It's safe to say that DJing is still a man's game — at least if you look on the surface. Out of the lineups announced for some of this year's major dance festivals (Ultra Music Festival in Miami, EDC Puerto Rico and Mexico, Spring Awakening Festival in Chicago) the pickings are slim — to put it lightly — for female talent.
Lineups are dominated by the big male names — Afrojack, David Guetta, Tiesto, Bassnectar, Steve Aoki, Avicii — with the occasional female headlining spot by Nervo, but overall it's still a guy's world.
Although these are huge festivals with DJ bookings coming from international artists, the gap in gender representation is apparent: Female DJs accounted for under 10 percent of the performance lineup at seven major festivals last year, according to Thump, the electronic music division of Vice.
So Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, Emma Burgess-Olsen and Christine Tran wanted to do something about it. Having met through the Bushwick nightlife scene (both Burgess-Olsen and Tran are DJs) in Brooklyn, the three noticed the need for a female-led DJ festival.
What resulted was Discwoman — a platform for female and female-identified electronic artists to play their music — and the first festival, a two-day event in late September at Bushwick's Bossa Nova Civic Club, where Burgess-Olsen (who DJs under the name Umfang) was in residency.
Through the girls' connections in the DJ scene, Tran's event-planning prowess — she runs a creative agency called Witches of Bushwick — and familiarity with the club, the festival, which featured six DJs each night performing back-to-back hour-long sets, fell together rather seamlessly.
"I don't know, people came," said Burgess-Olsen almost incredulously. "It was great. It was amazing."
Not only did people come, but they paid to come. None of the talent received compensation, said Burgess-Olsen, and all proceeds went to the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a New York-based organization that seeks to empower young women, staying in character with the girl-power message Discwoman set out to perpetuate.
"Everyone can enjoy the event, everyone can throw a party," noted Tran. "But when you have a movement that people can get behind that has a real focus and a real forward-looking, empowering youth … I think it's just really great."
Now Discwoman is moving beyond Bushwick for their first satellite event, highlighting 12 Philadelphia female DJs at Voyeur Nightclub on Friday, Jan. 23. The night will be sponsored by Lelo adult toys, which sells vibrators (one in particular, the Siri 2, is powered by sound).
"There's going to be giveaways of vibrators at the event, which will be really cool," said Hutchinson. "It's the perfect sponsor."
Along with the perfect sponsor comes the right fit for hosting duties, which comes from local DJ collective Factory Girls, headed by Katie K. Rex, who recently made a move from Philly to Brooklyn and was put in touch with Tran through a colleague at Witches of Bushwick.
"We just kind of became friends," said Tran. "And then Discwoman started and we were looking for the perfect person to do the first satellite event, and Katie throws parties all the time there in Philly so we thought she'd be a really great fit and her group of DJs."
"Also I think what's cool about it is they're like kind of on their own, participating in Philly," Hutchinson followed up. "They're kind of very different DJs than we're used to in the Bushwick 'techno' community. So it's really eye-opening to see how they hold it down in their own area."
Holding it down in Philly is a core group of like-minded women who consistently throw parties and whose community continues to grow, both together and independently.
Much of it stems from Regina "Gun$" Garcia, who for the past seven years has not only watched the population of female DJs grow, but also has helped curate and foster new talent.
With only a handful of women headlining dance events, Garcia took a special interest in playing and creating events that were grounded in female-heavy lineups.
"When I started DJing, I made my event all girls," Garcia said steadfastly, as if there were no other option. "It was two girl DJs and two girl hosts and we would have a guest of some sort that was a female artist and that was because I felt no one was really doing that."
According to Marissa "Yolo Ono" Le, who credits her start to Garcia, the primary reason for the overlooking of female talent comes from those at the top who are organizing the events.
"I feel like it's mostly like people who are booking or creating these events or owners of venues, those are all guys," she said. "So I mean I think that's where a lot of it stems from — it's like the people who are curating this are more likely to pay attention to a guy and take them seriously than a girl."
Which is where Factory Girls comes in. After struggling to secure bookings when she began DJing over three years ago, Rex rounded up her friends and decided to create her own opportunities and throw her own parties to "celebrate being girls and being girly," she said.
From there, Factory Girls grew into a safe space for women to share their skills — from DJing to burlesque to art — currently consisting of a core group of Rex, Garcia, Le and Shaina "Suga Shay" Robinson.
"We just do the same thing that Regina was doing before, where we bring out a female talent or female-identified talent and just try and showcase the best of the best in females making music," Rex said. "So our partnership with Discwoman just makes a lot of sense and its just really similar messages."
The Factory Girls aren't alone in forging their own paths in event creation: Den "Dentana" D'Ariano, through working as a bartender has created a DJ residency for herself at Bottle Bar East and aims to get other women talent on the roster as well.
For her, it's all about the mindset. "If you want to do something and that opportunity is not presented to you, make that opportunity present itself to you, and when it does, share it," she said.
Credit that to ambition or even geography, these ladies have seen an entire community bloom out of the creation of opportunities and gigs.
