Female DJs turn the tables on stereotypes | X-Rated: Women in Music
by Hilary Stohs-Krause | X-Rated: Women in Music | HearNebraska.org
This story by Hilary Stohs-Krause of X-Rated: Women in Music, about Nebraska DJs Lauren Jeffrey and Ema Strunk, was originally posted on HearNebraska.org January 3. The DJs will be back spinning for another “Dames Hit the Decks" all-female showcase April 5, 10p.m. at House of Loom. Read on for more about what it takes to be a woman on deck…
DJing has exploded in the Nebraska scene in the last few years, but the majority of the players are still male, from BASSthoven to DJ Spence to Dustin Bushon to Depressed Buttons.
The minority status of “shejays” is why Brent Crampton with Omaha’s House of Loom organized “Dames Hit the Decks,” an all-female DJ showcase happening Thursday, Jan. 5 at 10 p.m.
“I wanted to just take a night out to celebrate [more women DJing], to put the focus on that, and to bring attention to women DJs and hopefully inspire others to get involved,” he says.
Lauren Jeffrey (stage name Hypoxik) and Ema Strunk (stage name Ema Marco) are both playing on Thursday, and each followed a meandering path to DJing. The former listened to classical music and took piano lessons when she was younger, until the she discovered Daft Punk, DJ Testo and the early creators of electronic music.
“I was home-schooled through junior high, and my mom didn’t really like us listening to Britney Spears or that kind of stuff on the radio,” Jeffrey says.
She and her sister, with whom she used to DJ as duo Polari Step, were first introduced to DJing through her sister’s then-boyfriend and his roommate, who taught them the basics.
“I started doing it for fun, and it’s kind of like a fever,” Jeffrey says. “It’s just the funnest thing ever, and it’s amazing, and it kind of just takes over your life.”
As Hypoxik, she generally plays house and electronic music, depending on the venue and event, and says she has been getting more into dubstep.
Strunk, on the other hand, says she didn’t even used to like music very much.
“The radio annoyed me,” she wrote in an email. “It turned out that I had robot ears and I’d just never heard techno. I finally discovered electronic music when I was 17, and instantly became obsessed.”
An empty room in her apartment became the impetus for taking her love a step further.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about turning it into a techno dance room,” she says. “I had never met a DJ at this point and I didn’t know anything about dance culture, but I got online and ordered my first set of turntables. When the giant box came in the mail, I had no idea how to even set them up, but it turned out that my dad had been a DJ in the ’70s. He brought out his old disco records and showed me how to set everything up.”
Those days of trial and error and YouTube tutorials have evolved into “a puppet freak show,” as Strunk describes her DJ sets.
Given Strunk and Jeffrey’s success, why are there so few women behind the tables?
Crampton hesitates before responding.
“It’s a complicated thing,” he says slowly. “It gets into gender roles, history of gender expectations …”
Both Strunk and Jeffrey have witnessed those expectations firsthand, and often with negative implications or results. In fact, Jeffries says she usually shies away from all-female DJ showcases.
“Depending on who puts it on, it can just reinforce the stereotypes,” she explains.
What kind of stereotypes?
“Ever Google ‘girl dj’?” Jeffrey asks. “Don’t do it; it’s horrible. Just a bunch of scandalous, slutty stuff.”
And while Jeffrey says audiences tend to be more receptive to women, perhaps because they’re so rare, she’s played gigs where she knows the male DJs were paid more.
“Guys who aren’t professional think they can take advantage of you,” she says, referring to recent incidents where venues didn’t want to pay her the fee they agreed upon. “They think they can push you around. And sometimes you have to be up front and in their face.”
She also finds she has to prove herself, prove her skills, because of her gender.
“There have been a few times when I’ve been carrying my equipment when club workers referred to me as a DJ groupie or the DJ’s roadie before they realized that I am the DJ,” she says.
But at the same time, both Jeffrey and Strunk acknowledged they’ve been given certain gigs because of their gender.
“I mean, there’s a certain novelty to it,” Crampton says. “[Women DJs] are not a typical thing.”
He echoes Jeffrey’s comment about the stereotype of the “sexy” DJ:
“It’s really important … that (female DJs) don’t exploit their sexuality,” he says, “because that demeans the whole field.”
And because male DJs are the norm, Crampton adds, women sometimes have to work harder than they do already, just to be taken seriously.
“I think women almost have to be overly prepared, so they [can] show, ‘Yeah, we can do this, we can do this well, and we can get booked for our skill, and not just our looks.’”
Overall, Jeffrey says that while many people from Omaha have supported her, Lincoln’s scene is much friendlier to women DJs.
“I think a lot of the DJs in Omaha see it as a competitive market,” she says, while she thinks that people should support each other more, whether it’s filling in last-minute for a gig or sharing techniques.
“I think that that’s way more prevalent in Lincoln,” she says. “It’s a more tight-knit community.”
Strunk says while male DJs in Omaha “definitely have control of the limelight,” but says they’re supportive of women in the scene.
“About six months into my DJ career I got recruited into a DJ collective called Duke DJs,” Strunk says. “It’s a group of electro/house/dubstep DJs who share music, mixing techniques, and gigs. They showed me some turntablism moves and how to phrase songs.”
For women interested in DJing, Jeffrey says that it’s first and foremost a career, not a hobby:
“It’s a really big responsibility,” she says. “People pay money to go see you, money they worked hard for, and they want that feeling. If you’re going to be a DJ … you have to respect that. And you have to be selfless. A lot of DJs I see fail are DJs that play what they want to hear. It’s not about you.”
She says people interested in trying their hand at the tables should do their homework — read books, watch DJs, go to dance parties — and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You also have to be able to evolve, to keep up with current music and technology.
And it’s about much more than merely queuing up records.
“Any musical training in the past definitely helps,” Jeffrey says. “You have to know how to count music, phrasing, the time [signature] … you have to know what key to mix music in.
“It definitely takes a lot of work.”
But she says the payoffs are more than worth it.
“Being a truly great DJ, I mean, just for a moment, you can make a whole room fall in love,” Jeffrey says. “Being a DJ isn’t just choosing a few different songs to play and pushing play. It’s about generating a mood in a room.
“The economy is bad, people are in a bad mood, you just broke up with your girlfriend, whatever — if you have a really good DJ, those records become tools for you to take them to a better place,” she continues. “And that’s powerful.”
Hilary Stohs-Krause brought two huge bins of books home from her mom’s house in Wisconsin over the holidays … so don’t count on seeing her out and about anytime soon. She gets her local music fix through HN and as a cocktail waitress at Duffy’s Tavern. For more on Nebraska ladies making music, tune into the “X-Rated: Women in Music” radio show every Thursday from 1:05 to 3 p.m. CST at 89.3 FM KZUM in Lincoln or streaming live at kzum.org. Find X-Rated on Facebook at facebook.com/xmusicnebraska, on Tumblr at xmusic.tumblr.com, and occasionally on twitter at twitter.com/hilarysk.
Visit http://www.facebook.com/houseofloom for details on Dames Hit the Decks on April 5.