Updated: Feb 28, 2022
We celebrated International Workers' Day by reviewing the lives of some of the empowered womxn who revolutionized the world of music from their professional perspective.
Any list of revolutionary womxn in music can't help but be short. Our criteria in this article are not to compile a list of the most successful womxn musicians in history, but to get to know some of the women below the stages who changed many paradigms, influenced, and became powerful examples of empowered women, equality, and assertiveness. How their love of music was born, their training, the development of their knowledge, their struggle, the dedication and perseverance that positioned them in the music industry as iconic womxn:
DAPHNE ORAM "THE GODMOTHER OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC"
Regardless of the consequences, a group of powerful BBC men, trusting in her professional ability in order to fulfill the mission of her objective, never allowed herself to have a limit that would block her or put a stop to her potential beyond belonging to an era where the role of women in the media (as well as in others), was very different from the positions that men occupied. Daphne always trusted herself, her self-confidence led her not only to be a musical innovator for the time but also to be one of the first British composers to experiment with electronic sound, but also a pioneer of "concrete music" (music made with sounds recorded on tape, something like the ancestor of today's electronic music).
Daphne Oram was the first woman to design and build the first electronic music instrument.
These achievements immediately positioned her on a path where each step she took would sum up even more factors to become a highly empowered woman, being an example both for the women who came in the following years like Delia Derbyshire who we will talk about later, and for many bands of which we are great admirers. Daphne Oram was the first woman to run an electronic music studio, to design and build the first electronic musical instrument. But how did she become the mother of modern electronic music? Daphne was born in 1925, in the city of Wiltshire, England, and was educated in a school for women where she took piano, organ, and composition lessons. Later, she studied electronics. In 1942, she turned down a place at the prestigious Royal College of Music to join the BBC (the UK's largest public broadcaster) as a junior studio engineer, a job then for women as it was wartime and men were fighting. During this time she started experimenting with tape recorders, staying up after hours recording all sorts of sounds, cutting them, splitting them, looping them, and then playing with the speed. It was at this point that she realized the possibilities she had, but her superiors at the BBC were not convinced.
In the early 50's she was promoted to studio manager, where she began a campaign to create infrastructure for composing sounds and electronic music. In 1957 she was chosen to compose music for the television show "Amphitryon 38", thus creating for the first time in the history of the BBC a completely electronic theme. As a result, she and her colleague began to receive other work, so in 1958, the BBC gave them a budget and a free room with some equipment making it the co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the first woman to lead a study of this type.
In 1959 she founded her own studio "Oramics Studios" for Electronic Composition where she built the famous innovative "Oramics" machine.
At the end of 1958, Daphne's situation with the BBC was not entirely good, the channel's refusals to promote electronic composition in its activities took her out of the game and did not allow her to progress. At the same time, she was sent to the "Tournées Internationales de Musique Experimentale" in Brussels, it was there that she heard, met, experimented with all kinds of contemporary music, so she made the decision to resign from the BBC, hoping to make her own way, since her emphasis on creating music to accompany plays and television programs did not satisfy her desire to compose music herself. As a result, in 1959 she founded "Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition", her own studio in Kent County, where she built the innovative "Oramics machine", a sound synthesizer that converts images into sound.
Daphne produced music not only for radio and television but also for theatre, films and exhibitions.
Among the highlights she produced and created, we can find the electronic sounds for the James Bond soundtrack, "Dr. No" (1962), although it was not in the credits, the soundtrack of "Snow" (1963), among others. Oram continued to produce soundtracks and incidental music until ill health forced her to retire in the 1990s. She died in 2003, at the age of 77.
It is likely that without Daphne Oram's work a vast majority of the music you hear today would not exist. Her tape manipulation techniques influenced musicians all over the world and her Oramics machine laid the foundation for modern electronic music production techniques, without it, there would be no Kraftwerk, no Depeche Mode, no Human League, no dozens of bands. Her legacy has led to great accolades to this day. The Apple company even launched an Oramics application to revive the sound of the machine, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created the "Inaugural Oram Awards" to celebrate emerging artists in music, sound, and related technologies, in honor of Daphne, undoubtedly one of the most important and influential women in the history of music itself.
