Women Weigh In On The Art of DJing

When you go to a club or party, you might scan the room for your friends, the bar, or the nearest restroom to reapply your lip gloss or relieve your bladder from the pre-game. It’s not likely that you scan the room to discover the source of the music blaring out of the speakers. DJing is a thankless art form in this way — they are doing their best work when you hardly notice them because you’re so lost in the music. This ability to literally move a group of people has a rich history that is rapidly changing under the influence of the world wide web and the apps we’ve created from it.
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If you watched the Netflix original series The Get Down, then you know that the art blending tracks and scratching records in order to create a unique sound originated as one of the first pillars of hip-hop in 1970s New York City. Before the internet, DJs would have to lug crates full of heavy records and equipment to every gig and handpick the records they wanted to play one by one. A lot has changed since then.
In the age of playlists, auxiliary cords, and predictive technology that can stream an endless number of songs you might like based on your listening history, it’s really easy to overlook the work that goes into learning how to properly curate a vibe. And even though the actual 1’s and 2’s — a universal nickname for turntables — are quickly becoming a thing of the past thanks to DJs' ability to find their tracks on MacBooks, setting the mood for an amazing party still requires skill.
Keeping all of this in mind, I reached out to three women who are keeping the art of DJing alive. Read on to find out what it’s really like to be a female DJ, how the craft has changed, and what they really think about your song requests.
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Photo: 10 Photos.
DJ Gemini Jones — Chicago

What attracted to you to DJing, and how did you get started?
“Music has always been my thing, even as child. My dad bought me my first set of turntables when I was sixteen, but I never really did anything with them. When I was 19, I was interning at [the radio station] WGCI. Between the DJs there and going to parties at the same time, I was like, 'I don't know what they're doing, but I wanna learn how to do that.' I saw [DJ] Timbuck2 do something crazy. At that time I didn't know what it was called, but now I know that it's a beat juggle. At that time, I was just like 'I wanna know how to do what he just did.' The seed was planted, but he sparked it to start to grow. After that, it was income tax season, so I bought some turntables. I took all my income tax and bought a full set up. I still have that set up to this day. I got another guy that was interning with me by the name of DJ Sparks. He asked to borrow my equipment at a club one week after I got my turntables. I brought my equipment to the club and he tells me 'Give me five minutes. Can you just play for five minutes? I'm about to run to the store.' I'm like 'Alright, cool.' He never came back. So, I ended up doing the entire party by myself. They enjoyed me. They booked me for the rest of the week and following weeks. It became a residency. That's really how I got my start. He threw me under the bus, and it worked out in my favor.”

How were you trained?
“I sort of trained myself. And YouTube. Like I said, I had my own set up so I practiced a lot. A whole lot. If you came over to my house at one point, it didn't matter what time it was, I'd be DJing. All I do is DJ, especially after I quit my job. I also take time to hang with other DJs. For the most part, I’m self-taught and took the time to hang out with older DJs and other DJs period — learning whatever little bit [of] knowledge they had and figuring out how to adapt it to myself.”

How would you describe your specific style of DJing?
“Chicago. With house music you have to blend. Every time I go outside of the Midwest, I realize blending is not an art that everyone does. It's just not. Especially with New York DJs. It's called slamming when they just transition to the next song. There's no blend and extra things in between. It's just the next song. In Chicago, it's a nice blend between the two where you seamlessly go from one song to the next... I feel like house music has taught me blending. I definitely play juke music because it's my culture. That's what we do here. The juke and the footwork are just necessities. Everything else is turn up. If I'm on the Northside, it’s diverse, because the Northside is more diverse. It really depends on what I'm doing and where I'm at, but I still consider it to be a Chicago vibe.”

What role would you say that social media plays in building a reputation and a brand as a DJ today?
“Social media is necessary because it separates us from bedroom DJs. It's how you market yourself. Bedroom DJs are what we call the guys who really just DJ at home and practice for the fun of it. They do small events, but they don't really DJ out in the public at all. They do most of their work at home. There's a lane for DJs to do that, especially on social media. A lot of bedroom DJs have great Instagram followings, but you would probably never see them live at a real venue. Then, there's also DJs that you would see live, at a real venue, that suck, but they have a big Instagram following.”

What is it like being a radio DJ now that the radio doesn't have the same kind of pull in the music industry with everything moving online, digital releases, and things like that?
“It's definitely not profitable. It's really all about the popularity and the marketing of it. It's more so aligning yourself with brands. The radio itself may not be the best move, but me saying that I'm associated with this station gives me more credibility than just saying that I'm independent. After that, it really is up to the DJ or the person in that position to work it into a better thing. People don't really listen to radio like that. For me, it's more of a marketing tactic. I would rather just upload my mixes online, and you just listen to them on SoundCloud because everything is so digital now that a DJ doesn't actually need radio.”

