It wasn't long ago that Kate Ellwanger, Dot to those who follow her beats, was working in the Pro Audio department at a Guitar Center. There were days at the gear hub where being a girl on the floor was a non-issue. Then there were the days when guys creeped and customers declined her offers to help, only to turn to one of her male colleagues.
“It was those little instances that would get under my skin,” she says on a recent hot day inside a cool Little Tokyo coffee and tea spot. “It made me so angry and frustrated and, really underneath all that, sad.”
Not much more than a year-and-a-half later, the Echo Park-based producer/composer/vocalist, now 23, is running her own female-centric label, Unspeakable Records. She also promotes Password, a monthly party at Los Globos where the three resident DJs (Dot, Ana Sia and Fei-Fei) are all female.
A native of Olympia, Washington, Ellwanger found inspiration in Riot Grrrl, the punk-feminist movement that partially sprang to life in her hometown. She hopes to make similar waves in electronic music with Unspeakable, saying that there is a “similar sentiment, similar message.”
Ellwanger was in middle school when she began studying to be an opera singer. She didn't gravitate towards production until she took a required course in music technology at Orange County's Chapman University. “Once I started learning different types of music production software, I got extremely inspired,” she says.
Thanks to her professor, she found out about L.A.'s influential beat party Low End Theory. Immediately enamored with the scene, she landed an internship at Alpha Pup Records, the label and distributor operated by Low End's Daddy Kev. She played her first live gig at the party and released her first few batches of of tracks — a 2012 EP, Calliope, and a 2013 full-length, Evolve or Dissolve — through Alpha Pup.
She's an Ableton wiz who will participate in the company's summit, Loop, this fall in Berlin, and the only female member of mega-crew TeamSupreme. She also teaches at Dubspot and Point Blank. But Ellwanger says that she still doesn't understand the gap between the guys and the girls in electronic music.
“I've gone through so many theories on why this is. I still haven't really come up with an answer,” she says. “Part of it, I think, is that technology in general has been gendered as male for the past century or so.”
Ellwanger is among the growing number of women trying to change that status quo. After graduation and her stint at Guitar Center, the producer headed back to Washington for a few months to work on music while figuring out a new plan. Meanwhile, she had a number of conversations with other women about the issues that come with being part of a world that is, at least visibly, heavily male.
“We would have those conversations on how frustrating it is and how it's also annoying that we can't really talk about it without getting criticism for saying anything about it,” she says. That's when Ellwanger decided to start the label. “We don't have to worry about other labels or whoever telling us how to present our music, how to market it,” she says. “We're going to make our own decisions.”
She met with a business planner to get the paperwork sorted and put Unspeakable into action. The first release was a 14-track compilation featuring the likes of Alluxe, who has worked with Kanye West and Miguel, and Teri Gender Bender of Le Butcherettes. Since then, the label has issued a second compilation, as well as a remix EP for house producer Youngmin Joo, an EP by Bay Area artist Duktap and other releases from a handful of other artists.
Coming up is local composer Ryat's full-length Alt Mode, which they'll be celebrating with a release party at Password on Aug. 27. There is also a self-titled album from Ellwanger's alias, Dot, in the works.
Ellwanger says that the label is quite selective about its releases. After all, she's running it on her own with a bit of intern help. Plus, the selectivity is helping shape its identity as a home for women on the forefront of electronic music production. She says that she wants to make sure that Unspeakable reps artists who are in line with the label's ethos.
When Ellwanger first spoke to L.A. Weekly for this story, she was contemplating opening up the label to male artists, too. Since then, however, she says that she has decided to stick with the original goal of making Unspeakable a home for artists who identify as female.
Ellwanger believes that electronic music can have the same influence on young feminism that punk did in the heyday of Riot Grrrl. “Especially with the power of the Internet today and that platform at our fingertips and the speed with which we can make music and communicate with people,” she adds. “It's only a matter of time before this starts to take off.”
Password with Ryat, Busdriver, Eureka the Butcher, Moonzz and Unspeakable resident DJs Ana Sia and Dot happens at Los Globos on Thursday, Aug. 27.