The DJ, music producer, nightlife mogul turned fashion designer took The DJ Cookbook on a historical voyage spanning more than 4 decades. From his love of the British invasion, his first musical forays in Atlanta, becoming a staple DJ in New York City clubs to his latest endeavor as a fashion designer and reality television producer. Larry Tee has been there, done that!
Q: What does Seattle, Washington, taste like to you?
A: Seattle tastes like rhubarb pie and a root beer float, those were the flavors of my childhood that I remember and loved the most.
Q: What was your first musical influence?
A: I loved Herman’s Hermits and the whole British invasion. LT sings: “Herman’s Hermits Henry VIII, I am” I’m Henry the eighth I am Henry the eighth I am, I am…”
Q: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
A: I loved radio! When I first started to hit my teens in Atlanta, I realized that I loved music but I also loved where music and fashion collided because I tend to like the weirdest looking groups too, they were the most exciting to me. I remember early groups like Slade, that had these weird bowl haircuts or Sweet who had a singer that kinda had a weird Hitler mustache and LaBelle, they were space, fantasy. They loved getting dressed up. It was a combination of where music and culture were at. I loved the hippie culture and every new generation that came along, punk, disco, glam, everything the weirder the better.
Q: When you think of Georgia, what flavors or tastes come to mind?
A: Georgia is soul food, I love country cooking, basically meat and three vegetables. I love okra and peach cobbler.
Q: Can you describe your first big party?
A: It was in Atlanta, we basically had to throw our own parties because we were out of the mainstream of what the clubs were doing at the time. We did our parties at a place called TV Dinner, we served food there. This was when Atlanta was still cheap enough that you could rent a little place on the main strip because nobody really wanted to be down in that area anyway. We just put on a family show and I started Djing because none of the music in town represented the variety of music that was coming out like New Wave; New Order, Yazoo and Depeche Mode and I was wild about all of it. We made our parties with our friends, performers like RuPaul, Lady Bunny and Lahoma. Right after that we started the Celebrity Club parties.
Q: Was DJing something that came natural to you?
A: Oh Absolutely! You know, in every party, even before I started Djing I would say: Hey, let me put the music on! I remember when Disco first arrived there was literally one record that people could dance to, KC and the Sunshine Band showed up before all the other Disco bands did and it was literally the only thing you could play at a party. You could play the whole two albums and everybody would dance non-stop and then you’d play anything else and everybody would leave. So people turned to me as the one that knew what people would dance to even before I was aware that there was even a job as a DJ.
Q: Was your family supportive of your career path?
A: I was blessed with the most supportive parents you would ever imagine! I said to them I want to be in a rock band and they said ok, be in a rock band! Their support led me to join the band the Fans which produced The B-52’s first single. Then, when I was coming out as gay, my mom asked me and I said noooo and then I said well, maybe, yes! A mother always knows. They were very supportive, my dad’s a Republican but he wouldn’t be a Republican now because his social views are not so mean like the Republicans but he was a fiscal republican which meant he was financially conservative. He was very supportive, they never really discouraged me from going headlong to whatever I loved doing.
Q: RuPaul, Lahoma, and you drive up to NY from Atlanta in a van, once in NY what did you guys eat to survive back then?
A: We arrived in NYC and started living with Nelson Sullivan in the Meatpacking District. We lived in a 3 story townhouse for $450 each across the street from the Gansevoort Hotel! Once I got to NY that’s when I started digging into international cuisine. I found that the best foods came from ethnic restaurants. I remember I loved this place that was like a weird bastard child of Cuban and Chinese cuisine. I mean, we were addicted, it had the best spicy Cuban Chinese chicken you ever had in your life, oh my gawwd!
Q: What are the perfect ingredients for a Larry Tee track?
A: You know, I do have a real distinct DNA when it comes to creating music, because yes, I love getting people to dance but you know, my favorite dance tracks were the ones that had something to do with culture or some humor winds its way in the track. Meaning, it was never just about beats because some artists especially in Berlin who produce Techno and House music, they are really known more for their beats than they are for their cultural relevance. For example, my track with Rupaul Supermodel (You Better Work) and Amanda Lepore My Pussy, those songs tackled gender. They are real political statements, they both stood the test of time.
Q: You were a major player in NYC’s nightlife, you saw the rise and fall of club culture in the late 80’s and 90’s. Did you see the crash coming? Do you think the debauchery was so out of control that the inevitable had to happen in order for everyone to take a step back and straighten themselves out?