How do you feel about requests?
“Man, no one likes requests. No one. I have my moments when I'm like 'Alright, cool. I'm okay with your request' if it makes sense. When I'm playing old school funk and you request a song that's along [those] lines, I'll take your request. But if I'm playing that and you walk up like 'Gimme something I could dance to. Play a Future song.' It's just like 'None of what you just said makes sense.' The biggest problem with requests is the way people do it. I've had people come up to me like, 'Can you play that song that goes dadadadundundundadundadundadundaun?' and it's like what am I supposed to do with that? I can't do anything with that right now. People also take time to talk too much while the DJ is DJing. That is a pet peeve of a DJ. We can't talk. People don't understand that, and a lot of people have taken that the wrong way. I've gotten into arguments with people. It's like, 'I'm not trying to be rude to you, but I feel like you're being rude to me right now if you see I'm busy and you're trying to hold a whole conversation.’”
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Photo: Bukunmi Grace
DJ Jasmine Solano — New York, Los Angeles

How would you describe your specific style?
“I try to mix together elements of turntable-ism with my own flair, and I also spend a lot of energy reading the crowd. I would say it's pretty eclectic. I like to study all different genres of music. I could be playing everything from afrobeat to reggae to jazz to hip hop to pop music to indie. I've always been a lover of music genres and figuring them all out. It changes per event, but I like to stay eclectic.”

How would you say, in your twelve years, that the art form has changed or evolved?
“It's changed a lot because the technology has gotten so advanced that really anyone can learn how to DJ. That doesn't mean that everyone is a good DJ, but it makes it 100% acceptable for anyone who wants to learn. And then [there’s] YouTube. If you watch enough tutorials on anything — I did my makeup so crazy the other day because I was able to watch a tutorial on YouTube about it. I would've never been able to do that. The technology is so advanced. You used to have to pick out what records you wanted to play, bring them in crates to the club. You'd have five to ten crates that were so heavy. You'd have to DJ just off of the crates. You didn't have a computer screen, the digital ease, and the organization like we do now. People would be practicing how to DJ for like two years before they even stepped into a club. Now, people can just buy a controller and spend a month really learning the program, then get out there are really start DJing. Technology has made it way more accessible, which is a blessing and a curse. Back in the day you really had to love the craft in order to be spending money, time, energy to learn it and to do it right. Now, it's become so trendy to be a DJ that everyone wants to be a DJ, and now anyone can be a DJ. We're finding that the quality of DJs has gone down, but the number of DJs has gone up. That's not to say that you can't find amazing people who are incredible DJs all over the world.”

How do you feel about the number of social-media influencers crossing over into the realm of DJing — and booking some pretty serious gigs in the process?
“It's a very real thing, and it's actually happening across all art forms. This 'I'm a slash this and I'm a slash that.' Social media with the smoke and mirrors is allowing everyone to portray that they are something when they might have not taken the time to become that. DJing, like I said, has become so trendy that everyone wants to be a DJ. The market has become oversaturated with mediocrity. A lot of brands and corporations use hiring a socialite DJ just to put on some music as a marketing tool, versus maybe ten years ago when they'd actually spend money on a killer DJ to make sure that the experience at whatever event they're having is undeniable. We're finding that in people that hire directors, photographers, curators. We're in a culture of hype versus what used to be a culture of paid dues.”

Do you have tips for an average party-goer on how to spot someone who has been properly trained and has honed their craft better than, let's say, a pop-up DJ?
“Totally. I've found, in my years, that there's two ways that you know you're listening to a killer DJ. One is that you don't even notice the DJ. You're so wrapped up in the music and dancing and your friends and the music has transitioned so smoothly that you're just taken to the place. It's almost like a trance place. The goal, at least for me, is that you let go of all your inhibitions because the music is so good and so smooth that you can't even really tell that I'm there. The second reaction to spot a great DJ is that what you're hearing is so slick that you're like 'Who the fuck is DJing right now?'.”

What is like being a woman in an industry that is still pretty male-dominated?
“Women sometimes have the advantage of getting booked because you're eye candy as well as the music selector. Sometimes you get that advantage, but then when you actually show up most people don't think that you know how to DJ because you're a woman. For me, I've always came in and tore up my set. Just go beast mode on it. That's just what I've always had to do being in the boys club in the world of DJing. Especially coming from the original DJ culture in New York City. ... I really try to support women DJs that are excellent and phenomenal. They raise the standards. They show the music community that women actually do know how to DJ, and they can kick ass. They should be put on more accessible bills and more music-heavy platforms. Sometimes when these socialite, pop-up DJs who are women come on board and they're not really good, they perpetuate that stereotype that women don't know how to DJ. It's tough because on one hand, you wanna support women and be like 'Get that money. If they're gonna pay you $5,000 to put on some tunes that don't need to be mixed together just because it's a corporate event, do your thing. Get your money.' But on the other hand, the world of DJing is a sensitive culture that people feel very passionate and protective over. When you have people that don't know how to DJ that are calling themselves DJs, that's kind of blasphemous to us.”

