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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue
Music

Discwoman: The Return of Techno

Discwoman is the pilot group of a women’s revolution in live audio production

(From left to right) Emma Burgess-Olson (UMFANG), Christine McCharen-Tran (of Chromat) and Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson (BEARCAT). Image courtesy of Discwoman. Photo: Frankie Hutchinson.
(From left to right) Emma Burgess-Olson (UMFANG), Christine McCharen-Tran (of Chromat) and Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson (BEARCAT). Image courtesy of Discwoman. Photo: Frankie Hutchinson.

Discwoman’s members describe their music as “Technofeminist,” a genre unto itself. But within their self-defining moment in music history lies nuance in regards to the variety of the music they produce under the blanket of what has, over time, become a wild, global electronic music scene. While many musicians are little concerned with the makeup of their crowd or specific style of music—they play, as long as the crowd is paying—Discwoman has the mission of getting women behind the DJ decks as a method of making work for those in need, creating a respectful space for people to dance and perform, and producing a very distinct genealogy of music.

Though we can refer to their music as a whole, it is worth noting Discwoman is not a band. It is a relatively tight, non-location specific amalgam of musicians with a common genre and shared social ideals. This group of performing and producing DJs opposes the social harassment too often found in clubs, and is a pro-feminist movement, though not exclusively so. In a broader sense, Discwoman is a women’s union for representation in an industry where, before now, men dominated and where women have been marginalized—as they say, they are Technofeminists. In the broadest sense, their mission is, as their shirts say, to “AMPLIFY EACH OTHER.” Discwoman does not, however, seem to be about writing male musicians off, but instead elevating women who wish to push the craft to create a status of equality for all musicians.

The core members, and some of their related discography, include BEARCAT (Bearcat.digital), Akua (Soundcloud), Umfang’s Symbolic Use of Light (Ninja Tune), Haram (Soundcloud), 700 Bliss—a collective between Philadelphia artists Moor Mother and DJ Haram with Spa 700 (Halcyon Veil)—Ariel Zetina’s Cyst (Boukan Records), Bergsonist’s Chaos (Borft), br0nz3_g0dd3ss (Soundcloud), Ciel PM001 (Parallel Minds), Juana (Soundcloud), Mobilegirl’s Poise (Staycore), Object Blue Do you plan to end a siege? (TT), Riobamba (APOCALIPSIS), Shyboi (Soundcloud), Stud1nt (Soundcloud), VTSS’s Self Will (Intrepid Skin), and Ziúr ATØ (Planet Mu). Some of these artists, such as Ciel (a Toronto native) and Riobamba have founded their own labels. Many more artists have joined since the group’s founding.

Musical influences vary by artist. Akua’s reflects her Ghanaian-American heritage, while Ariel Zetina’s techno takes influences from Chicago sounds and Belizean punta and brukdown. DJ Haram blends Philly and Baltimore booty bounce with Middle eastern roots. Bergsonist’s influences delve deep into the art world, including Bergsonism—implied in her nom-du-plume—minimalism, and music concrete.

Discwoman is the pilot group of a women’s revolution in live audio production. But the electronic music scene didn’t always have it this great. Before Discwoman formed in 2014, no more than a shaker’s shake of women DJs were on the radio spinning vinyl in the ’50s and ’60s. The ’70s and ’80s saw the rise of electronic DJs, such as techno’s Laurie Anderson, and dance pioneer DJ Cosmo (Colleen Murphy) from Boston. But of course the industry was top-heavy with men throughout—for each example of a woman DJ, there were scores of men DJs, known and unknown. Now, techno has seen the rise of many women. The criteria to join the group is to be female identifying—and already a DJ, of course. Discwoman is trans-inclusive.

The business model Discwoman employs is on the surface a tried-and-true methodology in hip hop and rock: The bigger the collective, the more chance to make connections and take charge of bookings. But beyond the math, Discwoman updates their roster with new, sometimes untried DJs to give people a shot at performing their craft. Their raison d’etre by default draws a younger fan base, but is not limited to just that. As new DJs join, a new demographic of followers hopefully follow. At Discwoman shows, the crowds can be mixed, from underground regulars to folks off the street.

