The Techno Feminists Next Door
I've just asked Emma Burgess-Olson if anybody's missing. There isn't. She and her two colleagues are around a small table in the bar of the downtown New York W Hotel, everybody leaning forward to be heard. Burgess-Olson, who DJs under the name Umfang, is on the right: light brown hair, wide face, calm Midwestern demeanor (she's from Kansas City). To her left is Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, a black Londoner with long, blonde braids and a matey, gung-ho manner. And to Frankie's left is Christine Tran, who talks less than the others but is clearly about her business; she described her look to the New York Times as "minimal contemporary post-punk streetwear." They're Discwoman.
Together they operate a DJ booking agency (though Burgess-Olson is the only spinner of the three), promote parties, program festivals, oversee a residency at a tres cher downtown hotel, show up in some capacity to damn near every dance-music event of note in Brooklyn. They also — and this is not incidental — concentrate exclusively on booking women. You may wonder if that's even necessary in 2015.
"You see this?" In the side room of the Brooklyn dance club Verboten a couple weeks earlier, Ariana Paoletti is doing an image search for "female DJs" with her cellphone and showing me the results. Paoletti, who spins tough techno as Volvox, is a Discwoman client as well as a club promoter herself, throwing the weekly Jack Dept. at Bushwick's Bossa Nova Civic Club. Nearly to a person, the photos show blondes in pink bikinis, sometimes wearing headphones and mixing, often not. She points to the two-inch screen: "This is what we're up against!"
With her white hair cut into a dramatic bob that billows like a small paper lantern when she dances, Paoletti does not look like Google Images' idea of a "female DJ." Now she shows a photo of herself and a friend with an equally artful self-presentation. "And then you have this," she says in mock-triumph. "Nice, normal New York girls!"
Whatever the outfit, women have never achieved anything like parity in the dance music business, either in front of or behind the decks. Though there's been a sharp uptick in the number of visible female DJs over the past decade, dance music's biggest audience by far has come in the wake of frat-bro EDM's surge, and it's as boorish as you could fear.
That's especially noticeable tonight at Verboten. Though Discwoman's got the lounge to itself, and eventually gathers a decent crowd — clearly more woman-heavy and artier than that of main room — they aren't the draw. That's Derrick Carter, a DJ synonymous with Chicago house, who's scheduled to play a special techno set. For some reason, though, they've scheduled an opener who plays dumb bro-house, diametrically opposite from the sharp-lined stuff Carter favors — never mind the techno feminists next door. Worse, Carter is forty minutes late.
As if to make Paoletti's point for her, not long after her mobile tutorial, I wander into the main room only to run into an old hip-hop a cappella. "Heyyyyyyy!" avers 2 Live Crew: "We want some puuu-ssy!"
The first Discwoman party wasn't intended to be the first anything. Hutchinson had connected with Burgess-Olson last year after hearing an especially forceful Umfang set. "When I moved here it was like, 'Where is it? Where is the techno? Where's the underground scene?' Because it's so strong in London," says Hutchinson. "There was nothing. In 2009 it felt like nothing was going on." When she heard Umfang at Bossa Nova Civic Club, says Hutchinson, "I was like, 'Whoa! This is a sound I haven't heard in a really long time.' I was back into something that I never thought that I would get back into."
The two clicked immediately. "We came up with the idea to throw an all-woman DJ festival," says Burgess-Olson. Tran and Hutchinson had previously worked together on an event for a fashion magazine where the latter worked. "Probably within a month of us planning it, Christine was introduced as an event producer," says Burgess-Olson. "Immediately, we started meeting and planning once a week."
They picked the name Discwoman for that particular event. "It was a two-day festival that featured twelve female DJs," says Tran. "Proceeds went to a local nonprofit empowering young women." The event generated more than a donation. "Literally the day after, it was like, 'We need to be at an interview with a magazine, with the three of you,'" says Burgess-Olson. "Then the next week we had another interview. Then we need to fill out another interview. Then we need to have another meeting. We didn't even realize it. We're like, 'We can't stop, because people love this.'"
Prior to arriving in New York, Tran had put on basement punk and noise shows in New Brunswick, N.J. Four years ago, during her second year in Brooklyn, Tran and her high-school friend Anna Alexander began a networking party at Tandem Bar called Witches of Bushwick. "We wanted to bring together like-minded people who were creative — marginalized creatives, whether LGBT or of color, just people we could relate to or identify with," she says. "That's where I got a lot of my event production background, learning all the technical things involved."
