Style & Swagger: the new wave of dancehall DJs

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© James Pearson-Howes
Posted: Fri Nov 18 2011

A trio of DJs is turning the tables on male-dominated hipster club nights in the capital. And, they tell Kate Hutchinson, they're no novelty act

It isn't easy to pin down the various strands that form new dancehall force Style & Swagger. They are so embedded in London's burgeoning tropical-showered clubbing scene that a friend even drew them a Venn diagram to clearly show how they are connected. Put simply, though, Siobhan Jones, 27, DJs as Why Delila and puts on the Physically Fit parties, while Karen Cazabon, 28, goes by Kazabon and has been running Hipsters Don't Dance for a year.

Susannah 'The Large' Webb, 26, meanwhile, works for Brooklyn-based label, Mixpak, and co-writes the Shimmy Shimmy blog. It has a spin-off fanzine, No Ice Cream Sound, that the girls all contribute to. And together they DJ around London, as they are this weekend, when Physically Fit and Hipsters Don't Dance team up for a mega bash at The Big Chill House.

The girls found each other through London scene linchpin Gabriel Myddleton from The Heatwave, who throws the Hot Wuk and Madd Raff parties and hosts a show on Rinse, after Jones once 'moaned to him about how few female dancehall DJs there were' over dinner. They played their first set together at Bump at Plan B in July, alongside none other than soundclash hero David Rodigan and, ever since, their star has been rising. They've a show on cult Dalston station NTS Radio and played a set on the Extra Stout soundsystem at Notting Hill Carnival this summer, which was headed up by Rodigan's son, Jamie.

The dancehall movement has been bubbling away in the capital for years thanks to DJs like Myddleton, who celebrated The Heatwave's eighth birthday in London in September. But what's exciting about Style & Swagger is that they are the only lady DJs within a very sausage-heavy scene. Their collective sound is an authentic flavour of the international dancehall realm, whether it's Siobhan's interest in older dancehall and reggae, Suze's love of UK garage - she has just produced a fine re-edit of Mosca's underground garage hit, 'Bax' using a Vybz Kartel vocal - or Cazabon's global bass throwdown, soaking up tropical-flavoured hip hop, R&B, funky and house into the mix at Hipsters Don't Dance.

The effect of this fun-fuelled musical blend is obvious if you go to one of their parties. Cazabon's Hipsters Don't Dance, where all three girls are residents, is fully focused is on the dancefloor, cultivating a more hyper and electric atmosphere to the other blokey house and dubstep nights that litter east London (at which you'll presumably find such 'hipsters that 'don't dance').

'At those nights, you go and listen to the music and then you leave, but that's not what happens at Hipsters Don't Dance,' she explains. 'You come and you get involved. You can bang on the wall if you want a rewind and you can jump from side to side and create a soca moshpit when “Palance” comes on. I like to think that we've created a place where, even if you weren't going out to meet your friends, you could still come and have a good time because there's a friendly atmosphere and the music is interactive. Sitting down is not encouraged!'

'And not to bring the female element into it too much,' Jones continues, 'but those house and dubstep nights can be very male dominated. Dancehall nights are quite the opposite. It's great to be able to dance as you want without feeling like you have someone in your personal space within two seconds. It's quite funny to watch too: you'll see loads of women dancing and then a circle of men around them, who are all thinking, “What do I do now?”'

High energy on the dancefloor is key and, the girls say, some revelers know all the moves for the various dancehall anthems. 'It depends on the song, but specific dancehall ones have their own dances,' Cazabon explains. 'There's “the Willie Bounce”, “the Gully Creeper”, “the Palance” and “Signal the Plane”.' '[Neon-haired Jamaican rapper] Elephant Man does a lot of moves,' Webb chips in, who has, she tells us, her own tongue-in-cheek signature move, 'Walking Eight Dogs'. 'Look up “Elephant Man's Dancehall Gym” on YouTube - he demonstrates all of them in a workout-style video and it's hilarious. In Jamaica, the people who run dance groups, and the dancers themselves, are just as famous as the artists.'

And, while they don't brush over the misogynistic and homophobic lyrics of some Jamaican dancehall artists, they do view dancehall's other booty-obsessed tunes in a refreshing light: 'Their songs are more about what they want to do to women to celebrate them,' explains Jones, 'but in other genres, it's more about women acting in a certain way and therefore they are “hoes”.' 'Women are definitely the focal point of dancehall,' confirms Webb. 'Without the women there is no dancehall.'

Still, despite their great parties and dedication to dancehall, music they've already experienced some snide criticism. Last month they contributed a mix to dance music bible Mixmag's website, on which one (dare we add, male) reader commented: 'Can't see them three blowing up anything outside of some hipster bar for middle class types in Islington, ha ha' while others have taken a punt at their mixing skills. 'Sometimes it's like: would you have listened to this if it was a guy and you knew it was dancehall and you weren't interested in dancehall?' says Cazabon angrily.

Jones, however, reasons: 'Mixing in dancehall is quite different to mixing in house and techno, for example. If you listen to DJs who do sets in Jamaica, they don't mix. All it really comes down to is tune selection.' 'They also, for some reason, don't seem to care much for things like pitch problems and clashing sounds,' chips in Webb.

Nor do they want to be seen as a novelty act just because they choose to play together. ''Just because we play together doesn't mean that we find it intimidating to go it alone,' says Webb. 'It's just less fun on your own.' So-called “all-girl” nights are a bone of contention too. 'I'm sorry to call them “girl nights” that but there are those clubs that just pick female DJs because they're fit when they are nothing to do with music and they aren't really DJs,' she continues. 'I mean, you'd never do that with a blokes night, where you've just got really hot guys DJing, you know, that are from T4.'

'Actually, that's given me an idea for a new party,' exclaims Jones, a mischievous glint in her eye: 'What about we do a new club and just call it Hot Guys Night?' There is laughter all round but she does have a good point: just because a DJ is female, doesn't mean that she is a gimmick. Style & Swagger don't want to be gawped at in the booth or spin at fashion parties just because they're female - they want you to get busy on the dancefloor and enjoy their skillful selections.

And as for the Hot Guys Night? We'll certainly be holding them to that one.

Physically Fit and Hipsters Don't Dance's Dancehall Jamboree is at The Big Chill House on Sat Nov 26. Style & Swagger are on NTS Radio every other Monday morning from 1-2am (www.ntslive.co.uk).

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