Some might think techno is a blanket genre in itself, which in one way it is. The word techno simply comes from the word technology. But techno’s many subsequent offshoot genres have very discerning criteria in addition to a distinct social context following each strain of the music. For example, house music is techno’s now popular cousin, drawing in crowds of millions at festivals primarily in Europe and the U.S.

The pioneering German band Kraftwerk made an album, Neu! Kraftwerk (Philips/Vertigo) about 50 years ago, packed with an historical, captivating combination: synths and robots. Ishkur’s Guide, a broad map of techno updated just this year, links this moment in techno history to the beginning of global techno, many miles away from Germany, across an ocean; welcome to ’70s Detroit. There, according to Ishkur, “Affluent, middle class, Black youth living in the peaceful Detroit suburb of Belleville, Michigan in the late ’70s…had money to spend and parties to attend, but rather than identify with the harsh street sounds of rap coming out of New York, they looked instead toward… Europe to emulate the latest trends in fashion and music.” Those youth created what is now called classic techno. Like the backbone of most of its relatives, classic techno has four pounding quarter-note bass drum hits on the floor, hammering into infinity, with glassy syncopated hi-hat on the off beats. Samples in these songs are minimal, incorporating crunchy synths and unflinching chord clusters. The style was so flammable it’s musicians ignited their neighbors within a decade.

Enter: Detroit techno. This is touted as the golden era of techno, which lead to a side effect of a fairly pretentious fan base. The music was at its first peak level of production, and the social movement of unifying people through this techno had taken another step forward. Then came minimal techno.

The first minimal techno didn’t sound great. When an art form enters a self-titled minimal phase, does it then stop being minimal? In this case, yes. This era of techno minimalism was tourist techno, in that it used flashy devices “often at the expense of putting out a decent product,” Ishkur writes. Breakout genres appeared like bangin', gloomcore, tribal, dub, and industrial. Ishkur’s new guide does not include Discwoman, perhaps an indication of how hard it is for women DJ’s to claim rights on a scene. Luckily, some Discwoman artists have revived minimal techno and kept it true to form.

At one of Umfang’s shows, at Bossa Nova Civic Club, people were wine dancing, a style originating from Caribbean music made in Jamaica and Trinidad. Umfang, from the Bronx but now Brooklyn-based, has a style ranging from abstract, minimal music without rhythm all the way to danceable techno. Sarah Maria Dos Santos, a Brooklyn abstract painter, directed me to the Bossa scene—this is one Bushwick club where you can routinely see Discwoman. Ciel’s show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also brought a varied crowd, from members of the LGBTQIA community to others who looked fresh from a house music rave. Canadian DJ Ciel’s music is spacey and has sparse vocal samples with a message of togetherness; one sample sings “working together.”

Object Blue, whose music is closest to some kind of noise rock for dancing, and Serena Jara, who makes techno and ambient with rock guitar samples and lyrics discussing issues with patriarchy and femininity, are not genre-bound. VTSS makes what many might call hardstyle beats, with less pronounced harmonies and emphasis on the tonality of drum samples.

Other members have a more eclectic style, such as 700 bliss, with both techno and jazz/spoken word influence. BEARCAT, born in London but representing Philadelphia, and br0nz3_g0dd3ss from Brooklyn, are at the intersection of techno and hip-hop. Mobilegirl, from Berlin, sounds poppier, using airy vocals and synths, while Riobamba, an Ecuadorian-Lithuanian musician, produces at the intersection of Latinx music, house, and techno. Shyboi sounds like if Kate Bush made music for the club. Stud1nt makes fashion runway style beats with an aim for the club, while Ziúr makes techno with an electronic dance music and dub influence. Juana’s music is influenced by jazz and prog rock.

One dancer in the crowd at Umfang’s Bossa show said she had traveled from Manhattan just to go. “This is a very special place,” she said. She was right; the music, inclusivity and attitude of the crowd make for a true techno happening. Though serious about a culture of respect, Discwoman’s artists are also here to bring you a seriously good time.

If they had not come up with their own best definition of genre, it could be said Discwoman specializes in experimentalist minimalism. But in reality, the one word to describe the music of their artists is their own: Technofeminist.

Contributor

MG Lee

is a former breaking news reporter now writing about the arts from Brooklyn. To keep up with their coverage of music, dance, and poetry follow on Twitter @M_G_Lee.

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues