Manning the Booths
Every pop scene has its utopian leanings. It shows up when John Lennon reimagines (or is it cribs from?) Karl Marx or when Ice Cube sails through a good day and has no need of his AK. When it comes to diversity, dance music has always been especially noble-minded.
Take all those pseudo-spiritual lyrical proverbs like "House music is a universal language" and "House music is a feeling." On a good Saturday night, if the DJ is throwing down killer beats, the dance floor should look like one hell of a Skittles bag. That's been true at clubs here as well as in Tokyo, New York and London. Fans come together across races, sexual orientations and certainly nationalities, if to a lesser degree economic classes.
And yet, nine times out of ten, the dude in the booth will be just that: a dude. Scan the biggest names at this month's Winter Music Conference in Miami, and you'll find few females. At the recent Houston Press DJ spin-off, just one competitor of the nine was not a man. It remains one of the more curious questions within the electronica scene. Why is there still a dearth of women DJs? Such a question is not as easily answered as, say, why there were no black baseball players prior to 1947.
"For years and years, a record store was not that much different from a car parts store," says Martin Prendergast, a.k.a. Little Martin of the monthly Rent party. "It was a male domain. Guys would get into DJ talk, and they might as well be talking about car exhaust." Moreover, that dance music was born of disco -- and still remains embedded in a culture of gay men. That's a historic factor that can't be ignored, spin-off champ Champa Moore points out.
Yet among female DJs, no clear explanation emerges. It could be lack of interest as much as any kind of outright discrimination. Some talk of feeling intimidated by the industry or the equipment but say that it's not necessarily because they're women.
"Deejaying is a position where you put yourself in to be the heartbeat of the event, which can be a lot of pressure to some people," says Tanya Pelt (DJ Soul Free), owner of Starlight Beats and Breaks, a local record label.
"It could also be because the damn record crates are so heavy," she jokes. "But it is male-dominated -- even as far as, like, the DJ market [for] weddings."
DJ Gracie Chavez has a different theory. "Somebody described it to me once that the curiosity or maybe the drive that gets a girl going to do it is possibly the same as a chick drummer," she says.
At the end of last year, Prendergast decided to try out a monthly Thursday at the Social devoted solely to female DJs. It was hardly the first time Houston had seen such a theme. But his name for the event may have been the, um, ballsiest. He called it Les Femmes de la Nuit, or The Women of the Night.
"I thought it might be offensive, to be honest," Prendergast says with a grin. Apparently it wasn't. When Chavez took over promoting the event, the name stuck.
What has also stuck -- even as more women have taken to the tables -- is the lingering question of being pigeonholed as a gimmick or eye candy. Few promos for national stars like Sandra Collins or DJ Rap miss a chance to riff on their sex appeal or rareness as globetrotting decknicians. This could, of course, be as much a testament to the ennui of dance music writers exhausted by DJ clichés ("rocking the decks" -- again?) and looking for a new hook. Even so, nobody's making an issue of Paul Oakenfold's or John Digweed's looks.
"That's how you get your foot in the door. Your skills are going to make you get rebooked," says Oktober "Sista Stroke" Davila, a Chicago-based house DJ who started out in Houston. "That's always how I approached it."
"I think we get more attention because we're girls," adds Michele Emmons of the local DJ collective Spinnin' Kitties. "I've heard that from people, that 'Well, you only get to do this because you're a girl, whereas there's a lot of guys that are better than you.' "
Susan M. Shaw, director of women's studies at Oregon State University and co-author of Girls Rock!: Fifty Years of Women Making Music, says that many of these issues show up in her research on other pop scenes.
"Women performers are sexualized so much more than the men. Certainly you get that some with men, but with the women it's pretty much an essential part of their success if they're going to be successful in sort of 'mainstream rock and roll,' " she says.
Other cities have mostly moved past the gender issue when it comes to deejaying, if by sheer size of the subculture alone.
"It may be an issue of geographics and culture," local house DJ Elaina "Lushus" Brown notes in an e-mail.
"[This] is a place for female DJs to get gigs without bias, providing a supportive, friendly platform for any female DJ, MC or live performer to enjoy their music where gender is not an issue," reads the mission statement for San Francisco's Sister SF collective. "A place where women are neither fighting to be heard nor imported merely to fulfill a gimmick quotient. We're not raging feminists -- we just think it's better to be viewed as a DJ first, and then as a woman when you're behind the decks."
On the other hand, some female DJs elsewhere, like Portia Surreal and Penelope Tuesdae, prefer to spin topless -- giving new (and gratuitous) meaning to the claim "Her crates are well stacked."
"That just breaks down everything -- not me -- everything we've built up," says Davila. "It almost denies what we're trying to say. And it really infuriates me." Perhaps it's naive, though, to think that electronica would somehow be immune to the crass sex commercialism that governs other pop music industries like a pedophile Big Brother. If a woman is willing to take her top off in the first place (for money), maybe the surprise is that it took this long to put turntables in front of her.
A more interesting and hardly provable debate is whether female DJs even have tendencies that could mark them as distinctly female.
"Something I've heard from numerous people is that what they've seen as a key difference is that female DJs tend to be a bit more interactive in the sense of playing off the crowd around them," says DJ Amanda Robinson, who spins with Rent, House Party and Rotate. "That it's more of a give and take of, okay, well, I'm going to try this, and if they aren't responding then I'm going to go in a different direction. More of wanting to have that response of 'Yeah, that's exactly what they want,' rather than 'This is exactly how I feel like playing tonight.'...That sort of makes sense if you think that in general women are more relationship-oriented and collective in how they think, and men tend to be more individualistic."
Davila puts it more boldly.
"Women love bass. We gravitate toward music with bass -- rolling bass lines, rhythm. I've always noticed when females are playing...it's like a gay man. You're trying to tell a story with your music," she says. "Straight men mix like they fuck: They're in and out. They're in and out. Women -- they make the blending, they come back, they're going back and right, back and left, go to the middle, stick it in and all out, come back in -- because that's how we make love. It's how we do it. We're giving you everything we've got. We're just really making love."
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