She's Got Skills
The instructional video on how to be a female DJ has a fairly stereotypical cartoon protagonist: She has flowing blond hair, pouty lips, penetrating eyes. A thong peeks out from her low-slung pants; her waistline cinches into a point. Oh, and also: Her breasts are huge.
When she comes on the screen, everyone giggles. That's because the Dallas DJs who have gathered to watch this video--a new how-to DVD called Reel Girlz Real Skilz--don't look anything like her. They don't make Barbie look flat-chested, and they aren't dressed for a rap video. The group, a fraction of more than a dozen female DJs around town, includes a mother of two, an ex-Marine, a former skating rink DJ, a graphic designer and a Dallas Museum of Art gift shop employee, to name a few. These are real girls (if not necessarily "Reel Girlz"), women who never thought they'd spin records at all, let alone for money.
But that's something more and more women are doing these days. Once a sight as rare as Bigfoot in the West Village, female DJs are popping up all over Dallas as well as the national and international scenes. Documentaries such as Girl and Vinyl Is a Girl's Best Friend have tracked the phenomenon. Late-night cult favorite Dance 360 features a female DJ, as does a commercial for Cingular. Even magazine fashion spreads are cashing in on the trend.
Still, the sight of a woman behind the turntable can be a surprise. "I had a girl come up to me and say, 'A girl DJ? Wow!'" says Lisa Bush, who spins under the name DJ Wild in the Streets. "Her boyfriend says, 'Yeah, they make those these days.'"
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Dallas' first female DJ may have been Mary Kehoe, who started spinning records in 1986 as Mary XTC. While performing in a dance rap group called Mary and the Acid Queens, she met Mike DuPriest and Tony Fair--"the godfathers" of the Dallas DJ scene. She was the resident DJ at Sue Ellen's on Cedar Springs Road for five years, did guest spots at clubs around town and was the first woman to do The Midnight Mix on KDGE The Edge, returning to the show half a dozen times to spin with both Jeff K and DJ Merritt.
"I feel like I was pretty lucky because I met really great guys, and I hit it off with them," Kehoe says. "I was just this wide-eyed girl fascinated by records."
But she became much more: She had a sense of humor and a flair for scandal, often wearing little besides an "X" of electrical tape over the areola of each breast. It was memorable, yes, but it was her talent that won the endorsement of veterans DuPriest and Fair and, eventually, the rest of the scene. "There was this sense of respect like, 'Well, if they're down with Mary, then we're down with Mary.'"
Kehoe passed that approval on to protégé Tiffany Hughes, whom Kehoe befriended and taught to spin in 1994. The pair became known as Mary XTC and DJ Licorice Girl, doing business as Danger Girl Productions and hosting parties at 8.0, the Starck Club, Gridlock and Minc. Hughes, who mostly DJs in California these days, shares her mentor's flair for drama--she performs in red panties that peek through black stockings and has a reputation for, as she puts it, playing songs with "bad words and sexual tones." At her core, though, she is a businesswoman. "My motto is you have to take your job seriously, but you cannot take yourself seriously," Hughes says. "You've got to show up on time. You cannot give them any reason to think, 'Why did I hire this person?' Or, 'Why did I hire a girl?'"
That's something Kelly Lewis has learned. The Friday-night crowd at Zúbar--a sea of stilettos and self-tanner--doesn't pay much mind as renowned Dallas house DJ DeMarkus Lewis steps away from the booth and Kelly Lewis, his wife and fellow house DJ (her DJ name is Kelle Marie), takes his place. Her music mixes thumping bass lines with female vocals, sometimes spiking them like instrument riffs, other times letting the lyrics play out naturally. The empty space on the dance floor shouldn't reflect on Lewis; her set is tight.
The switch-off between a tall, built black man and a petite strawberry blonde has taken place many times since DeMarkus taught his then-girlfriend Kelly how to DJ eight years ago when she was just 17--not even old enough to get into clubs like Zúbar. Since then, they've shared the decks, produced tracks together under the name Honeymooners, had two kids (Alesis Marie, named after a drum machine, is 5, and Ava Simone is 18 months) and run a management agency called Grin Music. Kelly Lewis also produces solo under the name Housewife, does freelance Web design and goes to school at the Art Institute of Dallas. Even with that full résumé, she's aware some people think she's riding her husband's coattails, which is why her current focus--along with family, school and work--is to establish herself as an independent producer.
"There are a lot of females in the industry who only produce with guys as a team, and you can never really tell how much they contribute," she says. "I don't want people to be wondering about it. I want to get my own songs out, so there isn't a question in the future about whether I contributed or not."
Lewis earned her stripes spinning at The Pharmacy and Sand Bar, as well as in Oklahoma and L.A. and at Miami's annual Winter Music Conference, but she still encounters club employees who treat her like she's never touched a mixer before, and some male DJs refuse to treat her as an equal. The gripes are worth the pay-off, however. "At Zúbar, the last 30 minutes, the place is completely hype, and everyone's dancing," she says. "But the best part of my night is when they cut on the lights and I can squeeze in two more tracks."
Ronin--Lewis' other producing partner and fellow member of female DJ support group Suck My Deck--has shared some of her friend's negative experiences. "I think a lot of guys are taken aback and scared of girls that are really good," says Ronin, whose real name is Elena Martinez. Once, when a male friend helped her carry records into a venue, the door guy let him in but not her. He refused to believe she was that night's DJ until the guy vouched for her.
