Friday, June 26, 2009

The Detroit Ladies

There was some dialog on the 313 list yesterday about the lack of women in electronic music. It started off with a question about a video interview of Jeff Mills on EQ Magazine website. ‘Where are all the girls in that club?’ I watched the video, footage of the crowd is in the first few minutes of the nice, lengthy interview with Jeff Mills. And really, there are hardly any ladies present. The video is taken from a set Jeff played at a club in Glasgow. It looks like the crowds at a lot of Detroit parties, except fewer people in general in the Detroit clubs. Then of course came the terms sausage party and sausage fest. The sausage fest was my fault. Where are the chicks? The girls? The ladies? The women? Well, I’m right here. Really though, in electronic music production, performance, promotion, consumption, and writing, women are not nearly as visibly involved as men. And I want to tell you that I use the term consumption widely, hesitating to include it here because of its connection to marketing and dollars. Economic consumption is not the primary way that I use this term, although marketing and the music industry are still really important in any discussion of musical consumption. I’m speaking of consumption in terms of musical enjoyment, fandom, support, listening both privately and publicly, and other ways in which people consume music. I know that’s a jumbled list, but this is a pretty informal blog and jumbled is how I sometimes roll. My use of consumption comes from some ideas that I am working from in my doctoral research: in music, and other forms of cultural expression and performance, we have production, consumption, and circulation, all concepts involved in the inter-performative relations that form from and formulate what music is and does for all of us. I know, I’m getting mildly academic here with my language. I always want to be careful with how far I go with that here because I really don’t want to alienate any of my readers. This blog is a realm for mostly informal, but detailed discussion of electronic music in Detroit and my doctoral research here. I have had and will continue to have plenty of opportunities to get super intellectual and theoretical in my dissertation and subsequent book, and I will try to find ways to make part or all of my dissertation public so that you all can check it out if you want to. I’ve already thought a lot about the audience for what will eventually become a book about all this stuff. That is still a few years down the road, but it’s there in my future. It needs to be an academically focused book because as a person with a Ph.D. (in the future) looking for an eventual tenured teaching position at a university, I will be required to have a major publication like a book accomplished and out there. However, I realize the potential for readers outside of the realm of academic scholarship as well and will work to figure how best to approach a wide audience. Anyway, this blog is my opportunity to write in a less formal, more immediate and public way than my fieldnotes, conference presentations, and early dissertating allow.

All that for consumption? Alright, so onto the ladies. There are a few fabulous females making music in Detroit. Kelli Hand, the first lady of techno, is busy making music. She doesn’t currently play out much here, but she is hard at work making some sweet beats. DJ Minx and her label, Women On Wax, are staples in Detroit techno and house music. And Women On Wax is not just chicks on vinyl, like Minx and Diviniti, the men are involved too and they all bring the heat. She has releases from Pirahnahead, Reggie Dokes, and Jerry the Cat. Punisher and Sassmouth are a few others, who started HEJ records in Detroit in 2007 with John Overfiend. And you know I’m a fan of Punisher! Jennifer Xerri is another local house DJ who is fairly active here.

And, one of the most instrumental people here who has helped me become more knowledgeable than I ever expected about Detroit and its music, WhoDat, Terri McQueen. I met her unexpectedly when I organized a conference on Detroit electronic music at Indiana University in October 2006. The panelists for the conference were Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite, Marcellus Pittman, Minx, Mike Clark, Terrence Parker, Cornelius Harris, and 2 of the co-curators of the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit on Detroit Techno music, Sulaiman Mausi and Katherine Burkhart. So while planning travel and lodging arrangements for the panelists, Terri was one of the people coming with Theo, Rick, and Marcellus to help out and be at the 3Chairs/Sound Signature table with vinyl and CDs. I did not know she was a DJ, I just knew she was super friendly and funny. We kept in touch via Myspace for the next year and a half and then I moved to Detroit in February 2008 and connected with her in person again. We did multiple 3 hour + interviews, girl has a lot to say! And then, after talking one evening with her, telling her I was really interested in learning how to really play records, not so I could become a DJ, but just so I could have a deeper understanding, she offered to teach me, continuing the mentoring tradition that is part of Detroit’s DJ culture for some. We started weekly evening “classes” in her basement. Each week she had a theme or activity all planned out: she would pick records, she would let me pick records, blending tracks with vocals, sound quality of LPs vs. EPs and 12 inches, how to play a set and select well, how to setup all the equipment and care for it. One time I even brought some of my records and we listened together. We always had a great time together. Now she is opening her own record store, Ya Digg Records. It is currently operational online, but she is still working on setting up the physical location. Supporting local music and vinyl are really central to all that she does and that’s what you’ll see a lot of at her store. She has been trying her hand at producing for the past while and has a track ready to press and release! So yeah, WhoDat is the shit and my dissertation would not be what it will be without her!

