In September 2014, Tessa Young was heading northbound on the 5 to a DJ gig when a thought popped into her head: What if she could connect female DJs with the people who wanted to hire them? She had heard a few of her own clients mention that they had difficulty finding women who DJ. Young didn't think that should have been so hard to do; after all, she knew a lot of ladies in the game.
A few months later, she read an article about the shockingly low number of women represented by DJ booking agencies, who match professional DJs not just with nightclub and bar gigs but also corporate and retail events, fashion shows, weddings, private parties and anything else in need of a soundtrack. That was her motivation to put her idea into action and create a DJ agency exclusively for women.
The agency launched in the summer of 2015 with eight DJs from Young's personal network. “Then it just kept growing,” she says. “The word got out. I started adding more people on.”
Now there are 20 women on the Prism roster. When we meet at a downtown coffee shop in August, Young is joined by two of Prism's DJs, Shannon “ShanLynn” Phillips and Marcelle “Voomz” Harlow. A little while later, another Prism DJ, Marion Hodges (whom KCRW listeners might know as host of The Lab), joins the conversation.
July was Prism DJs' busiest month yet. They played parties for Elle magazine, L'appel Eyewear and a number of other corporate and retail events. They provided the tunes for 10 weddings, several private events and one celebrity party that they can't discuss. They held down the parties at venues like Magnolia House, the Pikey, Palihouse and Bowlero.
That Prism's roster is made up entirely of women is a point that needs to be emphasized in the male-dominated world of DJs. “We're in 2016, there should be a little more equality in the field,” says Young. Prism DJs is her way of contributing to the cause.
As the DJs talk, they stress that, while their jobs are fun, it's still work. For mobile gigs, when DJs bring their own gear, they show up early to set up everything and soundcheck. They're playing music for long periods of time — four to five hours on average, sometimes as much as an eight-hour stretch — to crowds that they often don't know. “I have 22-hour playlists for some of my gigs,” Phillips says. “I don't know what I'm going to play. I don't know how these people are going to react.”
They have to be prepared for anything: clients who change their minds about what they want to hear, fickle dance floors, equipment malfunctions. When they're done, they might have to break down the gear and head to another gig. Hodges, whose radio show airs Sunday morning at 3 a.m., has become a pro at dealing with double-booked Saturday nights. “I take a nap on the couch,” she says. “Thank God we have a couch at the radio station.”
But people often only see the DJ having fun, making the crowd dance. They don't get a glimpse of the DJ trying to fix technical problems or downing bottles of waters and snacks as she races from the gig at the department store to the one at the club. While many DJs can and do work without agencies, having one helps them book more gigs and gives their work a more professional air. And, not incidentally, an agent can help ensure the DJ gets paid.
“I love it because she handles all of the negotiations and works it out,” Harlow says of Young. That means more than just making sure that people aren't trying to finagle free gigs out of the DJs. Young handles the contracts, so she will step in when a client asks the DJ to arrive at a time earlier than what was previously stipulated. She also makes sure that the DJs know exactly what gear is available on-site and what they need to bring with them.
Prism has its own inventory of equipment, including CDJs, turntables, mixers and speakers, for DJs to use when they need it. And Prism holds the insurance policy for the DJs, who are independent contractors. This makes it a lot easier for the DJs to focus on their biggest task — keeping the crowd happy — and it's something that Young, who spent years working in a law office, enjoys doing. “I love the business aspect of it. I love the administrative part of it,” she says.
Each DJ has her own style, and Young works to match up clients with the talent most suited to their needs. While the DJs may specialize in genres like indie-dance or house or hip-hop, they're all capable of playing what are known as “open-format” sets. That's when the DJ could play music from any genre, so long as it keeps the party going. “Whatever the client needs,” Harlow says, who describes herself as a “chameleon.”
If you're going to work with a professional agency, then you have to act that way, too. “I'm really selective about the people that I have on my team,” Young says. Potential Prism DJs need at least two years of experience and must be able to demonstrate that they are good DJs with a professional demeanor. Young doesn't accept inquiries through social media outlets or queries from people who don't include résumés, press material or mixes.
Even though Young is running the operation, she still DJs herself under her first name, Tessa. That makes Prism unique among DJ booking agencies, as well; it's one DJ using her personal experience and organizational skills to help empower other women in her field. It's a testament to the power of collaboration instead of competition.
You can catch Prism DJs at Magnolia House in Pasadena on Fridays and Saturdays, the Pikey on Fridays and Bowlero in Woodland Hills and Westchester on Fridays and Saturdays. To book a Prism DJ for an event, visit www.prismdjs.com.
Liz Ohanesian writes about DJ culture, electronic music and other subjects for L.A. Weekly. Her work also has appeared in Playboy, Noisey, Village Voice and a number of other publications. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.