COVER STORY: Hey, Ms. DJ!In the darkness, quick bursts of coloured light flash over a writhing crowd. It’s more disorienting than laser tag, but the motley assortment of strangers-no-more keep bumping bits with a practiced chaos, paying little attention to what’s going on as long as the music moves them. It might be silly, but rhythm really is a dancer, and lo and behold, it’s a woman behind the turntables, pulling the puppet strings, spinning these club kids into a melting-hot frenzy.
When DJ Betti Forde (aka Maren Hancock) started spinning in Vancouver in 1998, women in the DJ and electronic music scene were an anomaly in a testosterone sea. Thirteen years later, precious little has changed, hence the need for Utopia Festival: Women in Digital Culture. It’s a unique day-long conference that promises to unfold like a stylized mullet — business up front, party in the back, with an assortment of practical discussions, skill-building workshops (DJ 101), a keynote address from Canada’s electronic music icon, Peaches, followed by a wild late-night party showcasing some of the best women music makers in the business.
Peaches, Betti Forde, and Vancouver’s own DJ She (aka Tara Reeves) spoke with WE about making it as DIY artists, breaking down barriers, and why a festival like Utopia is more relevant than ever.
Peaches: [I started] out of necessity, before everyone had a home computer or even were making all the music on computers and things like that. I was in bands and people went away and I had to express myself. I had a machine and I just decided I was going to make this music and produce it myself, because I had a vision of just making it really direct and I didn’t want somebody else to tell me it was wrong, so I just went ahead and did it myself.
Betti Forde: I got into DJing completely by accident. I grew up in Calgary and I was a club kid–as much as you can be in a shit town like that–hanging at the goth bar religiously, and I was a go-go dancer and always stood by the DJ and trainspotted him. It was always a him. I was also an obsessive music collector. Then I moved to Victoria to go to university, and... I was doing this big fundraiser called Groovefest. This was the mid-’90s when everyone was like, ‘I’m a drum ‘n bass DJ, I’m a trance DJ’ and I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who was going to play James Brown, Diggable Planets, maybe some Archers of Loaf, and I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just do it.’
DJ She: I went to raves in my older teen years and early 20s. I was always captivated by how much power the DJ held over people’s emotions... how the DJ could build up the emotion of a song and capture an audience and make them feel a certain way. I was kind of envious of that power. I also really love music. I grew up in a really musical household. My mom always had a lot of funk and soul playing in the house, and then I got into more hip-hop in my teenage years, and then electronic music. I had that dream of rocking a big crowd on a big stage.
PAYING YOUR DUES
Betti Forde: I was working as a barista for $10 an hour, and I saw a sign that said, ‘DJ needed for nightclub,’ and everyone was standing around laughing their asses off, because it was at this horrible bar, Kits on Broadway, like date-rape central and douchebag central. I waited until no one was looking and wrote down the fucking info ’cause it was like, $20 an hour. It was like, 1998, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can make $20 an hour playing music?’ So I went into Kits and talked my way into the job and got it, and did really well there, and became good. Then I bought some turntables and a mixer and threw my first night at the Chameleon, which was all funk. It was the first time after two years of being a professional DJ that I got to play what I wanted.
DJ She: When I first started six years ago, no, [it wasn’t a viable career choice]. (Laughs) It was hard to get paid decently, because you know, if you’re not really well known for doing something, it’s hard to justify getting paid well. In the beginning I did a lot of things for free or for the exposure, which is fine. You can’t expect to be paid top dollar if you’re still learning and train-wrecking. (Laughs)
[Ed’s note: Even established musician Peaches needed to prove the naysayers wrong when she began DJing.]
Peaches: People who DJ who are in bands, they’re the celebrity DJs, but I’m there to kick people in the face with music. Like, give the hardest and latest electro bangers I can think of... To me [DJing] is like going back to how I started old school, when I used just one machine or a bit of a playback. Back in the clubs, close to the people, and immediate reactions... [My set] is about things sprayin’ all over the place, people jumpin’, falling, getting back up. (Laughs) A big mess, a big mess.
The trouble with Lotus land
Betti Forde: I don’t want to Vancouver-bash too much, because the city’s been good to me, and WE in particular has always been really good to me. But it was a difficult scene in Vancouver as a woman, especially as the decade closed, when you saw a bit of a monopoly with nightclubs being owned by one of two groups. That was difficult because most of the people in charge of those groups weren’t pro-feminists, it was a boys’ club. I don’t want to accuse them of anything conspiratorial, but it got harder and harder, and Vancouver got harder and more expensive to live in. A lot of us left, and it’s partly in reaction to the club scene. We just couldn’t work in it anymore.
State of the nation
Betti Forde: I was a go-go dancer and I threw parties, but it never occurred to me to DJ, because I never saw a woman do it... When I started, there were only three of us. I could have counted all the girl DJs in the late ’90s when I moved there on one hand. And now I can name 20 off the top of my head, and if I sat down and really thought about it, I could name 40, all from Vancouver, and that’s really cool.
DJ She: The music industry is run predominantly by males, but there are women involved across the board, whether it’s DJs or singers or executives in the boardroom, CEOs running companies. I don’t think those women have submitted that much to the double standard. By saying, well, guys get more gigs and get paid more, that’s kind of leading in that direction, you’re really creating that double standard for yourself. You can go out and rock it just as hard as a male DJ, get gigs, get radio play, tour, it’s just a matter of whether you want it... If we want something bad enough, there’s no reason we can’t go out there and get it.
DJ She: A lot of things have happened in the last decade in terms of women coming to the forefront, but we can’t necessarily be like, ‘Okay, we’ve come this far, that’s all we need.’ We need to keep pushing for conferences like this and platforms to speak.
Betti Forde: As a DIY artist, my success all came from finding people who were sympatico with me, either music-wise or politics-wise, and we helped each other. I took (Vancouver-based) DJ Rhiannon on a little tour, she got me a gig in Mexico, and this is what Peaches and I were talking about. All these stories of these artists, they’re kind of the same story, and it sounds kind of cheesy, but being a good person that other people wanna work with, and giving back what you get from people so they keep giving. A really simple concept, but it’s the driving force of anyone’s success.
Utopia Festival: Women in Digital Culture happens Saturday, Mar. 5 at W2 Storyeum (151 W. Cordova), starting at 10am. Full schedule, tickets, and information: CreativeTechnology.org.