Mentors: Jenifa Mayanja’s Artistic Lessons From Joe Claussell

Although Joe Claussel's guidance was integral to Jenifa Mayanja's growth as an artist, his tough love ultimately stymied the release of her first LP.

I started DJing in 1992, when I was living in Kansas City, Missouri. One of my best friends at the time, Theo Parrish, encouraged me a lot when I was learning and discovering how to DJ, but ultimately my dream was to make my own music and be considered a true artist. Unfortunately there wasn’t that much going on in Kansas City. You had raves in the Midwest, but they were usually small—maybe a couple hundred kids. There were a few gay clubs that I frequented, but they only played the 20 most popular dance tracks and only occasionally something fresh to my ears. Basically, there was no scene. I threw parties with a few dedicated, likeminded souls, but I still felt that Kansas City wasn’t the right place for me.

A little later, a friend of mine moved to New York and invited me to come visit. I loved it! New York was perfect in the early ‘90s, like a musical paradise—at least for me.  Everywhere you went—it didn’t matter what kind of store—you’d hear beautiful house music. I knew right away that I had to move there, too. But when I finally arrived, I didn’t know anybody except that one friend. I was like, “Okay, I’m in New York and I’m ready to DJ. Now what?” At this point I had been playing for at least four years and was pretty confident about my skills, but I quickly realized that it didn’t work like that. I didn’t know anyone, and I was a woman, which apparently was a big deal because women who DJed were considered a sideshow. It’s sad that it’s still an issue, but back then it was even worse. Being a female DJ was treated as an anomaly—let alone a black woman DJing.

So I had all these things counting against me, and I wondered, “What the hell am I gonna do?” One day, feeling a bit defeated, I went to this Japanese restaurant, and by chance an old friend from Kansas City happened to work there. He was like, “Are you still DJing? They need a DJ here.” It was one of the first restaurants in New York to have DJs. I got the gig, and from there many more followed. And once I was a DJ with professional gigs, I started going to record stores weekly. But I was completely ignored in nearly all stores I went to. Nobody would help me; nobody would answer questions; everybody was rude! They—all guys—would just stand there and look the other way and talk to anyone else there but me. I would have happily ignored them, too, but almost all the record stores at that time did not have listening stations, so you had to ask the DJ behind the counter to play a record for you if you wanted to listen before buying.

There were only two stores where I got some respect: Vinylmania and Dance Tracks, which Joe Claussell co-owned with Stefan Prescott. When I walked in there, Joe would always greet me with a smile. He would say “Hey sister, how are you doing?” He was really nice to me, and it freaked me out at first because I wasn’t used to it. Over time I started going to Dance Tracks exclusively, because that was the only place where the staff treated me well. After about six months of shopping there regularly, Joe asked me out of the blue if he could talk to me.

“We see you come in here all the time, and we like your energy,” he told me. “Your taste in music is impeccable. We would like to offer you a job to work here.” I was like, “Say what? You’re offering me a job?” I was speechless! Back then there was maybe one other woman working somewhere in a record store in the city—at least in all the places I went to, and I went a lot of places. So it was a big deal for them to hire a woman to work in their store. I have to say, they were quite progressive because they also had another woman, Colleen Murphy, working there as well, and I felt like I had finally arrived.

That’s when my friendship and mentorship with Joe began. He really took me under his wing and was very kind. He showed me how important real relationships were, also in business: how important it is to be kind; to be yourself; to be authentic to people. I watched how he was always himself and wouldn’t treat anyone differently just because of their status. At Dance Tracks we had people coming in from around the world, from all walks of life. All the big name DJs went to that store, so it took me a long way to learn about about how to treat people and how it benefits you personally and professionally in the long run, as opposed to thinking, “Well, I’m at the top, so I don’t have to speak to you.”

He knew that I was a good DJ, and I was slowly getting really popular in the city. I was playing all the little clubs and lounges so I had a gig almost every night. At that time, Joe, Danny Krivit and Francois K had just started Body and SOUL, and in ’96 or ‘97 they asked me to play there, which was a big honor because they weren’t asking everybody. That invitation boosted my confidence as a DJ. I felt that I was on the right path, and continuing to be authentic would allow me more success artistically. Joe was very instrumental in giving me this platform.

