Where are the Women in Drum & Bass?
Where are the Women in Drum & Bass?June 24, 2020
Through her extensive research and conversations with ravers, DJs, and producers from the ‘90s to now, Julia Toppin tackles the history of jungle and the role of women in the jungle and drum & bass scene.
In electronic music, drum & bass and jungle have long been sidelined; maligned even. But these days the genres together make up a major money-making industry, powered by huge international festivals like Let It Roll and Hospitality. And for its hardcore fans, drum & bass and jungle is a way of life. But for far too long, that way of life has continually relegated and excluded women.
The commonly understood history of jungle is almost exclusively told from a male perspective. DJs and MCs like Fabio and Grooverider, Jumping Jack Frost, Goldie, Dillinja, Roni Size, Ed Rush & Optical, Rebel MC (now Congo Natty), Andy C, GQ, Moose, and Skibadee — we are told — pioneered the early sound, and as a result, their names have been carved forever into the history books.
But how many have heard about Kemistry, Storm, Rap, and Flight? How many know that DJ Rap released one of the best-selling drum & bass albums of all time with 1999’s Learning Curve? Or that DJ Flight mixed drum & bass dubs on BBC Radio 1Xtra for five years — from its launch in 2002 until 2007 — while touring the world as a Metalheadz resident? Or that Empress and Reid Speed have been playing drum & bass at raves in America and around the world for over 20 years?
Books and documentaries often paint a picture that largely excludes women. Take Metalheadz. Widely considered one of the most influential imprints in drum & bass, the label has, through retelling of popular history, become the brainchild of Goldie and Goldie alone, despite the fact Kemistry & Storm actually introduced Goldie to jungle before the three of them founded and ran Metalheadz together. And a deeper dive reveals several female DJs, MCs and vocalists who’ve seemingly been left out of the documented history of the genre: DJ Dazee, Miss Pink, DJ Wildchild, and Dark Phoenix. MC Chikaboo, Lady MC, and Deeizm. Vocalists Diane Charlemagne (“Inner City Life”), Onalee (Reprazent), and Elizabeth Troy (“Greater Love”) all contributed greatly to the scene. And this list goes on and on. How have these talented artists missed their place in drum & bass history?
Perhaps this explains why, 20 years later in the drum & bass scene — where jungle is still going strong but not the dominant sound — the landscape is predominantly male and not culturally mixed. Vick Bain’s ground-breaking report, Counting The Music Industry: The Gender Gap highlights the fact that women currently only make up 5% of artists signed to records labels or publishing deals in drum & bass. Sadly, that statistic could easily be applied to gender balance at D&B raves too, where women are often a tiny minority found at the front of the stage engulfed by a sea of men.
And my research into the history of jungle and the role of women in jungle and drum & bass has revealed three insights. Firstly, in the ‘90s, the jungle scene was balanced in terms of race and gender, but by the end of the decade, it had lost most women and black people. Secondly, some men tried to errantly justify the loss of women to aesthetics of sound and space. Finally, professional women in drum & bass and jungle are severely marginalised by men at all levels. However, these women are now organising and fighting for change. To draw these conclusions, I interviewed several black and white women from around the world: ravers, DJs, and producers from the ‘90s to now. I wanted to be inclusive and add another layer to the story.
Evolution and Exodus
In the mid-90s, as jungle was bubbling up from inner cities around the UK, the genre began to represent a new form of homegrown music that was identifiable to and with black British youth culture. But as it began penetrating the mainstream, it also it represented a threat. The late Radio 1 legend John Peel describes the BBC’s attitude at the time.
“Jungle makes people uneasy. Their prejudices are being confronted. When I started playing rap, a senior producer came to me and said, you shouldn’t be playing this music, it’s music for black criminals and crack dealers. I found that reaction almost as interesting as the music itself.”
Some music magazines echoed similar sentiments. In April 1994, Mixmag ran the feature titled, “Is Jungle Too Ruff?”, arguing that there were those who believed that without jungle, “the entire rave scene would have collapsed.” While on the other side of the debate, “… there’s those who argue that jungle music is a nasty business, too mixed in with hard drugs, violence, and bad vibes, killing the scene without mercy.”
With headlines like “Cocaine makes a comeback as ravers head for the jungle” from The Times in 1994, it seemed the national press had found a new folk devil to demonise due to jungle’s cultural origins in black music culture and the rave scene. Jungle raves became associated with the rise of crack cocaine, and criminality like muggings and gun violence — though there was rarely any real evidence to back up these fears.
The jungle scene soon became racially profiled and overpoliced. Afeni Neville recalls exiting a club at dawn and seeing armed police surrounding the place. DJ Flight remembers one promoter storming the decks, shouting at her because she played a jungle tune in her mix. Venues changed their music policy and stopped playing jungle overnight. Promoters could not find venues to hold their raves. The sound went back to the underground leaving drum & bass, which Evening Standard writer Zoe Williams described as a more “musical, technologically complex strain of jungle” with a “trendier” name, to take over as the dominant genre in its place.
Some felt that drum & bass, which had evolved from jungle, left behind the black musical foundations of reggae, soul, hip-hop, jazz and, occasionally, the signature syncopated breakbeats. This harder, colder sound had lost jungle’s warm foundational undertones, and was evolving while speed garage was bubbling up. Speed garage or UK garage (UKG) bounced in with its aspirational Moet and Versace filled aesthetic — reminiscent of jungle’s early raving days — and sped up pip-squeak vocals from R&B classics. Most female and black jungle ravers jumped ship from drum & bass to this sexy new sound, and never looked back.