SYLVIA ROBINSON "THE MOTHER OF HIP-HOP"
She was a truly empowered woman of music, literally multifaceted, a composer, singer, producer, and performer. In the late 1960s, she became a pioneer in the world of record production, then became a key player in the transition from "underground" rap to the mass phenomenon by founding the first rap record label. But before that, there was a lot more to it than hip-hop. Born in Harlem, New York, she began singing the blues at age 14 and signed with Savoy Records at 16 where she formed a duo with famous guitarist Mickey Baker. In 1956 they recorded the song she composed, "Love Is Strange," which exploded again in the 1980s thanks to "Dirty Dancing".
In 1967 Sylvia and her husband opened their first recording studio together called "All Platinum Records".
In 1959 she married the musician Joe Robinson and moved to Englewood, New Jersey, in 1962 she retired to devote more time to her three children. However, she never stopped feeling the desire to continue creating and being part of the music world. In 1967 they opened a recording studio called "All Platinum Records" where she discovered artists, produced tracks, and co-wrote songs for other musicians such as "Pillow Talk" a song she composed for Al Green but which he later rejected. In spite of this, Sylvia's security was always a factor that characterized her, so she went ahead and recorded the song, making it a hit in all the U.S. charts and reaching number 3 on Billboard's Hot 100. That allowed him to release two solo albums.
The first hip hop hit in history, "Rapper's Delight" was recorded by a group created by Sylvia Robinson and released on her record label.
In 1979 Sylvia found the true path she wanted to walk and where she could put into practice not only her professional factors but also her personal factors that made her a woman capable of breaking with any man-made paradigm. It was at a club party in Manhattan when she discovered rap music after seeing a DJ playing old R&B records while a guy was reciting over them, interacting with the audience, she immediately knew that taking that concept to a record was going to achieve something very big. She quickly set out on the search for rappers, and it was thanks to her son Joe that she met the Sugarhill Gang. He immediately asked them to record a 15-minute base that sounded similar to Chic's "Good Times" and thus was born the song known to this day as the first hip hop hit, "Rapper's Delight". After this phenomenal success, she signed more rap artists, including Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, whose 1982 single "The Message" (which she co-wrote) is considered a masterpiece of the genre, a legendary anthem that contained social messages about hip hop, paving the way for groups like Public Enemy and NWA.
Sylvia continued to produce music until her death in 2011. The rights to her life story have been acquired by film producer Paula Wagner, who in an interview said: "It's not only the story of women's empowerment at a time when the music world was dominated by men, but it's also a story of the origin of hip-hop and how this woman's determination, immense talent, and smart business sense fostered a whole musical movement."
DELIA DERBYSHIRE "THE ELECTRONIC MUSIC PIONEER"
How much does Daphne Oram have to do with Delia Derbyshire? A lot. They belonged to the same company, worked in the same room, dedicated their days to the same genre "electronic music", however despite these and many more coincidences, they never worked together on the BBC.
In the middle of the 20th century, a historical context where computers and music editing software did not yet exist, Delia Derbyshire produced her own sounds in a "handmade" way, recording on magnetic tapes instruments or sounds of nature such as birds singing, car noise, or musical notes from different instruments that she then mixed using recorders that she manipulated herself in order to achieve a unique sound, which led her to do pioneering work with the BBC Radio Workshop during the 1960s and become a true pioneer of electronic music.
In 1959 she was rejected from Decca Records because the label did not accept women.
Delia created her love of music at a very young age by listening to the radio with her family at her home in the city of Coventry. She took lessons of violin, double bass, and piano. She was educated by studying mathematics, and later specialized in music at Girton College in Cambridge. Music and mathematics are two branches of education that perhaps for many have nothing to do with each other, but for her, they went perfectly together, she always used her rational thinking at the moment of creating music. In spite of the security that her knowledge and talent gave her, finding a job where she could put it into practice was difficult, since she was not always valued, and it had nothing to do with her professional ability. It was 1959 when Delia finished her studies, sent her to resume to Decca, (a UK music recording label), hoping to start her career in the music industry but was immediately rejected with a very basic argument for the time "that label didn't hire women", an act that took her away from music for a while and led her to work at the International Telecommunication Union of the ONU in Switzerland for a year.
