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Who Are the Women Pioneers of Dance Music?

28/04/2016 17:10

DJ Magazine has just published its 25th birthday issue, with a cover featuring 25 pioneers of electronic music who've previously appeared on the cover over the past 25 years. Many of these figures arguably chose themselves, but there has been some criticism online and on social media from people pointing out that there are no women amongst the 25.

Women have been a crucial part of dance music ever since its inception. From DJ/producers to promoters to managers, agents, PR reps and beyond, women have contributed immeasurably to the globalised scene. For the 25th anniversary of DJ Mag, though, we had some very distinct criteria to be one of the chosen 25 pioneers. The pioneer had to have been a DJ/producer on the cover of DJ Mag in the past 25 years, and had to have pioneered something that's changed the landscape of the scene within the past quarter of a century. 

This criteria immediately discounted the early pioneers of techno and house music, because they did their main pioneering work before 1991. So the Belleville Three from Detroit - Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Sanderson - were ruled out by virtue of releasing their seminal work in the mid- to late-eighties, and similarly the late eighties pioneers of the UK scene - Danny Rampling in London, Mike Pickering in Manchester etc - were also eliminated from the list. However, inside the same issue, we've run a lengthy piece covering the people who laid the foundations for the modern-day dance scene pre-1991 - from electronic icons like Delia Derbyshire, to funkateers James Brown and George Clinton, dubmeisters Lee 'Scratch' Perry and King Tubby, electro fiends Kraftwerk and Bambaataa, disco cats like Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Tom Moulton, Chicago house pioneers like Frankie Knuckles and Marshall Jefferson, acid house don DJ Pierre, and so on.

We began drawing up lists. Carl Craig represented the second wave of Detroit techno. Aphex Twin represented the experimental tendency, Coldcut the audio-visual element. David Guetta comes in for a lot of flak, but - love him or hate him - he was instrumental in breaking dance music in mainstream America. Smokin' Jo was in my own original 25, for inspiring other women to DJ amongst other achievements, but the question here became 'Is a self-referential reason sufficient?' 

This 25 pioneers feature is historical, and historically women have been under-represented in dance music. That's one of the reasons why DJ Mag ran a Women In Dance Music special a couple of months ago. One of the themes of this issue was that change is happening in the industry, but it needs to happen faster. 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Perhaps we should have included at least one or two women pioneers on the 25th anniversary cover. But as the list developed, it became difficult to replace people. Should Sister Bliss from live dance act Faithless be in there? But then we'd have to replace Liam Howlett from The Prodigy. The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Orbital also missed out, as we concluded that The Prodigy had the biggest reach and impact of all the live dance bands. And so on. 

Should Annie Mac from BBC Radio 1 have been included at the expense of Pete Tong? There's been a slew of wicked women techno DJs over the past two decades - from originals like Kelli Hand, Brenda Russell and Misstress Barbara through noughties artists like Ellen Allien, Miss Kittin, Andrea Parker and Magda to more recent talent including Jennifer Cardini, Ida Engberg, DJ Rebekah, Nina Kraviz, Nastia, Tania Vulcano, Steffi, Louisahhh!!! and beyond. But should any of these have replaced Jeff Mills or Richie Hawtin in our pioneers list? Plenty of other prominent male techno figureheads didn't make the cut either - Dave Clarke, Mr C, Chris Liebing, Dave Angel, Darren Emerson, Ricardo Villalobos, Loco Dice, Tiga... Any list automatically causes controversy by the nature of who it excludes. 

Plenty of women have been on the cover of DJ Mag in recent times - two out of four this year, for instance - and we pride ourselves on being an inclusive publication. Retrospective positive discrimination wasn't going to serve anybody, but the history books are full of privileged white men and all too often the contribution of women is overlooked or marginalised. Looking forwards, there needs to be prominent female role models in all walks of life - particularly electronic music - and DJ Mag needs to continue to play its part in our scene.

For that reason, I now believe it was a mistake not to include any women on our 25th birthday cover. It's not a great look to have such a 'sausage-fest' (a load of forty- and fifty-something blokes), especially now that increasing numbers of women are DJing, producing, promoting, managing, running labels and so on more than ever. Even though a lot of women are doing things on their own terms, there's still sexism in the industry - whether that be labels just featuring bikini-clad babes on their CD covers, female DJs being judged by their looks over and above their music, or whatever. DJ Mag's very own Top 100 DJs poll - voted for by the public - threw up some horribly sexist responses from high-profile international DJs late last year when we asked them why there aren't more women in the Top 100 ("They should spend less time in the make-up store", and so forth). Sexism in the industry needs to be challenged, at all levels, and we should've recognised that women often have to work twice as hard - and be twice as good - to 'make it' in electronic music. The struggles some have experienced - the comments, the abuse - needs to be recognised and called out. The dance scene without women is unthinkable.

So we should've had at least one or two women on our 25th birthday cover - if not more. Maybe Maya Jane Coles and Dutch techno pioneer Miss Djax from the '90s, or Smokin' Jo, or DJ Rap or Kemistry & Storm from drum & bass, or any other number of candidates. How many should there have been? The criteria should have been slightly different - definitely. It's good to debate these things sometimes. I've no doubt, anyway, that the next list in 25 years will be stuffed full of female pioneers. 

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