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Interview: DJ Ripley

photographer Cudunko

I used to watch those “Cool Jobs" shorts on the Discovery Channel and was always disappointed when all the jobs were boring compared to DJ Ripley’s. By night she is a bass music luminary, sharing stages with everyone from DJ Assault to Dizzee Rascal and Flying Lotus, and has been an instrumental member of some of the world’s most forward-thinking DJ collectives. The rest of the time, she is Larisa Mann: journalist, legal ethnographer and economic historian, wrecking the ivory tower of intellectual property law with her research on music production in Jamaica. We ran into Ripley last weekend at a gig in Amsterdam and she told us about her research, issues that DJs should think harder about, and how she manages to take time off from grad school to go on tour in Europe.

You’re active in more fields than I can keep track of, but all of your work seems to aim at a consistent set of issues. Has there always been a strong connection between your academic and musical careers? I used to keep my research somewhat separate from my DJing, but they’ve always informed each other. When I studied economic history I was looking at the development of the Jamaican music industry in the absence of copyright enforcement. Law and economics people like to say that without intellectual property law, industries can’t develop, and that’s just not true historically. It’s never been true. I was looking at Jamaica as a kind of counterexample, where there was this massive explosion of music in the '70s and '80s but none of that happened because of copyright law. Being a DJ informed that work, because I realized early on that everything I was doing with music and everything I liked about music seemed to contradict what the law said, which made no sense. It didn’t even make sense to think about the law most of the time, because it made it harder to do everything, and particularly it made it harder to work with people. The more that I started working on my research, the more I saw connections with issues around technology and around international development, and so I started trying to be more specific about how the DJ work that I do relates to the academic and public policy work that I do.

Is it tough to maintain both of those lives? How do you get away from a PhD to play three weeks of tour dates in Europe? Yeah, this tour was really a bad idea from the perspective of finishing my dissertation, although I’m having a fantastic time. It’s hard in some ways, in that there’s this idea that you should really just buckle down and focus on one or the other. But I think that I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do if I had focused on one or the other, because academia is a very closed and neurotic place and I need to have a connection to a bunch of communities that aren’t caught up in the same kinds of concerns, the same hierarchy. Likewise the DJ world can be very hype-oriented and cliquey, and it’s nice to go somewhere else. Academia doesn’t care about any of that.

Among DJs you’re known for speaking out very eloquently against sexism in musical communities, which has prompted a backlash of denial from some influential people. What are some major difficulties that female DJs have to contend with? I don’t know if you saw, but DJ Magazine just published their list of 100 top DJs, and it was all men! People just don’t take women seriously as artists in this field. It’s like when you’re in a group of people that’s majority men and a woman says something and people don’t hear it, and two minutes later a guy says the same thing and people are like, “Oh, great point!” Because of the generally male-dominated image of expertise, people literally do not hear women. Sometimes they just do not register, they don’t stick in people’s minds. As far as getting paid and reaching audiences, definitely there are ways that being female can be an asset, but only if you conform to very specific ideas about what being “female” is. So being a female DJ but not dressing sexy makes it very difficult to market yourself, which reveals something about the problem: obviously it’s not about the plumbing. And a lot of female DJs are very conservative with their style, because when you make a mistake people say that it’s because women can’t use the machines or whatever. I’ve seen a lot of female DJs who are technically flawless but don’t take a lot of risks, because the pressure is much higher to be good. Coming from outside scenes, I don’t worry about that. Either you like what I do, or you don’t.

Another thing that you’ve written a lot about is the ways that artists are hurt by copyright controls that are increasingly built into production and distribution technology. What sort of responsibility do you think that tech designers have to take care of the musicians who use their products? The first urgent thing is to get rid of this whole idea that, “I just design this stuff and other people use it.” Everything has a politics in it, and people who make hardware and software need to be conscious of how their stuff is going to be used and what kinds of power it puts in whose hands. Taking responsibility for that is tougher than it may sound because it requires staying connected to communities of artists. But people who make music tech need to recognize that there already are politics in what they’re doing, and that if they don’t think about it, they’re consenting to something they haven’t even analyzed.

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Interview: DJ Ripley