So those are some of the ladies. And now for some exploration of larger themes. When I asked Kelli Hand about being a female DJ, she said, “It is what it is.” We’re always last, but the first one they call to organize an event. You always get called last for a gig, after all the guys, especially if it’s a club opening or something like that. WhoDat has described some similar instances of that kind of lack of support and strange expectations from the sausage owners.

Coming back to the 313 listserv on these bigger issues, one of the replies to my “I don’t get why there aren’t more women involved in electronic music as fans, writers, or musicians” speculated that perhaps women don’t feel that they will have success and so don’t bother, or do try to DJ and produce, but find less success than the many other men out there doing the same thing. Additionally, one person suggested that women don’t typically get into the technology, mythology, gear head stuff, and are less likely to become heads, like techno heads or house heads. Further, another 313 lister wrote that female DJs are often aligned, or align themselves, with campy themed parties and events, like topless lady DJs, or all girl DJs for a night. I’m not quoting directly; this is all my interpretation of what was written by others.

I’m not really interested in involving myself in a debate about how men and women are physiologically “wired” differently, and even if they/we are in any meaningful, universal way. I am only speaking for myself when I say that I am very interested in the technology, production, performance, and all the other details that are there in the production, circulation, and consumption of electronic music. I am extremely interested in learning about record labels, pressings and other release oriented details, recording/production/performance equipment, and all the other possible ways to list, define, categorize, and classify all this stuff. Hell yeah vinyl is sexy and when Todd Sines recently posted photos of his production studio to Facebook, I got kind of excited. It is certainly a male oriented, and sometimes male dominated musical culture in a global way.

The topless DJ party is not one that I have found myself at in Detroit, I’ll admit. But I have heard about and been to a few all women events. One included Aaron Carl as one of the ladies last year at Sakana sushi bar in Ferndale! The women that I mentioned above have not aligned themselves strictly with women in their musical endeavors. They have teamed up and collaborated with women and men with whom they pair well. So even though they are few in number compared with all the talented Detroit dudes, Detroit’s women have found/created some nice long lasting success and relevancy for themselves.

It’s in the crowds at parties that I also notice a strong lacking of upside down triangles. And I don’t get this either except that maybe this is just an effect of “underground” musical cultures. Would you agree with me if I say that in general, musical cultures that are labeled as underground tend to be made up of men in larger numbers than women? It just seems like that to me, I’m not really basing this on any kind of serious study. Is there some sort of hostility to women that is inherent or assumed in underground cultures? I don’t know. I don’t really feel that too much in Detroit as opposed to any other realm of general daily existence. I mean why would chicks want to frequent bars and clubs with boring music when they could go enjoy Kenny Dixon’s skills on the decks, or be intellectually and physically stimulated by Theo Parrish’s sets, or have a real party with Rick Wilhite? I mean come on, how could you pass up any of these Detroit folks, like Omar S, D.Wynn, Shake, Todd Osborn, Minx, Buzz Goree, Terrence Parker, or Marcellus Pittman…oh man, Marcellus Pittman, now he would be someone I would like to see play here again! Do I have to wait until Halloween again so that he can wish the devil a happy birthday?!


chaircrusher said...

I think that the fact that women are in the minority perpetuates women being in the minority. Any time anyone seriously investigates gender differences, i.e. differences intrinsicly tied to gender, they don't come up with anything substantive and unambiguous.

Which leave nurture & culture. That's why mentoring is so important, and why I was so happy when Kate Simko played here, and a couple of the young women in IC who were starting out DJing got up on stage to see what she was doing.

And believe me, after being to many a male dominated event, they aren't male dominated because the men want them that way! In fact if you go to a club and it's mostly men, it's a sign of dedication to the music, because they could be at a club where the music is wack but there were more women.

And while it might be that women are up against some discrimination and "boy's club" exclusion, I think that it's important to note that there a re a load of men DJs and producers who will go out of their way to encourage and include women.

Denise said...

"they aren't male dominated because the men want them that way!"

ha ha, yes, absolutely! Good point.

And men supporting women, I agree with you on that too. WhoDat was mentored by a man and gets lots of support from a select few more successful male DJs here.

Andrew said...

Men supporting women that's really great..

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