Pioneering woman DJ still fighting for respect

Whop Mama spins tunes in true old-school style that spans the generations

 
Ann “DJ Whop Mama” Estis
Ann “DJ Whop Mama” Estis

Ann Estis amazes with her ability to prevail. Original sistah soul, you could say, breaking ground to push past and stand as well as, if not better than, a man.

Fannie Hurst’s famous quote goes, “A woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half as far.” Estis is living proof. She began entertaining as a DJ back in 1972 and, to this day and age, yet contends with gender discrimination.

You would think if any community understood and took to heart the concept of equality and how salient an enduring imperative that is, ours would. You’d be wrong. At least, so far as this woman’s hard-fought career has gone.

Sitting at Pow Wow Grounds coffee shop in South Minneapolis, her sister and chief cheerleader Bea Morlin alongside, she recalls her formative years. “In 1960, I would play phonograph records at my mom’s card parties. And I’d have my own parties and stuff. From there, [I] went into fashion shows. Bea was part of that.

“I gave the first Black fashion show at the St. Paul Hotel. This was 1971.” The next year she went from playing music to making it, singing and dancing backup for her cousin Cynthia Johnson, who’d go on to celebrity with Lipps, Inc. recording the classic “Funkytown.”

She went on to run in music circles with, among other future luminaries, Gary Hines of Sounds of Blackness at Macalester College. There she indulged a poetic bent, giving readings with flue accompaniment, and hung out with now legendary scholar-historian-griot Mahmoud El-Kati.

Estis got back to the turntables in ’74, doing club work with Sunshine Productions. “They had never had a female before, and I became their first one.”

She gained traction through a day job as youth counselor for Ramsey Action Program. “They found out I did music and had me do [events].” Some years later she walked into a club called P.J. Clark’s and met the lady who would become renowned in the Twin Cities as proprietor of Arnellia’s.

“I told her, if you give me your club on Saturday and Sunday night, I’ll turn it around,” which is just happened, to the extent that she roped in her son, who went by the name WHOP Master (We Hold Organized Parties).

She branched out into promotion, bringing bands into Arnellia’s, launching the area’s first boat rides, which were so successful KMOJ began doing coverage and the demand started to swamp the supply. “I had to do rides back-to-back to accommodate all the customers.”

Bea chimes in, “What she did back then is still going on today.”

Ann notes, “Nobody was doing that.” The story, you could say, of her life. She consistently has gone where few men and no one woman had gone before.

Bea points out that instead of drawing from a narrow playlist, “She has always collected music. She would find out what’s playing on the radio not just here but in other markets — Chicago, cities down South.

“I’d tell them, ‘Tape the [out of town] station for me. Let me know what they’re playing’.” That sort of commonsense ingenuity as well as a passionate dedication went a long way toward establishing a solid presence in St. Paul. Pursuant to which, no matter what she did for a day job or as an entertainment entrepreneur, she always stayed with her main gig.

This continued through a series of stints that at one point included functions for the Institute for Black Chemical Abuse (IBCA) and its later incarnation African American Family Services, as well as the American Legion, continually to packed houses. Yet, she constantly found herself contending with the preconceived notion that making music at the mic is men’s territory.

She’s been at Johnny Baby’s (www.johnnybabys.com) since 2011 and is fairly pleased with the state of things, situated in a Thursday night slot. Estis reflects, however, on what she has gone through in order to get where she is.

“I caught hell. I was kind of the first woman DJing in the country. I researched it.”

She reflects that this is not often respected. “[When I’m working], I look around and see other DJs watching. They come in and try to take my job. I let ’em go ahead and try.”

Age discrimination enters into it too. “The younger DJs, they get envious and jealous and don’t like it that I have music from both the older generation and the new generation.”

Bea heatedly interjects, “She can do it all. Rap, whatever. A lot of DJs today only focus on one thing. But Ann is very broad.”

As well, it’s become a common practice among spinners to resort to leaning on pre-recorded playlist programs. Ann does it true old-school, sizing up how her audience is comprised in order to, accordingly, give the people what they want.

Instead of appreciating abilities, she observes, “They will come up on my set and, because I’m a woman, just try to take over. I tell ’em, ‘Because I’m a woman, don’t disrespect me. I don’t come up on your set. Get off my speakers.’ So I always have to fight for whatever I get.”

She has a problem, in fact, with how sexism plays itself out in the very material other DJs play, particularly how young women go right along with it. “I don’t understand how these girls [are] in club, dancing to these songs that degrade them, call them all kind of b’s and ho’s. All kind of names.”

And, of course, there are clubs owners who, despite her clearly successful, well-known track record, want to pay her less than they do male DJs. She refuses to let any of this dent her fender. Simply keeps on keeping on. Go and see for yourself.

Catch Ann Estis a/k/a WHOP Mama spinning sounds, from old school to new, at Johnny Baby’s, 981 University Ave. in St. Paul, Thursday evenings, 6-10:30 pm. And, yes, she’s available for private parties.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls, 55403.