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UNIIQU3: Jersey club's singular sensation

The raucous rhythms of Jersey club have been everywhere lately, and UNIIQU3, aka the Jersey Club Queen, is one of the main reasons why. Bruce Tantum catches up with the DJ, producer, and all-around force of nature, born Cherise Gary, to talk about her love of the music, her ascension to the throne, and her dreams for the future

The voice on the other end of the phone is murmuring gentle orders: “Black, please. Middle strip rainbow. Yeah, like that.” A few seconds pass. “It’s gonna be cute.” Cherise Gary, better known as UNIIQU3, is sitting in a Newark salon, having her hair prepped for her DJ Mag photo shoot later that night. “I used to wear a lot of wigs,’ she confides, “but now I like to wear a lot of braids. It's like art, you know what I mean? Hair is art.”

Gary should know; she’s an artist herself. Her medium is Jersey club, that boisterous and addictive style that traveled up the I-95 corridor from Baltimore to Newark around the turn of the millennium. The sound was transmogrified by a cadre of enterprising DJs and producers from its raw beginnings into a crisp form that, in its early days, went by the name of Brick City club. (Newark’s Brick City nickname comes courtesy of the building material used in the area’s housing projects.)

At first largely endemic to North Jersey, the sound, generally hovering around a brisk 135bpm or more, has in recent years been infiltrating the mainstream. It’s been all over TikTok, and big names ranging from Missy Elliott, Ciara, and Lil Jon to Diplo, Skrillex, and Cashmere Cat have dipped their toes into the Jersey club waters. Even the Public Broadcasting Service, of all outlets, has gotten the message; earlier this year, the network produced a documentary titled Why is Jersey Club Music Everywhere Right Now?

The answer to that question, in no small part, is UNIIQU3. She’s the Jersey Club Queen — a self-proclaimed title, perhaps, though one that’s largely accepted by the scene, with few pretenders stepping forward. Her love for the music, and her skill at making it, was evident on her first official release, the ‘Phase 3 EP,’ released in 2018 on Nina Las Vegas’s NLV Records. It’s there on her recent ‘Bitches Is Outside Vol. 1’ on 135 Worldwide. It’s even more obvious on her about-to-drop ‘Heartbeats EP,’ with the full release coming out via London label Local Action on October 6th; the first track, ‘Microdosing,’ is out now, while single number two, ‘Unavailable,’ hits the shops later this month. And then there’s her DJ sets, full-throttle affairs that tend to feature some of the most mind-blowing dance-battle moves you’ll ever hope to see, especially when she’s spinning on her home turf.

“I think Jersey club’s appeal is a lot more than just the music,” Gary says, explaining the style’s ascendance. “Yeah, the music is something fun that captures people. It’s like the first sensation, like, ‘Oooh, I like that color,’ or ‘Oooh, that smells good.’ It’s what draws you in. But when you see the dancing and the energy, it’s like, ‘Damn, those people are having so much fun. They look so cool. I wanna feel that!’ That’s what gets people hooked. People want to get involved in the culture.”

But as she says, it’s the music itself that pulls you in. It’s nearly impossible not to have been exposed to the sound in recent years, but just in case, here’s Gary’s definition: “There are a lot of elements, like the vocal chops — that’s our signature sound —the bpm, the cleverness of the lyrics and how they interact with the dancers. There’s a lot of call and response, like in hip-hop. Like, the MC — me! — will go, ‘two steps to the left,’ and the dancers take two steps to the left.”


Samples play a huge role — the bed-squeak sound from Trillville’s ‘Some Cut,’ for instance, features in the standard Jersey club sound kit. (Gary’s got her own sound kit,  ‘UNIIQU33 Clubhead Kit Vol 1.’) “And the drum pattern is essential,” she adds, referring to the music’s big kick-drum triplets, tightened and intensified from the beat’s Baltimore origins. Those are the music’s nuts and bolts, but in that PBS doc, she describes Jersey club a bit more poetically. “It’s your morning coffee, it’s your afternoon Red Bull, it’s your late-night espresso shot,” she says, before adding the core essence of what Jersey club really is, at its core: “It’s rambunctious, in-your-face party music.”