She started working at the BBC as an intern for the position of assistant studio manager.
Back in England with the dream of dedicating herself to music still intact, she worked for half a year in the music publishing company Boosey & Hawkes, at the same time she started to do an internship for the position of assistant studio manager in the BBC, the biggest public radio and television network in the UK. The BBC produced many programs that required original music, so she set up the Radio Workshop, a sound experimentation department that was a pioneer in the creation of electronic music. Delia was a meticulous student of sound perception theories. Her skills did not go unnoticed, which immediately caught the attention of her superiors, and she soon became part of the workshop which would unknowingly become her home for the next decade and the place where British techno music would be invented.
This position made Delia Derbyshire a key part of the golden age of the Radio Workshop. She combined theory with perception using purely electronic sources and in a matter of months created her recording for the TV series "Doctor Who" in 1963. The song is one of the most recognizable pieces of English popular culture, as well as a historically significant recording, perhaps the most influential electronic music track ever composed, but despite the popularity, she remained an unknown as her name never appeared in the credits, all the compositions were signed by the Radio Workshop.
During the following years, she created music for dramatic fiction programs and documentaries, ventured into film, theatre, composed music for performances, and was part of the organization of the first electronic music festivals. At the same time, she had her own personal projects, such as "White Noise", a group she formed with fellow musicians. Her works, composed in the 60s and 70s, are still used in radio and television 30 years later.
The press named her "The Ignored Heroine of British Electronic Music".
Delia died in 2001, just a few days later the archivist at the BBC Radio Workshop was faced with the difficult task of taking and organizing all the personal files Delia had left in her attic, hundreds of unlabeled magnetic tapes, all stored in cereal boxes for some reason. In July 2008, after seven years of intense work, the University of Manchester published her catalog. It was not until then that the music scene realized her genius and Delia were fully appreciated. The press named her "The Ignored Heroine of British Electronic Music". Her abstract style and recording techniques influenced the work of groups like Pink Floyd and, decades later, great artists of the electronic scene like The Chemical Brothers. Delia Derbyshire was a woman who essentially contributed to the popularization of electronic music and sound experimentation both in Great Britain and the rest of the world.
SYLVIA MASSY "THE MOTHER OF ADVENTURE RECORDINGS "
From Johnny Cash, Prince, Tom Petty, Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers, to her renowned colleague Rick Rubin. These are just some of the names this incredible woman has in her fabulous professional experience as an engineer, mixer, and record producer.
Sylvia made her first recording experiences at her college radio station, where she could escape from school work and follow her biggest passions of all time: music. After school, she had her first commercial job in radio, where she learned the craft of audio engineering. But she soon realized that radio was more about advertising than music and so she began to specialize in recording music full-time. Her first experiences in this direction were with her own bans "Revolver". The self-produced demos of the band caused quite a stir in the underground scene of the San Francisco Bay area where she lived at that time and finally made sure that Sylvia was allowed to record for other bands.
When Sylvia started her career there was no recording programme at any university, so she is a complete autodidact who had great mentors like Rick Rubin.
In 1986 Sylvia co-produced an album for the Sea Hags with young up-and-coming guitarist Kirk Hammett, who had just joined the band Metallica for their “Master Of Puppets” album. The collaboration was so good that the Sea Hags penned a deal with major label Chrysalis Records and left for Los Angeles. Determined to not be left behind, Sylvia packed up and moved to Los Angeles and found a serious career in the music business. Within two years she worked with legends like Prince, Paula Abdul, Big Daddy Kane, Julio Iglesias, Seal, and Aerosmith. Very early, long before Tool released her co-produced hit debut album "Undertow", Sylvia visited the band's concerts and developed a friendship with the newcomers of that era. At that time, LA had a very exciting underground rock scene from which many of today's great bands were to emerge, most of which carry the signature of Sylvia Massy in their sound.
