Equaliser: Challenging Gender Inequality in DJing

In the chilly backroom of trendy bar and deli Sheaf Street Cafeteria, five figures are sat in a circle of chairs. Lucy Scarisbrick – alias Lucy Locket – is at the centre doing introductions. Behind her sits a hefty set of Technics and a stack of aged vinyl records. This is Equaliser’s all women, transgender and non-binary DJ school.

Equaliser was established to highlight new talent and give people an intimate, safer space to practice and learn how to mix. Leeds scene stalwart and Brudenell Groove resident Ranyue Zhang was inspired to put the school together during her MA research into women in music. The collective encompasses a network of talented DJs and performers based in Yorkshire who identify as cis women, trans women, non-binary and trans people. Regular parties are currently in operation in both London and Leeds with the tagline Party for everyone, party for equality.

As DJing novices but long-time lovers of House and Techno, myself, Eva, Noah and Justine have attended the Equaliser workshop to develop skills behind the decks. Although everyone appears apprehensive, we’re all really looking forward to finally fully understanding what “BPM” means.

Lucy explains her background in the Leeds scene from the 1990s and transition to teaching DJing at Leeds Metropolitan University: “During [Leeds Met] classes, you could physically see the men step forward and the women step back in a co-educational space. Here, it’s a different atmosphere totally. Remember, the aim isn’t to chuck you out of this and you’ll be Annie Mac. But I’m going to get you to grips with things; show you how to work the equipment works and most importantly, have fun!”

Those who are not men have been making, mixing and producing since the dawn of electronica. Johanna M. Beyer, Else Marie Pade, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Anderson are just a handful of early pioneers who transformed traditional notions of music with their innovative creations. From the diversity of the disco scene, to the subversive sexuality of Berlin techno and progressive hedonism of the Second Summer of Love, the history of the genre is rooted in marginalised identities and non-conformist ideals.

“One of the makings of a good DJ is knowing the roots of the music you are playing. The social history of Blues, for instance.” Lucy explains. “It’s a narrative of oppression, of overcoming. You can tell that story with your tracks.”

Recent years have witnessed a plethora of fantastic female talent. Grimes, FKA twigs, Avalon Emerson, Or:la, Octo Octa, Helena Hauff, Yaeji, UMFANG, Peggy Gou, the list goes on. Two consecutive DJ of the Year Awards have been bestowed on female artists; in 2016 to Black Madonna and in 2017 to Nina Kraviz. World renowned collectives such as Discwoman are taking it upon themselves to question hierarchies and stereotypes. Then there is the work of grassroots, local organisations such as Equaliser which, alongside the likes of Sheffield’s ‘Feminist Nightclub’ Fruit n Juice and Bristol’s Mix Nights, seeks to equip potential turntablists with tangible skills.

Such collectives could not have come sooner, with even a cursory glance at statistics showing that women, and especially trans and non-binary people, are woefully underrepresented in every facet of the industry. Dance music, symptomatically of almost all contemporary music genres, is undeniably a man’s game. Clubs and festivals are consistently convoluted with all-male line-ups, but the normalisation of this phenomenon is persuasive. Even within West Yorkshire’s own extensive repertoire of events which spoil residents for choice each weekend, the majority of names are men. Representation is much more than a tokenistic issue; these environments can be toxic for women and non-gender conforming people.

Exclusion tactics are at play embodied by comments such as those made by Gieling co-founder Konstantin last year who complained that women were “usually worse at Djing than men”. The statement was hastily retracted following vehement public vitriol, but Konstantin’s remarks embody the ethos of the DJ elite: No Girls Allowed. A trudge through YouTube commenters on any woman, non-binary or trans producer or DJ will inevitably dredge up criticisms focused solely on their appearance, and this only worsens when the artist is a person of colour. To be a woman or minority artist in this unwelcoming environment is to be constantly under the spotlight: a level of expertise is demanded and expected by contemporaries.

“There’s a greater bar. You can’t just be good in this industry [as a woman]. You’ve got to be bloody excellent just to get noticed” Lucy tells us. “In the 90s I was part of a gender-balanced night called SpeedQueen. When that ended, it was a shock to the system. I realised that the people who are currently on the decks aren’t that interested in inviting us. Equaliser enables people to find their own language around music in conservations which are maybe a bit hostile, whether that’s intentional or not.”  

Stationed at the booth at Sheaf Street, Lucy is taking us on a tour through an intimidating display of machinery. “So, you’ve got your CDJ’s at the top… monitor, PA, turntables and…mixer”. She briefly describes the function of each component, taking care to explain what to do if something isn’t working and how to avoid being electrocuted. Flicking a switch brings the mixer to life, and an array of lights begin flashing. The number of knobs, dials and buttons seems daunting, but Lucy’s deft hands are making easy work. Pulling Derrick Carter’s Where U At and Slave To You by Hot Toddy out of their sheaths, she places the records on the turntables. “Funky House is the easiest genre to mix with”, she winks. “The instrumental aspects can work as good filler for any potential slip ups.”

Next comes mastering the faders: Lucy instructs us to switch between tracks. We count beats and move on to matching them. This proves tricky as it’s a struggle to be assertive with the spinning disc, but after a few false starts we’ve all managed to mix from one song to the other (followed by a round of clapping and voracious dancing by the team). A few tricks of the trade are offered up: a thumb gently held against the spinning record will slow the speed, and twisting the centre spindle makes its faster. Mirroring the tempo is notoriously difficult on vinyl because there’s no handy pitch shifter to tell you the BPM as on CDJs. But after years of standing in awe on the other side of the decks, finally learning how to use them feels liberating. The plethora of hardware is no longer menacing, and the group is eagerly discussing places to practice and tracks they’d love to meld.

The three hours have flown by, and we are all keen to head out to the Leeds Queer Film Festival after-party Wet Cake. Despite only surfacing in September this year, Equaliser is already building a steady reputation as a not-to-miss night with a difference. Upon arriving at Live Art Bistro, a collaborative studio for creatives on Regent Street, it’s easy to see why. The Victorian warehouse is decked out in colourful throws, fairy lights and bean-bags. On the dancefloor, an eclectic crowd is dancing to a smorgasbord tracklist of Grime, Trap, Techno, House and Disco. There’s none of the seriousness or pretentious vibes that occasionally dominate small, exclusive showcases of collective residents. The ethos is an infallible fun-time.

Here is a glimpse of what dance music should embody: an ecstatic space in which everyone and anyone is encouraged to take part. In the era of the global web, electronic has risen to be the most influential genre of music; its fanbase is all-encompassing and far-reaching. In the face of discouragement and prejudice women, trans and non-binary people make up an overwhelmingly influential fraction of dance music’s fanbase. It’s time to start giving us a turn on the decks. 

A testament to a new kind of nightlife project which is welcoming, diverse and innovative, Equaliser is sure to make waves and break barriers. Watch this space for exciting projects from an approachable team truly committed to democratising DJing.

Equaliser committee members include:

Luce, Zoya, Tami, Mariiin, Sayang, Carlos, Lucy Locket, Ranyue

Free workshops are available on a monthly basis and are funded through Equaliser’s events.

Great thanks to Lucy Scarisbrick and the participants of the March 24th 2018 workshop: Justine, Noah and Eva.