Meet the female DJs equalising the gender balance

Sisu is one of many women-led electronic music collectives providing platforms for London’s female DJs – forming an instrumental part of an ever-diversifying scene

At the front of the room, a long table supports a set of Pioneer DJ decks. Behind them are six women, joined by a string of headphone cables. Five listen intently as DJ Malissa, at the centre, demonstrates the basics of EQing – the art of balancing frequencies to smoothly mix tracks. A looped house beat echoes around the cavernous warehouse, bouncing off the polished concrete floors and whitewashed brick walls. It’s dark, save for colourful spotlights around the decks, and it feels like at any moment, the doors could open and the floor could flood with clubbers.

It’s the second session of a four-night, women-only DJ course taught at Studio 9294, Hackney Wick, by the founders of Sisu, techno DJs Melissa Kains and Lauren Reid – or Malissa and Lauryn Harper, as they go by on stage. Melissa founded the female DJ collective two years ago, following a women-led mixing course that she organised at the Southbank Centre in January 2017, where she met Lauren.

 “At the end we were like, we don’t want this to end,” says Lauren. “We thought, what if we made this a collective and did our own events? We could really punch through the scene and create a platform for women.” With Melissa at the helm, the group of women from the Southbank course did just that.

It coincided with a growing conversation at the time about gender imbalance in the music industry. Red Bull Studios launched a series of #NormalNotNovelty workshops for women engineers, DJs and producers in early 2017. Female-led DJ collectives began to spring up across London; non-binary record label Femme Culture launched in 2016 and female-led radio station Foundation FM was set up last November.

Drum and bass DJ and producer Mantra kickstarted 2018 with a New Year’s Resolution to book more female and black artists at Rupture – the night she runs with her husband Double O – noting that at 2017’s three biggest drum and bass festivals in the UK, 416 male DJs performed compared to just six female artists.

“Mantra opened the doors to what was bubbling under the surface,” says Sweetpea, a drum and bass DJ who participates in female-led workshops held by EQ50. “Female collectives create a safe space to learn tips and tricks about the industry, and do production showcases where you can bring in your tunes and get feedback. I probably wouldn’t go to a production showcase otherwise, because I’d be nervous asking questions. But when you’re around women it’s more chill.”

For Melissa, the need for Sisu came from her own difficulties in finding an environment to learn and practice in. “I’d been trying to develop as a DJ since the age of 17 and still wasn’t very confident,” she says. “I was around a lot of guys, essentially, and I only got to DJ at after parties doing a couple of songs. People were like, ‘you can’t DJ, get off’. But I was just learning. There was no space where someone would say, this is what you do. When you’re demeaned in that way, it knocks your confidence massively.”

Lauren had always loved electronic music, but before she saw the Southbank course advertised, she’d never considered DJing. “I’d been raving since I was 17 and I’d always watched male DJs – but never put two and two together. You have to see someone like you do it,” she says. “The first day of the course I was terrified, even to show people my music or to say that I wanted to DJ. I felt this deep, cringey feeling.”

That feeling, according to the Sisu tutors, stems from a general sense that DJ spaces are built by men, for men – sometimes literally. “I’m five foot two,” laughs Lauren. “DJ booths come up to my shoulders. These little things can make you feel flustered and skew your performance.”

Chatting to the girls on the course, it’s clear that this kind of imposter syndrome can put them off from getting involved in the scene – showing how invaluable initiatives like these are. “When it’s a female space, it just feels like you’re hanging out,” one participant tells me. “It’s easy to feel like your questions are a bit stupid when there are guys there too.” Any nerves or self-deprecation brought to the class are met with down-to-earth understanding, and there’s not a trace of ego in the room.

Sisu has taught around 50 women so far in DJing 101 – from sourcing and selecting tracks, to the technicalities of using software to mix, and marketing and promotion – in London, Bristol, Berlin and, next week, in Newcastle. Also running nights, radio shows and mix series, they’re part of a rising visibility of female DJs, and women DJs of colour, on the London club scene. Helena Hauff and Honey Dijon are both about to headline London superclubs, while Peggy Gou recently sold out Fabric and The Black Madonna and Josey Rebelle are regular fixtures on house and techno line-ups. It points to a growing global shift. Pitchfork reported that in 2018, female representation on international festival line-ups rose to 19% from 14% in 2017.

“People are starting to understand why more female talent is needed, and they’re starting to be held accountable, which is sometimes what it takes,” says Lauren. “But there’s so much more work that needs to be done. People with power and privilege need to open the door for those whose voices are unheard.”

How could we speed up the process? “A rise in female producers would be amazing,” says Melissa. “Programmers, engineers – more equalisation across the board.” Important as their visibility is, it’s not enough to see women purely on stage. It’s clear that equal representation must take place behind the scenes to ensure diversity is on the agenda at every level, ultimately creating a clubbing scene that works for everybody.

“Eventually, it would be nice if we didn’t have to have these conversations anymore,” Lauren smiles. “But if we’re one little piece of the puzzle, and what we’ve put into the world has resonated with a few people or has helped them, then that’s the point.”

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