The Milwaukee DJ shares her favorite tracks to play on the dancefloor and at sunrise.
While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this column, Aces (as in “aces up the sleeve”), is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers.
For this installment, we had a chat with former Madisonian and currently Milwaukee-based DJ Niki Kitz, whose mixes often ride the line between polished production, spacious arrangements, and mind-melting textures. Kitz first began hitting the decks while living in Madison, throwing down sporadically at local crew Foshizzle Family’s early parties at the late Dobra Tea. She has since relocated to Milwaukee, where she has become a full-time member of beloved DJ crew Apart, alongside Midwest deck-slayers like Milwaukee institution Fortune, Chicago house veteran Gene Farris, and several more. In advance of Kitz’s upcoming set at the Intoxicated party at Club Voodoo on Saturday, May 14, she spoke with us about her love for techno label Traum, performing outdoors at sunrise, and the magic of Pepe Bradock.
Tone Madison: So how did you get started DJing in Madison? What drew you to relocate to Milwaukee from Madison?
Niki Kitz: I started out making lots of compilations. I’ve been finding specific tracks for making mix CDs my whole life, so once I started hanging out with some DJs, it was recommended that I start mixing these compilations into actual DJ mixes. At first, I was really nervous, but I lived with DJs Carrick and Lodo [of Foshizzle Family], so I had access to all the equipment. I finally got brave enough to start asking for pointers and then I would practice all the time when no one was home. I was already helping with the Foshizzle parties at this point, so once I felt comfortable mixing, I was able to play my first set at the Apocalyptic Dub Christmas Tea Time Party at Dobra Tea. After playing out in Madison for a bit, I got invited to play a couple of events in Milwaukee—Apart’s Crave night at Notte, and Plush’s Tribe night at Stonefly. Those two gigs were actually two days in a row and I had so much fun at both of them. I applied to be an intern for Apart and then I decided to make the move to Milwaukee. Right around the time that I moved there, Fortune asked me to be an Apart artist. The rest is history.
Tone Madison: What did Apart have you doing as an intern?
Niki Kitz: We had weekly meetings where we’d discuss promo for upcoming shows and go over what seemed to work and what didn’t. I used to help organize the street team, work the door at shows, and I’d help with set-up and tear-down. I’d get a little bit of input on who’d be cool to have play at Apart shows and who would make good openers. My internship was six months long and technically ended in July 2014, but I still attend meetings regularly and help with some of the same stuff.
Tone Madison: I feel like a lot of people don’t understand the amount of practice it takes just to reach the point where you’re comfortable enough beat-matching and mixing live on CD-Js to work on finding your own voice as a DJ. It seems like there’s a pretty distinct spaciousness and vibe in your mixes. At what point would you say you began to find breakthroughs as a selector?
Niki Kitz: I’m not exactly sure—it’s hard to pinpoint an exact time. For me, it was always more about the track selection than the mixing, and it kind of still is. I don’t really do much for crazy, technical stuff. I just try to make my blends sound as smooth as possible and play the coolest songs that I can find. I guess once I felt good about my mixing abilities at home, I was like, hell yes—now I can share these songs with people!
Tone Madison: Are CD-Js your preferred medium these days?
Niki Kitz: You know, I’m still really partial to Serato. bought XDJs so that I could practice mixing on USBs and I do like simplicity of only bringing flash drives to gigs. But, I still really prefer Serato. I just love the program and I love having access to my whole library. I learned on Serato and turntables, so it just feels really natural to me. Also, the colors of the waveforms on Serato always seem to correlate perfectly with the colors of particular sounds in my head. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: So you’ve picked out a few tracks here. Let’s start with this zone-y Vizar track, “Flow.” It feels like a real mood builder, very minimal and subtle. What part of your set would you typically throw this into?
Niki Kitz: I usually play this one somewhere in the middle—once the crowd is really starting to groove. Its really great to play in house-y sets because it kicks things up a notch, but then its also great to play in techno sets because it’s really nice and uplifting. It’s got a great pulse.
Tone Madison: It seems like it would work well as a connecting point between two tunes that would normally clash too hard to mix directly.
Niki Kitz: I love it because it’s pretty minimal, but it’s not too boring and it definitely keeps your attention.
Tone Madison: I like the sort odd-meter bassline that dances around the kick and the evolving ride cymbal or whatever it is that’s floating around in the background.
Niki Kitz: Yeah, I don’t really know what to call it [laughs], but I know what you’re talking about and I love that. That sound has a really great evolution.
Tone Madison: “Flow” is really polished and produced, but still super tasteful. Is this kind of your standard for fidelity when selecting tracks?
Niki Kitz: I would say so. I pick my tracks really intuitively, so if a track makes me feel strongly in a good way, I buy it and hope that I can find a good time to play it.
Tone Madison: I completely understand that—letting a gut-feeling dictate what tracks you’re going to release or play. Sometimes you can even like a track a lot, but not think it’s something you’d ever want to play it out.
Niki Kitz: Yeah, I have a whole folder of those.
Tone Madison: OK, let’s move on to Nick Dow’s “Iron Leaves.” This one’s pretty twisted.
Niki Kitz: Yes, I love this one. It’s been one of my favorites for a while.
