As a Black female DJ, it’s not lost on me that I have the power to “move the crowd,”, especially in a disproportionately male-dominated industry. For Black Women’s History Month, I’m honoring the Black female DJs who paved the way, so I can play! *Salute*
From Detroit’s legendary Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale to New York’s one and only DJ Cocoa Chanelle, these Queens of the 1s and 2s rocked the party right.
I had the honor of opening up for the legendary Ultra Naté in 2022, the Baltimore-bred producer and DJ who brought the world infectious house hits like “Free” and “If You Could Read My Mind” in the late ’90s. I set the dance floor up perfectly, cutting between a groovy vocal house and a percussive dance vibe to build the energy throughout the night. And when it was time for Ms. Naté to take over the decks, the dance floor was hot and ready.
Naté approached the booth dressed in a tight leather jumpsuit, ready to rock the crowd. She embraced me with a warm hug and complimented me on my music selection. It was a dream come true and a blessing to stand behind one of the foremothers of house music as she shredded the club to bits with banging cuts and her classic hits.
But as I stood in awe, watching Naté do her thing in front of a predominantly white crowd, I thought to myself.
Do people know the history they’re witnessing?
Naté is among a legion of Black female DJs that paved the way for me and many others to break into the industry.
The dance music legend’s career skyrocketed in 1989 when she released her hit song “It’s Over Now,” a hit that appeared on her debut album Blue Notes in the Basement. The minimal house smash sent dance floors heaving in the ’90s and caught the attention of Warner Brothers. Naté became one of the first house artists to be signed by a major label.
Fans also fucked with “Scandal,” a slower house-adjacent song that showcased the warmth, soul and grit of Naté’s R&B vocals front and center. But the Baltimore native’s house diva roots truly shined on her third studio album, Situation: Critical, which debuted on the iconic Strictly Rhythm label. The album spawned timeless hits like “Free” and the disco laden “Found A Cure.”
Today, Ultra Naté continues to bring the magic of her classic records to clubs worldwide with her electric DJ sets and performances.
In 2022, the star celebrated her 30th year in the industry with several milestones. The house diva dropped her 10th studio album ULTRA with heavy production from Quentin Harris and celebrated the 25th anniversary of her enduring house smash “Free.” She was also recently named one of Billboard magazine’s “Greatest of All Time Top Dance Club Artists” of the decade.
Ultra Naté isn’t the only queen shutting down the club circuit today. We have a lot of Black women to thank for their service on the dance floor.
Mary Dee Dudley
We’d be remiss if we did not mention the iconic Mary Dee Dudley, the “Godmother of Black radio.” A native of Homestead, Pennsylvania, Dudley was the first African American female DJ to grace the airwaves in the late 1940s. The legend broke racial and gender barriers at a time when segregation and racism kept Black folks shut out of most industries. Simply put, Ms. Dudley walked so all of the Black queens who rock the booth today could run.
Born in 1912, Dudley grew up in a family of music lovers. Her father was a trumpet player in a local band, according to Pittsburgh Music History. Drawn to the rhythm and blues of the 1940s, Dudley knew that she would serve a life rich in music. After completing her studies at Howard University, the star enrolled in Mann Radio School in Pittsburgh, and applied for a DJ position at the newly established WHOD in Homestead. Dudley was quickly presented with an obstacle. She needed a sponsor if she was going to land an on-air job with the station.
With hard work, determination and grit, Dudley found a sponsor and launched her first 15-minute show, “Movin’ Around,” in August 1948. Within six months, her performance was extended from 15 minutes to an hour. It was Black as hell, too. Dudley was known for playing the best in rhythm and blues from local talent and emerging stars. She interviewed notable celebrities like famed jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and the legendary Cab Calloway.
Dudley’s shining personality took the US by storm when Ebony magazine conducted a spotlight feature on her radio show. In 1951, the broadcast titan moved to a new radio studio, which she affectionately called “Studio Dee,” at the corner of Herron and Center avenues in Pittsburgh’s Hill district. Mary broadcast d her daily program in front of a large storefront window, where fans would eagerly gather to request songs.
Eventually, Dudley, born Mary Goode, was given a two-hour slot at WHOD. She brought in her brother Mal, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, to do a daily segment highlighting key issues in the Black community, from Jim Crow and police brutality to housing inequality and women’s rights.
In 1956, Dudley left WHOD to work in Baltimore and Philadelphia shortly after, where she did an eight-year-long gospel show on WHAT called “Songs of Faith.”
Dudley died at the age of 48 after a difficult battle with cancer, but her indomitable spirit lives on through the Black radio legends that continue to shake up the world of broadcast today. The Pittsburgh native laid down the foundation for the birth of Urban radio.
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Jennifer Witcher, also known as DJ Minx, is a Detroit luminary. For over three decades, the motor city’s “First Lady of Wax” has been shelling down dance floors across the world with her eclectic sets filled with minimal house, driving techno and old-school funk. Tied together with patience and lashes of bass and pure groove, Minx has become an icon for women in the industry due to her impeccable mixing, her effortless production and her passion for community.