"Well, we're the underdogs," Garcia mentioned. "Philly is like, 'We want to be New York!' We're not, we're super blue collar. I'm not even from Philly, but I feel like when comes down to it, I'm like 'Philly is the s---! And we're going to make it awesome.' "
She further explains her personal mission and story with making Philadelphia's female DJ scene memorable and far-reaching — and for her it's about community. Noticing the "cliquey" club scene, Garcia developed her first all-girl party — Double Dutch at the Barbary — with just an acquaintance in hopes that between the two of them and the two hosts, a diverse crowd would amass.
"I felt like if I could grab a bunch of different people, one: It would be cool because they would all bring their friends and I don't know any of their friends so the party will be good. And then two: They'll all feel like it's their thing too," Garcia said.
Garcia's reach didn't stop with throwing successful parties, though. Her impact even extends into the burgeoning family tree of the female DJ scene in Philadelphia, constantly keeping an ear out for emerging talents — and potentially trainable emerging talents, including Le.
After meeting through mutual friends, Garcia approached then-"iPod DJ" Le and offered to assume a mentoring role to teach her the ways of proper DJing.
"I was totally scared of her for a while so I couldn't actually do it, so she pretty much hunted me down and was like, 'You can learn how to do this; I'm going to teach you how to do this,' " Le recalled.
"Marissa is also very shy," Garcia explained. "I was like 'OK you're coming over this week and we're going to do this.' " She pauses. "Well, my name's Gun$ Garcia, it's not like Sweet Sally or anything. I try to keep up my bad b---- image."
Despite her self-identified lack of a "sunny disposition," Garcia frequently is the first contact for budding young women DJs looking for advice and guidance, a role she inherited from her boyfriend, Joey "Dirty South Joe" Massarueh, who began cultivating a community of local producers.
"But now I have the girl mission instead," she mused. "I'm more like, 'I just want more girls to be awesome' because you don't hear about other DJ scenes with a lot of girls in it. We can be even bigger if there's a bunch of us, especially if we're representing one whole city. Where do you hear about that? You never do."
But the dynamic of Philly's female club scene exists that there are facets of it that Garcia hasn't reached or influenced — like D'Ariano who likes to claim her independence and is quick to turn down any notion of bad blood or girl-versus-girl competition.
"It's hard. We're all conditioned as females to have this idea of what it's like to be in any form of social interaction and/or business relationship or whatever in a small town with another woman," D'Ariano said of the typical "well, since you're women with similar interests, you must be rivals" stereotype. "And it's a hard thing to feel that way but also not encourage that kind of stigma to other women."
Robinson, who like Le credits Garcia for getting her foot in the door, shadows D'Ariano's notion that there is a negative stereotype that comes with the territory of being a woman in the industry. "There appears to be this strange Catch-22 in play where lady DJs are looked at almost like novelties, something not to take seriously, but something to turn to when a situation needs a bit more 'fun,' " she said. "On the other hand, we are accused of having it 'easy' because it seems we tend to get booked more frequently for this exact reason, regardless of talent."
The stigma clearly doesn't appear to have affected the collaborative Philly DJ atmosphere, due largely to a combination of Garcia's reputation as a mentoring figure, the development of a team-like environment, and a genuine curiosity into not only the mastery of the music but the respective women behind it, a balance that Le attributes to both Rex and Garcia. "Katie and Regina are both really good at being on both ends of that, of like seeking information from women they admire and also providing that to people who are on the other end."
Garcia also pointed out that any inter-promotional tactics are not only purposeful but can only help build up other women as well. "Any events that I think are really cool I try to go to so that at least I can show up and be like, 'You guys are awesome!' especially when it's women doing things," she said.
That support all boils down to one turn of phrase from Garcia that was especially poignant with Rex, resounding enough that she beat her to the punch in reciting it: Your success is my success.
"If we didn't all support each other, if we didn't support other women and other women supporting us, then we give in to every crappy stereotype you could possibly fall into with a woman," Rex said. "We're not competing over a man, we're not competing over a job, we're just here to support each other."
Which speaks volumes to the genuine respect and adoration this group of women have for their counterparts — and the rare but exciting chance Discwoman has given them to perform together under one roof.
"Having the opportunity and a not only an opportunity, but a welcomed and supportive opportunity from other women that I don't necessarily know, that we are working in an industry that we are a rare commodity and it's a small town, I could never wish for a better way to be able to express how I really feel about things," D'Ariano said.
Luckily, not too many words will have to be shared in order to convey gratitude since, like the inaugural Discwoman event, Philly's incarnation will see proceeds also going to charity. For Rex and Garcia, it was a no-brainer: Girls Rock Philly, a nonprofit empowering young girls in the Philadelphia area through music, would be the natural choice. "It's exactly what we're trying to do, but for children: build up kids with better self-esteem through music," Garcia said.
So while this may only be the relative beginning for Discwoman, the wheels are already in motion as the forward-thinking movement organizers are already noticing within the club community.
"A lot of people have reached out in various cities around the world and they want to start an event there," said Tran about Discwoman's growth. "It's really opening those communities, too, and saying like, 'OK let's do a showcase in Boston, or Puerto Rico or Berlin.'"
Following Philly's Discwoman extravaganza, Hutchinson, Tran and Burgess-Olsen will do it all again in Puerto Rico for what they hope will be only the beginning of international exposure.
"It's just growing immensely," said Hutchinson. "I think we're all really proud of it and gushing. We're always like, 'Is this really our life?'"