Lessons Learned: Chicago’s Female Spin Doctor- DJ Celeste

The saying “music soothes the savage beast” is a great description music’s impact and how music has become the soundtrack of our lives. We identify with it through our moods, emotions, triumphs, tragedies and also our spirituality. For many of us growing up, our first musical experience wasn’t always a live performance; it was a relative or friend playing music at a family gathering or function. They played the favorite and nostalgic tunes that brought people together to dance or just to reminisce and connect. Those events were our first glimpses into how to move us — whoever was controlling the playlist didn’t know they were also the resident DJ.
This is how it starts for many DJs – they develop the power to connect through the music. Growing up in Chicago, everywhere one went, music was present. The energy level of the Chicago nightlife was alive from supper clubs, to grand ballrooms, to intimate neighborhood lounges — there was always music. Many bands were gradually replaced by the DJ in the 1970’s because it was simply less costly and some lounges didn’t have the room for a full band set. As the trend began to grow, the role of DJs changed because they held the power to change the mood and also to build a loyal following.
Unfortunately, you rarely saw females playing in the DJ booth and if you did, their male adversaries often questioned ‘why?’ In the early 1980’s, the disco era was starting to fade out on the national scene with mainstream radio but in the underground club world, it was slowly transitioning into another form – house music. The emergence of house music was building a new form of DJs — hot mixers. The art of being a DJ wasn’t just about playing a record; it was about having the skills to blend a record into another record while setting the mood of the party and keeping the dance floor packed. Not many females were welcomed into the select club because not many dared to step into the booth and rock the turntables — not until a few ladies came forward.
 

DJ Celeste Alexander
DJ Celeste Alexander

Celeste Alexander is considered one of the first female DJs to gain entry into the “boys’ club” during the earlier phase of hot mixing. Growing up in the Hyde Park neighborhood, she was surrounded by young male friends gradually making a name for themselves on the party scene. Throughout her career, she’s had some trials and triumphs as she’s seen her life become engulfed by the fast pace lifestyle of the music business and her subsequent drug addiction.
She had a chance to share her thoughts as one of the few Black female DJs that influenced the scene in Chicago and how she’s survived — becoming a familiar face back on the DJ scene.
 
How did you start out as a DJ?
 CA: I formally started out with the help of Steve Hurley. He and I went to college together at Loop College which is now Harold Washington College. I had a work-study job in the kitchen and he would come in and order these sandwiches and I thought he was the cutest thing. So, I enrolled in the classes that he was in. Struck up a friendship with him; we would sit and goof around. Steve was always talking about ‘hot mixing.’ I asked him, how come no girls are playing. He said his sister plays and I found an interest.
I started asking guys that I grew up with if they could teach me. I was raised and grew up in Hyde Park on 63rd and Woodlawn. So they taught me a little bit of this and a little bit of that. This led me to being introduced to Andre Hatchett and he became my mentor. Through Andre, I was introduced to Frankie Knuckles.
 
What was so magnetic about becoming a DJ when you could’ve chosen another field?
 CA: Around ’83, the culture took off. The whole DJ culture. Herb Kent used to do a punk out show and Frankie used to do the mixes for that. So, Frankie started me doing mixes with him so I would go to his house to do the mixes. Some guys accepted me and some guys didn’t. It was really cool being a girl and I was accepted on a ‘guy level.’
I’ve played with everyone out of Chicago — DJ Terry Hunter, Lil’ Louis, Wayne Williams, Jesse Sanders and Ron Hardy. I played until about ’94. The Power Plant and Music Box days, there was a lot of drug culture taking place and I got caught up. I became an addict. I dropped off the scene and dealt with my demons. God saw me through that and I just celebrated my 10 year sobriety of being clean.
 
What brought you back from the addiction?
CA: Once I did find my way back and progressed in recovery and in life, I learned how to stay clean and learned how to stay out of my own way. I tried to mend some bridges I knew I had burned. One bridge was definitely with Frankie. It had been my culture, it had been my lifestyle. I needed something else to fill me — the drugs were gone, I’m about to marry and the kids were coming back into my life. I needed something to help to fulfill me. What was the one thing that gave me pleasure outside of the drugs? You see drugs gave me pleasure until they gave me pain. The pain came and the pain stayed. Playing music and being a DJ at parties — that whole culture of music always gave me pleasure. I discussed it with my fiancé at the time because it was how it started.
Currently, DJ Celeste has her own Internet show which has been on nearly eight years called the Celestial Odyssey every Saturday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on cyberjams.com where she premieres various house DJs weekly. A mom and wife, she is in a different place right now enjoying raising her 13 year-old son and living in the South Suburbs of Chicago. As the co-owner of Sophistacato Records, she shares the operational tasks of working with business partners Steve Steward and producer Vick Lavender as they branch into the international market.
Knowing what she knows now, Frankie Knuckles still influences her ability as a DJ today.
Celeste adds, “Frankie always kept it classy; it was all about presentation. He would bring you up; he would bring you down; he would mellow you out. He had such bravado. It was like this full journey. He would take me through emotional stuff. That’s the kind of thing that I’ve always wanted to do. How does that translate and connect to me emotionally and spiritually on the floor – even in the booth? It’s a let-go, a vacation, a getaway. You don’t want to think about it. If you can find someone who does that — that’s magical.

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