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Outside the Box

From "freak in a cage" to international renown, the Burlington deejay does it his way


Published December 1, 2010 at 9:53 a.m.

You know Craig Mitchell. If you’ve been in Burlington for any length of time over the last two decades, the chances are good that you’ve at least heard the name. If you’re a socialite, you’ve probably seen or heard him do his thing, whether as the dynamic front man for any number of fusion and hip-hop bands, as the producer behind a slew of international dance hits, as the ubiquitous club deejay holding down parties on an almost nightly basis, or simply as the charismatic man about town with the easy smile and a kind word. You know Craig Mitchell. Or at least you think you do.

Sunday, December 5, marks 20 years that Mitchell, 39, has been, well, Craig fucking Mitchell. Twenty years as a performer, globe-trotting deejay and internationally in-demand producer. In celebration, his friends and colleagues are throwing a no-holds-barred dance party in his honor at Club Metronome, with a retrospective spanning his career and featuring a slew of heavyweights of local (DJ Fattie B) and national (DJ John Creamer) renown.

Mitchell has traveled the globe, produced dance hits for a number of house- music and electronica stars — including Yoko Ono — and founded his own record labels. Along the way he’s become a dominant figure in — and the most prolific curator of — Burlington’s vibrant electronic-music scene. But those accolades only tell part of Mitchell’s story, and not even the most important part.

Mitchell was born in Saginaw, Mich., and raised, along with his brother and sister, by a single mother in the blue-collar city just outside Detroit. He was also a total dork.

“I was a weird kid,” Mitchell declares, seated behind the controls at Upsetta Sound, a recording and production studio he shares with a handful of local deejays and producers in Burlington.

Being a “weird kid” is difficult no matter where you grow up, but perhaps doubly so in a rough-and-tumble factory town. Especially when those factories close down, and desperate people turn to violence. As Mitchell describes it, he was too smart, too strange — an easy target.

“For lack of a better phrase, I wasn’t black enough,” he says. “And I got my ass handed to me.”

Mitchell recalls regular beatings that increased in frequency as Saginaw decayed with the decline of the auto industry. Constant bullying drove him inward and, eventually, toward music. But even there, he never quite fit the expected molds.

“Because I was ostracized, it was easier for me to delve into different styles of music,” Mitchell recalls. “I just didn’t want to be associated with anyone in my neighborhood.”

Mitchell immersed himself in a variety of unusual music — unusual, at least, considering his surroundings. He would listen to bands such as Tangerine Dream, Guns N’ Roses and Pink Floyd alongside Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.

“I heard the whole gamut, because I allowed myself to,” he says.

That openness would serve him well later in life as a deejay and producer. But what Mitchell was looking for was not simply a new sound to set him apart. He was looking for a voice.

As if being a misfit in the ’hood wasn’t challenging enough, Mitchell was confronted with the equally daunting realization that he was gay. But, rather than internalize his identity issues, he wore them quite literally on his sleeve. After seeing a Prince concert with his grandmother in 1981, he began dressing in flowing shirts and tight pants, growing his hair long and perming it — or straightening it, depending on his mood. Surprisingly, his increased flamboyance led to fewer neighborhood hassles.

“I think the thought was that if you were going to dress like that, in that neighborhood, you were either a total badass or completely crazy,” Mitchell surmises. “Either way, they were, like, ‘We’re gonna leave him the fuck alone.’”

Still, Mitchell’s identity crisis ran deeper than problems snazzy clothes could address, and answers were hard to come by. So he dived even deeper into music. Mitchell recalls making mix tapes by recording songs from the radio. He would pause the cassette on the last beat of a song and unpause it on the downbeat of the following one, creating a fluid, continuous playlist. Without knowing it, he was practicing a rudimentary version of a fundamental deejaying principle: matching beats.

“I hated it when songs faded out,” he recalls. “They either needed to end with some kind of flourish, or needed to keep going.”

Anyone who’s seen Mitchell rock a club will most likely recognize that philosophy. “It just felt natural to me,” he explains.

Soon Mitchell began experimenting with mixing using borrowed turntables. He didn’t have headphones or a mixer, so he would cue each record by putting his ear to it and watching the grooves. It worked. Eventually, he was asked to deejay school dances.

“That was strange,” Mitchell recalls. “It’s like, I’m the weird kid, and you want me to entertain you?” But he soon discovered that the ironic isolation of the deejay — who’s the life of the party yet necessarily removed from it — suited him.

“You’re the freak in the cage,” he suggests.

