gotten have come from people stumbling across my mix. If you know of me already, I am the first person people think of, male or female, when they think of New Jack Swing.

AB: What attracted you to New Jack Swing?

CM: It’s just what I loved when I was a kid growing up and listening to music. I was a dancer when I was a kid, I was really drawn to hip hop. It was just the progression of the music and culture when I was young. It has been really exciting to play it instead of house music.

AB: Do you ever incorporate stuff not from the nineties?

CM: Yes, I am drawn to R&B, funk, jazz, disco, anything from the eighties or nineties.

AB: You said you discovered yourself in music, what did you discover about yourself that you didn’t know before?

CM: Im a black girl in a white girl’s body… I don’t know? (laughs)

I seem to have been drawn to urban culture, it is something I felt like was mine. Growing up, you listen to what your parents listen to. Luckily my mother was a dancer, she was a disco queen. My parents are the epitome of Italian stereotypes of the seventies and eighties. I could show you a picture of my father, he looks like a friggin mobster, wearing all white three piece suits and Members Only jackets with an Italian pompadour. My mother wore glitter tank tops. One time, my dad broke his ankle high on quaaludes cause his platforms were too high…

I swear for at least a year I thought my mom was Madonna because she looked just like her. I was into the pop-dance thing. My mom listened to a lot of R&B, Whitney Houston, stuff like that. When I finally felt like I was coming into my own there was a lot of hip hop on the radio, it kinda took off from there.

AB: Which specific hip hop and R&B artists would you say are your biggest influences?

"When I was coming up I used to live on 5th and South in Philly, The Roots used to play once a month right in front of my house. They were the greatest hip hop ever because they were a full band."

“When I was coming up I used to live on 5th and South in Philly, The Roots used to play once a month right in front of my house. They were the greatest hip hop ever because they were a full band.”

CM: If you want to talk hip hop, I am into a lot of conscious hip hop now. The old school stuff is great and was a lot of fun, but then when it got really commercialized, I kinda fell off of it.

The Roots– they are a Philly band, now they play for Jimmy Fallon and are pretty famous, but when I was coming up I used to live on 5th and South in Philly, they used to play once a month right in front of my house. To me they are the greatest hip hop ever because they are a full band.

A lot of the hip hop I like is conscious hip hop– Mos DefCommonTalib Kweli. I love Biggie, I always loved Biggie. I was also big into Jedi Mind Tricks, Freddy Foxx, Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, Blackalicious, beats by J-Dilla,  turntablists like Q-Bert and DJ Jazzy Jeff.

I still get into the crack hip hop from the early nineties. You know, the usual suspects like Nas and Jay-Z, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Tupac– all of them. After a while  hiphop got weird. I didn’t really dig stuff on the radio anymore. Conscious hip hop just makes more sense to me and I like it.

I like so many different kinds of music, I don’t want to just pin it all on hip hop and R&B, but that is a big influence on what I play now.

I like things like Atmosphere and Immortal Technique, anything intelligent. They tell stories, it’s not the same crap regurgitated over and over again. They also have great beats.

AB: I listened to Ladies Only Twisted Ghetto mix and noticed you paired Aaliyah with steal drums, what other type of world music do you like to incorporate?

CM: I love samba! I really dig Latin music, I get down on some Reggaeton sometimes. I love Italian music, Italian Jazz like Louis Prima. It has to have a rhythm and culture to it. I love dub, reggae, dancehall… anything that has some sort of deeper connection to it.