Zain Curtis, 25, is at the forefront of Chicago club culture. His monthly dance party, CULT, attracts all walks of seapunks, goth kids, and Internet celebrities keen to hear his mix of underground and mainstream sounds. He’s also a video maker and the editor of a zine, a curious mashup of a 1996 issue of Tiger Beat and an anime enthusiast’s Tumblr page. —Drew Hunt
I did the film program at Columbia [College Chicago] and I wasn’t that into it—I spent, like, maybe a semester there and I dropped out. I’m happy that I didn’t go back. I wasn’t making any friends there. The whole reason of going to school is networking, but I realized I could do that with partying.
What I actually wanted to do was start DJing. I started to ask around and kind of pushed myself in that direction. I wanted to meet people who go out for a reason, not just go out and drink. It’s like an art form, to go out.
The first time I ever DJed, literally three people showed up. It was at Subterranean. I played, like, the worst pop music. And I got really drunk, because I was so intimidated, even though only three people were there. Over time, I realized what my niche was—the kind of music I wanted to play and the kind of people I wanted to party with. My music isn’t just remixes of stuff everyone knows. I’ll mix a pop track with something really obscure and crazy—something underground that no one else has heard of yet. I like when two things go together that don’t seem like they should go together.
Each time I performed, more people came. They actually wanted to be a part of what was happening. The first CULT was at Subterranean. Five people showed up. Those five people still come, though. One of the guys who was there, Kyle Leuck, who does Yoko Homo, he gave me advice. He used to throw parties in Chicago, like four years ago. He said, “You should definitely brand yourself, and whatever place you’re throwing the party at, make it your own spot. Make it your own thing.” So I kind of took that and ran with it.
Scott Cramer, he manages Berlin, he came to the second CULT party and he really liked the music we were playing and the overall vibe—the visuals. He wanted to be a part of it. Berlin is just so diverse. That part of Lakeview is very strange—there’s an eclectic group of people. We definitely take from the neighborhood, but we give to it, too. We really embrace whatever kind of person you are and however you’re dressed. Whether you’re really dressed up, like really elaborate with a bunch of makeup, or you come in dressed in sandals and sweatpants, everyone’s accepted as long as you’re dancing and having fun.
It’s always been my thing to mix old technology with new trends. It kind of came from my Tumblr dashboard, just seeing everything that people post. Everything kind of runs together. That’s what CULT is like—it seems like a big mess, but it’s functional somehow.
Mainstream culture is just as important as the underground scene. They both take from each other—now more than ever. When I first saw the Rihanna thing, I enjoyed it. I mean, it was a dumbed-down version of what we’ve been doing. But at the same time, it was a really monumental moment for me because that’s been my whole aesthetic: mixing mainstream and underground style. I felt like it was such a mark in Internet culture for an artist like her to do that. I gave myself a tattoo because of it. It’s of a dolphin, and “Rihanna” is written in cursive underneath it.
I’m going to work in this kind of aesthetic for at least a while, but January is going to be CULT’s three-year anniversary, and I think it’s going to be the last one. I recently decided I want to host a bigger party, something a little different. I want to end CULT on a high note, before people are over it and it just kind of dies. CULT, right now, is an easy thing for me to do. But I really want to plan something bigger.
I’m trying to pull myself away from the digital world. I’m working on the second Teen Witch zine right now, and I’m just keeping it in print form. I won’t have any of it on the Internet. The zine is based off a teen magazine, but instead of featuring, like, Demi Lovato and all the Disney stars, it’s underground artists replacing them. I’m doing three issues, and then that’s it.