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(interviewed June 15, 1999)
by Andrew Duke
Denise Benson has, simply put, one damn impressive resume. But despite the fact that she has had experiences many of us would envy, she remains particularly modest about her accomplishments. While others are busy talking, Toronto's Benson is do-ing. Radio DJ, Club DJ, booker, programmer, promoter, publicist, writer, musician-these are just some of the jobs she's been juggling since the mid 1980s.
She grew up in Grafton, Ontario, a small town (population 1000) halfway between Kingston and the big city of Toronto. "From the time I remember being a conscious being, I've always been deeply into music and deeply into words," Benson recalls over the phone from her home in Toronto. "I was a voracious reader as a kid-and continue to be-read like crazy and always had books on the go." Though not from a musical family, she was given a record player at the age of four. "They gave me a turntable (as an incentive) to stop sucking my thumb. I was always really into music, made tapes of music off the radio, and that continued all the way through high school. We had a little high school radio station, plus I volunteered at a commercial AM station for awhile in my early teenage years."
After high school in neighboring Coburg, she went on to take a Bachelor of Applied Arts (with honors) in Radio and Television at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. "When it came time to think about what I wanted to do with my life, I either wanted to do something that seemed related to writing or music something…I was gonna do creative writing at York; I applied to both and decided on Radio and Television (because) it seemed to combine the elements of words and music to do radio." Benson remembers her family telling her, "'Well, when you get older, you'll forget about this (music).'" She laughs. "I can tease them about that now."
Benson began DJing in Grade Seven at high school dances, and things grew from there. By 1986 she was DJing parties and clubs around the Toronto area, and a year later she started hosting the "Mental Chatter" radio show on CKLN, a weekly gig she has continued to hold down for the last twelve years. NOW magazine began recognizing her abilities as a DJ in 1996, and she's been voted Best Club DJ in Eye Weekly's "Toronto's Best" Readers Poll for the last two years. Now 32, Benson is busier than ever on the wheels of steel. Including her regular DJ gigs (see sidebar), she has six appearances planned for the week we speak.
She was heavily involved in the programming, promotion, and organization of the JVC International Acid Groove Festival of 1997 and their Urban Rhythm Festival the following year, and has held a variety of positions at CKLN Radio throughout her time there. Growing up in a small town, Benson didn't have many music options. "I was so grateful when I discovered Brave New Waves, I'd be up all night every night." In yet another example of her ability to translate goals into action, Benson went on to work at CBC Radio Canada on the revered Brave New Waves program as a freelance writer, programmer, and replacement host.
Benson began writing about music in 1992 and has been published in magazines such as Rites, XTRA!, FUSE, and Word. Since 1996, she's been writing regularly for Exclaim-from numerous reviews and features on a wide variety of artists to last year's essay examining women producers.
March of this year saw her leave her National Beat Promotions day job at Iron Music (where she had been doing promotions and publicity for the label's dance roster) in order to concentrate more on her own words. "In terms of living, breathing, paying bills and stuff, it's gigs and bits of writing (now). I'm at a point where I'm like 'hmm, should I try to get a day job or a couple of days a week kind of job, part time, whatever?' On one hand it would make sanity a bit more possible in that you know that there's a pay check coming, but on the other hand I'm also trying to focus more and more on writing."
Started in January 1997, Benson's favorite regular club gig is her weekly "Glide" party held at Gypsy Co-op. "Because my history previous to (Glide) has been doing much more dancefloor stuff--a lot of things in the women's community, a lot of things in the lesbian and gay scene, obviously the fetish parties, all that kind of stuff, and then a lot of other sort of big parties here and there--with Glide I decided I wanted to stop playing women's nights specifically--because I wanted to focus on the music and whoever came out was coming out because they were into the music-and find a venue where I could start playing all the stuff that I was really deeply into and that I was playing on my radio show. Often your radio show is much more fluid than what you can do in a club because of requests and people's expectations, so Glide is the point in my life where I sat back and went 'OK, I want to do something that is about the music that I'm adoring right now.' I approached Gypsy, they were totally into it, it's much more of a lounge/restaurant kind of vibe and it's just been a really good match. A lot of people who listen to the radio show come out, and for a Wednesday it's been incredible; people are really supportive and I've had a lot of special guests that have come through, special parties that I've done." Some of Glide's many guests have included Goldie, Roni Size, Purple Penguin, Jaz Klash, and Andrea Parker. "(Glide) has been kind of my main baby, and that's really been integral for my whole shift in thinking and my whole approach. So now I'm doing smaller venues, getting paid less, but happier playing the music… It's nice because the crowd has continued to be mixed and you feel like the women in the women's community and the dyke scene who are into good music come out and it's a mixed crowd and that's where I'm happiest anyway."