Her appearance helps limit that kind of interaction, though. When she spins funky groove, hip-hop-inspired house music and panty house (a joke description for the type of music male DJs use to seduce women--onto the dance floor and out of the club) at Zúbar on Wednesdays, she's dressed in a baggy knit polo shirt and loose jeans that bunch around her black and red sneakers. Her hair is short and spiky, dark brown with red tips. "I've been told by many people that because I don't play or look the part of the female, I get a little more respect from the male end of the industry," she says.
She supports herself with her DJing these days--something she never expected when her roommate in the Marines taught her how to spin about 13 years ago. "I just didn't see anybody making a living off of it," she says. "That's not something you can do for the rest of your life." So she dropped it until 1999 when her dad bought her "DJ in a Box," an inexpensive package of turntables and a mixer ("a cheesy way to start," she admits). She taught herself through "many hours of practicing, crying, frustration, turmoil...and hundreds of dollars in records."
Things weren't always easy for Sabrina Steiner, who's known as Cyberina Flux behind the decks at clubs and on the air Friday nights at KNON during Rocket Radio. In her own smaller scene of people who spin goth, industrial and electronica, she says, "I've had DJs go on rants that I couldn't possibly be getting gigs for any other reason than the fact that I have breasts. They can think what they think. I can't do anything to change that no matter how hard I work."
Despite an enviable gig at KNON playing records for an audience not distracted by drink specials and a parade of pretty people, she gets anxious to perform live during stretches between gigs. After all, part of the thrill of being a DJ is seeing the effect you have. That's apparent when she takes the small stage at Crave in a camouflage minidress and knee-high black boots. Friends and patrons stop by the booth to dance or sing along to the percussive, sometimes noisy and dissonant music.
The challenges for a rock-and-roll DJ are a bit different. Lisa Bush spins Wednesdays at Hailey's in Denton, where she has had to confront the indier-than-thou guys eager to prove their record collection couldn't possibly be inferior to a girl's. "I had this gig one time, and this circle of guys came and stood around me--they were the music-snob guys. And they came to look at what I was going to play. 'Is this rare enough or pure enough?' They all got into this big record conversation, and they just excluded me. I was just standing there."
Good luck beating her at her own game, though. Bush's crates are heavy with French and Japanese pop and soundtracks to 1960s films (her DJ name came from one called Wild in the Streets). She recently played with Berlin dance duo Stereo Total--one of her favorite bands--at their most recent show in Denton. "It was really cool because they recognized several of the French artists I played," she says. "That was the ultimate validation."
The truth is that any DJ gig comes with its pitfalls. Clubgoers can treat DJs like human jukeboxes, throwing money at someone busy queuing up records and beat matching, requesting OutKast during a rock set or Madonna during a house set. Others try to talk to DJs while they're playing or come behind the booth begging to scratch a record or talk on the mike. Allison Gordon, who plays rock and roll from several decades and genres as DJ Sista Whitenoise at Lee Harvey's on Thursdays and Saturdays, says people have tried to use her setup, which is in a tiny room with Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machines, as their personal drink coaster. She's been known to ask, "Now do you really think your game is more important than thousands of dollars of music equipment?"
But that's nothing compared with what she faced when she DJed at Kangaroo near Lovers Lane and the Tollway, playing dance music for "the beautiful cocaine crowd...The people with the bloody noses who come up asking you if you know where to get a bump." She jokes there should have been a separate "powder room" for the drug users because getting to the bathroom and back in one song was nearly impossible. "I had a 14-and-a-half-minute version of 'Rappers Delight' that I'd put on, and the security guards knew to meet me at the hallway to go to the bathroom because otherwise I wouldn't make it back," she says.
No DVD, book or Web site can prepare any DJ for these kinds of situations. Reel Girlz Real Skilz offers advice on some things such as DJ skills, etiquette on and off the dance floor, getting contracts, buying equipment. But How to DJ Right: The Art and Science of Playing Records by Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster--"It's like a textbook for DJs," Lewis says--offers its own tips for women in the "How to be a girl" chapter: "Abuse your 'rarity value,'" "Play girls-only nights," "Be part of a scene," "Do it yourself," "Be a showoff."
And those tenets seem to be working for Dallas' female DJs. Most have played female DJ showcases. Some see those shows as any other gig; others think they turn their gender into a gimmick. "I have to ask myself, 'Should I do this or not?' It's a gig, and I can probably make connections there to get other gigs that aren't female-only gigs. But at the same time, it kinda feels like you're selling out," Lewis says. Lewis and Ronin created their own scene with Suck My Deck, and Kehoe and Hughes had Danger Girl Productions. And all have had to promote themselves, balancing the need to hype their acts with humility ("It does help to be modest in certain situations," Ronin says. "But in some situations you have to yell more. No one else is going to blow your horn").
Then there's Patricia Rodriguez, the epitome of do-it-yourself. She never planned to be a DJ; she just wanted to play some records at a party, so she and some friends bought the DJ equipment together and taught themselves how to use it. That one party turned into The Lollipop Shoppe, the year-old, bimonthly themed party that usually takes place at the Avenue Arts Venue in Expo Park with Rodriguez spinning rock music from the '60s and beyond as DJ Tiger Bee, tailoring her sets to the topic, whether it's space-out, spy night or this month's beach party theme. She does her own booking and promoting, too.
Most of these women have one great obstacle left--not to be singled out for their sex (something this article, admittedly, does). DJ Minx's request at the end of Reel Girlz Real Skilz is a common one. "If you know I'm a DJ, just call me a DJ. You don't say 'male DJ' when you see a man." That's something these women are all too familiar with. It reminds Lewis of one of her least favorite compliments: "Sometimes, guys will come up to you and say, 'You're pretty good... for a girl.'"
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