 

Brick House

Newark has always had a thing for club music, dating back to before many of Jersey club’s current practitioners were born. The town and its environs were the crucible of the Jersey strain of house music, the raw yet soulful sub genre birthed at Zanzibar, the Newark club where Tony Humphries served as the main resident in the ’80s and early ’90s. Gary is fully aware of that history; she sees it every day.

“I live right by where Zanzibar was, by Broad Street Station,” she says. “I always look out the window of my apartment and think, ‘ohhh, I wish I had got to experience all that.’ I love talking to older house heads about all that history.”

Three decades later, as the city’s club music history continues to be written, UNIIQU3 plays a large role — but if circumstances had been just a bit different, she may have been expressing herself much differently. “My mom had me in piano lessons,” Gary says, “and I took dance class at Newark Symphony Hall. Ballet, tap, jazz, everything. We used to have a live pianist at ballet classes, and I used to think that was big — it was the most ballet you could get! I was in concert band, too. I was always a musical kid, a performing-arts brat for real.” She nearly became a Broadway baby. “My parents used to take me to a lot of Broadway auditions when I was around seven, for things like The Lion King — just mad random shows.”

Even at that early age, in the late ’90s, another sound was beginning to catch Gary’s ear. By that time, Jersey club was already firmly established within Newark, with collectives like the Brick Bandits and foundational figures like DJ Tameil and Tim Dolla helping to codify and popularize the genre within northeast New Jersey.

“I had been hearing Jersey club before I even knew it,” she says, “At that age, I don’t think I ever put the name to the sound. I think the first time I really found Brick City club was when I would be going to Newark Symphony Hall, and I would hear club music coming out of the jewelry stores and sneaker stores downtown. 

“There were booths set up where you could buy CDs,” she continues, “and one day I bought one. After dance class, we all used to hang out and vibe anyway, so I put on this CD after all the classical stuff, and they were like, ‘Oh, you don’t know how to dance to this!’ That’s when I realized you could put a dance to this music, and that would be for the club. That’s exactly when I got hip to club music. My mom hated it, of course All the songs were so X-rated!”

Within a few years, she was fully immersed in the sound, joining a series of street teams, collectives of dancers, party organizers, and DJs that were integral to Jersey club’s evolution. “First I was a member of [Jersey club vet] Lil Man’s team,” she says. “He was a mentor to me, someone who really showed me the ropes. Then I jumped to the Bandits for a short duration, and then I went off on my own. I kind of bounced around, which is kind of looked down upon by some people,” she laughs. “I needed to spread my wings. I’m like a butterfly!”

All that flitting had its benefits. “I learned so much,” Gary says, “like how to be a little entrepreneur, how you could make something out of your music, and how to find the people who enjoy it.” It also gave her connections throughout the community. “People were just like, ‘Hey, you got a good voice. Can you make me a DJ drop?’” Soon, she was providing vocals for other producers’ tracks. “But after I started doing that, that’s when I realized I wanted to make my own tracks, because everybody else was taking too long. I was impatient.”

“When I started to DJ all around the world, it would just be a lot of white guys, but now, I definitely have more collectives of color booking me, and more women booking me. I feel like now it’s a natural thing”

At that stage, Jersey club production was a male-dominated field, and there was a dearth of hometown role models. Instead, she looked south for inspiration, specifically to the late Baltimore DJ K-Swift, who had tragically passed away in 2008 due to a horrendous accident at a backyard pool party. “K-Swift was one of the first women playing club music for real, and making something of herself,” Gary explains. “She was the first person who made me realize that you could do this. She was my entry.” 

