The new spin
Three female nightclub DJs break into what’s been, at least locally, a male-dominated field
Despite physical evidence pointing to the contrary, many people assume female DJs don’t exist.
On a sultry summer eve at a local Sacramento watering hole, an informal poll revealed many patrons’ surprise at hearing that women spin, especially in Sacramento. Those who do know of female DJs think them creatures of such dense urban environments as New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
However, DJ Rigatony, a local renaissance man of music and club culture, knows of many Sacramento female DJs. “There are a number of girls,” he said. “Kendra French is probably the most played female DJ in Sacramento.” Rigatony also listed DJ Leeza, Mandy Love, DJ Genami and KimSin as other contributors to the local DJ scene.
Three of these spinners—DJ Genami, KimSin and Miss Kendra French—agreed to share their experiences as Sacramento women behind the decks. They also pondered the questions of why more women don’t DJ and, of those who do, why these ladies’ work isn’t widely known.
Jen Maples, better known as DJ Genami, recently showed up at Café Bernardo’s, sparkling with enthusiasm for the scene, the music, the DJs and the everything-music culture. Over French bread and olive oil, she talked about what it takes to be a female DJ. A force in Sacramento’s underground scene, Maples helped to organize an all-grrl event this spring, Lady Divine, which featured a night of all-femme DJs. Recently, Maples was mixing and spinning her house and drum-and-bass beats at Burning Man in the Nevada desert.
“I guess you could say that from the first party, I knew that I wanted to be a DJ,” Maples said. “Also, I was really intrigued by the fact that it was a male-dominated thing—never saw a female playing.”
Maples fell in love with house music at the age of 17, when she attended a music event at Cal Expo organized by In the Mix, a local record shop specializing in deep house and its accouterments. The music—whose energy paralleled the wildness found in the fauvist school of painting—infused her with delight, and she felt that she had discovered not only a musical form through which she could express herself, but also a community.
In her three years of mixing, Maples has never been overtly cited for her gender in the underground scene, even though her minority status is apparent. “I have never been referred to as a ‘female’ DJ,” she explained. “I just consciously know that women DJs are scarce. All the people that I learned to mix from are guys. Whenever I want to go play records—with guys. Whenever I go to the city to hear phat DJs—guys.”
While organizing Lady Divine with Love, Maples found herself short a few female mixers. “We know everybody in the scene, yet we were like, ‘Who is going to play?’” she said. “We were to the point where we were going to have two rooms—one with guys dressed in drag playing.” In the end, Love and Maples found a few female DJs but had to call in reinforcements from Portland and from a cross-dressing comrade.
Maples knows why more women have not tried to break into DJing: “Judgment. Criticism,” she said. She quickly made it clear that the über-competitive attitude was not reserved for women. “It’s that way with the guys, too,” she explained. “It is very critical. And it is a very competitive scene. I mean extremely competitive.”
Many women may have felt rebuffed by the male DJs’ hyper style of interaction. Maples herself experienced this competitiveness firsthand at a house party, when a fellow DJ critiqued her choice of records. “Everyone was just dancing,” she said, “but there was some guy DJ who said, ‘Thrift store records! Can you believe that? Like, what is wrong with this girl?’ And I was like, ‘Whatever. Everybody’s dancing. Nobody dances when you play.’”
Maples owes her success as a female DJ to her natural moxie. “You have to really not allow a person to bother you,” she said. “You have to be prepared emotionally for rejection, and you really have to be savvy about it to make it in this industry.”
At the Naked Lounge coffeehouse on a weekday evening, KimSin, who plays out regularly, shared her experience as a female DJ and theorized on the small number of female DJs. KimSin is not a native Sacramentan. Originally from Reno, the focused and talented musician began her musical expression at an early age with traditional instruments. Before she began mixing and spinning records, she trained as a classical violinist and pianist. The jazzy elements in KimSin’s deep, soulful house music reflect her background of formal music training.
KimSin also fell in love with turntable-generated music while in high school, and she tried her hand at mixing with the guys. “I was definitely afraid in the beginning,” she admitted, “but at the same time, I found it kinda cool that I was a novelty. I could tell that people were really shocked.” Along with audience surprise came scrutiny, which motivated KimSin. “They were pretty attentive while I played, to see if I could really play,” she said. “And that really turned me on. It made me work a bit harder.” The attention, as she gained more experience and became more serious as a DJ, began to affect her negatively. “I used to tell people that I wish I could play with a paper bag over my face so that people would just focus on the music.” After a couple of years of adjusting to being a woman in largely a man’s game, KimSin embraced her feminine side and found a balance—she gets to be sexy. “And still rock your socks off like a guy can do,” she said. “Or even better.”
KimSin felt gender discrimination from both the audience and male DJs, although coming from the audience, it was more difficult for her to face. “Guys know that it is a male-dominated field, and I think that they appreciate that,” she said. “And when girls try to invade, I think that it makes them uncomfortable. I mean, if I were in that position, I think I would get uncomfortable, too.” This open-minded perspective has most likely helped the young DJ become a success.
At Harlow’s on a recent evening, Miss Kendra French sat down to discuss the state of women in spinning. The 30-something talent balances a day job and personal life with the dedication to pursue her creative and musical goals. French, who has blond locks and a glittering smile, explored and mastered underground house music from the beginning of the local scene.
The DJ matriarch has perfected her technique over the past six years. She continually challenges herself to create new and better mixes, from trance to trip-hop, and she holds the title of the first female DJ in Sacramento who actively played out in clubs.
Her beginning experiences playing out were a mixture of excitement and challenge. The excitement was personal and musical—a milestone for her and the art form. The challenge was all public: Some welcomed her with open arms; others thought she should stay on the dance floor. “I had to work a lot harder when I played my music. Yeah, a lot harder,” she said. “Study it more.” This, in the end, inspired French to become a masterful DJ.
French began spinning at the beginning of the turntable-music wave in Sacramento, when “house” meant the place where the party was, not grooves, breaks or beats. She said many people simply gave her a hard time for being a woman in the genre—generally critiquing her appearance on the scene without considering her ability. “It was very challenging,” she said. “I felt like they gave me a hard time about things, like how much I got paid, what time I played, you know, blah blah.” French faced non-supportive attitudes from the audience, promoters and other DJs—a majority of which, at the time, were men. “People thought I didn’t know what I was doing, ’cause I am female,” she said. “I am supposed to be out there dancing, not behind the decks. There was a lot of competition with the guys, attitude-wise.”
In the end, French’s talent and creative output won. She became a successful resident DJ at The Rage, and she’s still playing out today at venues such as Ink in Midtown and at private parties. French’s success was not entirely self-made; her boyfriend at the time aided her in perfecting her technique and in landing those first gigs.
Yet, in the beginning, French—like DJ Genami and KimSin—encountered her gender as an issue. Because she was the first female DJ in Sacramento, French was a novelty to the DJ subculture and to the audiences. She could not control people viewing her as a woman before seeing her talent with records. “There were some promoters looking at it like, ‘I want to book her—first female,’” French recalled. “And there would be some like, ‘Oh, no way.’ You know, ‘Forget that—this is a man’s job.’”
Sister SF, a female DJ collective out of San Francisco with a mission to promote and support women DJs, states the femme DJ motto best: “We just think it’s better to be viewed as a DJ first, and then as a woman, when you’re behind the decks.” With burgeoning support such as groups like Sister SF; with the art of turntablism maturing; and with the presence of female spinners like DJ Genami, KimSin and Miss Kendra French, challenges facing women in turntablism today arguably will not exist in the future. As the genre progresses and draws its boundaries, more women will continue to explore it—and let the beat drop.