A tour de force within the beat making community, Dot is here to show the boys how to lay down a track or two. Kate Ellwanger, aka Dot, can be found DJ’ing alongside the members of TeamSupreme but I bet you didn’t know she’s also a producer, a classically trained vocalist and the founder of a girls-only record label called Unspeakable Records.
I met up with Dot at the rooftop bar of the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles – she walked in wearing an airy dress, knee highs, big shades and even bigger heels. Her beaming smile and softly spoken words were refreshing to witness in a sea of side eyes I encountered during an apparent hipster happy hour.
The conversation flowed easier than the breeze atop the 22-story downtown haven – read on to understand the struggles Dot faced in order to make a name for herself in a predominantly male industry.
Moxipop: Hey Dot, what have you been up to lately? Could you tell me about any projects you’re currently working on?
Dot: I recently quit my day job because I’m finally getting hired to go into the studio for artists. I’m a trained vocalist so I coach as I track them to try and get the best possible take. It’s the first time I’ve really been able to have a vision for an artist and execute it from start to finish. It’s what I’ve been working up to for so long. I just finished a remix for TOKiMONSTA that should be released soon. I teach vocal lessons as well, I gave a few lessons to Nocando. He has a great voice and such an amazing stage presence – it’s fun to teach him because he has such a great energy. I love performing and that’s definitely my favorite thing to do but teaching definitely comes in a close second. I always prioritize myself last but I’ve been working on my own record for a while now – I’m not going to release something till I’m 1000% confident and happy with it.
MXP: I see that you got to work on SZA’s first project, how did that come about?
Dot: Through the power of the internet, her publicist reached out to me via soundcloud to do a remix. They thought it was dope so they asked if I could send some music to her. I, still, to this day have never met her in person – we’ve texted but our paths haven’t crossed yet. Hopefully that will happen soon, it would be cool to do some more work with her.
MXP: Whom do you feel would be a dream collaboration of yours?
Dot: I would love to work with Erykah Badu one day – that would be phenomenal. Hiatus Kaiyote, they are a future soul band from Australia. I’ve listened to their album Tawk Tomahawk on repeat for the past two months. Kendrick Lamar – I would die, I…would…die.
MXP: How would you describe your sound?
Dot: Future melodic beat music with an emphasis in melody and harmonic structures. Rhythm and bass are a huge part of it. When I sit down to write a beat I almost always start with a melodic idea. Although, I know a lot of people lay down the drums first and then play melodies on top of it. I start with a melody or a sample and then go from there. I let that initial melody dictate what the rhythm is going to be.
MXP: Where do you find inspiration for your music?
Dot: I know it’s so cliché but I gather inspiration from my relationships with people. There’s a reason why everyone always writes about love or heartbreak and it’s always expressed in their own way. Music is ephemeral – it’s not lasting or tangible, it’s always changing. The city is a huge inspiration to me too, because living in Downtown – I have been the most proactive of my whole life because the energy is so exciting. I feel like this area is on a come up too because there’s a ton of new developments – it’s a really good time to be out here. I also find inspiration in nature – a big reason why I moved back to Olympia was to be in the rain again, in the forest and the trees. The northwest is so beautiful – it’s impossible not to be inspired.
MXP: Could you describe the type of production setup you have?
Dot: My home set up can be the bare minimum – I’d be happy with my computer and a set of headphones. I use the Push, which is a controller made by Ableton – I love it, it speeds up my workflow and I think the faster I can work, the better. When I play live and also while I’m producing I have these Midi Fighters by DJ Tech Tools that have 16 arcade buttons, which you can program to do whatever you want. I like the response time because I could finger drum a lot faster compared to a traditional MPC style pad. I have a big Nord stage piano – it’s my baby. I got it when I was working at Guitar Center, it was my biggest investment while working there – even with my discount.
MXP: Was Guitar Center the day job you recently quit?
Dot: Oh, no I recently left my position at an ice cream shop but I worked in the pro audio department at Guitar Center for a year after I graduated. The overall work experience was negative for me though. Even though I was definitely more knowledgeable with Ableton and other software applications. Customers didn’t respect me either which was really frustrating. If someone were to come into the store I would greet them and they would ask, “Do you work here?” [Laughs] Obviously after a while they would realize that I knew what I was talking about.
MXP: What’s the selection process for your DJ sets?
