Ladies First


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.

“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.”

“I would say as a generalization that when it comes to emotional music, women have a broader appreciation for it than men do,” says Bobbito “DJ Cucumber Slice” Garcia, who resides at Apt. on 13th Street. “A lot of DJs don’t actually dance; it’s a really interesting phenomenon to me. But I think that most female DJs I’ve seen, like Belinda Becker and Beverly Bond, come from a dance background. When you come from a music-aficionado background and start DJ’ing, it presents a different sensibility.”

The slew of female neophytes, who usually spin at posh clubs and lounges, aren’t necessarily tech geeks or tricksters who’ll cut and scratch the groove out of a song two minutes in. “There’s nothing more annoying than when I am at a party trying to get my dance on and someone just gets scratch-happy on me,” says 25-year-old Japanese American DJ Erica “E-Love” Hamilton. “I’ll cut in between a chorus of a Premiere track, but I try to be as subtle as possible.” With the exception of seasoned revolutionaries Kaori and Cocoa Chanelle, when women gig at clubs and lounges, the groove is generally more laid-back.

Once upon a time in SoHo, A mélange of hip-hop aficionados and industry people gather at a re-launch party for Honey magazine. DJ Beverly Bond, surrounded by kaya-puffing male groupies, becomes lifted in turn by every nod and grimace of satisfaction. Maryland native Bond, whose Sony studio headphones are squashing her gigantic ‘fro, cruises from M.O.P. to Prince to Buena Vista Social Club to Jay-Z, “gradually telling a story,” says Joe’s Pub co-owner and publicist Jodie Becker. E.R.‘s Eriq La Salle sits a few feet away from the booth, frantically pumping his limbs, while two female patrons squawk about who’s going to start DJ’ing first. “Spinning is so sexy,” says girl one; the other rolls her neck in total agreement.

Bond is not a turntablist in the purist Jazzy Joyce, Cocoa Chanelle, or even Kuttin Kandi sense of the term. While she does cut gracefully, her skills lie in how and what she blends to move the crowd. Giving a lesson in Africa’s continuum in Black music virtually every time she plays, Bond will weave a quilt patching Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Ibrahim Ferrer to the Notorious B.I.G. and Erick Sermon seamlessly.

“I know that I have set myself apart from girls who are models, who are trying to be DJs and trying to be trendy,” Bond says several weeks later. “I like to surprise people. I changed the game in a way.” Bond supports her record collection and supplements her income by modeling, since collecting records in hip-hop is particularly expensive. Unlike techno or house music, rap DJ’ing generally relies on heavy sampling that crosses into soul, world, and Latin music, making record shopping a costly, arduous sport. “For hip-hop [vinyl], you gotta get your old-school hip-hop, for soul you gotta go diggin’ through every little record shop you can find, little mom-and-pop stores, thrift shops,” says Bond. A 5-foot-9-inch amber-colored honey, Bond doesn’t care about lugging 60-some pounds of musical biscuits up and down the narrow steps of her fifth-story walk-up almost every night of the week. Since 1999, dozens of crates, jam-packed shelves, and equipment have replaced the furniture that once cushioned the butts of the friends who’ve urged her to pursue DJ’ing as a full-time gig.

In just two short years, Bond has become the MVP of the club scene, due in part to her nights as Joe’s Pub resident DJ. “I was like a club head, the person who the DJ played for,” says Bond, “so it was kinda easy for me to absorb what they did, and taking it to finding my own flow.” When she’s not on tour with Musiq Soulchild or Sunshine Anderson, Bond spins at Joe’s Pub on Tuesdays.

And still, while Bond and a handful of others have earned respect in hip-hop’s fight club, female DJs on the whole have a long misogynist road ahead of them. Hip-hop culture’s undercurrent is organically violent toward women. Videos, anthems, and artists go to supa-dupa homoerotic lengths to reaffirm their unyielding devotion to their brothers and neighborhoods, and their rabid disdain for the opposite sex. Belinda Becker, who has an infant daughter, tries not to play music that promotes any kind of hatred. However, the popular consensus from women who focus strictly on hip-hop/soul is not to bring gender politics onto the dancefloor. “I’m not really too much into censorship,” says Cocoa Chanelle, “so if there’s a record that bothers me, I try not to get too personal to where I am like, Well, this offends me, but everyone else wants to hear it.”

This apathetic attitude toward gender politics in the hip-hop nation has resulted in a scarcity of female role models. “For the most part, I don’t see a lot of positive women with at least some commercial status that I can think of who are representing women in hip-hop,” says activist and 5th Platoon member Candace Custodio, better known as DJ Kuttin Kandi. A co-founder of a collective of DJs, artists, and B-girls called the Anomolies, the 25-year-old Filipina American is one of the most respected beat jugglers in the country. Kandi spins (usually with her longtime partner and boyfriend, DJ Roli Rho) at various underground clubs around the city. “From my own personal conclusion,” says Belinda Becker, “hip-hop is a much more violent world than other musical genres. If I’m in a crowded house-music club, I am not afraid. But when I’m in a hip-hop club and it’s really crowded and it’s tense, you just know instinctively something is going to happen. And it usually does.”

“I’ve had owners come up to me and there’ll be a group of Black people there and I’ll be playing some new shit, like the new Jay-Z,” says E-Love, “and the owner says, ‘Stop playing hip-hop. I don’t want these people to dance, I don’t want them here.’ ” One of the hardest working DJs in the city, E-Love quit her day job as a Giant Step promoter to pursue singing and writing her own music and DJ’ing. “I really want to end up producing beats and creating music,” says the Bronx transplant, “and I figured the more I listened to music and the more that I actually focused on music that’s already out, the more I would learn.”

For the most part, female DJs don’t segue into production with the same speed as male DJs like Pete Rock, Evil Dee, Funkmaster Flex, and Clue, who have made wildly successful transitions into beat-tailoring and business. Jazzy Joyce, who laid down her first recording in 1983 as a member of a group called Sweet Trio on Tommy Boy Records, is only now getting into production; same goes for her Ladies Night partner Cocoa Chanelle and Spinderella. Kaori and E-Love are producing their own r&b projects, yet to be slated for release, and Bond says she is aggressively producing “soulful r&b, soulful hip-hop” tracks on her Triton keyboard. While talk and plans of producing are great for now, female DJs in hip-hop are in the proverbial studio in the same sense as every wannabe rapper in the country. Only time will tell what will materialize.

“The whole notion of one person reading the crowd and then directing the flow and mood of the entire group and then creating one singular vibe is, well, a woman’s thing,” says Jodie Becker. Tonight at NV, Kaori is in control of the masses of sweaty bodies bumping, humping, and grinding into each other without mercy to the bass resonating through the club’s excellent sound system. People are getting their freak on. And even if only a handful will survive the furor, female DJs in hip-hop are not going anywhere, as long as there are asses to deliver to their mothership.