In the Capital of Electronic Music, Women Rule the Scene

Posted June 22, 2018 12:34 a.m. EDT

BERLIN — Not long after 4 a.m. on a recent Sunday, Kerstin Egert (aka Tama Sumo), a resident DJ of the revered techno club Berghain, was playing to a raucous, packed dance floor in the club’s upstairs Panorama Bar. As is usual at that hour, the line outside was long and getting longer, in this case for a lineup that included Dutch-born producer Steffi; Munich-bred DJ Virginia; and Avalon Emerson, an American techno producer who has emerged as one of the most sought-after DJs on the international touring circuit.

All across the city, women were on the decks, from About:Blank, where Italian DJ Madalba was playing a closing set, to Tresor, one of the city’s oldest techno clubs, where the resident DJ Barbara Preisinger was headlining her own monthly event.

Women have long been active as DJs in Berlin, arguably the world capital of underground electronic music, but they have surged in prominence and visibility in the past few years. A growing network of booking agencies and community groups run by women have helped bring female artists out of the shadows, dispelling the boy’s club atmosphere of the past. All-male club lineups are largely gone, while influential music publications like Pitchfork, Mixmag and Fader are rich with praise for female artists based in Berlin. And with international tours, those artists, in turn, are helping to diversify festival lineups and club scenes throughout the world.

“Now a woman on a main stage is normal, but when I started it was, like, no one,” said Nina Kraviz, the eclectic Russian techno producer who perhaps more than anyone embodies the increased status of women in Berlin’s electronic music scene. She’s been busy lately, with projects like a remix album for American artist St. Vincent and new releases on two labels she founded.

Kraviz grew up in the eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk, then moved to Moscow, where she worked as a dentist before breaking into dance music in the mid-2000s. Her early solo efforts were well received, and her 2011 release, “Ghetto Kraviz,” a sultry, vogue-tinged electro track featuring her own vocals, became an underground club staple. She moved to Berlin, and her career flourished, but as is common with many female artists, Kraviz’s gender and appearance have been a frequent focus of media attention — at times obscuring her formidable creative output and thrusting her into the center of several public controversies around sexism and sexuality.

After she appeared in a 2013 documentary in a hotel bathtub under a full-coverage heap of bubbles, Kraviz was heavily criticized online, including by Eric Estornel, an American music producer who goes by the stage name Maceo Plex. Estornel lamented that “sexuality and superficiality” had become more important than hard work. (Kraviz clapped back in a 500-word Facebook post, and Estornel ultimately apologized.)

Since then, Kraviz has founded two labels, put out several critically acclaimed records and played the world’s top stages, from Ibiza super-clubs to festival headline slots to a set in May atop the Great Wall of China. At the end of 2017, Kraviz was chosen by the prominent dance music publication Mixmag as its DJ of the year.

“I’ve seen the level of respect for women change,” said Melissa Taylor, who in 2006 founded Tailored Communication, a public relations firm that represents many prominent women in electronic music. In Berlin, she added, “there are a lot more women running things independently.”

Several DJs have started labels in recent years — like Paula Temple, a British-born techno artist whose Noise Manifesto label focuses on projects by women and queer artists. But Berlin has also spawned a crop of artist agencies run by young women with female-heavy rosters, like Poly Artists, Futura and Odd Fantastic.

“Now a lot more agencies represent women, but this wasn’t the case a few years ago,” said Keira Sinclair, a co-founder of Poly Artists, which also works with several men who will play only on diverse lineups.

“I feel something different when I see a woman DJing,” Sinclair said. “I get this extra sense of ‘Wow, this looks like me, this could be me.'”

As public appetite has grown, projects like Creamcake, a label and event series that holds DJ workshops and diversity-focused panel discussions, and the party collective Room 4 Resistance have helped draw attention to women who struggled until recently to make an impact.

“It’s not as if the women weren’t there; they were just being ignored by the media,” Taylor said, citing 1990s-era trailblazers like DJ Ellen Allien, and Gudrun Gut, the West German electronic music artist who was part of the influential industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, before going on to found the label Monika Enterprise.

But as the internet and social media have become more important, Taylor said, “a lot of women have been able to control their image better and gain visibility without relying on these male media gatekeepers.” At the same time, the gatekeepers are becoming more diverse. Publications like Mixmag, which less than a decade ago routinely put scantily clad “club girl” models on its cover, now often feature female DJs and producers. Resident Advisor, the influential online magazine and listings service, recently made the decision to discontinue its annual readers’ poll to decide the world’s top 100 DJs. because, the editors said in a statement, the results “didn’t represent the diversity of the scene.”

Egert, aka Tama Sumo, is a respected figure in Berlin’s club scene who spent a decade as a Tresor resident and was one of the original DJs to play at Berghain. She said in an interview that she often hears in discussions of gender the argument that quality must be the first consideration.

“But quality only comes up in this conversation,” she said. “There are a lot of great male artists, but there are also a lot of successful male DJs where I would question the quality.” She added that she “would love to have this discussion in general, not only when it’s about diversity.”

Egert said the gender balance had undoubtedly improved but there was more work to do: “There is still far too little visibility of queer and nonwhite people,” she said. “Which is a huge problem I think, especially considering the history of the music.”

Though house and techno were nurtured in Europe, both genres were born in the black and gay clubs of Detroit, Chicago and New York. “I think you cannot speak about women in a vacuum, because race plays a huge role as well,” said Lerato Khathi (aka Lakuti), a South African DJ now based in Berlin.

Egert and Khathi, who are married and often DJ together, also raised the issue of unequal pay. DJ fees are typically kept quiet, but a Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid DJs in 2017 consisted entirely of men — the more mainstream, big-money EDM genre is still extremely homogeneous.

But in the world of underground electronic music, in which Berlin predominantly traffics, it’s undeniable that women have come to the fore.

“People are getting recognition and chances that they didn’t have before,” Kraviz said. “I think it’s great, but I also think there is a risk that instead of integrating them with the current artistic flow, we will always create this topic of ‘female artists.’

“I just want them to be artists.”