4 min

Lytes, camera, action!

A new DJ star is born

LYTE BRITE. There is a sparkling renaissance in Toronto's black queer scene, the result of years of hard work by people like DJ Lytes and a pack of savvy promoters and community-builders. Credit: Paula Wilson

While other Bars on the Church St strip were dead on a stormy Wednesday night in February, the mix at Shag, that former cheesy restaurant turned über trendy lounge bar, was eclectic and electric as party girls on their cell phones were telling their friends that they were at the place to be.

That particular night just happened to be a launch for promoters Kasia and Tam’s Meow Mix, a new lesbian night for all “kats ‘n’ kittens,” and was the first of five gigs in a row that week for 30-year-old DJ Lytes. After seven grueling years spinning all over the continent, Lytes is finally getting her due. The gorgeous pre-deco lounge quickly filled up with stylish girlz and fashionista boys sipping martinis and chillin’ out to her deep house sounds. As patrons were requesting tunes, some media caught wind of the excitement and suddenly all you could see were flashbulbs. Lytes, camera, action! A new DJ star is born.

Meow Mix is part of a new renaissance within the lesbian bar scene as four new lesbian nights were launched over a two week period – and Lytes was in residence at all of them in addition to her long reign on Saturdays at the Manhattan club with DJs/promoters T’n’T and Black Cat.

Suddenly black lesbian DJs and promoters are not only ruling and expanding the lesbian scene but are actually branching out to start gay nights as well. When was the last time you heard of a black lesbian promoter doing a gay men’s night at an upscale bar in Yorkville and attracting A-list DJs like Matt C?

DJ Lytes, aka Tandra, was born in Toronto and raised in both Jamaica and Alberta. She graduated with a degree in physics and math, then schooled as an X-ray technician before settling down to become an audio engineer. She currently works in a reggae studio as well as teaching audio recording at the International Academy Of Design.

As a girl, Tandra says she was always interested in music because her dad had tons of records, two turntables and a mixer. “I use to spin records for my mom when I was 10 years old. I guess you could say that my mom was my first audience and my biggest fan,” says Lytes. Her partner Mahogany, a promoter within the scene, is now her number one fan.

Lytes started out in Toronto playing a gay men’s night at the city’s only lesbian bar The Rose, now Pope Joan. She has gone on to play gigs in Chicago, Detroit, London, UK and at Black Pride in Washington, DC.

She says that spinning for women can be a little difficult as they are really finicky, while “gay men like aggressive mixing with a momentum happening.” Lytes takes pride in her ability to spin in all formats including reggae, hip hop, socca, R&B and house.

Canada’s best-known queer DJ Denise Benson thinks so highly of Lytes that she recently hired her to spin at the upcoming 10th annual International Women’s Day dance called Savour – easily the crown jewel of lesbian events in Toronto.

“I’m thrilled to see and hear someone this talented and fresh play out on the women’s scene, which certainly can use the musical re-energizing,” says Benson.

Lytes is just one of many new talented black women DJs and promoters making a name for themselves within the queer scene and beyond. People like Divinity (now known as JD), Janet and Polly from The Two Divas, Nikki Red and Verlia, as well as Roxanne at Pope Joan, paved the way for the new wave that includes JJ Rock, T’n’T, URWhatUEat, Mahogany and Lytes. The connection with all of the new young women is Black Cat. “Black Cat taught me about feeding off the crowd and always listening to the crowd no matter what,” says Lytes. “He’s a very kind person and a lot of younger guys in the community look up to him and he has never, ever abused that position.”

Black Cat is clearly the most popular black queer DJ this city has ever seen; he has several residencies including four years running at Cellblock (the backroom at Zipperz). Black Cat is credited by many female DJs as someone who has gone out of his way to help nurture new talent within the black queer scene. In response, Black Cat thinks that Lytes is a force to be reckoned. “She keeps me on my toes,” he says.

Lytes credits her old friend T’n’T as her biggest influence. “T’n’T is like my other half as we have played together a lot. We did our first gig together at Pope Joan. We have a way of complementing each other that seems to work really well.” Both women respect Roxanne for her groundbreaking work over the years. “We all love Roxanne,” says T’n’T. “But we wanted more options within the scene, so we all branched out on our own.”

Of veteran DJ/promoters Nikki Red and Verlia, Lytes marvels at their hard work. “They are so involved in the community,” says Lytes, “and without a doubt have become major role models.”

The queer black music and club scene seems to be very supportive of its members as long as egos don’t get too big and promoters and DJs don’t take their audiences for granted. Apparently, that’s what happened recently with the downfall of the Two Divas and DJ Cajjmere when they were let go from the Manhattan nightclub.

“Being a DJ, you can become a pillar in the community,” says Lytes, referring to the high visibility of the job and that music and clubs have always been an integral part of the black and queer communities. Lytes worries that attitudes are changing, that younger kids are treating the scene more like a meat market, taking it for granted. She asks: “Do thug lesbians get the point of all the hard work that has gone into building our scene?”

But Lytes has hope that the younger crowd will recognize where the scene comes from so that it will continue to flourish with new talented women who care about building community.

Nikki Red seems to agree about building community. “We are many voices, musical styles and not just one mass urban black queer culture. DJ Lytes has worked really hard and is passionate about what she does. She may be new to some people but she has also paid her dues. It’s good that people are creating more spaces and choices on their own terms. I hope that the scene continues to grow and that promoters and DJs always remember to give back to the community that supports them.”

* Savour, featuring DJs Denise Benson and Lytes spinning nujazz, old school, R&B and soulful house, celebrates International Women’s Day by raising funds for Women Working With Immigrant Women. The party runs from 9pm to 3am on Sat, Mar 8 at The Mockingbird (580 King St W). Women, trans folk and friends welcome. Tix are $10 advance and $15 at the door (limited sliding scale). For info, call (416) 760-6110 or e-mail