Colette Marino fell in love with house music in 1988, after a fellow eighth grader played DJ at a dance at Pritzker Elementary in Wicker Park. By the time she was a sophomore at Lane Tech, she was a regular at local raves, and simply dancing at them was already old hat. She passed out flyers for party promoters, and at age 15 she even threw one of her own--at her parents' house while they were out of town. She made flyers and charged five bucks at the door. "They knew about it because the house was too clean when they got back," she says. Now 26 and a DJ in her own right, Marino has found a more unusual way to be part of the music: she sings over the records she spins.
Marino's been singing even longer than she's been clubbing. "From the time I was four I had always told my mom that I wanted to be a singer," she says, and when she was in fourth grade one of her teachers took notice of her voice: "I sang over everybody when we did our hour of music." She began taking private lessons and joined choirs at school and at church, where she began giving lessons herself at age 14. Although she loved pop music, her focus was on classical. "When I was at home I would sing along to Madonna, but there wasn't any kind of pop 101 or something like that I could take at school," she says. At Lane Tech, where students get to pick a major, she chose painting, with music as a minor. "I wanted to do both, but I really hated music theory, and by choosing it as a minor I didn't have to study it....My DJ friends would come to my concerts at school. They thought it was weird but they appreciated it."
Outside school, Marino started experimenting a little with Chicago house fixture DJ Lego, singing short vocal patterns for him to mix into his tracks--though nothing she sang on was ever released--and at some of his live sets. She was also buying dance records with the voracity of a club DJ, although she didn't own any DJ equipment and had never seriously considered investing in any. After graduating from Lane Tech she enrolled at DePaul, where her roommate happened to have a stereo system with a karaoke function, which she used to record herself singing over her favorites. Soon she was improvising her own melodies and words, whole songs over songs, and sharing the results with her pals.
To her delight, other DJs started to take notice. She began collaborating with DJ Sneak, Roy Davis Jr., and Mazi, and by 1996 her voice had turned up on some of their records, although mostly still in sample-size bites. Meanwhile, she bought a pair of old turntables from Sneak. "It was hard the first year," she says--the first time she was able to match the beats on two records, she excitedly noted it in her journal. She began to practice regularly with Shannon Ialongo (aka DJ Dayhota), whom she met while she was promoting and hosting regular parties at Shelter. Before long they joined forces with Heather Robinson (aka DJ Heather), a veteran hip-hop DJ who had started spinning house, to form the Superjane crew, which made its collective debut at the Funky Buddha Lounge in 1997. "It was definitely about the music," says Marino. "We wanted to have women playing all night so it wouldn't be such a point-your-finger kind of thing: 'oh, it's a girl, it's a girl.'"
During the first five months of Superjane's existence, Marino stuck strictly to spinning, but once she felt confident enough on the decks, she began to sing along. Although she sometimes has ideas worked out in advance, she often wings it. "I might buy a record, listen to it once, just kind of shuffling through it, and if I think that it'll work I'll mark it with an s," she says. "When I play it later, I'll just make something up. If something works out really well, I'll just keep singing it over and over. I won't remember it exactly, but it's pretty close, and eventually it'll turn itself into a song." That's the MO behind much of the material on her new mix CD, Our Day, released last month by Nettwerk, the Canadian label that gave the world Sarah McLachlan.
The CD is her second: last year the local Afterhours imprint released In the Sun, a slightly rough house mix that featured her voice on several tracks, along with mix CDs by Heather and a later addition to Superjane, Lady D. The collective spent an increasing amount of time on the road, spinning in different cities, and attracted loads of press in dance music publications. Last fall Marino and her boyfriend, house DJ and producer Angel Alanis, moved to Los Angeles, where she was spotted at Boardner's by Nettwerk A and R scout William Godoy.
Marino has never made her singing a focal point of her sets: in most cases, she says, the dancing throngs don't even notice her doing it. But that may change after her next release--an album of all original music she plans to record over the winter. "I'm not planning to discontinue spinning, but I definitely would like to have an electronic band," she says. "There's going to be enough on there that it will be reflective of what I do now, but when I buy an album I want there to be a lot of stuff I can just sit and listen to. I don't want just a dance party.
"In a way it's like starting over. I took such a backwards path to get where I really wanted to go...but as silly as it sounds I never wanted anything else, and until you find out you really can't do what you want, you're just going to keep trying."
DJ Colette spins Friday, December 14, at Smart Bar.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Audrey Cho.