Numbers don't lie. Dance music still has a woman problem. As you've probably heard a million times already, only three female acts (Nervo, Krewella, and Tenashar) managed to break into the industry's most widespread measure of popularity: DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs poll.... and that's actually a huge improvement from previous years.
Festival lineups are just as worthy of our despair. According to our own number-crunching, the percentage of women filling slots at America's biggest dance festivals hovers between 2.6% and 9.6%. Pretty fucking pathetic. And let's not even get into the stories of patronization ("Let me mix those tracks for you") and sexual harrassment ("And slap your ass while I'm at it.") that surface every so often. Yet, lots of female DJs are sick of talking about this problem—THUMP's own editor-at-large, DJ Star Eyes, famously advised everyone to STFU and just start booking more women already.
Instead of writing my own hackneyed thinkpiece, I wanted to hear from the next generation of female DJs—the ones spinning at underground raves and clubs instead of bro-ed out festival main stages. So I invited the Discwoman crew—who are throwing an all-female-DJ festival this weekend in Brooklyn (with funds going towards the Sadie Nash Leadership project)—into the VICE office for a roundtable on sexism in this industry.
Here's who the crew comprised of:
Lauren Flax: an NYC-based DJ, songwriter and producer.
Christine Tran: Founder of the creative agency Witches of Bushwick.
Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson: the online editor at Galore Mag, curator, and writer.
Emma Olson (aka Umfang): an NYC-based DJ, producer, and resident at Bossa Nova Civic Club
THUMP: Hey ladieeez. I want to kick this off with a relatively simple question: Is the dance music industry still very much a boys club?
Lauren Flax: Ugh, this question will never go away.
Christine Tran: Because it's relevant!
LF: It's very relevant. The industry is male-dominated, for sure. But when people ask me, What's that like? What the fuck do you mean? I'm just doing my thing.
Emma Olson: In the DJ community, I find myself surrounded by men, but that doesn't change my relationship to the music.
Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson: I was talking to John Barclay [owner of Bossa Nova Civic Club] about this, and he said that a lot of men don't want to book female DJs. There's still a stigma.
THUMP: I know that DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs ranking is more mainstream than the worlds you guys orbit in, but it's still a reflection of what's happening with popular tastes. Which makes it even more staggering that so few women are represented there.
LF: Festival lineups are just as bad. They're like 97% men. So that impacts the cycle of exposure that female DJs are getting—they're not booked as much because they're not playing in front of as many people.
Christine Tran: It has to do with the decision-makers. If I'm booking an event, I always book female DJs. But I don't talk about it, I just do it.
Emma Burgess-Olson: Same! I don't want to say, this is a girls-only residency. Because I don't want people to know. I don't want to highlight it, I just want to be a part of it.
THUMP: You're almost hacking the system a bit. You're secretly shifting the balance but not calling your efforts out because then a lot of people would dismiss the event out of hand. I think that's a clever way to tackle sexism—which is often super insidious to begin with. You need sneaky tools to deal with a sneaky problem.
LF: I've always tackled sexism the same way. If someone wants to fuck with me in the DJ booth—it's not going down. That's my house. So get the fuck out, or take your shoes off.
LF: I was DJing a thing in Berlin last year when DJ Kaos came up to me and was like, 'Oh you're actually doing a pretty good job." Pat pat, on my ass. I started to see red. Then he came back a half hour later and said, "You should really play some Frankie Knuckles. That will really get the crowd going." And I think he patted me on the ass again. I was ready to give him a piece of my mind. But I finished DJing, and he was gone. So of course I turned to Facebook. [laughs] I just matter-of-factly listed what happened. That post just went crazy and eventually got back to him. Apparently he said some horrible stuff about me. But some other female DJs started writing to me, saying, yeah, he did the same shit to me and I never played with him again. This guy is just a douche.
I think it's so important to speak up and point these people out. I like to expose these assholes. Once it starts to affect their income and their future, they'll start to realize that this isn't right.
