Where are all the women? Examining drum'n'bass' gender imbalance
With even veterans like Fabio decrying the genre’s maleness, it’s clear d’n’b has issues with diversity. We meet the scene’s female participants to find out why – and how they’re pushing the scales.
Can you remember what New Year’s resolutions you made in a hazy state at the start of 2018? Us neither. But DJ Mantra woke up with a clear head and a goal – to shake up the state of diversity in her beloved scene.
Her mission: to have at least one woman playing per room at each of her and husband Double O’s Rupture club nights. Not much of a stretch, you’d think. But she took some time to tally up the numbers for d’n’b’s heavy-hitter events. At Hospitality in 2017, she calculated that 251 sets were played by men and a grand total of two were played by women; at Critical it was 90 to three; and at Metalheadz it was 75 to one. Those numbers don’t lie.
Early on in drum’n’bass’ life, some of the scene’s highest profile DJs – from Kemistry & Storm to DJ Rap – were female. What’s gone wrong? And what can be done to change things? We spoke to some of the scene’s leading female participants – from old-school royalty to new school tastemakers – to get some insight.
In general terms it seems that drum ‘n’ bass is in rude health. “D’n’b is thriving across all sub-genres – it’s really alive at the moment,” says current rising star and jump-up flag-flyer Mollie Collins. “There are massive parties happening all the time, d’n’b artists at huge festivals and it’s growing every year.” Mantra agrees: “Loads of new labels and producers are popping up, vinyl sales are really high, there’s a brilliant jungle resurgence and the clubs are busy – musically it’s in a great place.”
But there’s an issue, it seems, with the riches spreading to more than a token handful of new female acts coming through. In an interview with Red Bull in 2015, Fabio – a true legend of the scene – spoke candidly of the genre’s gender imbalance: “D’n’b is still very male dominated. It shouldn't be, after being around for two decades – but unfortunately it hasn't changed much since the ‘90s in that respect.”
This weekend the We Love Jungle Awards tore the roof off of London’s Scala. Its promotional poster boasted an essay-length who’s who of rib-rattling royalty. But amongst the mega-list there was just one female – vocalist Dawn Penn. Women nominated in their categories didn’t even feature on the line-up. “After my post [about women on line-ups] the promoter approached me to play,” Mantra explains. “But the line up had already been released, nowhere on the flyer did it say 'more acts to be announced' and it felt like a pity booking so I politely declined. It felt like an afterthought.”
The awards themselves also demonstrated some engrained ways of thinking. Both the Drum & Bass Awards and the We Love Jungle Awards have a Best DJ and a Best Female category – the subtext being, of course, that it’s male as default. DJ Storm has been an industry leader since back in the day – she founded Metalheadz with Goldie and her DJ partner, Kemistry. She loves her scene but is finding it an increasingly problematic space for her sex. “All of these awards are a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Storm. She’s unhappy with the segregated accolades. But, she says, “if you don’t have a category for the ladies, I can guarantee 100% that none of us are gonna be nominated.”
So are there clues to the reasons behind this lack of diversity? All of the women that we speak to are quick to point out that they don’t feel as though they’re being intentionally excluded from the picture. One issue raised across the board is the scene’s increased focus on producer-DJs. “Club nights have shifted from less independent promoters to more label focused nights,” says Mantra. “So if you’re not releasing music under that label then you won’t be booked.” This may explain why Kyrist – Dispatch Recordings label manager and prolific crafter of late night dark and dirty tunes – is currently having an undeniable moment.
“I’m not sure that girls can make it now without also producing,” says Storm. “It seems like guys can make it as just DJs but it’s really hard for the women”. And those stepping into the studio must prepare for scrutiny. “There are still stereotypes with women who produce – ‘She has a ghost writer’ or ‘she just slept her way to the top’,” says Mantra. “Like there are women going about shagging producers so they can get tips on how to make their snare punch – please!”
It’s like DJ Rap always said: “If a female DJ does a bad set she’s not being booked for six months, but as a guy you just had an off night
When Storm was coming through in the mid-‘90s, getting gigs was charmingly pre-millennial. “We used to send out promotional tapes and a CV!” she reminisces. “We never said that we were females. Then we’d turn up and people would be like, ‘Oh! You’re girls!’” These days social media has put paid to the luxury of anonymity. The price of success is an inevitable backlash from the keyboard warriors, chomping at the bit to attack everything from mixing skills to lipstick colours. Mollie Collins is no stranger to the venom: “Of course if a young female comes and grows quickly compared to someone who’s worked hard for years it’s going to piss them off,” she states, with impressive magnanimity.
So, it seems, females hoping to justify their place in the space must do so armed with extra skills. “Whether its fair or not, my advice to women is that they’re just gonna have to try that little bit harder than the boys,” says Storm. “It’s like DJ Rap always said: “If a female DJ does a bad set she’s not being booked for six months, but as a guy you just had an off night’”. Kyrist agrees, choosing to rise to the challenge: “From a DJ perspective, females are going to stand out, so may as well use that to their advantage and make sure the tune selection and mixing is on point.”
Feelings tend to be mixed on female-only line-ups. Neither Collins or Kyrist are fans. “I’ve always had a bit of a gripe with this one,” says Kyrist. “I'm all for supporting female line-ups, I just think it's about time that society viewed a female DJ as a normality.” But on the flip of this, past events carved a necessary space for drum and bass’ other. Storm’s Feline nights at Herbal are the stuff of jungle legend. Mantra has fond memories of getting some of her first gigs there and Storm remembers it as being “really positive”.
Quotas can also often be considered a dirty word. But, as Mantra puts it, “We live in London, probably the most diverse city in the world – our crowd and line-ups should represent this. And if they don’t we should be making steps to address the issue. It’s not good enough to say ‘but it’s all about the music and nothing else’. We have a social responsibility to make our scene progressive. I would never sacrifice our integrity or the quality of the line-ups and book a woman just to tally up numbers. The fact is there are amazing women DJs killing it.”
In a recent Guardian webchat on electronic music Annie Mac was pained when pushed: “I cannot name a man who is publicly pushing forwards women’s rights and making a point of appointing women.” The truth is that soldiers need allies. Perhaps the key is promoters and label managers seeing diversity less as a chore or a profit-risk and more as an opportunity to create nights that are exciting, innovative and nuanced. “Putting on a diverse line up is actually really easy to do once you start to implement it,” says Mantra. “Piece the line up tapestry together to make it a colourful work of art.”
Plus, as Storm puts it, there’s an emerging “string of women doing things on their own terms.” She cites the likes of Djinn, who runs the Formless club night in Manchester, while Mollie Collins shouts out Louise Jones-Roberts, owner of club Chemistry in Canterbury. There is an unmistakable camaraderie between the females in the scene. “I think a positive way to encourage more females to get involved would be for the ones that are already heavily involved in the scene to pass on their skills and knowledge to the ones who may be newer to it all,” says Kyrist.
“I think there’s a door slightly ajar right now,” says Storm. “What I’m seeing is that we’re not afraid to speak, whether the guys like it or not.”