Wax Sisterhood: Goodbye, Sausage Party; Hello Lady DJs
(This article was published in the Portland Mercury in January 2003)
While fortunately not the mainstream media-touted “next big thing,” electronic music as delivered through the disc jockey in nightclub, warehouse, or cornfield has made a strong mark on our collective ass. So why is the delivery person usually a dude? Like a heavy metal kielbasa cook out, deejaying isn’t always a friendly scene to break into for the ladies. However, thanks in part to collectives like Sister SF in San Francisco, Internet forums like www.sisterdjs.com, and now Sister PDX, the sausage party’s over.
Sister PDX is an open monthly gathering for female DJs of all skill levels. “It’s for gals who want to know how to spin, but don’t want to go ask guys who would make it into a DJ contest, [so that they] can learn in a low-pressure environment,” says Layla Dudley, aka DJ Velo, the host and founder of Sister PDX. “There is no reason anyone should feel intimidated about [deejaying] because they’re girls.”
The gatherings started a year ago and eventually settled into their groove as a monthly Sunday potluck. Beginners can show up early to learn some basic knob twisting and the experienced ladies show up later with their records, some food, and their dancing shoes.
Dudley enjoys teaching the newbies. “Teaching somebody to play records is like teaching somebody how to paint; you can show them all the colors, but no one will have the same style. I tell the new girls, ‘Now that you know what all this does, watch what other people do with it.’”
Basic skills, a love for music, and a good record collection are the first step. The second step, often a more difficult one, is learning to self-promote and play live. At this juncture, being female can be both an asset and a hindrance. According to Dudley, some bookers and promoters will book a woman DJ simply because of her gender. Sister’s goal is to make women a respected part of the scene–not a novelty act booked because they’re female.
Elizabeth Wolfe, aka DJ Flutterby, is a talented, busy local DJ and recent addition to the Sister PDX crew. She’s experienced the novelty syndrome: “It seems to be easier for females to rise above the glut of wannabe DJs,” she says, “especially if they have sex appeal. However, once they’re out there, that becomes a liability, and female DJs have to work extra hard to prove that they didn’t get booked ‘just because she’s a girl.’”
Longtime KBOO personality and club DJ Deena Barnwell organizes all-female club nights and has also noticed the two-sided treatment. “It’s a mixed bag. Dudes are like, ‘Let me help you with this,’ like you don’t know your shit. But then there are people who come out to support it, and there’s a different energy when it’s just women playing.”
By the time Amber Kurtis, aka DJ Psyke, hooked up with the Sister gatherings, she was getting sick of asking guys about deejaying. “I learned to spin with a group of guys I feel like I had to prove myself a little more to them,” she said.
Kurtis has been going to the Sister gatherings since the beginning, and appreciates the supportive and diverse atmosphere. “Girls come and talk about their aspirations as an artist and they listen to others with very different levels of talent,” she said. “It’s become a really chill evening, [with lots of diversity]; there’ll be a girl interested in hiphop and then maybe one interested in hard techno sounds.” Dudley shares the age-old wisdom that “you can learn a lot on your own, but by going to a group, you get a whole new perspective.”
Eventually the Sister crew plans on hosting regular Sister Nights, where all-lady residents and guests perform. Female DJs can also take advantage of the many resources from Sister SF at www.sistersf.com, and the ongoing discussions on www.sisterdjs.com.