Burgess-Olson and Tran have been in New York five years, Hutchinson six; all have had some experience throwing events of one type or other. Burgess-Olson had been active in the Midwest rave scene: "We were using old industrial warehouses as party places. I had some friends who were older and were renting them and getting permits, and a sound system."
Hutchinson had grown up a self-proclaimed "wild child" in London, gravitating to clubbing and techno. Her event background was heavily political, including women-of-color film festivals and photography exhibitions. "They would always be focused on marginalized groups, giving platforms to those people," she says. "That was my foundation. When it came to techno and marginalized people, it was like, 'Woooo! We've hit the jackpot!'"
One of Discwoman's first clients, Ariana Paoletti studied design at the Massachusetts College of Art. "She began DJing industrial-Goth-type stuff," says David Day, co-founder of Boston's Together Festival, which hosted a Discwoman showcase in May. "Then she started playing more techno, and techno itself was developing a darker streak, post-electroclash. She didn't get you to dance so much as scare you into doing something."
Paoletti, too, had put on all-woman DJ events in Boston under the name The Revolution Will Be Feminized before moving to New York in 2012. She fell into Discwoman's orbit by following them on Instagram. Hutchinson followed back, listened to her Volvox mixes on SoundCloud, and invited her aboard.
Since April, they've been overseeing a Wednesday-night residency at the W Hotel Downtown, near the old World Trade Center, with women on and off the roster spinning. Tran had worked with the hotel's programmer: "I told her, 'Just let me know when you're ready for us.' Well, not literally. But that's how I feel about a lot of things. I know what we're doing is really great for a lot of people. We know it's going to resonate."
It's an uphill climb, and not just because the W lounge typically hosts black-tie corporate parties rather than dance hipster hangouts. (The week before our chat, a black velvet rope cut the room off from outsiders to accommodate an American Express soiree.) In a pair of recent Top 100 DJ polls from DJ Mag (posted last month) and Resident Advisor (at the end of 2014) — lists so different that only two people, Richie Hawtin and Carl Cox, appear on both — only a dozen slots went to women DJs: RA had eight (top-ranked, at 35: tINI), DJ Mag four (top-ranked, at 24: the duo Nervo). Consider that the latter's number 69 prompted DJ Mag to complain, "Every year Daft Punk are voted into the Top 100 DJs poll, and every year we have to write a profile for a duo that haven't DJ'd properly since 2001 at London's Fabric."
Stories of women being harassed, belittled, and patronized for getting on the decks are legion; three days ago, Thump published a listicle titled "10 Things Douchebags Say to Female DJs" that neatly summarized them. (Number 7: "Great set. Wanna go back to my hotel room?") As the same site pointed out two years ago, there's no shortage of women playing dance records in clubs — and that list barely scratches the surface.
Circumstances like those call for action, be it Riot Grrrl in the early nineties or Discwoman now. Yet where Riot Grrrl enacted a media blackout at its height, Discwoman gives interviewers plenty of time, in part because Web-era image management is easier to enact. And where corporate sponsorship was a don't-even-ask no-no two decades ago, today's pop world, particularly in dance music, accepts corporate sponsorship as a day-to-day reality. Discwoman has no problem with being sponsored: In fact, A Philadelphia show in January was underwritten by LELO, a sex-toy company, among whose products, Tran adds, is "a vibrator that's musically triggered." (Beat that, AM Only.)
Nevertheless, Discwoman is a small company and intends to stay one. "It's like family," says Tran. "We bring someone on, we make sure they feel comfortable and fit in the group. Then we bring someone else on. You can't have eight kids at one time, you know?" They're also adamant about making the ins and outs of club music accessible to young women. "We want it be a place that can be a community and a resource," says Tran. "Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter: We're very proactive on all our platforms, and our accessibility."
"We get so many emails," says Burgess-Olson. "I think it's a good point of access for people: 'Do you want to be a DJ? Cool — we'll teach you. Do you want to learn how to make music? Let's connect you with someone who wants to teach you that.' People know they can comfortably reach out to us and feel supported." To that end, they've began tutoring up-and-comers when Burgess-Olson offered a vinyl-DJing tutorial at Boston's Together Festival, in addition to throwing a showcase there, headlined by homegirl Volvox. "The basics," Burgess-Olson says. She adds: "There was actually only one young girl. It was mostly guys."
