Ladies First

Female DJs Got a Foot Through the Door, Ain't Goin' Nowhere

At Club NV, the racial profiling at the door on Sunday nights can rival the NYPD's. As with most urban dwellings throughout the city, there's an unwritten rule among doormen and swollen bouncers stating that young blacks and Latinos who dress casually, particularly in baseball caps and sneakers, will undoubtedly cause a riot. Tonight, late-twentysomething African American men—donning silk button-down shirts, shiny slacks, and faux alligator shoes—and white boys in jeans are welcomed to frolic in the name of hip-pop. (The sprinkle of rappers who stop by on their way to or from nearby Chung King Studios are exempted from the dress code.) The vibe in the dark and lovely two-story club looks like a Montell Jordan video shoot for one of his smoothest new jack swings. But once inside, the gully soundtrack—courtesy NV's first lady DJ, Kaori—redeems the saccharin-sweet scene.

Japanese-born DJ Kaori Ueta is a tiny porcelain chain-smoker whose hardcore style is so damn ubiquitous in hip-hop, she's known simply by her first name. Her sets are frenetic, consisting mostly of popular Neptune- and Premiere-produced tracks, sprinkled with reggae and heavy cutting, beat juggling, scratching, and the kind of animated call-and-response her manager and king-spin, Funkmaster Flex, is known for. "My concept in hip-hop is Flex, Kid Capri, and Red Alert," says Kaori. But more than a decade ago, "When I saw them spin for the first time, I was like, 'Uh, I can't do stuff like this.' And then I saw Belinda Becker." Once she'd checked out DJ Belinda spinning at Buddha Bar in the early '90s, Kaori adopted Becker's feminine wiles and combined them with the aggressive, technique-driven bravado she jonsed of hip-hop's most popular crossfaders to create her own ardent style. As little as five years ago, Kaori would have been in a minor league all her own. But today, a multiracial coalition of mixmasters is bumrushing the hip-hop/soul arena, dawning the latest trend in clubland: the female DJ.

Unlike their house music and techno comadres, only a handful of these spin-sters have successfully penetrated the fraternal walls of this ofttimes macho element of hip-hop dance culture. The fairly recent popularity of female DJs has given propers and breathed new life into the careers of pioneers like Hot 97's Jazzy Joyce and Cocoa Chanelle, California-based Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa, and Club Cheetah's Monday-night promoter, DJ Belinda. On the other hand, the dabblings of bored celebrity offspring and fashion models—excluding the rare-bird DJ Beverly Bond—are becoming the weakest link for the women who want to be taken seriously by their male counterparts.

Clubland mvp: dj Beverly Bond at Joe's Pub
photo: Cary Conover
Clubland mvp: dj Beverly Bond at Joe's Pub

"You gotta be a good DJ if you're a guy, because they don't care about your looks," says Becker. "But if you're a cute girl and maybe not the best DJ in the world, you can still get a job. You walk in and there's a cute girl there on the turntable, it adds a little something extra to the party. So I think that club owners are open to it, patrons are open to it, and sometimes the promoters are much less stringent on female DJs than they are on men."

Yet more often than not, when promoters do hire women to command the wheels of steel, it comes at a patronizing price. Female DJs have to be the kind of ride-or-die bitches who can remain composed despite shady promoters who sometimes cheat them out of money and denizen drunkards who make condescending requests. "For example, I'm spinning some real shit at a party in Miami," says Manhattan-based DJ Beverly Bond, "but I'm not going left on them because the promoter wanted me to play all of those party songs. So the promoter comes up to me and says, 'It's real easy here, we play straight hip-hop.' I'm looking at him thinking, Do you know what straight hip-hop is? DJ Clark Kent played the night before, and I couldn't see them stepping to him and telling him what to play." Arguably the most popular and respected newcomer in the game, Bond threw on some predictable tracks by Mobb Deep, Beenie Siegel, and Memphis Bleek before packing her crates and coming back home.

"A male DJ will play any song as long as it gets the crowd rocking," quips Soho-based DJ Belinda—and get paid significantly more. As she points out, Marc Ronson, Grandmaster Flash, and Funkmaster Flex get paid up to thousands of dollars per party, but most women have to supplement their incomes with day jobs like promoting, special events, dancing, acting, whatever. "Clubs are still paying women between $175 to $250 a night in comparison," says Becker. The distinction between the sexes lies not in technique—Brooklyn-born veteran Cocoa Chanelle, now in her late twenties, can "cross the arms, use the crossfader with my mouth, go behind my back, under my legs, with my back"—but perhaps in how women listen to music and the way they present it. "I think female DJs are more spiritually conscious and are more likely to play music by artists that have a social message, like Common, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, and Talib Kweli," says Becker. "Male DJs—and I'm talking about hip-hop—are really into playing strident, testosterone-driven hip-hop."

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