Tone Madison: This one is probably my second-favorite from your batch.
Niki Kitz: Traum, the label it’s on, is my favorite label ever and Nick Dow is one of my very favorite artists on the label.
Tone Madison: How would you describe Traum’s overall vibe?
Niki: Really feel-y—beautiful, dark, and uplifting at the same time. A lot of the songs on that label, including this one, sort of transcend genres. It’s not quite techno and not quite house, but this really cool middle ground that tends to be a common theme in a lot of the music I like to play.
Tone Madison: But I wouldn’t really call it tech-house. It’s too weird, too many surprises.
Niki Kitz: Definitely not tech-house. I really like how this super evolving and tells a story. I tend to play a lot of songs that are really long and I always want to play them out in their entirety because they’re so pretty
Tone Madison: One thing I’m loving about this track is how these sort of ominous alien textures soar in and out in place of where you, on a typical deep-house track, you might normally hear some swelling chords or pads.
Niki Kitz: Yes! I definitely love the ominous alien textures. Lots of weird psychedelic noises in this one. It gets really weird, but then it still makes me feel warm and fuzzy somehow. I tend to choose this one a lot when I play sunrise sets. In my opinion, it’s pretty energizing, but not too intense.
Tone Madison: When’s the last time you played this at sunrise?
Niki Kitz: I think it was the summer before last, at this party in a nature preserve. That’s the last time I can remember at least, because I recorded that set. It was called Plush 5: Iroh Dreams of Space. It was a really magical event. I’ve been lucky enough to play the sunrise sets for a lot of Plush parties.
Tone Madison: The third one you picked out was Dinky’s “Acid In My Fridge (Tobi Neumann Remix).” It’s the only vocal tune you picked out.
Niki Kitz: I don’t play that many songs with vocals, but I really, really like this track.
Tone Madison: Instead of sounding like vocal house there’s almost this sort of trip-hop vibe to it. Were you into that sort of stuff growing up? Like Portishead, Massive Attack, etcetera? The vocals kind of give me that same feeling.
Niki Kitz: Yeah, kind of. I was into Portishead, not so much Massive Attack.
Tone Madison: How would you use this one in a set?
Niki Kitz: This song is really fun to play because all my friends love it. It always seems to lighten the mood and make people smile, but it’s also super interesting. It’s pretty much impossible not to dance to this song. I’ve found that it works really well both during the day and also at night. It is pretty psychedelic, for a house song. For me, this is definitely more on the house-ier side of what I’ve been playing lately.
Tone Madison: I really like the synth sounds on this one. It definitely covers more melodic territory than the last two we talked about.
Niki Kitz: Jack [Caprenter] and I did a tag DJ set as Okascia at Sacred Earth last summer. It’s a four day psy-trance festival. When I played this one, It was definitely a highlight of the set for me. It was in the middle of the afternoon on this beautiful sunny summer day and I could just see huge smiles grow across all my friends’ faces in the crowd. It made me so happy. It’s a great festival with lots of really awesome deco and art. I’m so glad we got to play it.
Tone Madison: Can you still kind of wander the spectrum of dance music at a psy-trance event, then? Or are you typically expected to kind of keep it in that zone?
Niki Kitz: Well, it seems that the weirder it is, the better at these events, but I’m definitely not a psy-trance DJ, so I wouldn’t try to play at 145 beats per minute or anything. And since we played during the day, our house-y, sunshine techno set went over really well. I think that some of the audience was really happy to have a little break from the psy-trance.
Tone Madison: This brings us to Pepe Bradock’s “Deep Burnt.” Personally, this is definitely one of my favorite tracks of all time and I was very stoked that you’d picked this one. What’s your relationship to this tune?
Niki Kitz: Yes, this is one of my very favorite tracks of all time too. The first time I ever heard was one of the most magical moments of my life. About three years ago I went to this festival in the Rhodopian mountains in Bulgaria called Meadows In The Mountains. It was a pretty small, family-like festival and Moomin, who is one of my favorite artists of all time, was one of the headliners. He played a nice, long sunrise set on top of a mountain on the last day of the festival. I can’t even begin to explain how beautiful it was—with the fog forming this glassy pool between the valleys and the sun coming up between the mountains. And then Moomin dropped this track and I thought I was going to die from happiness. So, I set out on a quest to find it and it took me a while, but later that summer I was finally able to figure out what it was. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life and “Deep Burnt” has been one of my favorite songs ever since.
Tone Madison: That sounds incredible. And yeah, with this song—those strings! And I just love the way the song unravels, and then those beautiful synth arpeggios come in.
Niki Kitz: Yeah, this track is a masterpiece. I usually save this one for special occasions, usually at sunrise. It doesn’t really feel right to play it at other times.
Tone Madison: It seems like if you had it your way, you’d always play outside, at sunrise.
Niki Kitz: [Laughs] Definitely. Sunrise is by far my favorite time to play and playing outside is the best. It’s just the atmosphere in general. I’m a big fan of trees, nature, and clouds. It feels awesome to let the music belt out without a roof or walls to contain it. I feel like a lot of music just sounds better outside, but not all music though. Some music is definitely meant for dark clubs and warehouses.