A: I have always been kind of aware that there was a time limit to any sort of night clubbing trend. The days of the mega clubs were pretty fantastic in that so many people got in and it was such a democratic thing and the drugs were so much part of it. I did see that it was unsustainable the sheer amount of drugs but when you are in the middle of it, it’s not like you hear the canary in the coal mine. You’re just in it and once you get caught up in it as in the case of the Limelight, they would do that with the Club Kids, they get the Club Kids all sauced up and hooked on coming there, that basically everyone would come just to see the Club Kids. It wasn’t until the murder of Angel Melendez…if truth be told there were a lot of corpses before Angel. That was just a sensational one. Things happen when they are supposed to happen. I am really happy I saw the extravagant period of New York City nightlife, I don’t regret getting caught up in it because it led me to ultimately getting sober and it was after getting sober that my real life began.
Q: Let’s talk about your sobriety, how has your life changed since you’re sober? Did your nutrition change as well?
A: It’s very before and after, it’s like night and day. As with most people that go into recovery, I got clean with AA and NA. No one taught us how to live life, no one taught us how to do taxes, no one taught us how to do jobs, you know? They really don’t teach people basic stuff like that in high school and they should! Once I washed up on the shore sober with like no job, no career, no nothing, I had to look at things differently. One of the problems once you get sober is that you substitute things like food, sex, relationships and I totally ate like crazy. It was only then that I discovered that you had to eat a certain way to stay healthy, I had no reference to any of that before I got sober.
Q: How did Electroclash begin?
A: I took a course at the Landmark Forum, in class they said to find something that touches and inspires you for a project. At that time nothing was inspiring me musically, it was just Progressive House and Trance. I didn’t find much flavor or artists in it that inspired me, it was just boys producing beats kinda of thing. It was just not that exciting to me. Then when I saw these electro guys in 1999-2000, as I was just getting sober, I realized, oh my god I love these guys! In 2001 I threw my Electroclash Festival and it came 2 weeks after September 11, 2001. So here I was putting up posters, covering the whole town, going to Landmark which was based in the World Trade Center at the time. I did my final course the Sunday before, 9/9/2001, before it came tumbling down. You know, it was only after that that something inside of me said maybe we should move to Brooklyn…My friend Spencer was doing these cool parties for gays and their best friends, so if you were straight and liked gay people and wanted to hear cool music you would go out to these warehouse parties. I remember going out and thinking, wow, this is where all the cool kids are now! Ten years later the New York Times says that I was one of the reasons that made Williamsburg cool again. At the time there were no real clubs out there so I started a party of all things called Berliniamsburg at club Luxx. This became the Electroclash era, then the DFA guys took up after Electroclash, with Hercules and Love Affair, LCD Soundsystem. This was a place where everybody could go and brought Williamsburg into the mainstream awareness.
Q: Why did you decide to leave New York and move to London? What did London taste like to you?
A: London was all about the Pakistani and Indian food. Down by Brick Lane in east London, there was this Pakistani restaurant that had this delicious sweet bread with sesame seeds and little holes in it, it was unbelievable!
After Electroclash, I tried to do more parties that featured more radical acts, more experimental performances like Cabaret in Williamsburg. At the same time I was touring as an international DJ and having my own hits with Amanda Lepore, Afrojack, Princess Superstar, Steve Aoki and Santigold, all while trying to do parties in NY but NY had gotten so expensive. The people that would come every week to a party started just coming less and less because it was just too expensive to really be able to go out and drink and have fun. The real estate prices were jacked up and then you had a $40 cover to see a DJ that you could have seen 5 years earlier for free.
I think NY needed to be a business city because it really wasn’t, it was only because it got desperate and broke that it allowed the kinda clubbing that went on in the 80’s and early 90’s. NY was a broke ass bitch and to be honest the best places when music and culture are really radical and exciting is usually when the culture is a broke ass bitch. When culture gets all Kardashian the fun ends because everybody buys a bottle, you have your own area where you can be and other people are not allowed in your area and people can see you with the cool people in your VIP box and that really wasn’t what I loved about culture.
I knew, even though London was very much like NY at the time, there was still a need and a vibe for that type of clubbing. I knew I could spend the time and find a place and make it happen and exciting. So I started the Super Electric Party Machine parties. You know Janet Jackson once said (in song) “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and NY was just not doing it for me! Seeing my friends sell their asses to live and there were no parties, there was no room for new bands, there was no room for art in NY because it was just so expensive. For me, I tend to follow where the artists go and I just knew they couldn’t afford to stay there and I’d see it happening with my friends who used to love to go out and party they just didn’t have time because they were working 2 jobs just to survive. That was not the environment I needed to be creative, so I left.
