Houstonian Tales: Gracie Chavez
One of the best things about being a music journalist is the people I get to meet. I’m so far past getting to meet childhood idols since when you live in a place as diverse as Houston, those who have been making up our city’s music scene are more intriguing, at least to me. Before Free Press Houston was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, Houston had an alternative weekly paper called Public News that was literally my bible and it was an inspiration for how The Best of The Week gets laid out. You wouldn’t know this, but DJ, producer, and co-founder of Houston’s Tropical dance collective Bombón, DJ Gracie Chavez was the last music editor for Public News. She’s also one of the hardest workers in the Houston music scene today, as well as a machine behind the decks. Free Press Houston was thrilled to get a chance to sit down with one of the most intriguing artists in town, who’s been grinding for over fifteen years while propping Houston up with each and every thing she does.
FPH: You were born in Houston, correct? What side of town did you grow up on?
Gracie Chavez: I was actually born in South Texas, but my parents moved back to Houston with me and my sis by the time I was four. I grew up in Northside Houston, in between the Heights and 5th Ward areas.
FPH: Most people know you as a DJ, but you were the last music editor for the long defunct Houston alt-weekly, Public News. How did you get that job and how long were you the music editor?
Chavez: I went to University of Houston for journalism, so one of my first internships and jobs was writing the music listings for Public News, which was an alternative newsweekly comparable to Free Press now. One of my very first interviews was with De La Soul and Jungle Brothers. From that point on, I wrote music features and reviews on everything from underground hip hop to dance music and even Spanish rock for Public News and I also contributed to a few national music magazines for the next couple of years. By 1998, I immersed myself in Houston’s music scene and eventually became the last music editor for the beloved newsweekly.
FPH: You’ve been DJing for 16 years, has it felt like it’s been that long? What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen at a show or event that you’ve DJ’ed?
Chavez: It hasn’t really felt like it’s been that long. DJing started as a hobby for me, so in that time I had a family and a career in advertising. I started taking it more seriously in the last several years.
Song requests are always a tiresome part of being a DJ. So when you’re finally able to laugh at the absurdity of it, you’ve kinda transcended the BS. But there was that one Saturday night when Squincy Jones was DJing while El Roy Boogie (RIP) and I were hanging with him for support. Squincy was notorious for craftily shutting down requests, so Roy and I pulled out the popcorn when a girl approached him for the proverbial DJ request. His reaction, however, was utter horror and we were puzzled. She’d requested Britney’s “Toxic” for her homegirl on the dance floor. Roy then announced, “Shout out to Planned Parenthood!” and dropped the mic.
FPH: The collective Bombón has been going pretty strong since its inception. Can you tell me how you all met and what made you want to start it up?
Chavez: Fellow DJ OG Bobby Trill and I had dabbled in playing select Latin-inspired music in our DJ sets for a while. He and I met at Witness’ Rock Box nights at The Proletariat around 2005 or ‘06. But at the time there weren’t many places to play a solid set of cumbia and music in that same vein in H-town. So when Navó came along in 2010, we solidified Bombón as a DJ crew and began producing our tropical dance party under the same name.
At the time, a “Latin night” like this was unprecedented in Houston. It developed into a night void of pretenses, boundless in sounds, genres, energy, and, more importantly, one that was open to all. Our monthly Bombón parties at Fox Hollow are very inclusive and highly interactive. It attracts a crowd so diverse that only a city like ours could offer something like this. I’d like to think that Bombón pioneered the return of cumbia to Houston, giving way to new music, like our “screwmbia” sound, and musicians and producers that reflect our present experience as Latinos in Texas.
Since our start at Avant Garden, the crew has grown from a group of DJs — myself, Navó and OG Bobby Trill — into a collective of talented individuals which include Principe Q, our hostess La Comadre Mel, and percussionists Ilya Janos y Chapy Luna. Additionally, compadres Jay Tovar, Leckie and Act Badd of Blackout contribute with photography, visuals and production, respectively.
FPH: You and I spoke once about traditional Latin music that your relatives loved, but that you, as a first-generation American, could like but couldn’t relate to like your relatives did. Can you expand on that and explain how music can bring such fond memories without being attached to what you’re hearing?
Chavez: As a youngun, I spent a lot of time listening to my dad’s record collection - cumbia, sonideros and a lot of disco. Once I started school, I began exploring other music genres-hip hop, punk, rock, rap, reggae, dancehall, drum & bass, techno — sounds that really weren’t part of my dad’s Mexican tradition. As any teenager would, you listen to everything but what your parents are into.
So later, being open to all kinds of music became part of my job as a music writer and then eventually a DJ. Soon after, I came full-circle with my Latin roots. I discovered a collection cumbia digital on the Argentine imprint ZZK Records; the accordion and other Latin elements in the music were so familiar, but yet so totally new to me. The South American label opened up tons of opportunities for me to explore new Latin sounds and revisit some classics.
FPH: You appeared along many of your DJ contemporaries in the documentary “This Thing We Do.” Was it surreal to be in a film like that?
Chavez: It wasn’t surreal at all; I was honored more than anything. When producer/director Jason Woods (aka DJ Flash Gordon Parks) approached me to do an interview, I don’t think I fully grasped the importance of his documentary on Houston DJ culture and maybe even my own role in its landscape beyond being a female DJ. I’ve since reflected on the role of a DJ and how we can be instrumental in shaping, and in some cases, creating a culture.
