My Mission: DJ Carnita

Photograph courtesy of Keep Drowning.

Photograph courtesy of Keep Drowning.

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MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people in the Mission. Some of them you may know already; some may be complete strangers to you. Some are famous, some less so. All of them see the Mission in a slightly different way.

And so: signs that springtime is near include men in tiny shorts and bow ties, go-go dancers in cutoff overalls, strands of tinsel glued to mustaches. Also: waiting over two hours to get into El Rio on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to dance your heart out to old soul songs about no-good men and no-good women and the occasional lucky break.

In the year since it started, Hard French has become one of the most popular dance parties in the city — and it’s born and bred in the Mission. DJ Carnita (aka Tom Temprano), co-host and co-inventor of Hard French, met up with Mission Loc@l recently for walnut scones and the endless coffee refills at Mission Pie. Welcome to the most hypercaffeinated edition of MyMission ever. 

Mission Loc@l: Well, first things first. How did you come to move to San Francisco? 

DJ Carnita: I moved here when I was 18. Supposedly to go to college, really just to be gay. I told my parents, “Yeah! I need to move to San Francisco! For … um … school! Yeah!” I studied political science at SF State. Except for a few months when I moved to Portland with a boyfriend, I’ve been here ever since.

ML: How was Portland? 

DC: It didn’t work out for me. I had been working for nonprofits here. I moved there and the only jobs I could find were at a self-service dog washing place and a porn store. Both part-time.

I will say that it was boring enough there that I really got into soul music. I had nothing but time to listen to soul music. It just rained and rained and rained.

So I moved back. And I started going to The Transfer. Every night was a great night: Frisco Disco. Chili Dog. Sucker Punch. It’s the only bar I’ve ever been to in the Castro that didn’t take itself too seriously. It was dark and dingy and had a weird cast of characters — both gay and straight.

And I got into 1964 at the Edinburgh, which is a ’60s soul party. The crowd was amazing. It would get incredibly sweaty. Everyone there would be dressed to the nines. That’s a party that’s still going on.

ML: When did you first get into soul music? 

DC: I grew up listening to soul. The person who first introduced me to The Gossip was my dad. So for me it resonates. It’s the soundtrack for my life. It’s music boiled down to itself. It’s emotional and raw, and you feel it.

ML: So when was the first time you DJ’d?  

DC: I had a boyfriend who had a show on an old pirate radio station called Western Addition Radio — this would have been in 2007. He pushed me to guest on the show. He said, “What should I call you?”

I said, “DJ Tom?”

He said “DJ Carnita.” Our second date had been at Taqueria San Jose, and they have the best carnitas.

My first day in public playing music was guesting at a Riot Grrrl night at the Stud. It was called “All Men are Evil Except for My Girlfriend.” You have never seen a dance floor clear so fast as when I put on the first soul record. The only person left was my friend Allan. He just kept spinning on the dance floor by himself.

It took at least a couple years for me to get the hang of being a DJ. I would DJ soul parties on off nights. I met my co-DJ, Amy, at the Phone Booth. She was the first person I ever met who felt the same way about soul that I did. We started DJ’ing together. Nobody danced. We kept on doing it.

It wasn’t until we were asked to DJ the closing night after a party for Homo a Go Go. It was 2009. It was the first time we were playing to a critical mass of queer people and they were really there to celebrate something. We caught that spark for the first time.

Devon Devine was part of the crew and he witnessed that. A couple of months later, a spot opened up at El Rio and he got that for us.

ML: So are you a DJ full-time now? 

DC: Mostly. I still work as a consultant for nonprofits on social media. I’m also the weekend events manager for El Rio now. But from when I get up in the morning to when I go to bed at night, most of what I do is music-related. If I hadn’t spent so much time working for nonprofits like La Cocina and the Renaissance Center, I don’t think I would have made the leap. Seeing so many small-time entrepreneurs making a go of it gave me the courage to.

ML: Are there any tried and true songs that you play when things aren’t going so well on the dance floor? 

DC: Everybody loves a hit. A lot of soul DJs will never play any hits. But my goal is to get people dancing. The Gloria Jones version of “Tainted Love” — people love that. Amy and I are huge fans of the Ikettes. Some of the best music ever made in the ’60s and ’70s was by Ike and Tina, but the Ikettes are the lost backing band. Songs like “I Can’t Believe What You Say (Because I See What You Do).”

Irma Thomas’ “I Wish Someone Would Care” — I have a tattoo of that 45 [lifts up shirt to reveal that this is, indeed, the case]. We play all 45s. We have DJ’d a few weddings where we can’t get the couple’s special song on 45. But almost all of our gigs are just 45s. No LPs.

 ML: And how did you end up hosting Daytime Realness? It’s kind of a leap from a soul dance party to a drag dance party.

DC: When I took over Sundays at El Rio, I decided I wanted to do a drag party during the day. I got in touch with Heklina and we met for coffee at Brainwash. When I got there, I realized that I had no idea what she looked like when she wasn’t in drag. I picked up a flier for Trannyshack and had to walk around with that.

ML: How did you figure it out? 

DC: The mole. It’s more dramatic when she’s in drag, but the mole is the only thing that’s the same.

ML: Did you ever do drag? 

DC: I did drag in high school. I saw “Hedwig” a week after I came out, and that defined what my identity was. I got snuck into drag bars.

I got to meet John Cameron Mitchell, who directed “Hedwig,” and tell him how much that movie meant to me. We were in Toronto and I handed him a flier for the Hard French party that we were throwing the next night. He said, “Oh, I’ll be back in New York by then.” So I pulled out a flier that I had for the Hard French party that we were doing in Brooklyn. And then I was so surprised — he actually came. Now he DJs Mattachine at El Rio.

ML: What was your drag persona as a teenager? 

DC: Just a hot mess. I had long hair and would wear thrift store dresses.

In the Twinkopolis that is SoCal you have this very extreme notion of beauty. I was so not body-positive as a result.

I would shave my entire body. I don’t think I took my shirt off between the ages of 14 and 21. But when I moved to SF it became apparent that I might have a problem with my own body, but the men of SF did not. Now the joke is that Hard French isn’t a party until I’ve taken my shirt off. I feel that I have an obligation to my repressed younger self to enjoy my body as much as I can.

ML: OK, so clearly you’re a fan of Taqueria San Jose and El Rio. Any other places in the Mission you’d recommend to our readers? 

DC: There’s an amazing tamale cart at Alabama and 21st — I’m really a fan of the chili and cheese tamales. Sweet Chinito is an unassuming grocery store but they have the best sandwich — turkey with bacon and avocado. Hm. The chile relleno super burrito from the Tonayense trucks. The super nachos at El Farolito. Those truly are a castle.

My new favorite hangover spot is a cute cafe at 25th and Treat, great pupusas, and you can sit outside with your sunglasses on. [Editor’s note: Research reveals that the name is El Paraiso, and it is indeed fabulous.] 

For clothes … Stone Pony. Painted Bird. Room 4. For music, Explorist International, which is owned by the guy who’s the soul DJ for the Elbo Room. Bernal Hill, which I run up every morning. I have a playlist of all Whitney Houston dance mixes that I listen to when I’m running up the stairs.

I like to take people down 24th Street when they come to visit me. I used to live above Tortas Las Picudos, and I feel like 24th is the perfect mix of small businesses.

ML: You mentioned that you’ve also done some political organizing. 

DC: I do a lot of work around nightclub advocacy. Nightclubs are neighbors, too. Our goal is not to have people pissing on your steps.

Scott Wiener just released a study on the economic benefit of nightlife. But the contributions aren’t just economic. If you’re queer, you probably grew up in an area where you’re not accepted in churches and you formed your identity in the bar. Bars are where the queer community organizes. The Eagle? Over a million and a half dollars were raised for AIDS advocacy there. Juanita More raises $40,000 a year with her Pride party. Hard French raises money for a different charity each time — this time it’s a public middle school’s art supply program. It was in the bars that Lyon-Martin was saved. Folks need to remember that.

I think that John Avalos’ mayoral campaign really galvanized a base. Politicians realized that queers and hipsters are a powerful voting bloc.

ML: OK. You said it. What is a hipster? 

DC: [pauses] I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

ML: Are we hipsters? 

DC: [another pause] Yes.

But that’s OK. A lot more could be done by the people who move into this neighborhood to integrate. But I know so many hip queer ER nurses and hip elementary school teachers. Just because you look a certain way does not mean that you aren’t contributing to your community.

ML: Will you ever get tired of soul? 

DC: My two passions are music and activism. I helped organize the queer community for John Avalos, and I realized that the ability to do that was because I had already been doing it with Hard French. I will never get tired of soul.

Hard French is at El Rio the first Saturday of every month, from 2 to 8 p.m. Daytime Realness is at El Rio on the third Sunday of every month, from 3 to 8 p.m. Both run from March through November. 

One Comment

  1. RollingJ415

    I had no idea that Brian Wilson is also a DJ. I was impressed enough that he was a good pitcher, then found out he was a Beach Boy. Now this.

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