An exemplary student, Mitchell had his choice of colleges on graduating from high school. But those options were limited by financial constraints. He was offered a full ride at St. Michael’s College for his freshman year through a scholarship program that brought gifted inner-city students to the Colchester-based Catholic school.

“It was kind of like a Fresh Air [Fund] for college students,” Mitchell explains.

While the scholarship lightened his financial load, the culture shock Mitchell experienced when he moved to Vermont — then the whitest state in the country — meant he essentially traded one form of alienation for another.

“I was expected to be the authority on blackness,” he says. “The problem was, before that I had never really been allowed to be black. So, I was not a good spokesperson.”

Mitchell struggled with outside expectations, both from white students who thought he was too black and African American students who thought he wasn’t black enough. All the while, he was trying to come to grips with his burgeoning sexual identity — still a secret to all but a few close friends. In his darkest, most confused moment, Mitchell attempted suicide.

“It seemed like the easiest thing to do. I didn’t want to be hated anymore,” he says. “But it was a cop out.” Obviously, his attempt failed, but the desperate act seems to have been a turning point.

“I didn’t want to live my life in a box, so I decided to lose the labels,” Mitchell says. “There are white people that suck. There are black people that suck. There are gay people and straight people that suck. I said, Fuck it. I just want to be Craig.

And that meant, once again, seeking refuge in music.

“Music was his salvation,” says Dave Landers, Mitchell’s guidance counselor at St. Mike’s and a person Mitchell describes as a father figure. “He used music, whether performing or listening to it, to soothe a very difficult time for him.”

Mitchell parlayed a radio deejay gig at the St. Michael’s student-run station into providing the beats for school dances. That in turn led to offers from clubs in downtown Burlington, and eventually to 135 Pearl, now defunct but then the city’s only explicitly LGBTQ-friendly nightclub.

Mitchell pitched the club on an all-ages night aimed at college students, and the club owners hesitantly agreed. The first show drew 300 kids. After a few weeks and several increasingly successful all-ages nights, Mitchell snared a regular weekend slot. And he began to develop into a singularly creative deejay.

“Doing a set for live people is a dynamic experience,” says Tod Warner, then a co-owner and fellow deejay at former Burlington dance club Border — now Club Metronome — where Mitchell also frequently spun. Mitchell credits Warner as a mentor and the person responsible for proving that dance music could thrive in Burlington. For his part, Warner says that Mitchell came along at precisely the right time, when clubgoers were finally acknowledging deejays as musicians, rather than people who “just played records.”

“You’re really creating a flow of music,” Warner explains. “And Craig really seemed to have an ear for it. He’s intelligent and creative. And he really understands how to connect with people who might not be as up on things as [he is].”

“I was using music to speak for me,” says Mitchell of those early gigs. “And it still speaks for me.”

But when he needs to, Mitchell can speak for himself, and forcefully — as he did from his pulpit at 135 Pearl on a now-famous night several years after those first residencies. By then a partner at the club, Mitchell addressed an antsy audience that was nervous about the bar becoming too inclusive as it attracted a larger and larger straight clientele. Mitchell found that concern both harmful and absurd.

“Within these walls, on this dance floor, there is no gay, no straight, no white, no black, no man, no woman,” he recalls preaching, quoting from memory. “We are all one people united by rhythm.”

The crowd went wild.

A version of that same speech ended up on a 2006 Kult Records single by Dirty German that became a global phenomenon, and added yet another feather to Mitchell’s cap. But, more importantly, his minisermon embodied the philosophical cornerstone of his entire career, if not his adult life. That desire for a sense of connection and unity manifests itself in everything Mitchell does, whether as a resident deejay at clubs in New York City, Boston and Miami, as a cofounder of hit-making NYC dance-music label Orange Factory, or touring internationally with house legends such as Manny Ward.

Ward now partners with Mitchell on his latest venture, Slanted Black Records, which recently made worldwide waves with a single, “Don’t Be Afraid,” from UK disco-punk sensations Eddie the Gun.

Perhaps most notably, Mitchell’s desire for harmony and inclusion is evident in the vibrant house-music culture that erupted in Burlington. He and Warner helped legitimize the genre in Queen City nightclubs, connecting aspiring deejays with new audiences, and creating not just a scene but a supportive and open community.

“The overriding thing for Craig is that, because of who he is and what he dealt with … he does not want the same things to happen to any other kid,” says Landers. “That’s why his music is so important to him, and why his music’s connection to young people has been so important.”

And it is why Craig Mitchell has been so important to Burlington.

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