With all of this activity, you've gotta wonder how Benson finds time to eat and sleep. "It's a bit much sometimes. Trying to balance the night time (DJing) and the daytime writing thing, that's the trickiest element."
Not content to rest, Soleil is a new Friday night Benson has started with fellow CKLN DJ Sassa'le. "It's so much fun, playing whatever we want. The music that I play at both (nights) is very similar, mostly downtempo, d n b (drum n bass), expect a bit more on the jazzy tip with Soleil and a bit darker with Glide. Both nights we play dub, he plays a lot of breaks, and beats, and funky stuff. He's originally from Bristol so he's got a lot of sweet stuff from way back."
Benson stresses that if you're that busy, you have to be enjoying it. "You have to sit back and say 'What do I want to do creatively? How can I pay the bills? How can I not give in to the system of a 9 to 5 job I hate?'" Her passion for the music is a driving force. "You get the nights when you're really tired and you don't want to leave the house and it's like 'why do I do this?' But then you get there, you have a coffee, people start talking to you about the tracks, and away you go. It's so invigorating," she says. "When I stop getting excited about music is when I'll stop doing these kinds of things. And there's no sign of that happening."
In addition to DJing and freelancing, doing more of her own music appears to be an option. A track done with two friends under the name D.O.Y. (Disciples Of Yahoo) originally appeared on Cup Of Tea's "Team Cannabis" compilation of last summer; this has just been licensed to appear on Gerald Belanger's second Metro Breaks compilation.
With so many years in the music scene, Benson knows that women are shown no favors. "I don't want to be ghettoized, I want to be respected for what I do, straight up, as does anybody else, but it is harder being a woman in this industry," she stresses. "For anybody starting out, it's harder particularly when you're beginning for people to take you seriously. But it is that much more difficult when you're a woman." Benson states that women's achievements in the music industry should be recognized because they truly are achievements. "You can count sometimes on a single hand the number of women who are in jobs other than publicity. You can easily count on a single hand how many women are on air on commercial radio stations and not doing traffic or news."
What needs to be done to change this situation? What changes need to be made? The key, Benson says, is persistence. "Women just have to be extra tight in what we are doing. You've got to be focused, you've got to know what you're trying to get and why. You've got to figure out the people to talk to, and you also have to figure out the people to talk to who are human beings who respect your ideas. You're always going to run into jerks in this industry, as in any other, and you've got to find a process of bypassing or weeding those people out--the people who will hold you back because you are a woman. You can see in people's eyes sometimes when they're just not taking your seriously, and sometimes you don't know if that's because of your gender or not." While Benson admits there has been frustration along the way, there's also been much progress. "When I first started DJing in Toronto, there were only two other women DJs in the city that I knew of. Now I can't count us all and that's exciting."
Her philosophy for success is simple. Ask yourself "'This is what I'm interested in doing, what do I need to get there?'" Benson says. "As long as I've got goals, I find that I can achieve them. There's lots of tangents along the way, but setting goals for yourself is crucial and I think that's a big part of why I've been able to do what I do."
Denise Benson DJ itinerary:
"Mental Chatter" Mondays 11 AM-2 PM on CKLN FM
"Chicks Dig It" Mondays (rotating lineup of women DJs) at We'ave, 330 Dundas W, Toronto
"Glide" Wednesdays at Gypsy Co-op, 817 Queen St W, Toronto
"Soleil" Fridays with DJ Sassa'le at Fez batik, 129 Peter St, Toronto
Northbound Leather parties (monthly)