How do you feel about requests?
“Well, when people say 'Can I request a song?' I say 'If it's a good one.' My thing is that the DJs job is to make sure that everyone is dancing. I understand that people get excited and they wanna make a request. That's fine. Most DJs hate requests. One time I was playing a Jay-Z song, and someone came up to me and asked if I could play some hip-hop. Or you're playing reggae and dancehall, and someone's all, 'Can you put on Katy Perry?'. People just don't know. If you're not into music or you're not in the music world, you don't really know, you're just excited there's a DJ. You're like, 'Can you play my favorite song?'. You're not thinking of the room or the collective. DJs, typically, cannot stand requests, especially when they're ignorant ones. When they're excellent requests, DJs are like 'Hell yeah. I was gonna play that anyway.'”
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Photo: Courtesy of DJ OHSO.
DJ OHSO — Atlanta

How did you start DJing?
"I'm a super big tomboy, so anything that looked like it was male-dominated, I'm like 'Hmm, I wanna do that.' So, I had brought the idea to my mom as a kid, and she just shut it down. She was like 'No, girls don't DJ,' and I'm like 'Alright, mom.' Continued on with my life. Then, when I got older I still was so drawn to it. I was like 'I'm an adult. I can do what I want,' and that's pretty much what sparked me even buying turntables and giving it a try."

How would you describe your style?
"A lot of it has to do with blending. I think it's important that you're creating a vibe throughout the night. It's not just abruptly slamming a song, every single song. I'm like 'Okay, cool, let me take you on this little journey.' I'm thinking ten to fifteen songs ahead. I like shock value. I definitely like to throw in a song that people are going to be like 'Oh my God!,' and songs that people like to sing along to. My style is pretty nostalgic."

What role has social media played in the DJ roles, especially with the advent of crossover DJs?
"When it comes to social media, that's probably been one of the most beneficial things that has helped push DJs forward. If I didn't have a Soundcloud and Twitter and Instagram, I don't know if anyone would even know who I was. I'm from Toronto, so I pretty much used a lot of social media to get my name out there and expand my reach. It can be a beneficial thing. There is also the downside where people don't really rock with you unless you have ten or fifty thousand followers. I can see that being discouraging. I teach at a DJ school in Atlanta, and I've had students say stuff like 'How do I see these opportunities when I don't have that much following on the internet?'. It sucks because some people don't get the opportunity to DJ or get that exposure because they don't have a following. It's a really hard uphill climb for those just starting out.

As for the crossover DJs, honestly, I'm not a hater. I feel like those people built up their social equity, even if it was as an artist or a model before. It's never to say like 'Oh, they didn't earn it.' People rock with them because they did something. They get that little shortcut because they have built up a following. Again, I can see it being a discouraging thing to people who have been DJing for so long. There's good ones and bad ones. There are some people who do that crossover, but they do it correctly, and go and actually learn how to DJ. They go and start learning on turntables. There are people who find that that's important. That's the one of the things I respect about DJs who do crossover."

Male DJs are known for getting hit on all the time, is that also true for women DJs, too?
“Definitely. At first, it started being this weird circus act thing where people were like 'Oh my God, she knows what she's doing.' Then, I saw it transition into people being infatuated by it. They find that it's sexy that there are girls up there spinning records. There are a lot of DJ groupies. I have people commenting under my pictures all the time like, 'Can't wait to see you DJ, heart eyes.' It's cool. The other thing is that they're also intimidated. So, it's never really an uncomfortable thing when you're DJing. I don't have a long line of guys like 'I wanna take a picture!' They usually just stand from afar and they'll tweet me about it later like 'Oh man, I couldn't talk to you, but you did so good.' I'm like 'Alright.'”

How do you feel about requests?
"No. Honestly, no. You're about to come up at the most inappropriate time to ask me to play a song that is probably gonna make people walk out this door. I've had people try to request a song. They'll hand me their Spotify and try to point to it. I'm like 'You just made me miss my whole mix. Now I have to wait until the next chorus.' It's definitely distracting. Back in the day it was like we are there to cater to the crowd, but it's also like trust us. If the DJ is a great DJ, he or she is gonna play something that you like. It's really hard to play for everybody. You have a room full of three, four hundred people. They're not gonna all like the same songs. We gotta cater to everyone, but just trust us.”
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