Q: Once in London, you blossomed as a fashion designer, how did that come about?
A: When I was DJing in NY I would wear the most ridiculous outfits known to man. I think I was one of the only DJ’s ever of that time that actually asked himself, ok, what am I going wear? Is this outfit gonna get them? Most DJ’s never thought twice about what they wore, that wasn’t their thing. Once I got to London I would hire all the coolest designers so they could bring the art, design and fashion students to my parties because they were the smartest and coolest.
I remember trying to get Charlie Le Mindu who makes clothes entirely out of human hair to DJ in my back room because he was a nut, he’s brilliant! Then the light went off, it was like the elephant in the room, I spent my whole life with the music I loved so much and it was all influenced by fashion. Weirdly my history with dressing up for Disco 2000 as a Club Kid and knowing what all the styles from the Hip Hop generation were. Knowing these style languages gave me an incredible depth of knowledge to pull from for fashion. Then when people like Missy Elliot, Jimmy Fallon and judges on X-Factor started using my clothes, it wasn’t a big shocker for me because my whole career had a real visual element to it.
Q: Where did the name for your fashion label come from? Can you describe how politics and pop culture influence your designs?
A: Tzuji came from the old Yiddish term tzchauj, to make something pretty or more glamorous. I needed a name that had cool letters and had phonetics. I wanted something that you couldn’t google so easily. To use culture, humor, entertainment and music has always been my sense of purpose in life, as a way of putting ideas out in the market place. For example: when the hippies took over music and used the Make Love not War slogan, it changed the way people felt about war, people began to meditate and doing all kinds of cool things and a lot of it came because of The Beatles, they played a very big part in that influence. It came from popular people making positive change cool. When I think about my songs with RuPaul and Amanda Lepore for me it’s just a fun way to have people discuss gender, because gender has not been sitting well with the culture for a long fucking time. There was no variation at all for a really long time, you were either a straight man or a straight woman, or a gay. There was no conversation and I think that having humor always helps you talk about things. It just creates an opening for positive change.
Q: Now you’re in Berlin, how is that going? What does Berlin taste like?
A: Living in Berlin is great because the rent is still cheap, people can do their art and music projects. There is no excuse for you not to be creative in Berlin. I’m in Kreuzberg, for me, one of the best neighborhoods in the world. The food is cheap, you can get 4 avocados for €1 at the Turkish market. For me, Berlin reminds me of late 80’s early 90’s NYC when everything was so vibrant and creative. Berlin is where I dove into vegan food. I love vegan donuts and I dare say that sums up their vegan cuisine. Something just told me; you don’t really need milk and dairy so much. You know, I’m not so young but I’m wise enough to know that diary and meat are not necessarily that healthy or necessary for nutrition.
Q: Becoming vegan has brought you the joy of cooking, do you think about what you’re going to eat and cook in advance now? Do you enjoy going food shopping?
A: Oh my god yes, everyday! This is the first time I feel I’ve become an excellent cook! I’ve learned that if I tender foods just a little bit, not boil, I won’t lose all the nutrients from it. I know how to use kale like a pro! My sweet chutney relish and my mango sticky rice dish are absolute perfection. I can even do a really godly cheese sauce for nachos made out of potatoes, carrots and nutritional yeast that you would just not know it wasn’t from Taco Bell! I really do best when I have a partner and they are also vegan. Luckily, I met somebody who just chased me down and couldn’t live without me. Having a partner that is enthusiastic about my projects and my life made me want to feed them the most amazing vegan food ever! Vegan food is absolutely great, delicious.
Q: It will be 2020 in a matter of days, a new decade will be starting, with that in mind, the LGBTQ community has more visibility than ever, especially in the entertainment industry, gay marriage is now legal in many parts of the world, yet people are being fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation, crimes against the Transgender community are on the rise and there is still no cure for AIDS. What are you thoughts on this?
A: Because of PrEp, AIDS has just plummeted. What is keeping its complete eradication is that it is not a cheap product yet. I’m not so worried about the gay community. Even in America when they try to blast out against the trans community it kinda backfired, you know what I mean? It just opened the door for Pose, a television show that features nothing but trans people. RuPaul’s Drag Queen Race is hugely popular among a female audience, believe it or not. It’s not even a gay audience. It’s women who have made that show incredibly popular and they are dragging their men into it. Even these days a lot of these straight men probably know the difference between Aquaria and Sharon Needles, two drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Queen Race. This is the nature of tv, it’s bringing a normalization of trans culture.