History Repeats Itself
Joanna Louise Hall’s research in drum & bass and Dr Christabel Stirling’s research in dubstep found that women can be made to feel uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces. In these raves, women encountered different types of “masculine energy” that at times felt misogynistic. They describe male ravers’ frequent use of physical movements that suggest strength, power, and aggression — for example punching the air, swearing, and roaring. In 2009, Hall argued that “contemporary drum & bass club culture is no longer a place where female clubbers can feel safe from male predatory behaviour.” While Stirling asserts in 2016 how music genres can become “stuck” to ideas of “maleness” that replicate themselves in social spaces.
However true or untrue as that may be, the reality is that women in the drum & bass scene face more discrimination at the professional and technical levels than those in other genres. Vick Bain’s research outlines how the industry average for the representation of women at record labels in all genres is almost 20%. For drum & bass and grime, the figure drops down to 5%, with metal at 6%, and jazz at 11%.
Academics like Freida Abtan and Tami Gadir have shown that some men still view women as less technical and believe that some female DJs are booked for their looks. Being a female DJ is “like a double-edged sword,” Reid Speed says, because you have to overcome the assumption that you do not know what you are doing. You’re forced to be a perfectionist. “You have to come correct every time,” Empress says. Flight recalls a male peer’s scorn that she was given exclusive dubplates: “He acted like I wasn’t worthy of cutting tunes.”
Everyone I spoke to remembers seeing men lean over their decks to interfere with their sets, or becoming hostile to feedback in the studio. One sound engineer even adjusted levels on the mixer while Flight was in the mix. “I was like, what are you doing?”
“I always know when I am being handled differently by a promoter or treated differently because I am a woman,” Jessica Boateng, who DJs bass and UGK as Tailor Jae, states. One promoter recently tried booking women for a wet T-shirt DJing contest, prompting social media outrage. “It is shameful this is still conceivable in 2020,” read a statement by the founders of female drum & bass network, EQ50.
All these assumptions about drum & bass being a “masculine” sound often deny female DJs access to opportunity. Which is a shame, when there are so many great DJs and MCs out there: Mantra, Kyrist, Sherelle, Sweetpea, Mizeyesis, Mollie Collins, Lady V Dubz, Y-Zer, Larnie Moles, Katalyst, Harriet Jaxxon — and the list goes on. History seems to be trying to repeat itself, with many women in the scene almost invisible. But hope is not lost.
Where We Go From Here
Digital networks have long provided women with a safe space for connecting, nurturing, training, and advocating. Set up by Mantra, who’s behind the party series and label Rupture, EQ50 has been running workshops on drum & bass DJing, production, and promotion for the last 18 months. “We wanted to work collectively,” Mantra states, adding, “We felt that the industry wasn’t putting enough effort into proper representation, so wanted to have an impact affecting a wider change.” In addition to their popular Facebook and SoundCloud presence, EQ50 collaborates with fabric, Keep Hush, Represent, Rise, and Worldwide FM. Similarly, in just over five years, Lady V Dubz has taken Girls Take Action from a support network for DJs and MCs that began on Rough Tempo radio to major festival appearances at Glastonbury and Boomtown.
And last year, four women working at drum & bass powerhouse Hospital Records set up a Facebook networking group, which inspired a monthly SoundCloud playlist and live sessions with department heads and producers like Pola and Bryson. With the support of Hospital co-founder and director Chris Goss, they went further, devising a mentorship scheme for women that received over 100 applicants. Label Manager Nikki Ellis describes the initiatives as a commitment to moving things forward. “I really wanted to do something that was more impactful and committing ourselves as a label to making a change.”
For René King, who DJs and produces as Stay-C, her mentorship, which involves monthly sessions with the leadership team at Hospital Records, is “one of the best things to happen to me in my life.” René, who has been experimenting with production software from the age of 12, started producing D&B seriously in 2015 after being introduced to the sound at a party in 2011. “My tunes are sounding better than ever,” she says, adding that it is “awesome” that Hospital is helping her “because they really want the scene to grow.” Growth for René means “women helping other women. People helping other people.” Her mentorship educates her about the “totality of the scene” and how to have a long career. She states that Hospital is a “very committed” label. “It’s been such a gift to see how much they care about all of their artists.” In the future, she hopes to set up her own collective to help others “find the musicality in themselves.”
Nikki Ellis has also worked to improve the representation of women at Hospital Records — getting to “the root of the problem,” she says. Staffing numbers are almost equal at the label, and this January, they signed their first solo female artist, Flava D. All this success means Hospital is already going to repeat the scheme next year. Nikki describes all the departments being mindful of gender representation. “It’s just being way more conscious of it, being way more aware, making way more effort to source more female talent, and represent it in our compilations if it’s not exclusively signed artists.” These efforts stand to make more of a difference than some may imagine. Female ravers are encouraged by seeing themselves represented behind the decks, and as more take to the stage, more are sure to follow.”
“As a woman who DJs, I’m used to being the only female in the room or at events, so I’ve learnt to deal with it and handle myself,” Tailor Jae explains. “But it is always nice when you spot that one lady who you can feel a little bit safer around.”
With more women on the decks, in the studio, and in positions of influence behind the scenes, hopefully more doors will open for female artists in drum & bass. Perhaps these initiatives will be adopted by other labels. They should be — music is a people business. To balance this representation, Vick Bain is optimistic. “We can create an environment that allows women to step forward and be supported and nourished in the music created to the same extent that the men have been for a very long time.”
But the cycle will only be broken if those in power — DJs, promoters, labels, and agents — start looking to some of the amazing women already doing great things in drum & bass and jungle, because it’s well past time for change.