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Sisters Who Spin

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Spinning Sisters: Female DJs get their first breaks at the all-girl party Sister.

While there's an unspoken sexism in the rave scene, the all-girl DJ party called Sister offers up-and-coming female DJs some recognition.

By Michelle Goldberg

The back room of the Cat's Alley Grill, where the all-girl DJ party Sister is held, is red and plush, with curvy banquettes along the wall, huge swaths of velvet hanging from the ceiling and incense making the air smoky enough to compensate for the loss of atmosphere resulting from the cigarette ban. Novice DJ Kristin Vincent, tall and casually gorgeous in shiny parachute pants, is running around lighting candles and making last-minute arrangements before the party begins.

Though the event is only a few weeks old and held on Mondays, by 11pm the back room is comfortably crowded, and a small group of girls is dancing to house music in the front room. Tonight's DJs huddle around a tall table covered with pictures of supermodels and eat a box of chocolate-covered cookies.

"It's a damn hard night to do," says veteran DJ The Baroness, who used to play with the San Francisco acid-jazz outfit The Broun Fellinis. "If you're going to do a Monday night, you have to make it unique." She wouldn't want to move the party to a weekend, though, because she hopes that on those nights the girls who break through at Sister will be getting booked at larger parties.

Sister, which was started in early December by Vincent, The Baroness and DJ Polywog, isn't San Francisco's first all-girl DJ party, but it's the first since the early '90s. "Many years ago, Polywog and I got our first breaks at a party called 'Your Sister's House,' " says The Baroness. "Now that we've started to make it, we wanted to create a party to give back, to nurture up-and-coming female DJs."

Among those who got their start at Sister are Vincent and Miss Knight, a house DJ who recently spun at the Treasure Island rave. She says over and over again, "I'm so lucky. I never forget how lucky I am." Vincent has only been DJing since June. After graduating from college, she went to London, came back with a bunch of records and starting spinning. "Polywog was giving me so much support, even though I hardly knew how to play," she says. "I just thought, 'Now is the time to start something for the girls.' It was right there-- we just had to grab it."

Of course, an all-girl DJ night is not as obvious as, say, an all-girl singer-songwriter fest like The Lilith Fair. The anonymity of electronic music was supposed to make gender irrelevant. It never worked out that way, though. The Baroness, who began her career spinning funk and hip-hop on the South Side of Chicago, says that while DJ culture isn't intentionally a boys' club, it took her years to get the guys to take her seriously. "For seven years I had to play on the most rinky-dink sound systems," she says. "Plenty of times people would come up to the DJ booth and ask me where my boyfriend was, even though I had the headphones on."

DJ Polywog, who has recently been touring with Jane's Addiction, says there has always been an unspoken sexism in the rave scene. "There's a feeling that women should be at the party to look good," she says. "They're the sex toys of the party, the flowers of the party. If they're controlling things, people get threatened."

A thicket of electric blue braids falls around Polywog's head, matching her bright eye shadow. When I ask her how long she's been DJing, she replies, "since the fifth grade, really." In fact, though, she spent years as a professional ballerina, studying at the School of American Ballet and at Juilliard. "I was willing to dance on my toes and make them bloody because I love music so much," she says.

Most club nights are organized around a musical style--there are house parties, drum and bass parties, experimental hip-hop parties, all with endless micro-genres and their attendant cliques. But because Sister has women as a unifying theme, their parties can be more eclectic. They have jungle nights, hip-hop nights and house nights. Polywog's set segues from lowrider hip-hop beats to bursts of drum and bass, then slows it down with old funk records cut up with fuzzy breaks, while in the front room Miss Knight spins straightforward house for a few girls who have enough energy to really dance. "It's like four parties in one!" laughs The Baroness.

What Polywog and others want most is integration into the scene. They're even willing to let a few men spin at Sister, provided they dress in drag. "My main beef is when someone wants to hire me because I'm female," says The Baroness. "But once I get my foot in the door, the next time they ask me back, it's because I'm a bad-ass DJ. The novelty will wear off, and then you have to be good."

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From the February 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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