Gary got to work on a semi-busted laptop. (“I learned Ableton pretty quick, ahead of a lot of my Jersey peers,” she says.) Some of her early production work can be heard on 2014’s ‘The New Klassiks’ mixtape — considerably rawer than her current sound, but already her production chops and ear for arrangement were readily apparent.

Gary was still working a side hustle — specifically a liquor-store job — but her career was already beginning to percolate. She had been playing outside of the Jersey club circuit, for Venus X at her GHE20G0TH1K goth-rave affairs, and for ballroom savant MikeQ’s legendary parties at Newark venue The Globe, among others. “They really trusted me at The Globe,” Gary recalls. “They trusted me to provide a safe space with my club heads, whoever they may be. I had the gangsters and the gays and the girls, all together in unison.” But 2014 was also the year that she began to go international, thanks to Nina Las Vegas inviting her to Australia for the 2014 NLV Presents tour.

Goodbye, liquor store. “When I was booked for Australia, and I knew they weren’t going to give me the two weeks off,” Gary says, “I just left. I had to block everyone at the store on Instagram — they were all texting me, going, ‘Are you okay?’ But I had to lay low, because I didn’t want them to find out. And when I came back, I didn’t even try getting the job again. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna make this work.’”

 
It was a couple of years later, in 2016, when her trajectory began to really take off. There were the UNIIQU3-helmed #Action135 parties in Manhattan’s Webster Hall, which introduced her to a new clubland audience in NYC; there was her debut Boiler Room set, a Discwoman session that also featured SHYBOI, Juliana Huxtable, and BEARCAT; there was a date on the decks at Coachella; there were even more international gigs. “And I didn’t even have a manager yet,” Gary says. “There was a lot going on that year. Somehow, it was also my brokest year ever!”

Destitute or not, Gary kept at it, and the next four years were a whirlwind, with a packed schedule of gigs and, starting with Phase 3, a steady stream of earworm tunes, many of them exploring various corners of the Jersey club template. There’s the candy-colored froth of ‘Bubblegum,’ for instance, and the aggressive drive of ‘Outside Wit It (Freestyle),’ and the skewed minimalism of ‘Girls Off The Chain,’ a 2018 female-empowerment anthem (sort of) made in collaboration with Baltimore’s TT The Artist. “Right now, TT is doing the damn thing,” Gary says. “That’s my sister. Together, we make up the club queens — she’s from Baltimore, I’m from Jersey, but we’re both club queens in our own right.”

Songwriting comes intuitively to Gary. “It usually flows out of me,” she says, citing the new ‘Microdosing,’ a suitably trippy cut heavy on the vocal stutters and drenched in dubby reverb, as an example. “I was thinking, ‘man, people are out here microdosing off your love, taking little bits and pieces. But eff that!’ And then I was like, ‘you know, that could be a song!’ It’s a song about unreciprocated love and how addictive someone’s energy can be, like a drug. People can suck you dry because they like your vibes, but it’s okay to practice boundaries.” In the past, Gary’s been an advocate for women, particularly Black women, as well as for the LGBTQ community, both within Jersey club and in the greater club music environment.

“Before, that was definitely my mission,” she says. “When I started to DJ all around the world, it would just be a lot of white guys, but now, I definitely have more collectives of color booking me, and more women booking me. I feel like now it’s a natural thing, and I don’t have to try as hard to do it. It feels like the visibility I was looking for is there now, at least a little. And that feels good.”

Home Improvement

In March of last year, there wasn’t much for Gary to advocate for — or much of anything else to do either, for obvious reasons. The exponential growth of her career was put on hold; no parties, no dancing, no anything. As it happens, she was about to embark on a tour of China. “My agent was out there, and he said, ‘Man, it’s not looking so good.’” Gary says. “‘I think we should cancel.’ I was in Australia at the time, and had to quickly fly back to Jersey before they weren’t even going to let me back in the country.”

