In electronic music—that realm where Prodigy smacks bitches up and the Chemical Brothers' pumped-up, block-rocking beats reign supreme—there have been precious few female musical heroes. It took nearly 50 years for women's impact to be felt in the rock scene, but luckily, electronic music works on a faster timeline. Singles live and die within a week; this week's hot genre is old news a few months later. If you consider that the phenomenon of house music and its various incarnations is barely a decade old, then it's not surprising that it's taken 10 years for women to emerge in this community.
Charlotte the Baroness
ARO.space, Friday, May 22; Electrolush (at the Showbox), Saturday, May 23
In Seattle, the first generation of female DJs has arrived. Joining the Re-bar's MC Queen Lucky (who boasts the longest-running residency of any DJ in Seattle) are Eva Johnson, DJ Sol, Naha, Tamara, Mia Calarese, Rebecca... the list goes on. A few, like Johnson and DJ Sol, have nailed residencies or regular gigs at clubs. Johnson spins on Sunday with Nasir Rasheed at ARO.space, and at Pressure, a jungle night at the Vogue on Thursdays; DJ Sol plays on Fridays at ARO.space. Others, like Naha and Tamara, regularly circulate on the underground rave scene. Seattle's sole known female producer is Cid Desmarais, who works under the monikers Rotor and Duplo. These young DJs (and someday, maybe, producers) join the ranks of female DJs across the country, including original divas Susan Morabito and Jazzy Joyce, as well as Jackie Christie and Heather Heart (NYC), Teri Bristol and DJ Psycho Bitch (Chicago), and Polywog and Charlotte the Baroness (San Francisco).
It was in a tiny basement of a now-defunct club that I first saw Charlotte the Baroness, who's worked with the renowned San Francisco DJ/producer collective Hardkiss. Tall and lanky, a dark brown ponytail bobbing on top of her head, Charlotte (last name Kaufman) threw down vicious beat after vicious beat—giving the kiddies a lesson in old-school hip-hop. Chain smoking, she cut and scratched, weaving her way out of the Beastie Boys into some chunky breakbeat tracks, polishing the evening off with smooth house grooves.
Kaufman, a Chicago transplant who moved to San Francisco for college, spent two years hanging out in the city's eclectic, experimental underground club scene, and then, at the encouragement of her friends in the jazz outfit the Broun Fellinis, she started DJing. From the start, Kaufman's had help from her DJ friends, but she's also had her share of nasty run-ins, where she's been mistaken for the DJ's girlfriend—despite the fact that she's lugging a huge crate of records. "If you're already nervous about spinning and you have to deal with an idiot to even get into your gig, then that makes it a bit more difficult." But these situations "don't even faze me anymore," she says. "You learn to look over it."
Kaufman's part of the "first crop" (as she calls it) of female DJs and producers, with eight years of spinning and several recordings under her belt (Electric Manor, The Royal Treatment, and upcoming singles on a Zok Magic compilation, Vertical Iris). She has used her success to open doors for other young DJs, both male and female. And Kaufman's efforts in SF to promote female DJs (she runs a night called Sister, with Polywog, Kristin, and Annie) have gone far. "Lately," she says, "I feel like I'm the police chief of female DJs. I go to parties and promoters come up to me and make a point of telling me how sorry they are they don't have female DJs this week."
The ratio of men to women in electronic music—whether as producers, DJs, promoters, or record-store owners—is still uneven. And there's no real explanation as to why women are so few and far between. Nasir Rasheed, a DJ and co-owner of the Seattle record label Sweet Mother, offers his own analysis: "The techno scene is very male-dominated, in the sense that the promoters are men, the DJs mainly are men, and the way it's promoted—the artwork—is all kind of misogynistic. And a lot of it is derived from hip-hop, which again is very male-dominated."
It's true: The house-music scene is wrapped in male signifiers. There are "Battle of the DJs" contests, and fliers boast of having the biggest, loudest, and baddest sound system/line-up/venue. Spend an afternoon in your local record shop and watch the feeding frenzy on a new shipment of records. The DJs' chatter is like an exam, with names of obscure remixes, B-sides, labels, and producers tossed around with bravado. After a while, it feels like a sporting event.
Things are slowly changing. This month's DJ, a specialist mag from the UK, features a cover story with four female DJs—Sister Bliss, Lisa Pin-Up, Anne Savage, and Heaven—and interviews with plenty more inside. One catch though—the girls are all done-up, clad in inches of makeup and clingy black vinyl skirts. Progress, ladies?
The DJ cover exemplifies the larger issue. In dance-music culture, the woman has always been the "club chick," as Eva Johnson describes them. "They're the dancers," she says. "They're typically the ones that would go to see the DJs play."
Even Rita Wilson, co-owner of Delicious Music, a dance-music shop on Capitol Hill, admits, "Initially, the reason why we got the couch in the store was for the girlfriends that were shopping with the guys." Wilson, who's been collecting records and spinning in her spare time for about three years, has herself felt the brunt of sexism. After two years, there are still some people who think Wilson works for her business partner and boyfriend Carlos Miguel. "I still have people going, 'Oh really, you own half that store?'" she says with a laugh.
All this may change as the profile of women DJs becomes more prominent. As Johnson, who's been spinning for two years (and collecting records for nearly 10 years), points out, DJs now are more known for the records they produce or remix than for their DJ sets. "It's so competitive, whether you're male or female. There are DJs out there who are making records, who are big-time producers, who are making track after track each week. It's like, how do you keep up with that? It's not enough just to be a really good DJ anymore."
In the end, a woman's attitude can hold her back or move her forward. What Wilson, Kaufman, and Johnson have in common is a love of music, but sometimes self-doubt can get in the way. "I started to excel when I stopped being so preoccupied with what other people would think," says Kaufman. "Once I took those chips off my shoulder—about being a woman, about being a white woman, about being a hip-hop DJ and also wanting to play house, and not getting the play I deserved—after a number of years I had so many chips on my shoulders, there's just so far I could move forward because I was creating my own roadblocks. Just don't sweat it, and fucking realize that it's what you want to do and you belong here."