I’m really proud of Flash and his efforts to chronicle this bit of H-town history, and even more pleased to contribute to the project along with my fellow DJs. A few of us H-town DJs have been tapped to record exclusive mixtapes to accompany the re-release of the documentary. So be on the lookout for them this Summer.
FPH: Bombón released a split album with Austin’s Peligrosa, Bombón X Peligrosa last year. What was the idea behind doing a split release and how did y’all meet with them initially?
Chavez: Peligrosa has been a huge influence on Bombón from the start. Founder Orión and the Peligrosa boys have been at it for 8 years in Texas and are supportive of a global tropical movement. I can’t remember how we all met initially, but it was apparent that we’re all like-minded and understood the cultural mission. Since then, collectively, they’ve become our figurative big brother.
After playing shows here and there, two years ago, we finally brought our entire crews together to perform in Austin. That hot summer night was nothing short of explosive. Joining forces with Peligrosa created a kind of super cumbia Voltron. The music, the energy, the excitement was all so palpable! The following week, Orión reached out and proposed we work on a compilation album for his new independent label, Discos Peligrosa.
Up to that point, we had only released a Bombón EP, plus a few loose cumbia remixes, tropical edits and vibrant mixtapes. This was an opportunity for us as a crew to all go into the studio and work on original material. We combined traditional instrumentation produced using accordions, gaitas and Spanish guitar, and mixed them with modern production techniques using vocoders, synths and 808s. We, Bombón and Peligrosa, wanted to connect the dots between the old world and the new. It was a wonderfully creative, fascinating and inspirational experience. A year from that Texas summer night, we officially released Bombón X Peligrosa with shows in Austin, Houston and San Antonio. It’s still available on iTunes, Bandcamp, Spotify and on Pandora.
FPH: I know, that you’ve had to overcome the misogyny of the music industry as a woman, and also the racial divide in being Hispanic; what would you say to someone who tries to hold you back in the music industry?
Chavez: I’d say that I’ve supported and contributed a lot to the music scene for almost 20 years, and it’s no accident that I’m still putting on for my city. That’s why I’m known as “La Mera Mera” around these parts! But, seriously, I’m fortunate that I don’t come across this kind of attitude much anymore. I think having a no-nonsense journalistic background gave me a bit of a backbone when I stepped into the male-dominated music field. By that time, most of my peers in the music community had come to know that I knew my music and was serious about DJing. In fact, I’d say I got a lot of encouragement to continue from those men close to me then.
I’ve also had great opportunities present themselves to create movements and nurture talent, and I haven’t been afraid to take advantage of those chances and make shit happen. I think it’s been this kind of fire that’s speared me on to branch out beyond H-town and my even my comfort zone to collaborate with a variety of people on creative projects.
FPH: You’re a mother, an artist, a music producer and an event producer; how do you do it all and what would you say to someone who says a person can’t have it all?
Chavez: I say it’s not really “how,” but “why” I do it. I’ve got a bigger purpose raising and molding my daughters Jazmin and Cassia to be the best they can be without limits or boundaries. I want them to see that their mom was able to overcome and accomplish as much as she could, express herself freely and musically, and also inspire others, not just women.
And I’d say that it’s near impossible to “have it all.” I certainly do not. But it’s close enough and, y’know, that’s good enough for me.
FPH: What’s the future hold for you and for Bombón? What do you have planned as a follow up to the album and what do you have planned as well?
Chavez: For me, I personally want to continue to grow musically, learn to play a few instruments and become a prolific producer. Still plan to contribute to Girls Rock Camp Houston, and to my Les Femmes nights and A Really Kool Party projects. We’ve got an ARKP x Deep Eddy mixtape out this month for our 2nd anniversary y’all should check out!
For Bombón, my vision is to solidify this Latin-influenced tropical bass movement across Texas, maybe branch out to California since OG Bobby Trill made the jump, and collaborate with new emerging artists. OGT and Principe Q just recorded their debut album for Trippy Cholo with Gio Chamba and Coffee in Austin. It’s soon to be released on Discos Peligrosa. Principe Q of Royal Highness just released their album “Lo Ke Tu Quiera” on La Clinica Records, and we’re hosting their first release party here in Houston at Bombón on July 2.
We also just recorded a track I co-wrote with Fat Tony I’m really, really excited about. We get to hear him flex some Español on this one! Bombón’s “Dame Un Beso” featuring Fat Tony y La Comadre will be released on Discos Peligrosa this August 2016, and you better believe we’re teaming up with Peligrosa for another big Texas release party.
Houston is definitely a better city with artists like Gracie Chavez leading the way. With as many projects as she’s been involved in, coupled with all that she has in the pipeline, it’s hard to figure out when she actually rests. While she gears up for the slew of releases that she has coming out, you can catch her every month at Fox Hollow for the Bombón shows. This Saturday you can catch her alongside the crew of A Really Kool Party, the members of the Blackout crew, and Houston producer Dpat for the A Really Kool Party show at Fox Hollow. The 21 & up event doors at 9 pm and it’s free until 11 pm, or $5 after.