Frustration set in, as it did for many. “I felt like I lost everything,” Gary admits. “No outlet, no income... I had to cancel tours. I had to rethink my whole thing.” But it gave her an opportunity to reassess. “When you are DJing all the time, it’s kind of a distraction — like a cool way to cop out and not deal with certain things. I could just leave Jersey and go to Europe and forget about stuff. But when we got stuck at home, I finally had to deal with a lot of personal and external feelings and situations. I got to really just sit with myself. And that felt good, even though it was uncomfortable.”

That period of self-reflection apparently paid off, and Gary was quickly at work filling the time afforded her by the lack of IRL gigs. “At the end of the day, I’m still creative,” she says, “and no matter what I’m going through, being creative is therapeutic to me. Or drives me crazy. At times it did both! But I needed to keep busy, because it was like survival mode, too. I didn’t know what else to do.” And Gary did plenty. “I just kind of wanted to tap in with myself and see what else I was capable of,” she says. There was merch to be worked on, and there was music to be made, and there were tracks to be loaded up to Bandcamp. “I got to make so many EPs and try out so many new styles, and fuse different genres, and support the next generation with their dance battles and DJing, and link up with other producers who I hadn’t linked up with,” she says. “And I got a Twitch partnership, and I taught myself how to live stream, how to green screen and all that jazz.”

Her Twitch channel includes plenty of DJ sets, of course, but also boasts music-production videos. “I was literally making all my EPs on Twitch, People got to see my process, real open, close and personal.” (Since before the pandemic, she’s also been helming a program called BeUNIIQU3, “a creative collective that educates women, POC, and LGBTQ creatives on the basic music industry knowledge and how to obtain financial success as an independent artist.”) And on top of all that, she’s recently inaugurated two radio shows, Club Chronicles on NTS Radio and, starting this past July, Club Queen Radio on Sirius XM.

“Being home was a really dope experience, in a way,” Gary admits. “I got to see my impact and think more about what I could do, instead of just doing mad stuff. I’d really sit down and think about what I’d be doing two or three years from now, other than another EP or album, you know? I had time to look at myself from the outside and be like, ‘yo, yeah, UNIIQU3 is cool as shit.’ Like, I’d want to party with her.”

And in case you’re wondering, one of the ways Gary likes to party is by getting high and watching musicals. “I grew up on Gene Kelly in An American In Paris, and I grew up on Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady.” She’s still a performing-arts kid at heart.

Hustle & Flow

The morning of her DJ Mag interview, Gary’s Instagram account featured a story that included the following text: “I’m super-busy right now, doing so many things at once. I’m losing my head... but in a good way, you know? It’s great to be busy with things that you’re excited about.”

The UNIIQU3 social-media presence alone would be a full-time gig for most people, but one of the things that Gary is currently most excited about is her recently-revived PBNJ, a traveling party that celebrates the connections between the club culture of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Jersey. The throwdown had its genesis in 2019, with Gary working with Baltimore’s Bmore Than Dance collective. “They do a lot of work with the youth — a lot of dance tournaments, and a lot of community work,” she says. “I teamed up with them, because I felt like we aligned. At the same time, my long-term goal with this was to really integrate each city together, to be conducive with each other. We never really see what can happen if we’re together, so I felt like it was time to do that. And it actually worked! Now there’s dance battles everywhere, like Philly versus Jersey battles.”

Between PBNJ, her productions, the radio shows, and her DJing schedule — international travel is looming again, with a slot at London’s Body Movements Festival lined up in early October — Gary’s schedule is once again rammed. How does she manage her time? “I don't know — I need help!” she says with a laugh. “Just right now, I’m doing NFTs for a new website and I’m producing remixes for other people. I just put out ‘Bitches Is Outside Vol. 1,’ and now ‘Heartbeats’ is going to be out and about in the world.” 

