Sisters On The Decks
Debbie Shaw takes a look at the increasing number of female DJs battling to get their tunes on the twin decks, with Mizbehaviour as a prime exponent.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 36-37.
At the end of the 80s when DJs were stars and names like Andy Weatherall and Daniel Rampling pulled massive crowds, Gizelle was playing at a South East London club alongside the big names, but hers never once appeared on the flyer.
“I used to play all night, from 8 till 2. The punters were happy, it was good fun and I was well paid but I never felt I was really credited for what I did. I’ve got no proof that I was ever part of that scene.” Now a core member of the Mizbehaviour multi-media collective, Gizelle says that, despite having been a DJ for eight years, it’s only in the past three, since she began working with other women, that she has really gained confidence in what she does.
Caroline (aka Sexy Rubber Sole), another member of Mizbehaviour, says she was motivated to start playing out herself when she grew angry that there seemed to be so few women actually on the decks. “I used to play drums with a DJ and a Didge player at Zero Gravity parties. All the time I wanted to hear music that I really liked and I wasn’t really hearing it. I began actually organising the parties with a couple of other people and it was then that I decided I wanted to play out. I’d been messing around on decks. I’d borrowed decks at home. I knew what I was into. Organising the parties gave me the courage to get started. Having some control over what was happening made me more confident.”
DJ Wild, who started up the Lilith co-operative earlier this year, agrees that the scene can be intimidating for women: “I just didn’t know if there were any other women DJs out there. I was playing out on the commercial scene and found it very male-dominated. They always assume that you’re some bloke’s girlfriend or just someone who happens to be hanging around. They don’t take you seriously as a DJ.”
Lilith is now seven-strong, playing music ranging from ambient, through trip-hop, house and dub to new-energy techno. As well as organising parties, like Mizbehaviour, Lilith aims to offer a support network for other women DJs. Wild herself is excited by the underground scene and has found that, in comparison to the commercial clubs, it offers her more scope to experiment and she finds the men considerably less aggressive. However, as Caroline points out: “There’s a certain amount of tokenism going on. Male promoters will sometimes pull in a few female DJs to do a women’s night but everyone will know that it’s the men that are getting the thing off the ground. They may genuinely want to get the women heard but it’s still within the confines and restraints of that overall hierarchy.”
H, who plays out with Bone Idol, calls it the ‘boy’s club’. At the massive Teknival festival in Normandy, Northern France at the end of May, out of upwards of twenty sound systems, she noticed only about three other women DJs. “I really wanted to play but the whole thing was so competitive. You couldn’t really hear any individual system. There was no room to vary the tempo or try something different. It was just constant hardcore.”
Julia, who plays out under the name BiBi (Black Bitch - a parting gift from an ex-boyfriend who wrote it on her bedroom wall) got started when a DJ who rented her spare room wanted to pay her in vinyl. Like H, Caroline and Wild, she originally started off playing at home. She now runs The Breakfast Club, which happens every Sunday at Silverfish, where DJ Scanner recently scanned two prisoners breaking out of Wandsworth during his set (it will be available on record next year). The Breakfast Club is an import from Japan where BiBi spent three months earlier this year, having been invited to play at a club in Tokyo. “I got really pissed off. At one point they didn’t feed me for six days. The work wasn’t really there. But I met some great people in Tokyo and since I’ve been back, I’ve been able to bring over some of the best Japanese DJs.”
BiBi feels that her visibility as a DJ has contributed to the verbal sexual harassment that she has recently been subjected to but has some advice for other women finding themselves in the same situation: “Just tape everything he says and make sure he knows that you’ll use it if you have to.”
T’rill, who arrived here from Japan eight years ago, describes playing out as “Excellent but horrible”. Starting out at a happy hardcore club at the Marquee in London in 1991, she now also plays with Zero Grvity and Mizbehaviour. She says that, even after four years, she starts shaking every time she takes her turn at the decks. “I still feel awkward every time I go into a record store and I’m the only woman, and I still haven’t got much confidence with machinery.”
H, who plays mostly roots reggae and dub, is suspicious of the recent rise in popularity of Gabba, a fast hardcore sound from Rotterdam, which BiBi calls ‘Nazi music’. H finds it alienating. “I was watching the floor during a Gabba set and there were all these men posing and punching air. Then I caught on to the sample and it was going ‘Suck my dick bitch’. That’s what keeps girls away. Well - it made me leave.”
“I play music that captures my imagination and I can feel it when it’s having the same effect on the floor.”
Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that some women feel reluctant to make the move from the floor to the decks and find what Gizelle calls “that niche where they feel comfortable playing”.
Wild thinks that, given the chance, women are more adventurous than men and are more adept at reading the vibe from the floor. “I play music that captures my imagination and I can feel it when its having the same effect on the floor.”
Another member of the Bone Idol crew, Ged, agrees that women are often more willing to experiment and offered an open invitation for other women to join them: “It makes for a better vibe at a party - less aggressive.” However, Caroline points out that both men and women can become aggressive on the decks. “If you’re trying so hard to prove how good you are you basically block out the response from the floor. If you’re too busy trying to compete with the men then you’re not going to look into yourself and find your own way of doing it. What makes a good DJ is energy and men and women’s energy is different.”
But the fact remains that the boy’s club still has all the best toys. When Mizbehaviour recently played the Deptford Urban Free Festival, they put out a call for other women with their own rigs to join them. Disappointingly, they got no response. Caroline thinks this may be down to the fact that women are still reluctant to perceive themselves as technicians. Traditionally, women are discouraged from actively engaging with technology and it is still the case that men have more resources at their disposal. Although, in theory, as BiBi points out, “anyone who can plug in a home stereo can set up a rig,” in practice, women are often reluctant to take the first step.
Gizelle was lucky enough, while working for the BBC, to be sent on a technical awareness course for women where she was invited to join Brazen, London’s first all-women radio station. But women are rarely given the opportunity to experiment in an environment where there is no pressure.
For H, it was a matter of familiarity. “I learned about sound because I was helping set up a system and then take it apart again at the end of the night and so I gradually got familiar with the technology and began to feel comfortable with it.” But, as Jane, co-founder of Mizbehaviour, points out: “Women feel they have to prove themselves on a technical level before they’re allowed to experiment.”
As organisations such as Lilith and Mizbehaviour prove, sisters will always find a way of doing it for themselves. But Gizelle offers a word of warning: “I’m all for women playing together but the next step has to be for us to get recognition because of our skill as DJs - not just because of our sex.”
The Breakfast Club takes place every Sunday at Silverfish, 142 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2. 6am - midnight.
Bone Idol would welcome the chance to work with more women DJs. Call them on 0181 519 6832 and ask for H or Ged.
Lilith can be contacted on 0181 806 5820 (ask for Fraser).
Mizbehaviour can be contacted on 0181 211 0663 (ask for Caroline).
Vox Populi need women DJs for a predominantly female list. Call on 0181 694 6477.
Mizbehaviour In The House - Spotlight on female DJ Mizbehaviour - Squall 11, Autumn 1995.