Turning the Tables
When she was 12 years old, Jamie Crouch got hit by a car. The doctors put metal plates in her arm and now she's bionic--DJ Bionic. Standing 6 feet 1 inch, and pulchritudinous to the extreme, she flows into a room like electricity through an open circuit; she is wholly ecstatic.
Watch her dismiss pleasantries and perennial poor health to talk to you at breakbeat speed, epiphanies dropping like iron-poor ravers at 8 a.m. Now she sits down for a second--only a second--and rifles through her bag, pulling out enough pharmaceuticals to supply a hockey squad of Hunter S. Thompsons. And then the anecdotes begin: A line like "This thyroid thing started a few years ago" bumps up against "I lived in the woods for a month with all these hippies--it was just this crazy kind of alternative experience" bumps up against "The first time I played a jungle set in Minneapolis, I broke it down and played Sade, and the people went nuts!"
Bumps up against reality. On a dank Wednesday night at the Front, Crouch--the only female DJ in town with a regular gig--is breaking the beat down, but no one is going nuts.
She hunkers over her Technics 1200 turntables, trying to pull off a brazen mix: a DJ's triple axel, triple-toe loop, so to speak. Her crossfader shifts from right to left as a slow, flat hip-hop track rubs up against a skippity-wicked jungle groove.
You can do it with her. Put one foot on a 10-speed bike and the other on a Greyhound. Do jumping jacks all the way to Des Moines.
And do it as she does, wearing the least user-friendly DJ attire this side of scuba gear: a red leather miniskirt that could make Nancy Sinatra shiver and a pair of knee-high, Pam Grier riot-gear boots. She wobbles above her record, damn close to taking a 6-feet-1-inch tumble.
And for what? The club is cold and empty. The crowd is a lackluster assemblage most easily designated "Friends of the Next Band." Bionic could play "Cat's in the Cradle" and none of the assorted 15 in attendance would fuss. Some would even laugh at such a juicy juxtaposition: Ah irony, sweet sweet irony.
No worries, though. Bionic stares a hole in her left turntable as she gingerly fades out the rap track, and the jungle record goes from minuscule to monolithic--not exactly smoothly, but surely. Smiling as she pulls it off, she wobbles over to her record crate and quickly finds another record, then wobbles back and slaps it down on the wheels of steel.
About three people understand what's happening. One of them even applauds.
Though she won't admit to it, you can tell right away: DJ Bionic wants to be massive. Massive you say? What is this, this massive?
Massive means Massive.
Massive means it's 4 a.m. and she's headlining a stadium-sized warehouse rave in some beautiful future she can barely conceive. Five-thousand red-eyed, baggy-pantsed, lysergically fueled flower puppies are going out of their flower-pickin' minds, popping plugs in their ears and leaping like lemmings against backstop-sized speakers so loud they beat the kids down like Chilean storm troopers.
Massive means they fly her to Germany.
Massive means the monitors actually work and she doesn't have to bring her own fucking power strip. It means that she gets more than 10 lousy bucks a set, and it means no more 10-hour-a-day temp jobs--like the one she has right now at the corporate lair of the Doughboy. Massive means masses. Massive means love.
It means the Tuscaloosa-born, Duluth-bred, "25-going-on-19-year-old" daughter of journeymen computer-science professors is gonna be in the fathermuckin' house and she's gonna stay in the fathermuckin' house, and you're gonna pay to go see her there.
And it's going to happen. It might be 10 months from now when Bionic gets her own club residency. It might be three years from now when she stockpiles enough savings to get the right equipment together, make her own tracks, and put out a record. Sure, it might not be this Sunday when the only junglist in the now-and-again bunglist DJ gaggle, the Groove Garden Collective, does her regular gig at the 400 Bar. But it is going to happen.
After too much hard work and way too much bullshit in a rave scene that's about as comfortable around women in power as it is around plain-clothed DEA agents, it will happen.
And those Pam Grier jackboots might come in damn handy the deeper the way-too-much-bullshit gets. "People have a thing for female DJs because nobody ever sees it happening," she says. "But I play to that. I'll play records with lines like [humming à la the soul diva] 'You Know You're Gonna Be Mine!' It makes these people go crazy! And that's what I'm there for, to make them go off. If I serve that purpose, that's fine because I'm doing it musically. Anything else is secondary to that."