And that’s just scratching the surface. “I’m doing music videos,” Gary continues, “and when I do videos, I usually have to source everyone myself. I’m looking for the videographer. I’m booking my hairstylist, my makeup artists, I’m practicing with the dancers that I hired, I’m hiring the stylist and giving them inspiration on what I want to look like, or what we’re trying to capture here, and I’m creating the shot list and the mood-board. So yeah, I really am ready for more help.”

But before that help arrives, there’s a new product to promote. ‘Heartbeats,’ boasting collaborations with fellow club artists Dai Burger, R3LL, Sjayy, and Deucez, is, perhaps, the best UNIIQU3 release yet. It’s a rich and confident collection of tracks, full of musical and verbal inventiveness, not to mention a surplus of swagger. “It sonically evolves from everything else I’ve ever put out,” Gary says. “It’s Jersey club, but borderline pop Jersey club. Some of the songs don’t even make you feel like you’re listening to club music.”

According to Gary, it’s also her most intimate release thus far. “My fans know so much about my story in the club culture,” she says, “but ‘Heartbeats’ will let my fans get to know me personally. The project dives into topics of self-love, heartbreak, intimacy, and lust — it’s truly a compilation of beats made from the heart. It’s raw and experiential; I’m evolving into a new phase.”

 

“I want to prove to the little girl that used to try out for the theater and used to take the dance classes at Newark Symphony Hall, that I can do this”

After our interview, later that evening, in a studio in an industrial area of Astoria, Queens, Gary is being prepped for her photo shoot. A makeup artist works on her face, a stylist readies the outfits, and a pair of friends — Brian SoRandom Drama and Ahmad Cherry, both notable dancers on the Jersey club scene — are there for support. Considering the hubbub surrounding her, here in the studio and in her life, she seems remarkably chill.

But success can bring stresses. Some artists who’ve ascended as fast as UNIIQU3 have spoken about the uncertainties that acclaim can bring, and Gary shares some of those uncertainties.

“This is all still so new for us,” she says, speaking for herself and for the entire genre. “No one involved with Jersey club ever thought that this shit would blow up like this. This is just what we grew up with! I mean, when you’re a little kid, you’d love to have something like this happen: ‘Oh, I wanna be on TV,’ or ‘I wanna be a star.’ But now that it’s happening... I didn’t know how crazy it was gonna get.”

Some of that insanity stems from her environment. “Newark isn’t always the friendliest place,” she admits. “I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve been in danger. Like, I had a gun held to my face, right before I went to Coachella. I realized I had to make the decision that I just have to kind of move different, like, ‘Yo, if I want success, I have to live a certain way.’ So there were some personal decisions that had to be made, to keep myself out of trouble and to keep myself focused.”

There are other stress factors as well, which only increase as the sound, and her role in it, become ever more known. “There’s a lot of responsibility on me,” she says. “A lot of people look up to me, a lot of people count on me for inspiration and advice, and I want to be that person that can give it, because I didn’t have anybody like that." 

She’s doing her best to live up to the duties that have come her way, with just a touch of reluctance. “I mean, I’m not trying to be a role mode — though I feel like I make a good role model. That’s just me, doing what I do,” she says. “I feel like I shed a lot of positive light on Newark, and also I’m one of the first ladies to really represent. If I’m going to get the spotlight shining on me, why not step up and live up to my full expectations? Too many people want to play short nowadays, but no, I’m not doing that shit.”

What Gary does, at its core, is keep working in order to keep growing. She wants to up her studio skills even further, including producing for other people. “I want to be the kind of person,” she says, “who people will ask, ‘You got a club beat?’ And I can answer, ‘I got a hit right here.’” But she doesn’t rule out moving beyond Jersey club, at least to some extent, perhaps by someday making some straight-up R&B. “I do want to take things mainstream. I love club music to death and always will, but since I’ve been able to introduce mainstream elements into club, I definitely want to show that I can go further.”

