Two Turntables and a Gender Gap
In the bowels of Miami Beach's Marlin Hotel is a small, exotic, denlike space. Narrow and dark, the room is painted a rich wine color. Strips of mirror cover the ceiling and stretch down the walls, alternating with billowing burgundy and navy batik curtains. Banquettes strewn with huge cushions line the perimeter; in front of the seats are round tables and low padded stools. Clouds of smoke from incense and clove cigarettes create a thick haze that is penetrated by the pungent smell of patchouli. Throngs of young adults of various ethnicities lounge on the pillows or sit on the floor, all of them paying rapt attention to the goings-on.
It is Tuesday evening and this is Faatland, a weekly mellow night of tunes spun by DJ Snowhite and friends and featuring live music by hip-rock ensemble Oski Foundation, along with singing and open-mic poetry hosted by smooth-voiced Lee Williams. By midnight hip-hop music is throbbing from the speakers. Looming slightly above and behind the crowd is a small silver DJ booth. At the turntables is a man who goes by the name DJ Coop D Ville. Next to him stands the brains behind the event, DJ Snowhite herself (a.k.a. Yalile Cabrera).
Thirty-one-year-old Cabrera could be mistaken for a teenager. Two thick reddish-brown braids reach halfway down her back. Her head is covered with a beige hat, the brim of which is pulled down over her forehead, almost shielding her eyes. She is rail thin and wears voluminous black trousers, an oversize black T-shirt, and sneakers. Traces of a New York accent reveal her origins.
Cabrera's friends know her by the nickname Jolly, and as a rule she is quite cheerful. But she can also be very resolute and serious about her gig as a nightclub DJ -- more specifically, a woman DJ. One of the most successful, by the way, and amazingly one of the few female DJs in town, Snowhite specializes in acid jazz and has run her own thriving party night, Faatland, at the Marlin for the past six months. She isn't doing bad, but getting to where she is now has been anything but easy.
After years of male domination, the tight-knit world of DJing in clubs is slowly being invaded by women. All over the world female DJs are gaining prominence. British spin-jockey Rap, a multitalented woman who writes, produces, engineers, sings, and runs her own label, had a big hit not too long ago with the jungle-style song "Spiritual Aura." New York City's Susan Morabito recently released a CD of remixes on Miami's Whirling Records; her publicists tout her as "the world's number one female DJ." Locally, however, things aren't moving as fast for girls who know how to spin and have a desire to do it professionally.
Much like their male counterparts, these women, who spent their childhoods collecting 45s, have become full-fledged vinyl junkies. They have gone on to learn the essential skills of creating seamless blends of music with precise segues between one thumping record and another. But more times than not, they've found it incredibly tough to break into the field. The careers of Cabrera and Miami's other busy female DJ, Shannon Henry, are a study in contrasts.
Born in Cuba and raised in Queens, Cabrera started buying singles at the age of six. As a teenager she practiced spinning records on a male friend's turntables. At the time, she was dating a DJ who refused to let her hang out with him on gigs. "He would tell me: 'It's a guy thing,'" Cabrera says earnestly. "Little did he know I was already doing it on the side!"
In the mid-Eighties, when she began attending parties in New York warehouses and halls, Cabrera couldn't stop herself from advising DJs as they worked. She would tell them what songs to play if they wanted to move the crowd. One day a DJ grew tired of her kibitzing and put her behind the turntables. "The crowd went crazy," she recalls. "I loved to dance, so I knew what they wanted to hear. It felt good having that power. It was a creative thing, to be able to blend beats together, to get two records and make them sound like one. I didn't know what I was doing, but it sounded good. I was creating a whole different song. That's what was so cool. When I wasn't doing it, I missed it."
Cabrera moved to Miami in 1986 and kept her DJ work alive by spinning for a mobile DJ service. In 1990 she was working as a receptionist at a law office by day and promoting hip-hop, house, and alternative parties in Miami Beach by night. Her first regular event was held at Joseph's on the Beach (the current site of Groove Jet). She hired DJs to work the turntables, and eventually they encouraged her to try her own hand. After four months of promoting the party and honing her beat-blending skills in the booth, she began to DJ exclusively as De Virgin Mary. The handle came from a fellow DJ known as Resurrection, who saw the fair-skinned, nonsmoking, nondrinking vegetarian as innocent and pure.