Which is, of course, a part of the problem. Musical know-how aside, "You Know You're Gonna Be Mine" isn't exactly the toughest sell in the world when nine out of 10 testosteronies wanna be hers before she ever drops a beat.
So what do you do? You second-guess yourself. You second-guess every instinct. And, if you're tough, you torch the gender ghetto. "I used to wear, you know, the baggy pants and the baggy T-shirt--standard rave gear, or whatever--because I'd be up there and I'd be nervous," Crouch says. "Guys would be checking you out, which obviously wasn't the point. But as I got better and more confident as a DJ I just stopped and said to myself, 'If I want to look good, then I'm going to look good.'"
Yet the weird dynamics of club culture can be indistinguishable from the salacious rituals of the come-on. "Obviously it's odd," Crouch says. "When I do a good set guys come up and hug me."
It's a half hour before another show at the Front and Crouch is sitting on the floor of her bedroom in the tiny Uptown apartment she shares with her boyfriend James Everest of the Sensational Joint Chiefs, a musician/promoter who stands at an appealing distance from the DJ/rave scene. Right now, she's filing through her crates, pulling out records: "Laid In Full" by Mousse T and Matthias (Matty) Heilbronn, "DRLS" by DJ Cam, "Ain't" by Armand, "The Deaf Squad Lick" by Buckwild, and, of course, "What's My Name" by Bizzy B. and DJ Pugwash.
Classics every one. But for now, let us do the funky chicken on the flimsy limb that assumes you've never heard these fine waxworks--these records no self-respecting Pillsbury employee (temporary or otherwise) would dare leave behind en route to the corporate cookout. It's all good. Don't feel left out. She hasn't quite heard them all either.
"I wonder how this will sound. Haven't heard that. This is supposed to be good. Hmm...oh, you gotta hear this one, this is the absolute shit. We'll be good to go in a minute." Crouch says all this with a soul-girl-on-the-Iron Range timbre--"Funkytown" meets Fargo.
"They don't care when you show up," Bionic says, moving with the pace of a saunter and the posture of a hurry. "Besides, no one's there for the first set anyway. OK. I'll have my drink, you finish yours, and we'll go." Oh yeah, and her Bloody Mary could snowball a sailor.
Fifteen minutes, three epiphanies, and two Camel Red lights later we're freezing our asses of in her humongous 'n' heaterless Ram van, driving downtown, listening to her semifunctional stereo. "This is an old tape I made when I first started mixing records. It totally sucks."
She's right--at least for a while. A dreary trip-hop beat rattles the dashboard. Damn sleepy stuff. But she isn't a bit embarrassed. After all, when you first start mixing you're destined to "totally sound like crap." Today, that stage has long since passed. The sleeper wakes.
In 1990 Crouch's parents pulled the tall, gawky "freaky hippie chick" out of Duluth and away from an uncool boyfriend, and shipped her off to boarding school in D.C. "This did not fly well with me," she says in a tone alarming in its sudden seriousness. But she stuck it out. College, on the other hand, was not in the works, and she bailed out of tiny Trinity College after a semester. For a while she killed time, waitressing at a cabaret, "making mad money," listening to the Roches, waiting to head home.
Back in Duluth, Crouch started going to raves, which she loved "for the community first and the music second." Soon that relationship flip-flopped, and, after a while, she started dabbling with the "boys'" equipment. She'd been around the fellas and the turntables for months, but when one of them asked her to get up and give it a spin--this was a startling development. "I'd been interested for a long time, but no one had ever asked," she says. "It was always kind of a guy thing."
But she kept at it. And hippie chick became raver became DIY DJ.
Bionic's public glory--the junglist's jouissance, if you will--started with slice of magic straight out of The Natural. She'd been mixing house records for a while when her roommate and close friend DJ Kevin Craig--THE ONLY JUNGLIST IN DULUTH (luth luth luth)--let her get on the turntables at a show and started passing her jungle records. She'd never heard them before. She'd barely been around the music. Yet she mixed them seamlessly. So well, in fact, that DJ Kevin Craig became jealous and decided his charge was all talent and no real passion. See, he was a jungle purist: "You're not like I am," he told her. "You're just doing it 'cause it's easy for you." A couple months later Crouch had lost a friend and DJ Kevin Craig wasn't the only junglist in Duluth.
