Spinning Their Way to Success

On a sweaty Thursday summer night, Rekha Malhotra, a British-born Indian in her early 30s, strides into the air-conditioned relief of Sounds of Brazil, one of the most popular dance clubs in New York.

She wheels along a couple of crates containing about 60 pounds of records and compact discs. In the DJ booth, she arranges them within arm's length. She adjusts her sound mixer and puts on her headphones.

Soon she is deftly flipping one vinyl disc after another on the two turntables, luring the hip crowd onto the dance floor with her intoxicating mix of Indian pop and bhangra, an Indian folk music.

"I had to learn DJ-ing by doing it or watching my older male cousins," she says.

Few female role models existed 10 years ago when she first started experimenting with playing music on turntables at clubs, weddings, corporate parties or other live events.

"It's always been seen a man's game," she adds. "It was hard to be taken seriously."

Today DJ Rekha -- as she's best known in the entertainment business -- is one of a handful of female DJs in New York City making a full-time living at it. New York magazine nominated her as one of the city's best DJs. Last year, Newsweek cited her as one of the most influential South Asians in the United States for pioneering bhangra music here, saying her "exhilarating blowouts [basement bhangra parties] are replicated nationwide."

Malhotra says, with a hint of a smile, "Success is the best revenge."

An Accepted Minority

Today's DJs spin wall-to-wall music from popular genres including hip hop, house, rock, techno, drum and bass, reggae and disco, but the roots of DJ-ing go to the 1950s, when male radio disc jockeys would show up in person at sock hops and play vinyl 45s of doo-wop tunes and other early rock 'n' roll.

The first two-turntable DJ system was introduced during that period to provide continuous music at these live events. Since then, men have dominated this music industry niche.

In many places in the United States, female club DJs are still a rarity, says Samira Vijghen, 31, a member of the San Francisco female DJ collective Sister SF. For instance, on occasions when she's been flown to smaller cities in the Midwest or Southwest to spin for the night, her presence behind the turntables often generates a stir.

"People tell me they've never seen a female DJ before," she says. But in major cities with a concentrated club culture--like San Francisco, New York and London--female DJs have become the relatively accepted minority.

The most basic turntable techniques are mixing and beat-matching. Mixing is getting one song to blend into the next one. Beat-matching requires the DJ to exactly match the speed and timing of the incoming and outgoing tracks, thereby creating a more seamless transition. Scratching stands for the distinctive sound that's produced by moving a vinyl record back and forth while it's spinning on the turntable. When done correctly, scratching doesn't actually scratch the record, but provides DJ's an opportunity to get more playful and freeform with their technique.

Facing Disadvantages

But even as female DJs have gotten their feet in the club door and their hands on the turntables, they continue to face many disadvantages. "We get fewer opportunities," says Malhotra. "We still have to prove ourselves. We're often paid less. And to get a gig of consequence--to get known--it's still hard."

Kate Levitt, a 25-year-old part-time DJ in New York City, who goes by the moniker DJ Kwala, agrees. "I always feel I have to be better than the guys," says Levitt, who started out primarily playing hip-hop while attending high school in San Francisco. At that time, she couldn't name a single female DJ, and honed her skills by trial and error, just like her male crew members.

Levitt says club goers still come up and ask her, "Did your boyfriend teach you?" Female DJs also complain about being pressured to play the sex card. Tasha Guevara (DJ Tabu), 32, recalls arriving at one event where the promoter's first words were, "I heard you have a beautiful smile," recalls Guevara.

She's also been told that if she'd wear more makeup and high heels, she could get more money. "It bothers me that we're sometimes viewed as just eye candy," she says, adding that some female DJs add to that perception by wearing revealing clothes or working topless. "How does someone like me, in jeans and a tank top, compete with that?"

Scratching Their Way to Success

While no one is keeping track of the number of DJs working in this mostly underground industry, women are heading to DJ school in record numbers.

For example, when the pre-eminent Scratch DJ Academy opened in Manhattan in 2002, the male-female student ratio was 80-20. Now, says Mike Cannady, the academy's director, "Our courses are about a 50-50 split between men and women. We just opened up an academy in Los Angeles, which was about 50-50 from the start. I think this shows a major change in the DJ industry as a whole."

Women are also beating the odds by getting creative and taking risks. Some produce their own mixes (DJ records) or have become mobile DJs. For instance, Julie Covello (aka DJ Shakey) takes her own equipment to weddings and corporate parties where she can demand a higher rate than at big clubs, which she says is approximately $50 an hour. As one of the more sought after DJs in New York, she's also expanded into music consulting, designing catwalk music for fashion designer Nanette Lepore.

Malhotra took charge of her future by forming her own production and promotion company, Sangament, in 2000 to create more DJ-ing opportunities for herself. "That's how I survive."

Support Networks
To provide more support for each other, DJs have formed female collectives, including SheJay, which operates out of London, and the San-Francisco-based Sister SF, which has spawned chapters in New York and Portland, Ore.

The nine-member Sister SF showcases seasoned and fledgling female DJs at self-sponsored events, and its comprehensive Web site provides a forum for them to promote themselves. The collective also advocates for the non-sexist treatment of female DJs. For instance, the site states that "no resident artist is to appear at an event where she is promoted using gender specific terms (such as 'Lady' or 'Diva'), where women are described in derogatory terms, or where obscene, violent or degrading depictions of women are used."

The group sometimes gets e-mails from frustrated female DJs in small towns. "They say they want to give up DJ-ing because they don't have any support," says Vijghen. "Hopefully it will serve as inspiration for a lot of women to keep going."

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