Do We Actually Need to Talk About 'Female DJs' in 2016?
We spoke to Paulette and Barely Legal about the gender divide in club culture.
During his introductory speech at the Oscars last month, Chris Rock raised a few important issues that society at large finds difficult to deal with. As well as challenging the lack of black nominees up for awards, he also brought up gender division, or more accurately, gender inequality, arguing that, "there's no real reason for there to be a man and woman category in acting." Whilst problematic, the separation serves a purpose, to represent women and men equally. By the end of his monologue, Rock stressed that a lack of opportunity, creates situations such as #OscarsSoWhite. This same argument is often cited as the reason why there are still far more male than female DJs. Whether it's on DJ Mag's Top 100 or on festival lineups, we're still an industry dominated by men. In light of this, we decided to investigate if we could we benefit from positive discrimination divisions in club culture as a way to redress the ongoing gender imbalance.
Now, admittedly, that 'solution' seems archaic when we take into consideration the fact that we're living in a climate where the idea of gender neutrality is becoming increasingly visible in pop culture and beyond with even high street retailers are working on gender neutral clothing ranges. Given that, are discussions about gender in club culture also becoming passé? Looking at lineups for any club night or festival you'd have to concede that no, we do still need to talk about gender in the music business, because there is pervasive gender inequality across the board. However, some women in the industry are increasingly getting frustrated when the conversation is always about that.
I caught up with two female DJs, who started their careers decades apart, to examine whether or not anything's actually changed for female DJs over the years, and more importantly, to discuss wehther or not it's time for us to stop talking about them as "female DJs". After all, when was the last time anyone published an article that describes Jackmaster or Skream or Andy Stott as "male DJs"?
Manchester born house selector DJ Paulette rose to prominence in the early 90s, becoming the Hacienda's first female resident. Since then she's had a long and storied career, regularly playing the Ibiza circuit and hosting two Parisian radio shows. For the purposes of this article, Paulette represents the old guard, while the other DJ I spoke to, Birmingham's Barely Legal, who began DJing in 2010 and has become one of the brightest stars in the UK Bass scene, is the face of the new school.
"There really weren't that many females in Manchester doing what I did, only a handful in the North and probably no more than 15 of us in the UK, when I started," Paulette told me. "Even in club terms DJs were one step up from the go-gos and one step down from the bar staff, so it was a huge challenge to overcome the record shop boys club, criticisms and attitudes." However, she says, "that I could be considered different because of gender never occurred to me. I've always just considered myself as a DJ."
While the in-club hierarchy has changed slightly since Paulette started out—it's the DJ, now, who rules the roost—one thing remains the same: women within the industry find themselves being treated differently to their male counterparts.
Like Paulette, Barely Legal, known to her friends and family as Chloe Robinson, never viewed herself as a "female DJ" per se, and often found that it was other people who wanted to label her as such. At the beginning of her career, "it was more a 'thing' to people in the crowd, who were mainly used to watching male DJs," she says.
When I ask her if she's got any female DJ role models, Robinson says that, "to be honest the DJs who I looked up to when starting out were all male, but not intentionally. They inspired me with their styles of mixing and selection." She's keen to stress that she has a lot of respect for the likes of Moxie, Ikonika, Nightwave and Hannah Wants, "to name a few," but doesn't feel that it's "necessary to emphasise on gender in our scene."
Chloé and Paulette's wishes to distance themselves from gender aren't shared by everyone in the industry however. Collectives such as London's Born N Bread and SIREN, and Discowoman over in New York, aim to celebrate females working together within their respective scenes. But Barely Legal and DJ Paulette's stance makes sense when you consider that every column inch taken up by talk of gender, takes away from focus on skill.
As sad as it is to have to include, it feels like talking about women in club culture means also talking about harassment. While Robinson tells me she's never experienced any direct harassment herself, Paulette hasn't been as lucky. "Sadly there have been two serious occasions that made me reconsider what I do for a living," she tells me. "Once in Pescara and once in Tel Aviv—both occasions nearly stopped me DJing for good as it transpired that these particular promoters seemed to think they had paid for more than my DJing and because I was alone without a tour manager and not speaking the language they took advantage. I've never been back to either place."
Similar stories pop up in the media all the time which comes as no surprise when male DJs such as Justin James objectify their female counterparts so publicly and seemingly without fear of damage to their careers. This sadly suggests that when harassment does take place it usually goes unpunished.
In his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali claims that, "music runs parallel to human society, is structured like it, and changes when it does." But if the problem of gender discrimination and harassment exists and pervades at industry level, then how will things change? There's hope, if you agree with gender theorist Judith Butler, who argues that gender isn't innate, but instead is performative, meaning that it is something we learn and act out rather than are born with. And pioneers such Ruby Rose and Jaden Smith give indication that the next generation may well do away with gender divides. So perhaps as we begin to see the idea of gender breakdown across expressions of popular culture, so too the years of drawing attention specifically to gender when it comes to giving accolades, reporting on and booking DJs, are numbered. Which, you'd hope at least, might see an end to the discrimination and divide which we currently see throughout the world of club culture.
Paulette feels that whilst the time for this is certainly nigh, we are not there yet because we continue to live in "a patriarchal society. So the same goes for practically every job—the male/female divide is always highlighted above talent or capability," she says, before adding, "I don't have any problem with this I but just wish people would change the record and bring the pay scales into line. It is 2016 after all." The frustration is shared by Robinson, who says that whilst "I think it's great to see the rise in female DJs since I started playing out four years ago, for me personally it [her gender] has never mattered."
What then, does the future hold for the next wave of DJs and producers and club promoters? Paulette recommends that any women entering the business "buy a pair of titanium balls—there are more knock-backs than handshakes in this game still." She goes on to argue that even once you've 'made it,' "you'll need to be flexible. There's heavy competition but also room for everybody and all music so choose your style well and no matter what you play be true to yourself. Play what you love and what you can listen to every day 24/7." Barely Legal's advice is, "the exact same I'd give to male DJs. Be confident in your sound and taste and push yourself online where necessary as we're fortunate enough these days to be able to use the Internet as such a great platform to share mixes or productions with the potential to have a massive reach."
Indeed, the Internet provides a level of anonymity for women and shifts the focus back onto skill. But with music increasingly given away for free, artists are ever more reliant on playing live for revenue. And for the DJ, this is an even bigger reality than for recording artists. So until gender inequality is overcome, whether in regard to opportunity, or how women are judged, when audiences see a woman behind the decks, they'll continue, at least to some degree, have certain preconceptions and opinions.
Today, women across the world are coming together to mark International Women's Day. Comparing the careers of DJs such as Paulette and Barely Legal shows that there are ever more female DJs and working conditions are slowly getting better. The rise of gender fluidity also gives hope that certain stereotypes and behaviour are on the way out. But it is unlikely that until we have real lasting equality, articles such as this one will stop appearing on this occasion, and all year round. However, let's take a moment to praise the thing female DJs such as Paulette and Barely Legal and women in all lines of employment want us to actually focus on—their work. Therefore, although today we are celebrating women, let's make an effort to see past gender.