For close to two years De Virgin Mary appeared at clubs doing guest spots between other DJs' sets, but she couldn't secure a steady gig. Certainly being a woman didn't add to her cachet. "People can be narrow-minded," she says. "One time I gave a promoter my tape and he didn't think it was mine. He didn't believe it! He had me come into the club and play live. I knew if I had been a guy he wouldn't have asked that."
Trying to get work as a woman was tough enough; trying to get paid by male promoters was almost too much. "I used to get jerked left and right," she declares. "A few years ago I was working for a promoter who is very well-known now. He didn't have the money to pay me at the beginning of the night, so I asked him for his house keys and a piece of ID as collateral. He gave me his passport. When my gig was over he asked for his keys back and I gave them to him, and he only gave me half the money. I held on to the passport, though. Six months later he called me asking for it back. That's when he paid me the rest of the money!"
Changing her gender was obviously was out of the question. But in 1993 Cabrera did change something: her name. Even though she was encouraged by others to adopt an androgynous personality and call herself Tommy or Tony, she and a friend came up with Snowhite. "It means woman [to me] and represents what I stand for," she says. "Plus, it sticks in people's brains." One person who took notice was funk musician Raw B. Jae. He heard her and encouraged her to spin with him during his regular gigs at the now-defunct clubs Washington Square and Stephen Talkhouse. "I owe him a lot," she notes. "He didn't care whether I was a woman or not. He liked my style."
Later that year, after Raw B. Jae's frenetic live performance schedule had slowed down, her style landed her a nightclub residency. A fellow DJ helped her obtain a position at (the also defunct) Rose's Bar & Music Lounge, where for a year and a half she would spin acid jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and R&B on a night called Phat Tuesday. At the same time, she started working at Lua with DJ Sugar and Mark Leventhal, one of Miami's most successful DJs, who ironically goes by the nickname Sista.
Allying herself with male turntablists may have helped, but no matter how famous they were, their recommendations didn't always a guarantee a job. The celebrated spinmeister David Padilla put in a good word for her with local promoters, but to no avail. "I would call and ask for the position and they'd tell me the position was taken when I knew it wasn't," she says. "It was because I was a woman."
Nevertheless, Cabrera kept her spirits up, refusing to compromise by using her feminine wiles. "A guy who used to play for Raw B. Jae once said to get jobs I should dress sexy -- go in showing some skin, wear high heels, put my hair up, wear a real short skirt," she recollects. "I didn't want to do that. C'mon, I wear T-shirts and jeans. When you're spinning, you want to be comfortable. The last thing you want is to attract anyone or to be distracting."
Her tenacity eventually paid off. DJ stints at Lucy's, Glam Slam, Virtua Cafe, Jesse's, Groove Jet, KGB, and radio shows on pirate station Beach Radio (96.9 FM) followed, as did jobs out of state. For the last six months she has been making the Marlin a hotspot on Tuesday evening, competing somewhat with her old friend Leventhal's Home Cookin' night at Groove Jet. She'll begin a biweekly gig spinning at the Albion Hotel's Fallabella bar this Friday.
Life is good, but Cabrera still thinks something is missing. "I feel I haven't gotten, and still don't get, the respect and appreciation for what I do from the promoters and club owners," she says. "But producing is the next step for me. I want to get my name on as many records as possible. What keeps me going is the love. I can't think of doing anything else. This is my life."
What has become a way of life for Cabrera is also a mainstay for Shannon Henry, who goes by the name DJ Shannon. Tall, solidly built, wearing blue denim overalls and an orange sleeveless top, she has a constant smile on her face. Sitting in her living room in Miami Beach, she enthusiastically relays the tale of how she came to be one of Miami's busiest female DJs.
