Alice Longyu Gao on Why Her Whole Life is a Performance Art Piece
Alice Longyu Gao is no stranger to the NYC hustle—as a classical musician turned DJ (with a penchant for hip hop and techno, no less), she understands fully the importance of knowing one’s self, to the core. It follows, then, that her vision for her life is overarching, and artistic: as far as Alice is concerned, her entire life is a performance art piece, with not one element omitted. It’s this attitude of creative resilience and inclusion that makes Alice key Milk fam, and not just digitally; she also DJ-ed our very first Fashion Week rager on Tuesday night at the Sanatorium.
With one dope AF night under our belt (and presumably, many more to follow) we felt it only appropriate to sit down with the artist herself and get the gist: on DJ-ing for A$AP Mob, an Ellen Degeneres obsession, and being, in her own words, “Harajuku as fuck.” Peep the full interview below, and check the slideshow for our exclusive photos of Alice in her element.
I would love to start with how you got into DJ-ing. What’s your approach with each party you work?
Well I played piano since I was four and then sang sopranos since I was nine. I was born in China so I was actually gonna go to one of the top music conservatories in Shanghai. They have like the ranking test in order to get in, and I was in fifth place, but they only take four students per year.
My dad was like, “This is your destiny,” because I had been studying music my whole life, you know? But then I failed, so I came to the United States and majored in philosophy and communications at Boston University instead. I met Chelsea Leyland, who’s a DJ, and you know, I followed her all over the place and I just observed how she DJ-ed you know. When I moved to New York, I realized how hard it is to survive here because everything is so expensive and everyone is so talented and creative. It’s like, you’re an editor but probably also a filmmaker at the same time, you know? So in order to pay my rent, I started DJ-ing at clubs and I started by just copying Chelsea. I copied her style—it’s quite fashion-y and pop and what I realized is that I like more techno and hip-hop.
Cool, that’s very Milk. Do you feel like you have experienced a lot of sexism in the DJ world, as a woman?
Yeah, well at one point I was buying equipment at the music specialty store, and when I was paying for everything, the cashier was making fun of me because I told him I had a gig tonight, and he was like, “Oh, what type of music do you play, house music?” So he assumed I would only play at hotel lounges, like background music for all the rich and bougie white people, you know what I mean? So I was said, “No, I play hip hop and DJ for A$AP Mob—fuck you.”
And what did he say?
Well he was like, “Woah, you DJ for A$AP?” I know what track to drop in order to get people dancing—but DJing is more about culture and stuff, so I didn’t know what were the popular tracks in New York or America in the ’80s or ’90s. So I’m learning it; it’s a learning experience and even though music has always been with me since I was four, DJing is new. It’s really hard, you know? And then the sexism is also about people tending to think of girl DJs as if we are really tight and flashy. It’s like when you’re a girl DJ, if your client books you, it’s not just for your music—they expecting something else, you know? They’re expecting you for something else, so I just dress as I usually do and I won’t intentionally wear anything really sexy or tight or really little. I cover wherever I want and I don’t cover wherever I don’t want.
I feel like you probably have like a good fresh take on American music because you don’t know the old stuff. A fresh set of eyes is sometimes the best thing for music.
Yeah, but it can be challenging at the same time.
Definitely. Can you talk a little about what else you are working on creatively?
Yeah. You know, I always say my entire life is a performance art project because I still don’t call myself a DJ. So basically my performance art project is based on my life and the parts of this project go as follows: the first one is DJing and the second one is my talk show. The talk show is actually my main priority. I had a talk show called “Tea With Alice” at Paper Magazine and it was quite experimental, because Paper‘s video platform was that way when I joined and I said, “Can I do something cute?” to kick off the relaunch. I always wanted to have my talk show because of Ellen Degeneres and The Ellen Show—she’s my idol, and I always wanted to be a foreign version of Ellen Degeneres and I know America is an open country so I figured as long as I worked hard I would be able to make it. Another thing I do is produce events because you know, my performance arts background has allowed me to know how to design installations for the venues and I have an understanding of how customers usually think of fashion and the brand’s core values.
Dope, that’s amazing. I would also love for you to describe your personal style and just talk more about how your life is a performance art piece—can you expand on that idea?
So basically I’m Harajuku as fuck! But actually I’m not, because I am who I am and it’s because I’m not trying to be different—it’s just that my understanding of the physical being and physical look of humans is different from other people. My entire life is a performance art piece because when I am working on the street, I am doing a performance art piece because I am trying to express an alternative view on how you could dress up; how you could behave; how you could react to other people’s reactions. Human communication is essentially the exchange of different human energies, if that makes sense. For example, this morning I had a fight with my dad; he was like, “Why do you need to dress up everyday? I understand you’re crazy and like to put on all different types of makeup, and put on clothes that I don’t like, and I understand that if you’re working or going to an event—but why are you dressing up today? You don’t really have anything that asks of you to dress up this way. ” But I told him it’s because I have this mission from God, because think about it: why would I want to have great hair, why would I want to do my makeup like this, why would I feel fashion like that—those things are rooted in my characteristics and God gave me my characteristics so this is my mission to do something different and alternative, and if I don’t respond to the character that God gave me, I am wasting my time and I am wasting my mission.
Totally, because you have to be authentic to what you feel your calling is. Do you feel like your persona as a DJ and in your personal life are related at all, or completely different?
They’re not actually. I’m a really spiritual person because I was majoring in philosophy and did my religious studies with Harvard University and, you know, your career is part of your lifestyle. So that means I don’t put on makeup at 9:30 in the morning but I would have to put on makeup at you know, 9:30 PM and work until like 2 AM and then get home and feel really exhausted. So, you know, DJing is influencing my original lifestyle.
I would also love to hear what you’re currently working on or what projects you have in the pipeline that you can share?
Yeah, so two things: the first thing is that I’m producing a series of fitness classes featuring different tunes where I’ll DJ. My second project is based on my talk show. So basically I’m producing a series of culture and fashion panels because I want to take our generation off screen because people are so obsessed with social media. So I’m working on a series of talks—that’s my second main project and then I also want to make more mixtapes. It’s like sometimes I play cool techno or cool Japanese hip hop music and people don’t respond to it, even if I feel like, “this is so dance-y, why are you guys all just standing there?” you know what I mean? So it’s really challenging for me to DJ for American audiences but you can always play some Drake or Rihanna and people love it.
That’s exciting! You definitely always have a lot going on.
Yeah, I can’t stop. Honestly I have so many projects lined up; DJing, the talk show, event production, and writing…I mean, I’m able to balance them, it’s just that New York really speeds you up.
Yeah, I always feel like if I’m not doing something 24/7 I’m somehow falling behind.
Yeah, totally! Especially with social media; it drives you crazy.
Especially here, I think sometimes you have to work a lot harder to prove yourself.
Definitely. But as long as you have a good head on your shoulders you will get there I think.
Images courtesy of Voda Gong; Production Assistant Danni Xie; Hair by Sam at Hair Lounge NYC; Stylist Alice Longyu Gao; special thanks to Planet X New York, Lancôme Cosmetics
Stay tuned to Milk for more heart-to-hearts with dope AF artists we love.