Another dream is to helm something akin to a club version of Soul Train. “You know the New Dance Show from Detroit?” she asks, referring to the Motor City’s techno and rap dance show that ran from the late ’80s through the early ’90s. “Those are so fun to watch. I even watch those when I produce sometimes. I would love something like that for Jersey — or even branch it out beyond Jersey, to all genres. One week we’d do Afro club, and the next week we’d do EDM, and the next week another vibe. My curation is gonna be crazy.”

Whatever the case, she’ll probably be doing it from New Jersey. “I might want to spread my wings someday,” she confides. “I would love to move to London for a few years, or move to New Zealand for a few years. But I’m Newark through and through. I want to have a club there, and a community center, and a women-run studio... I want to bring to Newark the kinds of things that I’ve seen all these other places I’m going. I know I have the potential — and the talent, hello! — to make that happen.” 

As Gary travels along her path, she’s building on her determination and self-assurance. “I want to prove to my little self, the girl that used to try out for the theater and used to take the dance classes at Newark Symphony Hall, that I can do this,” she says, as the makeup artist finishes up on the eyes and moves her brush toward the cheekbones. “I want to feel more confident in what I’m doing, like, ‘Hey, whatever you happen to do next, just know that you’re killing it.’ Sometimes it’s hard to feel that way. It’s hard to be your own blueprint — and now people are looking to me for the blueprint, and I’m still here writing it.”

With that, Gary, in full UNIIQU3 regalia, steps in front of the camera, working it like the star she is.

 

Live Gig Love

Two nights later, Gary is playing one of her first indoor club sets since the pandemic began. It’s at Nowadays, a small club with a big, beautiful soundsystem that sits along the Queens-Brooklyn border in Ridgewood. The room is packed — thankfully, the club had adopted a vaccine-only policy weeks before the city made that approach mandatory.

It’s one AM, and the opening DJ, Sterling Juan Diaz, is finishing his set with a 150bpm stormer, Miss Djax & Human Resource’s ‘Respect.’ It’s as high-energy as they come, and a daunting tune to follow up on, but as Gary steps behind the CDJs, decked out in a black halter top and a haul of silver chain jewelry, she exudes something like joyous fortitude.

Gary spends the next few hours cycling through revved- up Jersey cuts and pitched-up ravey house — Green Velvet’s ‘Percolator’ makes an appearance, and there’s a sample of Sil’s ‘Windows’ winding through one of the tracks. There’s a passage where she rips through a large slice of her own catalog, from ‘Phase 3’s ‘Afterparty’ to a teched-up version of ‘Blow That Bag’ off of ‘Bitches Is Outside Vol. 1.’

 The crowd, a mix of weekend warriors, fourth-generation club kids, committed Jersey club fanatics, and UNIIQU3 acolytes, is loving it — the chant-alongs to tracks like ‘Pussy Lick’ and ‘Fuk Dat Ass’ are lewdly transcendent moments. And Gary is feeling the love: DJ Mag has rarely seen a happier DJ, fully in her element. In constant motion, a wide smile on her face, greeting friends and fans over the low-slung booth, she is a picture of clubland bliss.

“I almost cried behind the decks because the love was projected so strongly, through the chants and the hands flaring in the fog,” Gary says later. “Every so often, I’d feel the CDJs shake, from someone twerking on the DJ booth — which I’m totally here for. I felt like we weren’t in a club, just a foggy dancefloor in my UNIIQU3 universe. I waited for that feeling for a year, I’ll embody it forever.”

Several hours into the set, in the wee hours of the morning, Gary hasn’t let her foot off the gas one bit. The party is still in full throttle, everyone dancing with as much abandon as a fully-packed dancefloor allows, and it doesn’t stop until she drops her final track and hands the reins over to ballroom-rave alchemist Jasmine Infiniti. DJ Mag is tapped out, but from the looks of Gary, she could keep going forever. And she probably will, at least until she gets to where she wants to be.

Bruce Tantum is DJ Mag's North American editor. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceTantum

Photography: Margherita Andreani