Erin Womack spins her introduction as DJ Lady Fingaz on her recently finished mix demo, Grand Theft Hip-Hop. Monotone samples pulled from recordings of comically uptight, older white men announce her saying, "She's beautiful / She's smart / She's a fighting hellcat / She's dynamite / She's (zip zip) DJ (zip zip) Lady Fingaz."
Womack's also a 22-year-old business major at the University of New Orleans. In her four years in the city, she's started to make quite a name for herself, introducing herself to most local party people via her steady Friday night gig at Shiloh -- a dimly light, raucous and racially diverse late-night spot Uptown. Unassuming yet friendly and self-assured, she explains from her seat in a Carrollton coffee shop her summary of the local hip-hop culture.
"It's not unified," she says. "It's weak."
Despite the harsh words, Womack speaks in tones resonant with hopeful, constructive criticism. Yet, the Austin, Texas, native who moved to New Orleans after her "formative years" in Little Rock, Ark., has issues with the bounce-dominated, boys-club local hip-hop scene. Her father, Lance, has been a drummer in a blues band for the past 30 years. Growing up on Lance's taste in blues, soul and rock, Womack's taste now ranges from Earth, Wind & Fire to Bob Marley. Her most immediate musical influences came from experiences traveling to Memphis in high school for raves, gaining notice of touring acts and soaking up the Beat Junkies, Cut Chemist and others. Once she connected with hip-hop, Womack says, she was hooked.
But in New Orleans, she's faced some struggles finding her niche. Womack cites problems with adequate promotion and venues, but also reluctance in New Orleans to embrace and support what is now unquestionably the most popular genre of music in America. "The older cats and musicians here often don't like what we do," she says. "They fear the turntables will come in and replace the live band."
However, she admits it would be easy for her to find work here -- if she were willing to compromise her style. "It'd be easy to score some of those Top-40 bullshit jobs at one of the dance clubs around here," she says. And while eschewing the in-demand, danceable house and jungle styles that could earn her gigs and money, Womack also disses bounce, the dominant local hip-hop style. "I'm not hatin' Juvenile," she jokes, referring to the current king of New Orleans hip-hop, whose 2004 release, Juve the Great, is certified gold. "But I like conscious lyrics, and underground beats. I like more than one syllable, and lyrics that don't degrade women."
Womack first connected to a suddenly thriving underground hip-hop scene in New Orleans through Scratchmosis, a local DJ who paired like-minded locals with touring acts. After he put her on gigs at venues such as TwiRoPa and The Howlin' Wolf, Lady Fingaz soon gained attention, and this summer she toured the South with a group put together by the recently formed Media Darling Records. (For a solid example of local hip-hop, check out Media Darling's recent compilation release, Humid Sounds, featuring Bionik Brown, Soapboxx and Quickie Mart, Womack's boyfriend.)
But, it's at Shiloh, the hot spot she calls "my homebase," where DJ Lady Fingaz gained a rep for the best Friday night/Saturday morning throwdown in town. "They've been great to me, real supportive," she says of the club's owners. "They say, Just go out there and play whatever you want to play.'"
Womack says her artistic aim of spinning hard-hitting, groovy beats behind a deft MC's flow is balanced with keeping the party moving. "I do get some terrible requests," she says. "But I know that I have to give the people there something to dance to that they know so they can sing along to."
That was the case on a sweltering Friday night recently, the crowd August-thin in Shiloh and not really dancing. Working by candlelight, Womack silently assumes her position behind the turntable, scratching and weaving through hits by old school hip-hop stalwarts such as Snoop Dogg, Geto Boys, Digital Underground and the Black Sheep. This eventually propels the crowd to move.
She's seen the Shiloh "wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder," and that energy inspires her freestyle. Womack takes to the table with no playlist. "It's totally freestyle," she says. "I play off the crowd and get into it when they do."
Womack is encouraged by recent growth in support in New Orleans, namely through promoters/musicians such as Truth Universal and the Headz Up Nola (headzupnola.com). Such groups aim to serve Womack and other locals to gain respect (and gigs) for unique DJs and MCs. "A lot of people think of a DJ as a CD player, and can just push buttons and hear whatever they want to hear," she says. "They don't appreciate scratching and juggling. But turntables are an instrument, and we are musicians."