In November 2016, Nina Kraviz played a set at a festival in Melbourne, Australia, that has unexpectedly come to define her career. Rather than sticking to techno, for which she is known, the Siberian-born DJ included some unconventional cuts: ghetto house from DJ Sluggo, an acid-techno-inspired finale, and the 155 bpm drum 'n' bass track “I Want to Be a Stewardess” by fellow Russian producer Ishome.
It was an unconventional set, which the DJ called “a wild, ravy mix even by my own standards.” Then again, Kraviz is an unconventional figure in the world of dance music. She was born and raised not only in Russia, a backwater for international pop music, but also in Irkutsk, in the heart of Siberia. Growing up in the '90s, she stayed up late to listen to outsider dance-music shows on Radio Europa. After moving to Moscow to study dentistry, she began spending time in the city’s clubs and eventually began spinning records.
Today she is a mainstay of the international circuit, has produced mix albums for Fabric and DJ-Kicks, and leads the techno-oriented label Trip. This month, Mixmag named her DJ of the Year; in her cover mix for the magazine, she presents not a barrage of bass and harsh frequencies, but a peaceful, mostly ambient collection of outtakes and demos that finishes with a rock tune.
All of this is to say you don’t know what you’ll get from Kraviz. That’s part of her appeal. Her unpredictability has also gotten her into trouble: After her festival set in Melbourne, attendees expecting a more conventional show demanded their tickets be refunded.
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“People wanted 'techno' and I offered none in their opinion,” she wrote on Facebook afterward. “Quite possibly they wanted 3 hours of long steady beat narrative, and I offered something that didn't match their expectations.”
It’s quite similar to a recent appearance by Björk. Miamians didn’t know what to expect from her Art Basel DJ set earlier this month. What they got was a good 30 minutes of choral music, flutes, and field recordings of forest ambiance before the alt-pop star, assisted by the producer Rabit, stepped into high gear with a set that mixed industrial club music with Cardi B, Fever Ray, pitch-shifted Whitney Houston, and even Waka Flocka Flame.
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Again, reception was mixed. But why?
In spite of its hedonistic tendencies and foundations in queer communities, dance music today is not friendly to women behind the decks. DJ Mag’s top 30 artists are all still men; in Resident Advisor’s rankings, only the Black Madonna has cracked the top ten. Yet as Kraviz and Björk demonstrate, female DJs and musicians are often the most innovative and courageous, pushing dance music forward into new territory; among them are Jlin, Umfang, Jubilee, and many others. Experimentation in any artistic territory always garners a negative reaction. But it’s worth asking whether that reaction would be so severe if the artists were men. Would clubbers demand their money back if a male DJ changed the tempo in their mix, or would they cheer and pump their fists anyway, celebrating the man for his ingenuity?
Kraviz will play the Space Terrace this Saturday, December 23. She’s the future of DJ'ing, and she doesn’t care about your expectations.