I’m not worried about the gender war, I’m worried about the money war, how money has gone to the top and there is no middle class anymore. It’s either really rich or really poor. That’s what I see being the next war, that last vestige of; hey it’s really great to be a billionaire. We need to kill that, it’s just a shame to be a billionaire. If I could green light another of my many projects it would be a film where all the billionaires are killed one by one by some suspicious force. The moral of the story would be that there really isn’t any need to be a billionaire. When I saw billionaire Leon Cooperman cry about Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax, I remembered thinking, wow this is the future, the idea that you don’t need to be a billionaire to live like a billionaire.
Q: Do you think artists should be political?
A: Not all artists are cut out to be political but I think the memo went out about 2 years ago when Beyonce did her Lemonade video and Coachella performance. Everybody said: What? Beyonce is black? And now it’s filtered down to Taylor Swift doing gay anthems. It’s just that time in culture where things will just get bad enough so we really need to say something or just go away. So the memo went out and said: Hey, we’re just gonna have to be more political here, we need to say something because we either say it or we don’t, it’s now or never! I don’t think it’s never too late. Sometimes people don’t want to hear my views on politics but I think you need a villain to make change happen, or you need a disaster like World War II to create social security.
Q: Are you a registered voter? If you had to associate the Democratic and Republican Parties with a dish what would they be?
A: Yes, I am a registered voter. The Republican Party would be Beef Bourguignon. It’s like a dish that’s a little past its prime and people really don’t love the dish at all. It sounds fancy, it sounds like something you would serve at a church putlock, so they can get away with selling it even though the people do not like it. Democratic dish would be something like a soy casserole that has Brussel sprouts, asparagus and broccoli. It’s super nutritious and tasty enough but it’s going to give you gas. Sometimes it’s just too good for you, meaning it’s too nutritionally sound that it is just too hard to digest but in the long run much easier to eat and enjoyable for our bodies.
Q: What does Larry Tee have planned for 2020 and beyond?
A: After taking a break from music, I’m making a lot of great music again and I’m doing a reality tv show called Fashertainment Inc. 2020 is all about Fashertainment Inc. We are taking fashion from the exclusive runways from Paris and Milan to festivals and to tv because people are much interested in buying content for Netflix and buying fashion in that way than they would be to buy a ball gown. It’s just that time when things are changing, the fashion industry has killed the golden goose, you know? Fashion has worn itself out like heavy metal. The whole show is by Berlin designers who are going to Hollywood to do Los Angeles Fashion Week. Our goal is to build a platform for designers who are making things like unisex clothing, vegan leather, recycled work, sustainable clothing, virtual clothing. It’s a whole new take as to where fashion is going. It’s about creating a platform for designers who design clothing in a new way. For me, this tv show is also a way to encourage people to do something and take chances.
I’m 60 years old and here I am putting my butt in the middle of a reality tv show with a bunch of cute, talented young people that are taking chances. I think more and more that we need that kind of encouragement of let’s go do it. It is also an ABC as to how to manifest the life that you really want to have because out of the most things that I am proud of is that I managed to have the life I always wanted to have. I’m learning German at 60 years old! I can speak German now. Since recovery, I also realized, that I’m really good with helping people get clarity regarding their issues and encourage them to find the chances they need to have an amazing life. So I’m working on a book, the working title is: The Questions, The Guide to Creating Your Kick Ass Fully Expressed Super Future. It’s asking questions that remind people what they’re really passionate about. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’m still trying to figure out how not to have a real job!
Q: Have you succeeded in figuring it out?
A: Absolutely! I’ve succeed because I love the life that I have, I’m living in a city that I love and I hope to be living between Berlin and LA. With the entertainment industry loving my clothes and Berlin winters being too brutal but you know, there’s nothing like a Berlin summer! Everybody’s hanging out naked at lakes in the middle of the woods, come on! That’s like the promise of Woodstock, when I was a kid, I remember seeing the Woodstock album cover and now for me it’s like the hippie movement has come to life and in real time in Berlin and it could be exported to other parts of the world.
Check out the youtube channel 5ninthavenueproject for a glimpse of NYC’s golden nightlife era shot by videographer Nelson Sullivan.