It all started in 1989 when she stumbled into The Music Institute to watch Detroit techno legend and founding father Derrick May tear down his Friday night residency. She knew she could work a crowd like May and was determined to figure out how.
For months, Minx spiraled down a musical rabbit hole, teaching herself how to DJ on her apartment floor. Around this time, the former business school student had teamed up with friends to start a mobile record store, according to DJ Mag. With connections to distributors across the U.S., Minx and her friends would deliver last-minute recommendations to DJs needing heat for their sets. Life would change for the star when she delivered a few records to local house music legend Bruce Bailey. Out of the blue, he offered her a shot to play at his popular soul house party, but Minx didn’t have the right tunes stacked up in her bag for the occasion.
“They were playing a lot of soulful houses, and I said to myself, ‘This shit in my bag is nothing like that. This is about to be different,'” DJ Minx told the publication during an interview in 2021. “My music was all deep house and tech. That’s all I had because that’s all I knew. That’s all I liked, and I only played what I liked.”
Thankfully, it all worked out. She had the dance floor on fire by the end of her set.
Over the next decade, Minx would continue to hone and craft her signature tech sound. For two years, she engineered and hosted “Deep Space Radio,” an electronic music show on Detroit’s WGPR radio station. She also had a weekly radio show at the University of Canada called “Steamy Windows.”
Minx’s wicked selection quickly caught the attention of the now-defunct Club Motor in Hamtramck, Michigan. Before we knew it, the house titan was a recurring act at Detroit’s annual and iconic electronic music festival Movement and was touring internationally.
DJ Minx has helped to cultivate the careers of other women in the industry with her iconic collective Women on Wax. Founded in 1996, Minx rallied together with a bright group of female DJs from the Detroit area to help cultivate their careers. The collective eventually turned into a record label, Women On Wax Recordings, in 2001. Minx used the imprint to amplify the talent of local and global artists, keeping the essence of Detroit tech house alive.
Eventually, she debuted the iconic “A Walk in the Park,” a track that took her 45 minutes to make.
Featured on her Airborne EP in 2003, the minimal house, percussion-infused anthem oozed a driving bassline that sent Detroit clubs crazy. The beloved track even became a fan favorite of techno aficionados like Richie Hawtin.
DJ Minx sent clubs into a frenzy again in 2021 when she dropped the politically charged “Blind Amerikkka” alongside New York’s revered E-man. Packed with sharp synths and rolling bass, the hypnotic track took aim at the infamous Donald Trump and the January 6 Insurrection.
Minx continues to ignite the club with passion today. With sets scheduled for this year’s Movement Festival and Glitterbox’s iconic Ibiza bash, Detroit’s “First Lady of Wax” is still going strong.
Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale
Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale, known to many as the “Godmother of House Music,” has become a legendary figure in the dance community for her exceptional mixing and her exquisite selection of house, techno and Motown soul.
Carefully timing every beat, boom and tick of the high hat and bass, Hale seamlessly transitions from one record to the other with complete control and mastery, sending dancers in motion with the peaks and valleys of her energetic sets.
Hale started mixing before she even knew what DJing was. During an interview on the Real Discussions podcast with Michelle Daws Birt, Hale revealed that at 16, she began making mixes on a reel-to-reel player. She would combine her favorite songs into one track to avoid any interruption or silence in between. The house music titan would test out her edits at basement parties for friends.
But Hale’s life would change when she walked into the Chestmate and heard True Disco, the DJ trio composed of Ken Collier, Renaldo White and the late Morris Mitchell, playing on two turntables and a mixer. It was a warp!
She went to the store the next day to purchase her own equipment. After months of teaching herself how to mix, Hale landed a residency at Club Hollywood, an after-hours spot opened by her uncle in Detroit. Her Saturday residency quickly gained a loyal following, with 800 dancers turning up weekly to see her turn out the dance floor.
The Detroit icon was the first female DJ to play house music in the city. She gained widespread recognition in 1985 when she beat out 600 DJs in the Motor City Mix competition. The opportunity opened up more doors for Hale. She had a chance to show off her infectious mixing on Detroit’s popular New Dance Show. She also supplied heavy radio mixes to some of the on-air tastemakers within Detroit’s dance scene, like the incredible Duane “In the Mix” Bradley.
Hale has taken her signature house sound to some of the most iconic clubs in dance music history. She’s played at the late great Studio 54 and rocked the booth at the iconic Warehouse in Chicago. The “Godmother of House Music” currently holds a residency at Spotlight Detroit and Marble Bar. And in 2019, Hale made history when she was inducted into the National Museum of African American Music.