The next step was to produce my own music. I didn’t have a lot of money and no studio, so I decided to work with people who did, which at first was kind of disastrous. I could express myself musically—I could play the notes that I wanted. But I couldn’t express what I wanted technically. I had little to no knowledge of how music software worked as I did not own my own software. How do you make the kick sound like this? How do you translate this melody into this kind of track? I cannot tell you how humiliating it felt. It was like being full of words but having no sound come out of your mouth when you speak.

And then you have people in the studio who kinda want to work with you, but they also prefer to be the lord over the whole thing. That’s not really a collaborative spirit, and it was really frustrating. One time I told Joe about it. “I’ve done all these collaborations and I’m pretty unhappy with the results, but I feel that I’m ready to do my thing.” He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, “I want to make electronic music, dance music, but I want to infuse my roots as an African person.”

At that time, Joe and Stefan had started doing the label Spiritual Life Music through the Dance Tracks store. He gave me the opportunity to learn how to run a label, and I was always included when it came to Spiritual Life with how albums came together as well as the distribution and promotion. So when I felt I had a clear vision of the statement I wanted to make as an artist, I plucked up my courage and told Joe about the kind of album I wanted to make. Joe already had a big reputation in New York as far as DJing goes—everyone respected him, for he is one of a kind. But his productions had taken the house music world by storm with his style of fusing house with rhythms and traditions of the world, so I knew he was the best person to talk to about doing my first album, and he said that he’d release it on Spiritual Life Music.

From there I learned a lot about what it really takes to make an album. The whole process turned into this real deep and at times soul-crushing period, but that’s when I felt my true mentoring from Joe really took hold. I had to go pay for my own studio time, and I learned that I had better have all those receipts because those costs have to be recouped first. I had to learn how to organize my time before I went into a session and that I had to have my ideas really laid out. I also learned how to communicate with musicians and engineers so they take you seriously. I learned a lot about dealing with difficult people and standing your ground.

I could talk to Joe about these struggles, and he would offer limitless advice and encouragement, but like a good parent, he would push me right back out there. After listening to the progress of each track I would submit he would offer commentary that I sometimes was not prepared to hear. One thing he often said was, “This is good, but you can do more. You can push yourself more.” He always wanted me to reach for a higher bar. “You need to push it over the edge.” “Ugh, how do you push it over the edge?” my soul would ask. To this day I still produce music by trying to find and push over that edge, which is why there are such long gaps between my productions.

I had a cheap but effective Yamaha keyboard at that point that helped me record some basic melodies at home and later took to the studio. Joe was familiar with some of the musicians I hired, so I would use that as a calling card to settle my unease of having less technical experience in explaining myself properly. Joe would keep me grounded. So for instance, I would write an echo-y, ambient melody and then tap in a West African rhythm, and I’d be super excited when I got those ideas working together and sounding great. Magic! But then Joe would walk me through my track and tell me how I could work on every element a bit more and how it would affect the end result differently—how to make it sound more wide or more live, for instance.

I was still so young and fresh to all this, so dealing with his feedback was jarring. I knew he meant to elevate my artistic voice to another level, so I appreciated his honesty, but it was still difficult to accept. I’ve only gotten slightly better with handling criticism, even after years of releasing my own music.  So in my mind I’m like, “I know what I’m doing. I’m the shit.” And he would be like, “just keep working.” Joe kept sending me back to the studio. The album never came out in the end, but I still have a lot of the tracks. I said, “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t keep creating an album for years without an ending.”

Only much later in my career did I realize how much I’d actually learned. It was all training. All the knowledge I got about how to turn your ideas into a tangible thing and how to push yourself out of your comfort zone prepared me to be the artist I yearned to be. I learned all of that from him. He would always tell me, “You can do more. I feel it in you and I know that if you just allow yourself, it can be completely over the top.” That’s how Joe produces music: over the top into another dimension. He taught me to be able to go beyond the superficial.

Shortly after this experience I decided to start my own label, Bumako Recordings. I decided I didn’t want anyone telling me what I can’t do; training time was over. You have to trust your vision. I got to the point where I knew myself as an artist and stopped looking for approval. It can be difficult when you really crave the approval of your mentor, and I did because I held Joe in such a high regard. I still do, he is always my brother! But at some point I realized, it’s alright. It’s not for him. I’m not doing this for approval. Trust your voice and instincts as an artist. And I am forever grateful that Joe always pushed me until I learned that.

Read past Mentors with Jlin, MK and more here.


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