While most gay nightclubs in D.C. were playing the usual Top 40 hits and club bangers, DJs Shea Van Horn and Matt Bailer set out to start a new party for alternative music lovers. They envisioned an event where you could hear RuPaul in the same set as Nine Inch Nails and not even question it.
“We weren’t being critical of what was in D.C., [but] we just recognized that there could have been more to offer for the LGBTQ scene,” Van Horn says.
So, in 2008, Van Horn and Bailer held their first Mixtape show at the now-defunct U Street Ethiopian restaurant Dahlak. The small, quaint venue was not the obvious choice to host a gay dance party, but that was the point. Mixtape was intended to be a monthly event that would show up in unconventional spaces.
“The approach ended up being nontraditional,” Van Horn says. “We liked the idea of not having our party in a ‘gay bar’ or ‘gay space.’ We wanted it to be something different.”
At Mixtape, pop icons such as Britney Spears, Madonna and Whitney Houston are in heavy rotation, but acts like alt-rock trio Gossip and ’80s British synth bands Erasure and The Communards make appearances. Van Horn and Bailer’s bridging of the mainstream and alternative worlds boosted Mixtape’s popularity, and within six years the party began selling out big rooms in town like 9:30 Club.
“The crowd that comes to our party understands that they’re open to hearing anything,” Van Horn says. “Anything goes when it comes to the music you’ll hear at Mixtape.”
And now Mixtape itself is going. After hosting over 100 shows over the past decade, Van Horn and Bailer are saying farewell to the event with one last party Saturday at U Street Music Hall.
“I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot more options when it comes to places to go — the whole scene has changed,” Van Horn says. “I think now it’s time for us to sit back, take a look around and see what we can bring to the scene.”
Van Horn hints that he and Bailer might get together for another project, although his timeline is vague. Two years ago, Van Horn relocated to India from D.C. after his husband accepted a new job there, though he occasionally travels back for Mixtape gigs. He plans to return to the U.S. within the next year or two and continue to make music. Bailer still resides in D.C. and DJs several local dance parties, including DC9’s long-running series Peach Pit. With Mixtape coming to an end, Van Horn hopes the project’s risk-taking approach will have a ripple effect.
“I hope that Mixtape has been a catalyst for change, inspiring others to start their own parties,” he says. “When you feel like the nightlife options aren’t representing you, rather than get upset, just do it yourself.”
U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW; Sat., 10 p.m., $10.
Most memorable Mixtape moments
DJs Shea Van Horn and Matt Bailer are the masterminds behind Mixtape, one of D.C.’s longest-running queer dance parties. Before hosting their last show on Saturday at U Street Music Hall, the two recount their most memorable moments from the past 10 years.
First 9:30 Club show … and a proposal: For many local acts, there’s no greater barometer of success than getting to play 9:30 Club. Van Horn notes that Mixtape’s first show at the venue in 2014 felt like a surreal “rock star” moment. “Also, that’s the night that my husband proposed to me,” he says.
Mixtape’s holiday party at Black Cat: Mixtape brought together different cross-sections of D.C.’s nightlife scene in ways that most dance parties couldn’t. Van Horn remembers one Mixtape holiday party where they spontaneously took a string of lights and passed it around the dance floor. “A few minutes later, the string was snaking throughout the crowd all the way to the entrance,” Van Horn says. “I remember thinking this is why we do this — to create connections through music and dancing. For a moment, everyone in the space was connected to each other.”
Opening for Robyn: As Mixtape grew in popularity, Van Horn and Bailer were invited to open for several of their favorite acts, including Swedish dance superstar Robyn in 2012. “Being asked to open for Robyn at U Street Music Hall on my birthday was super memorable,” Bailer says.