Like Cabrera, Henry, now in her early thirties, began collecting 45s as she grew up, in Oakland, California. She bought her first album, Parliament Live -- P-Funk Earth Funk Tour, at the age of eight and nurtured her affinity for soul, hip-hop, and funk at elementary, middle, and senior high school. She was one of the few whites in a predominantly black school district. During high school she began to work as a vocalist for speed-metal bands. "Basically it was screaming as opposed to singing -- threatening the audience," she chuckles. "But I realized while I was singing that I was never really happy with my vocals. I thought I was a really good performer, but the way I sounded was not like people who gave me chills when I listened. I didn't have that type of voice."
After graduating from high school, she lived in Europe, San Francisco, and finally Los Angeles. She went from being a vocalist to a fan, then to a more serious collector of recorded music, becoming more and more passionate about electronic music and hip-hop. "That was in the mid-Eighties, and at that point hip-hop was blowing up," she says. "Everything was breaking out. Hip-hop was so innovative and so geared toward the dance floor. I became more of a fan than an actual performer."
All the while her already vast record collection continued to expand and she began throwing theme parties and promoting events. She self-produced a movie, Wild Vixens, starring a slew of drag queens. But California had gotten old. She looked for a new home that would be near the beach and would have an active nightlife. Miami Beach was perfect, and five years ago she decided to make the move. "I figured I'd been doing this so long, why not just take my records and see if I could spin them in Miami," she explains. "It was in the back of my mind. I didn't vocalize it to anybody because I wasn't sure how it would go. I was pretty determined, but I thought I wouldn't talk about it until it happened."
Compared to her now-colleague and friend Snowhite, it happened for Shannon rather quickly. She earned money first as a waitress and bartender at LuLu's restaurant; six months later a friend introduced her to the ubiquitous Mark Leventhal. He invited her to bring some of her records to Hercules, his funk night at Lua. There she became fast friends with Snowhite, who by then had already been working with Leventhal for some time. She spun, loved it, kept coming back with more records, and soon she had a regular -- albeit nonpaying -- job.
Henry believes that being a woman has rarely been a hindrance to her work as a DJ. "In some ways it helps," she says. "People will go, 'Oh, that's cute, a girl who likes to spin music,' but once you're able to show you're skilled at it, you're able to gain respect. I work with a lot of guys and luckily I have had nothing but support. I can see, though, how in certain formats like hip-hop you don't get the respect. You have to be twice as good as a guy."
Having a name that could be mistaken for a guy's can also lead to surprises for some of her listeners. "Sometimes people will hear me and they'll say, 'Yo, man, this is dope! You're a girl?'" These days nightlife hounds usually know that Shannon is a woman. She has performed at many private functions and clubs all over town, including Lucy's, where she got her first paying gig courtesy of DJ Sugar; 821, where she spun retro tunes at two nights dubbed Seventh Grade and Top Secret Lounge (the latter along with male DJ Ursula 1000); and Virtua Cafe, where she was the resident weekend DJ and where she at last found her stylistic niche when a record promoter handed her a stack of records of a new type of music called jungle.
"It was the sound I was waiting to hear. It's what break beat had evolved into," she effuses. "Jungle was completely down my alley. It spoke to me on so many levels. It's more hyper so it had that energy, and I felt like that was a format I could represent and really show skill. When I discovered it, it was just beginning to branch out in so many directions: drum and bass, and techstep, and jumpup. I like to mix all the different styles together."
Now she specializes in spinning jungle and hip-hop and brings home $100 to $200 per night. She works three to five nights per week at Miami Beach's Groove Jet and 821, and Hollywood's Maison a Go Go. As if she's not busy enough, she is also music editor of a local magazine, D'Vox, and is working on a biweekly cable-access TV show called DJ Shannon's Mix Down, which promises to cover all kinds of music and to spotlight local and national talent. "It's just like being a DJ," she says of the TV stint. "I'll still be turning you on to other people's music."
No matter what travails Shannon and Snowhite have endured because of their gender, other people's music is clearly what keeps these women going. "The best part of all of this is to be involved with music," Shannon reflects. "I'm so fanatical about music; I was just meant to do it. We are all in love with music, and we finally have a support group for this addiction!
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