A month after the Philadelphia show, Discwoman trekked to Puerto Rico. "We met these people there that ran Airbnb houses — that was their job. They were also techno-heads, so we hung out all the time," says Burgess-Olson. "One of the guys corresponded with Frankie about booking us at One Bar, and we pulled it off. We had a lot of support on the ground there because of the friends we had made there. We brought a ton of people from New York. We got two Airbnb houses for all of our friends. It was insane."
The event featured eight DJs including Umfang and Volvox as well as a large number of locals, including Gera, Lady Liquid and Payola Isabel. "It wasn't a huge moneymaking endeavor, but we didn't lose a lot of money," Burgess-Olson says. "I feel like we could only do that kind of event once," Hutchinson adds. For one thing, both Frankie and Christine wound up DJing. Tran concentrated on Baltimore club; "I played what was on my iPod," says Hutchinson. "Kanye West."
The equipment proved challenging. "They don't have turntables in Puerto Rico because the atmosphere is so insane. It's humid. There's sand everywhere. Your records and turntables would just get covered in salt. We did an outdoor event [at Café La Plage, March 1] and all of the power strips were corroding. The speakers outside were totally rusted."
Though the One Bar event wasn't packed ("There were, like, twenty people," says Tran with a laugh), a photo feature on the Village Voice website spurred the collective's visibility. The spring was especially busy: there were Discwoman events in Boston (two, including Together Festival), Detroit (during Movement Festival, a 15-hour showcase co-presented by similarly-minded promoters Girls Gone Vinyl), Montreal, Kansas City and at September's Decibel Festival in Seattle. This weekend, Discwoman hosts a showcase for the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, featuring Umfang and headliner Virginia, at the Panther Room, Output's side space; on November 13, they host another showcase at Le Bain, at the Standard Hotel on Manhattan's west side.
What Discwoman offers is both an internationally known name, a support system, and increasingly tough negotiations. "People try to lowball us a lot," Hutchinson says. "We don't want people to think they can just take the tokenistic name of Discwoman and be like, 'Women!' No, no: They're doing work. You have to pay them a fee."
They made one high-profile exception in June, when the New York City Mayor's office got in touch. "They called and said, 'We need a DJ for the Puerto Rican parade. We don't have any money — it's too late in the game,'" says Hutchinson. "I was like, 'Really? All right.' It's an exposure gig." Discwoman client Riobamba (Sara Skolnick) took the job. "She's spent a lot of time in South America, Central America, and her music reflects that," says Hutchinson. "She had a great time."
Discwoman's first-anniversary party takes place at their ground zero, Bossa Nova Civic Club. It's a packed lineup: Volvox, Umfang, Star Eyes (a.k.a. journalist Vivian Host) and a special guest, the Chicago-raised Brooklynite Honey Dijon. I make the mistake of arriving after midnight — it's free till then, ten dollars after — and wait about forty minutes to get in.
Bushwick has become the hipper version of Williamsburg, which is reaching late-sixties San Francisco levels of tourist-ready silliness. It follows that Bossa Nova is a smaller, looser venue than waterfront-area clubs like Output and Verboten. Call it a railroad bar, long and narrow. Its capacity is 141 — there's a sign on a far wall, past the bar — and it seems safe to say that, yes, there were 141 people there, all right. Another sign, on the dance floor wall: "No smoking/No dancing." Everyone resolutely ignores the latter directive.
The crowd's mix of sexes is fairly even, its selection of races and sexualities healthy, and the music is similarly eclectic: a lot of Baltimore club after I get in, then straighter, freakier hip-hop beats. Honey Dijon goes on at 2 and begins throws down housed-up edits of classic hip-hop and R&B — Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," Missy Elliott's "Work It" — and brings the ceiling down, as any DJ does, with Prince's "Erotic City." Star Eyes follows her with a clutch of singeing acid tracks — though the crowd is notably undruggy.
All over the room the three organizers are working, though to us it might look like partying. Hutchinson is all over the bar, making eye contact and giving hugs and chatting up nearly everybody, the group's most visible face. Burgess-Olson is inside and outside, usually walking with a small group she's conversing with, but doing a similar amount of meet-and-greet. Tran stays mainly on the door, training her eye on the crowd and its count, clearly supervising.
There are booths along Bossa Nova's long right wall, but none of the three are sitting down. Opposite those booths is a bar, being tended by a man and a woman. He's wearing a black T-shirt. It says DISCWOMAN.