From the 416 to the 905, some of Toronto’s most promising production talents are proving gender has nothing to do with the size of your hits.
At a listening party for Canadian hip-hop duo Rich Kidd and SonReal’s album, The Closers, last fall, Ebony Oshunrinde stood shyly in the corner. Later, Rich and SonReal introduced the soft-spoken 16-year-old, who goes by WondaGurl, as the producer of “Money Money,” the rowdy first single from The Closers, which would go on to be nominated for a Juno. At the time, Oshunrinde’s collaboration seemed remarkable—a few months earlier, she was the youngest producer to win the local Battle of the Beatmakers competition. But even that feat pales in comparison to WondaGurl’s most recent coup: She co-produced the serpentine “Crown” on Jay-Z’s chart-topping 12th album, Magna Carta…Holy Grail.
The press has been somewhat fixated on Oshunrinde’s age (she starts Grade 12 in September at Brampton’s Chinguacousy Secondary School), though some people just seem incredulous that a girl might want to make rap beats. But in a time of laptop producers and in a place like Toronto, where the hip-hop community owes a debt to innovators like Michie Mee and the Droppin Dimez radio crew, why wouldn’t a young woman want to—as Jay-Z raps on MCHG—“fuck up the world”?
There are plenty of game-changing female musicians, but it can be difficult to track their contributions when they’re not catering to the lowest common denominator. There are also creative professionals hoping to bridge the very real gender gap that plagues studio-oriented or compositional work across genres. These musicians say the issue is not that no women are calling the sonic shots—notable exceptions include electronic composer Laurie Spiegel, pop icon Linda Perry, and younger music producers like Grimes and Odd Future’s Syd Tha Kyd—but rather, that there’s a need to acknowledge the disparity and create networks of support.
Along with playing in local orch-pop band Ohbijou, Heather Kirby (pictured above) has produced and mixed for artists like Austra’s Katie Stelmanis. “While I’ve worked with lovely and supportive men, I feel that not having female mentors and role models in the production world has been challenging,” she explains. “As a musician, I’ve often noticed that sound guys at venues will approach the guys in the band to discuss tech needs. When they do speak with women, they tone down the technical language.”
Kirby is currently pursuing a master’s in new media and communications at McMaster University. She used part of her grant funding to host Resampled, a workshop (pictured below) geared towards women and transpeople, at the Tranzac in early July. Session leaders included Maylee Todd, DJ Cozmic Cat, and Morgan Doctor. She describes Resampled as “a hands-on workshop about empowering women to [use] technology to explore creativity.”
The misconception that women can’t creatively express themselves through technology is one excuse commonly given to explain why they’re underrepresented in music production, says Kirby. “The culture of technology is extremely gendered. For example, major bookstores often file recording magazines in the men’s interest section.” Providing role models for existing and aspiring musicians is extremely important, she says.
Vanese Smith (pictured above) wants to be just that. She’s a Maryland–raised electronic producer who makes music as Pursuit Grooves and a programmer for July’s annual Sound in Motion festival. Smith has introduced women-only gear-and-sampling courses at Offcentre DJ School in the east end. But she also sees some power in being underestimated. “First thing people always assume is that because you’re a woman, you’re a vocalist. I feel like I had an edge because I gave people more than what they assumed I could do.”
Smith makes hip-hop, house, and other electronic-inspired beats in her own home, so she rarely encounters mansplaining dudebros in a studio environment. Still, like Kirby, she does believe that technology is levelling the playing field. “Access to software allows more people to get into music production,” says Smith, who started building songs on keyboard synthesizers at age 15. “But sometimes you just don’t know where to start because of all the options. I want to focus on the creativity that happens when you don’t have an abundance of presets or any given sound at your fingertips.”
Unfazed—or at least still untouched—by all of this is young Oshunrinde, who uses software like FL Studio to make beats six hours a day (“I try not to do it too much because of the electricity bill”). As a nine-year-old Lego fan, after seeing a video of Timbaland and Pharrell in the studio, she applied her affinity for construction to making music instrumentals on a keyboard. She’s still a Timbo die-hard, but her mentor is Boi-1da, the in-house producer for Drake’s OVO empire, who also has a song on MCHG and who mentored her at the Remix Project, a community organization that offers education and support for young people pursuing creative careers. Oshunrinde plans to study audio engineering in college and says her family has always been very supportive. Has it ever been weird being the only girl in the room? No, she says, everyone has been nice. But she’s been briefed on what may come, thanks to singer Jill Scott. “She said that I have to stand up for myself as a woman, and not let anybody try to trick me.”
For more info on Heather Kirby’s workshop, go to resampledworkshops.com; For more info on Vanese Smith’s classes, go to offcentredj.com.