"That's something that's come up a few times. And this is where it gets really tricky," Crouch says as we pull up in front of the Front. And while she has nothing but love--sorry, "nuthin' but luv"--for the "boys" she left up North when she moved to Minneapolis last summer, she does admit that her ascendancy in talent and status has sometimes been as alienating as it has been exhilarating.
"I mean, some of these situations in the scene are subject to my own interpretation, because I don't have female DJs to balance it out. I wish I did," she says. "I've met people who talk about women and music and the left brain and right brain, and how we hear and play and understand it differently than men. But who really knows. You know what I mean?"
Good question. And a hard one to answer as you evaluate a scene that is as male-dominated as any since heavy metal.
Yet the date is 1998, not 1975: The Robert Plant who preened on a Los Angeles hotel balcony, yelling "I'm a Golden God" through the sulfur and smog, has been replaced by, well, stars like Goldie, whose last jungle album featured an hour-long, womb-like groove meditation called "Mother."
"There is no rock-out-with-your-cock-out ethic to this scene," says one local expert. Yet, while the rave scene's "One Nation Under a Groove" party politics--which are sex- and queer-positive--and their androgynous fashions--"the baggy pants and baggy T-shirt"--create an unprecedented sense of openness among male and female clubbers, few women have tried to gain access to the means of production. No international dance-music stars are women. And while a feature story in Option and a Village Voice cover story have tried to make sense of the culture's apparent duplicity, few pundits really understand why it is the cocks still rule the roost.
"I don't know why women don't play records," Crouch says, sipping a Guinness at the Front's empty bar. "It is hard to get up there and perform, and so many women are afraid to be exposed like that. Because you know what kind of effect you're having, and you know how people hate it when the DJ blows it, and how people bitch. It isn't for lack of loving the music, it's for lack of confidence."
And it's because the fellas often hold (or is that dangle?) the keys to that washroom called street cred. Crouch recalls, with surprising fondness, the hours she spent with her old boyfriend Nate (DJ Baby Judy) flipping through flash cards he'd drawn up to help her learn the names of various dance-music record labels. "He'd point to one and I'd say, 'Oh, that's London/FFRR,' or whatever it was. That's how I learned which records to buy."
By all accounts, this is par for the course. Local "junglette" (her term) and pro-am party jock, Kenyeh Ganda (DJ Code Blue)--a member of the otherwise all-male Jungle Vibe Collective (see sidebar)--experienced an inversion of the same phenomenon. "I'd be in the [dance-music store] Bassment Records, mixing, and when people would come I'd stop, because I didn't want them saying, "Oh there's that raver girl Kenyeh, she wants to be a DJ.'" And while she loves the "boys" in JVC, Ganda has no problem tagging the scene "sexist."
Yet she considers her place in it with more nuance and ambiguity. "This isn't like sports where it's like, 'You're a girl, you can't play on our hockey team 'cause you suck.' But it's a double-edged sword. I know that I could get gigs because I'm a woman. I know it. I just choose to mix for myself. I don't have this incredible desire to get out there and play for people. To be honest, I'd rather be dancing in front of the turntables than behind them."
DJ Bionic, however, has that incredible desire--though she has also seen the double-edged sword cut into her paycheck. Last year when Crouch and Groove Garden impresario Jen Downham had a short falling out with the Front's ownership, the club immediately found two new women DJs, who appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to fill the slot.
"There was a blonde and redhead," Crouch says. "I developed a hatred for these women. They got decked out, all go-go style and they rode in on Vespas wearing these matching outfits and boots, and they carried these little '60s-style record boxes, and it was all show. I went to watch them play and they sucked. They weren't mixing records. They just made me so angry, because here I was struggling to do this, trying to be a legitimate DJ. And that was when I noticed: Hey, it was the hip thing to have women playing records."
You'll never hear a hippie chick sound as pissed, or as determined. Sometimes a little professional envy is the first sign of a real professional.
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