EO : The only terrible experience I've had was with a drag queen—which is complicated in its own right. I was a resident DJ at Clump, a party run by Colin Self. Colin wasn't there one night, and I was running things. When it came to me counting the money at the end of the night, this drag queen, who was really wasted, started throwing a fit about how he had brought in so many more people than me. And his girls, meaning the other drag queens, were the reason why people were coming in. Basically, that I didn't deserve to get paid.
That was really complicated because even though he was dressed up like a woman and identifying as one, at that moment, he was using his physical aggression as a man to intimidate and disrespect me. I really think it was his own version of sexism that he didn't fully understand.
So it was 4:30am, and this six foot four man in heels is screaming at me. For the first time in my DJing career, I just couldn't stand up. I started crying. I ended up quitting. He eventually apologized—to Colin. But not to me.
THUMP: I want to talk about the portrayal of female DJs in the media. I'm sure you've all seen all the blog posts about how shitty Paris Hilton is as a DJ. Dancing Astronaut recently posted a video about a Colombian model DJ "doing nothing" which went viral. There's no doubt that Paris Hilton and many model DJs aren't skilled. But these "takedown" posts are sadly some of the only times female DJs are in the spotlight—and that's dangerous, I think.
CT: The most famous image of a female DJ is Alexa Chung behind decks. But why don't you see, like, Shannon from Light Asylum hyphying behind her decks in the media? It's always been about the pretty face. It shouldn't be about that.
EO : The mainstream isn't going to put a gender-challenging woman at the forefront.
THUMP: Right, and the criticism seems to uniformly aimed at women, which perpetuates the stereotype. When Swedish House Mafia were caught DJing without headphones, we're quicker to give them the benefit of the doubt—"Oh, they need to use premixed sets because of all the crazy special effects in their shows," etc.
EO : Well how about that Jersey Shore DJ Pauly D? I feel like there are men who are sort of jokes as DJs, too. Even Skrillex, who is incredibly famous and talented, is constantly made fun of. But for women, it goes back to the whole "dumb blondes" thing.
FDH: I think it is really hard for models DJs to stay afloat. It's a whole another struggle. They may be more glamorous and making more money, but it's kinda shit at the same time. I have a friend who is a hotel DJ, and she says their careers are pretty short—once your style goes out of fashion, it's like, okay, I guess I'm "over" now and that's it.
EO : I know some model DJs, and they're like, oh wow you DJ records? That's so cool! So it's not like they don't know what we're doing and don't care. They just know that we're from different worlds.
FDH: Women just absorb this idea that we have to hate each other and compete. You just have to unlearn it.
THUMP: What about the young girls who look at the charts and DJ Mag's Top 100 DJ polls and see only men. They don't have support structures to tell them there are other realities out there.
FDH: Well that's why with Discwomen, we incorporate the Sadie Nash charity into what we do too. That's a very educational tool to show these young girls that they can do what they do creatively without having to aspire to be Paris Hilton.
THUMP: A lot of other female DJs I've spoken to hate women-only things. They're sick of talking about it.
LF: Im very picky about the all-female thing because you just end up pigeon-holing yourself.
EO : I think it can be dangerous. Oh, we're an all-girls club. To correct an imbalance in society it can't be that exclusive. I want to make sure that men want to come to these events too. It's also important to me that we said female-identified, since I know lots of great female DJs who weren't born women.
THUMP: Okay, so that said, why do Discwoman?
EO : With every tech thing—and I think DJing is a technical skill—it can be especially intimidating for women to think of it as a realistic thing to do with your life and your time. So Discwoman is a friendlier way to welcome them. I'm imagining all these young girls thinking, this seems cool.
LF: We're trying to balance the gender gap out, and bring light to an important issue. But it's not the only thing we do, just one of the many.
CT: Just remember to take off your shoes when you're in the DJ booth!
The Discwoman Festival, with Shannon Funchesss of Light Asylum, Lauren Flax, Volvox, Lauren Dillard, DJ Umfang and others took place on September 19 and 20 at Bossa Nova Civic Club. Find out more info here.
Michelle Lhooq is becoming a better feminist with age (she's also an editor at THUMP) - @MichelleLhooq