January 21, 2022

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DJ Shannon Blowtorch: Changing the Face of Music in the Twin Cities

In the last decade in Minneapolis, have you danced and caroused in a nightclub? Basked in the glow of dim lights and a grinding crowd? If so, chances are good some of your dancing, carousing, basking, or grinding has been done to music spun by DJ Shannon Blowtorch. If you don’t know the name already, you should. She’s the DJ behind so much Minneapolis partying: dance parties at Icehouse; wildly popular monthly nights at the Uptown VFW; 2000s parties at Honey, with her 20-something fanbase; and dance nights at Lush. But you’ll also find her as an opening act for Dessa and Jill Scott. 

“She’s one of the top DJs working in the Twin Cities, for sure,” notes Dessa, a few days after the soulful hip-hop icon and poet picked Blowtorch to open for her at First Avenue.

Blowtorch has also had nationally historic significance as the DJ who joined GRRRL PRTY and helped transform Lizzo from a supernova of talent with classical flute training into an emcee who knew how to control all the technical details of stage sound. 

“The first time I met Lizzo, one of the first things I said was, ‘Can you handle honesty?’” remembers Blowtorch. “Lizzo was like, ‘Yes, that’s what I need.’ I said, ‘Y’all are so difficult to do sound for. We need to work on some sound skills. Because you would not believe the misogyny a crew of women will deal with in a dude’s world. And there are sound engineers who will use everything you don’t understand to make sure you sound like shit. So you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard.’ And that’s what we did.”

I could list Blowtorch’s other key moments in Minnesota music history all day. Those in attendance at the last Paisley Park dance party saw Blowtorch in the booth with her hero, Pam the Funkstress. She hopped on a tour bus with legendary Minneapolis punk band Dillinger Four. She toured with and helped book legendary Minneapolis trans-positive glam-goth band Venus DeMars & All The Pretty Horses.

When you see Shannon Blowtorch around town—behind her turntables and laptop at the Walker, at Union, at First Avenue—she sometimes looks like the fiercest person who ever was, with brass knuckles tattooed on the back of one hand, a scowl like a knife stab, a chain on her neck, and every bit of the rest of her tattooed as colorfully as a church’s stained glass window depicting an apocalypse. But at other times Shannon Blowtorch is all but completely hidden under her hoodie, secret and shrouded as a statue. She’s even been known to DJ a set under the cover of a full plush unicorn mask. 

She’s turned down chances to be interviewed before, preferring privacy. But I caught her on the right day, and so I meet Blowtorch at the Coven, the co-working space for women, trans, and nonbinary people, to find out about the woman behind the mask.

She shows up looking like a billion bucks: clean new Timberlands with a matching Timberland-gold fedora, sparkling jewelry, tattoos looking sharp in the bright winter sunlight. She’d just put a deposit on her first-ever studio, where she hopes to do more recording and help train a next generation of women and nonbinary DJs. 

Blowtorch, 43, is happily married to Adonia Kyle, the emcee who also performs under the name Vincent the Destroyer. The couple’s days of waking up with GRRRL PRTY members crashed on the couch, the front gate open, the dogs running loose in the neighborhood, are over. Blowtorch seems ready for her next stage, which includes letting the next generation know where she came from—which is, as the broken-heart tattoo on one pretty cheekbone might tell you, a world of pain.

Blowtorch tells me the story slowly. She was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and remembers a partying mom who bounced around with bikers, and a father who wasn’t around. As a kid, Blowtorch played with her grandma’s eight-tracks of Johnny Cash. She bounced uneasily through foster families; spent a spell as a homeless teen; and experienced some of the struggles that came at the time with being queer.

“I knew when I was 5,” she says now. “I didn’t know, too. It was watching MTV and Madonna when I was around 12 that put it all together for me. I was really obsessed with Madonna as a kid. Seeing all the queerness around her and not really understanding it, but also totally understanding it, saved me.”

Blowtorch got her first tattoo of Madonna when she was 15, around the time she started living on the streets but before child welfare authorities placed her in a psychiatric ward. She recalls encounters with practitioners who labeled her sexuality as the problem. 

“They kept trying to feed me Prozac, telling me I was defiant for not wanting to accept that who I was was some kind of mental illness,” she says. “I don’t know how many kids today know what it was like then.” When Blowtorch talks about this part of her life, her voice drops, becoming progressively more whispery. Her detention in this system seemed to her, at the time, permanent and hopeless.

Eventually, as she neared age 18, Blowtorch landed in an experimental independent living foster-care community in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. There, she connected with the arts community, which connected her to, of all things, stripping.

“I became the small-town strip club tattooed lesbian dominatrix,” she explains. “I realized I could be a queer, could be a stripper, and could make a shit ton of money.” Years spent maximizing this insight eventually led Blowtorch to Uptown, where she shared expenses and tours with other strippers working a small-town circuit of the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. At home in Uptown, she’d take drugs, get on stage with bands, and ride tour buses—“until I took all of that I could take.”

Sensing her body and spirit couldn’t handle this life for much longer, Blowtorch changed careers and started at the bottom at First Avenue. She worked the door and collected empty cups for minimum wage, all with an eye to apprenticing herself to First Ave sound legend Conrad Sverkerson. 

Next came the years of toil, teaching herself beat matching by ear, back when she had to hear the beat within songs on CDs to match them up. This intuitive beat matching is a skill that allows her a more fluid response to a live crowd than contemporary DJs learn, she suspects, because simply relying on a modern computer program to fuse two songs can end up sounding exactly how a DJ can’t ever afford to sound: off, awkward, and uncool.

Sophia Eris, a DJ and former member of GRRRL PRTY, offers high praise for Blowtorch. She tells me she’s always thought of Blowtorch mainly as a teacher: “She offered lessons, she let me go in her basement and play with the turntables and mixer—Shannon guided me,” Eris says over  the phone. “When I met her, it was probably 2012 or 2013. We’d be at a show, and people would think we were the girlfriends of an act, not the act. Shannon understood what we were going through—men don’t. It was Blowtorch that got us to where we wanted to be.” 

Today, in addition to DJ’ing for Lizzo, Eris uses her DJ’ing skills in her own projects and plays her own work for crowds who might not otherwise hear it.

Eris is a good example of Blowtorch’s next chapter—advancing a new generation of women, trans, gay, and nonbinary DJs. “Cis men get heard plenty,” says Blowtorch. “But who’s teaching everyone else the skills to get heard?”

And getting heard is the first step to that virtuous loop that includes hearing and understanding. “Getting people in the same room to feel something collectively has a lot to do with the way we bond with one another,” Dessa tells me. “Some folks go to church, some people might run marathons or have book clubs. But I think that being moved by music in the presence of other people who are also moved by it has a lot to do with social cohesion.”

Dancing and carousing are indeed the night’s church and book clubs—and in Minneapolis lately, that night is often illuminated by Blowtorch.