Culture | Dance, dance, revolution

FéMTL opens space for women in the DJ scene

From underground legends of the past like Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and Jeff Mills to current festival-conquering electronic dance music (EDM) acts like Skrillex, deadmau5, and Calvin Harris, DJing (on the surface at least) comes across as a very male-dominated field. Even in looking at the lineup for Igloofest, Montreal’s EDM winter festival that kicked off last weekend, it’s difficult to spot female DJs amongst the rows of men.

That doesn’t mean they’re not there – there’s a few women in the lineup, and a couple more producing visuals for the festival – but they receive no visibility. All of the headliners are men (including the misleadingly named Girl Unit). To combat this issue of visibility and promote female DJs, some members of the Montreal scene recently formed the DJ collective FéMTL. The collective’s launch party, which took place last Saturday, highlighted five female DJs working in Montreal: Amanda’Mour, Claire, Eloïze, Isa Ghio, and Monokini San.

FéMTL’s launch party took place in a loft in the Old Port owned by the co-op La Commune. Alex Grenier, president of the co-op, explained to The Daily that while La Commune operates its space mainly as a “cooperative coworking space for tech entrepreneurs,” one of its goals is also “to encourage female participation in activities that seem traditionally male-orientated, in technology as well as arts and culture.”

From underground legends of the past like Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and Jeff Mills to current festival-conquering electronic dance music (EDM) acts like Skrillex, deadmau5, and Calvin Harris, DJing (on the surface at least) comes across as a very male-dominated field.

This first event was a relatively small affair; Grenier described the party as “semi-private,” and at any one time there were around two dozen people dancing in the loft. A couple of couches, a makeshift bar, some colour-changing lights, and the DJ’s setup were the only features in an otherwise empty loft. In some ways, however, the event felt even more intimate because of this.

Musically, the DJ sets focused around techno but remained very diverse, ranging from proto-techno classics such as Cybotron’s “Clear” and Kraftwerk’s “Home Computer” to more recent tracks. The DJs also played a number of different styles both within the techno umbrella (like acid, minimal, and Detroit) and outside it (like deep house and UK garage). Even though there was a general sense of stylistic unity in the sets, the DJs brought enough variety to keep the energy level high. The relatively simple setup combined with the energetic sets kept the dancing, and the female DJs, as the focus of the evening.

But while the focus of this event was the DJs, the sets were actually less concerned with glorifying the DJ figure than most EDM concerts, and more with innovation and musical liberty. Several of the DJs stated the importance of looking past labels in their work. Claire expressed a love for techno in all “its various incarnations” and Monokini San said of her style: “I am absolutely obsessed by 2-step and garage sounds. But I wouldn’t consider myself a 2-step DJ or anything like that. I easily mix deep dub techno with garage that will not please garage fans but initiate a new sound, something that will make you dance and forget about genres or labels.”

The DJs at FéMTL’s launch party seem to agree that the gender disparity is still a problem, with all who spoke to The Daily saying that they believe there are more male DJs than female DJs, not just in Montreal but in the world at large. Claire noted, however, that this gender imbalance in DJing is “rapidly changing,” indicating an even more urgent need to support the new influx of female DJs.

This where groups like FéMTL come in. Women have always played a major role in EDM, including as DJs. Traditionally, however, women have only been recognized as the voice of the production, with female vocalists on seminal tracks such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Inner City’s “Big Fun.” But women have always played an important role behind the boards as well, from Screamin’ Rachael, co-founder of Chicago house music label Trax Records, to Kemistry and DJ Storm, two female DJs instrumental in the pioneering drum and bass label Metalheadz. These are the women we don’t hear about often. Groups like FéMTL are making sure that these DJs get the recognition they deserve and creating space for new female DJs to enter the scene.

These are the women we don’t hear about often. Groups like FéMTL are making sure that these DJs get the recognition they deserve and creating space for new female DJs to enter the scene.

Claire also spoke to the importance of female DJs as role models, pointing to women who have played a decisive role in her life as a DJ. When she was living in Nova Scotia, she and her friends had a party in a cabin in the woods. “This [was] the first time I could see the DJ booth up close and personal, and when I went up there because I liked the music I noticed a girl was playing. As I watched her hands slip over the records I thought, ‘I could totally do this!’ and resolved to learn.” Events like those being planned by FéMTL encourage exactly these kinds of interactions.

“The further ahead I get in the game, the less difference I see in how I’m treated,” Claire said, but admitted she is still sometimes treated differently because she is a woman, as sometimes a male promoter, organizer, or artist will start “putting on the moves.” Seeing other female DJs perform could give female DJs who are just starting out some much-needed confidence to overcome discriminatory treatment.

Similar to her views on music, Monokini San also wants to get beyond gender labels. “For me playing with girls is a bit weird,” she explained. “I will put [down] badass tracks as usual and hopefully one day people will understand that there isn’t any gender really, just people.”

Unlike Monokini San, Claire does see a difference between male and female DJs. “The one comment that I have received very often and that I do believe is true about female DJs,” she said, “is that we DJ from our hearts. So don’t lose this magic, because it will allow you to have a very special connection with the audience, and yourself.”

Whether or not a difference exists between DJs based on gender, there is undoubtedly an unjust difference in their level of exposure. Thankfully, groups like FéMTL are slowly helping to change that, one track at a time.


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