During her career, Sylvia began to experiment with adventure recordings and became a true legend in this field. She recorded in a castle, an iceberg, a nuclear cooling tower,r or an abandoned underground station in the London Underground, just to name a few of her extravagant recording locations. Next to the adventure recordings, the Neve 8038 recording console became an important ingredient of her signature sound. The Neve 8038 was originally located at CTS Studios in London, on this very special console Sir George Martin did once his famous James Bond soundtracks. The Neve accompanied Sylvia to the famous Sound City Studios, where she mostly operated during the nineties. As the century ended Sylvia left Los Angeles and moved to Weed, California, where she built the "RadioStar Studios" from which she operated for 15 years.
„Music is a motion, every song is an adventure into someone’s soul and it’s my job to capture it.“
Today Sylvia is located in Ashland, Oregon, where she is recording in her "Studio Devine" which is located in a remodeled church. In their studio, Devine is a very remarkable collection of vintage microphones and studio equipment. If you study interviews with Sylvia, it quickly becomes clear that she is an absolute expert in her field. She radiates a great fascination and a very large knowledge of recording techniques from times long past. And she not only uses this knowledge for her award-winning music productions but also shares it in books. But she is also a welcome guest at music fairs, conferences, and universities where she loves to demonstrate unusual techniques for manipulating sound.
Sylvia Massy is an empowered woman in music through and through. She herself has never considered it a disadvantage to be a woman in a male-dominated world, she has never had sexist experiences during her career, which as she says herself must have a lot to do with her charisma. In general, she does not recommend differentiating between men and women in audio engineering, because at the end of the day it should not matter what gender an engineer is, as long as he tries to do the best possible job and back up his talent with profound knowledge.
JANETTE BECKHAM "THE EYE OF A MUSIC GENERATION"
It is common to read that photographers who eventually become legendary have the virtue of being in the right place at the right time, which in part may be possible, but without the talent, it is not easy to get where Janette Beckham got to thanks to her professionalism behind the lens and her passion and dedication to music culture.
Born in London, England, Janette Beckman grew up at the King Alfred School in London from 1953 to 1967, but as a child, she knew that her passion was for the artistic path, so she decided to finish her education by spending a year at the Saint Martin School of Art, and then three years at the London College of Communication studying photography.
From the beginning, Janett's passion and the eye were focused particularly on the British punk scene.
Nothing could go wrong with living in London and having technical knowledge in photography. She entered the music world working for Sounds magazine on a shoot with the British band Siouxsie and the Banshees who were at the height of their career at the time, then worked for prestigious British music magazines "The Face" and "Melody Maker", however, Janett's passion and eye were particularly focused on the country's punk scene, which at the time dominated a large part of the British music scene.
This led her to photograph bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Jam, among countless other British artists of the time. But Janett was not only passionate about photographing the artists, documenting the youth culture of the time was another of her great passions, mods, punks, skins, but a whole essential scene that played a leading role in the musical culture of the United Kingdom in the '70s and '80s was also captured by her. Years where there was an artistic explosion that marked the creative direction of music until today, there was Janett Beckham, and not as a witness, but as part of the scene.
"Janette is a mind reader, she shows us images of all the cool things we want to see. Her work is an Oh-Shit! After the next one."
In 1983 she moved to New York, a city that was at the height of the underground hip-hop scene. She carried with her a letter of introduction that included the cover of three albums by The Police. In this way, Janette presented her work in different American record companies, but her style did not fit the aesthetics of that moment, so she transferred to small rap and hip-hop labels, not knowing that very soon she would be part of a movement that revolutionized the music scene in the country. There was Janett, creating portraits of cultural pioneers such as RUN DMC, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash, which years later would become recognizably iconic images.
Janette Beckman easily brought the world of punk and hip-hop counterculture together through her lens, capturing some of the industry's most iconic images, and offering a more authentic feel than any other photographer could hope for. Her work has been published in five books and has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. In her blog, you can see several stories behind some of the most famous works of this great woman who was undoubtedly a true female pioneer of that time.