When she isn’t tearing up the airwaves with her monthly radio show on the famed Deep Space Radio, you can find Hale entrenched in the community teaching DJ and production classes at SPIN Inc. She’s also the vice chair of Detroit’s Women in Music chapter. The organization fosters equality in the music industry by supporting the advancement of women.
DJ Cocoa Chanelle
DJ Cocoa Chanelle lit up the airwaves during her 16-year run on New York City’s famed HOT 97 with the Ladies Night mix show. From old-school hip hop to R&B and rap, Chanelle served up a weekly dose of high-energy music perfect for listeners who needed to pregame before getting into their weekend festivities.
Chanelle was the first DJ to score an on-air gig with BET. Every week, fans would tune in to watch the Brooklyn native’s fast transitions and dizzying turntable tricks on Teen Summit.
It wasn’t long before some big names in the hip hop world began singing their praises of the turntable enthusiast. Comedian Chris Rock called Chanelle “Radio Royalty,” and the NYC DJ scored several gigs opening for legends in the industry like the iconic Salt-N-Pepa and the Kings of Swing.
But Chanelle’s career started from humble beginnings.
The inimitable DJ and producer was born in New York and raised in West Virginia by her grandmother shortly after her mother and father died from alcoholism.
At 12, Chanelle started cultivating her passion for music through rapping. She started out as an MC, entering local talent shows to show off her witty lyricism.
“Any time I was having a bad day, I would create lyrics about it… it was my therapy,” the rockstar DJ noted on her website. “I also used it for school, when I needed to study for a test, I would turn the answers into rap so I could remember it.”
By age 13, Cocoa started practicing on the decks. Her late brother Andre inspired her to DJ and rap. Chanelle was given a chance to flex her skills on the deck when her close friend MC Peaches introduced her to managers at First Priority Music, the home of hip-hop heavy hitters like MC Lyte and “Top Billin” rappers Audio Two.
At the time, First Priority execs were searching for a DJ to provide banging tunes for Kings of Swing. After wowing the big wigs with her impressive DJ skills, Chanelle became the official DJ for the group. If you listen to their debut album, Strategy, you can hear Chanelle scratching and rapping all over the project.
Soon after, Cocoa found herself in the world of radio. Listeners would tune in to HOT 97 bright and early in the morning to listen to the Brooklynite’s fiery mixes on Ed Lover’s Morning Show. She was hired to the station shortly after to join Angie Martinez for the iconic Ladies Night mix show. The rest was history.
Chanelle went on to produce for hip hop giants in the game, like Rakim and Just Blaze. She was also a recipient of the coveted BET Black Girls Rock award. Chanelle is still doing her thing on the radio, too!
You can tune in to hear Chanelle rock the airwaves on New York’s 94.7 The Block Monday through Saturday.
DJ Kemistry, whose real name was Kemi Olusanya, was a pioneering figure in the UK Drum and Bass scene in the ’90s. Her unique sound, infectious energy and commitment to promoting the genre earned her a legion of fans and admirers. The electronic dance community suffered a huge loss in 1999 when the formidable DJ passed away in a car crash. But her legacy still lives on.
Born to a Nigerian father and a white English mother, Kemistry grew up in Kettering, a small industrial town in North Hampshire, England. It was there that she met her close friend and collaborator, DJ Storm.
The inseparable friends built a close relationship over music. Every Thursday, they would jet down to London to watch drum and bass legends like Fabio and Grooverider tear down the decks at Heaven. On Fridays, the duo enjoyed the blaring bass at Amnesia, where icons like Doc Scott would rip the dance floor to shreds.
Soon, Kemistry and Storm began cultivating their own DJ skills on the famed Touchdown FM. Their iconic mixes were informed by their shared love of Drum and Bass, techno and everything in between. World-renown drum and bass legend Goldie, who was Kemistry’s boyfriend at the time, helped them to MC the show.
But they were careful about revealing their identities on air. They wanted their music and skill to shine.
Listeners later discovered that the duo were women when they moved to Defection FM, a pirate radio station in London, where they started getting more comfortable on the mic.
“When people phoned after they heard the tapes, I would say I was looking after these DJs rather than we were the DJs,” Storm told the Guardian in 2019. “Then we’d turn up for the gig, and they’d be like: ‘Oh – you’re girls? And there’s two of you! We only wanted to be judged on whether we were any good or not.”
Music took over Kemistry and Storm’s lives when they helped Goldie spearhead the legendary drum and bass label Metalheadz in 1994. Kemistry wrote the press releases for the imprint. Storm was in charge of logistics.
The label spawned the careers of several titans in the scene, like Fabio, Ed Rush and Adam F. In 1999, Kemistry and Storm sent bass heads swooning when they released their iconic DJ-Kicks mix. Filled with lashing bass and bouts of jazz and lush melodies, the duo suddenly found themselves booked and busy, with a North American and central European tour to promote the release.
Even though Kemistry is no longer here, DJ Storm continues to carry her spirit and legacy on through her dynamic DJ sets.
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