Dot: [Laughs] Ah, there isn’t one, I just put together whatever I’m listening to at the time and it’s usually super last minute – I’d be doing my makeup and hair while picking through my iTunes library. I’ll go through my email too, to see what people have sent to me. My DJ sessions are kind of all over the place because I have a shit ton of beats that I mess around with, I used to have them organized by BPM but now it’s just whatever I find first – I just play. I try not to plan things out too much because I want to go up there and be able to play whatever feels right. I start a certain way and realize…[she stops suddenly to listen to the faint background music] Oh my gosh they’re playing Os Mutantes, they’re a Brazilian band that put out a lot of stuff in the 60s and 70s. Wow, that’s crazy first they played Linda Perhacs now Os Mutantes. [She shakes her head in disbelief and awe all at once] Anyways, what was I saying? Oh, if I’m playing something and the crowd isn’t feeling it I like to have the flexibility to completely change up my set. At Spam N Eggs Festival I had a whole set planned but a rap battle ensued so I had to keep that going. As I was playing I was dragging music into Ableton and warping it on the spot. I had a great time – Doja Cat freestyled, I was fangirling so hard – it was rad.
MXP: How did you come up with the name Dot?
Dot: Dot is my grandma’s name and she was one of the only musicians in my family. She passed away before I was born so I never got to meet her but I always felt a connection – I have her banjo. It was custom made for her in 1920 and I got it restored – it’s a really special instrument to me. Plus, I really liked the simplicity of the name and I felt it suited me.
MXP: How did you get your start with TeamSupreme?
Dot: I went to college with Mike Parviz and Preston Walker of (Penthouse Penthouse), Great Dane, King Henry, David (FuzZ) and Andrew (DjembaDjemba). We all went to Chapman in Orange County and Steve Nalepa was our music tech professor at the time, he was really inspiring to us all. I have to say that I wouldn’t be producing or making beats if it weren’t for him. We were all friends before we became a collective. TeamSupreme is a name for our friendship. People always ask me: “Is it a label? Is it a collective? What is it?” We’re all just friends that make music and like each other’s music.
MXP: Why did you want to start a record label catered exclusively to female artists?
Dot: I was starting to get really frustrated because there are a lot of really talented female producers out there that aren’t getting the shine they deserve. When [we] talk about shared experiences it’s always about being frustrated over the way you’re treated in the industry. When you walk into the studio – people don’t know you’re the producer, I’ve walked into a studio before and someone asked, “Oh, are you one of the video ho’s?” No, I actually produced the beat that you’re rapping over. I wanted to create a platform where we could put out music the way that we want to. I wouldn’t be investing so much time and energy into an industry that doesn’t respect what I have to say. I just think that having all the creative control and power in our hands is necessary at this point. I thought it’d be nice to have our own space since so many labels are predominantly male or exclusively male – at least in the production side of things. Another reason was to eliminate that underlying cattiness – create a supportive environment where women are safe to create whatever they want and work with one another – not have the mentality that there can only be one female producer.
People say that we don’t need feminism and that we’ve come so far but it’s the same old problems manifested in new ways as technology and business structures evolve. It’s the same issues that keep coming back up but in new formats.
MXP: What are the origins behind the name of your label, Unspeakable Records?
Dot: I feel that, as a woman, your words don’t carry as much weight as the guy next to you. If you stand up and try to have a voice then you’re criticized for being a man-hating-lesbian feminist – there’s this weird stereotype around it that’s not true at all. You’re scared into not saying anything and not speaking up – maybe even laughing it off.
MXP: Which artists are currently on the Unspeakable roster?
Dot: There are 14 different artists on the compilation but the artists officially on the label are Running In The Fog, Shiva, Duktap, Whipped Cream, Not Your Girlfriend and Youngmin Joo. It’s more of a community than a label. I’m re-doing the website so it could be a resource for female producers. It will feature interviews with more established artists, have production tips and tricks, and even ways to network with other female artists.
MXP: What are the requirements before signing an artist to your label?
Dot: There isn’t a set list of requirements – it’s whether I’m feeling the music or not. If I can’t meet them in person then I try to have some sort of email communication to learn their background and see how serious they are about pursuing music. With Unspeakable it’s a little bit more than just the music – it’s about bringing people together. The focus is on the music and supporting one another so we could really develop as artists.
MXP: Would you ever sign a male artist?
Dot: It would depend on the circumstances, at the same time they already have so many other outlets – there are a million and one independent labels in LA right now. If it was for a collaboration and as long as they were about the principles we embody then I guess it would be alright – you can play along but the point is to get women’s music out there. Say that I came across a male artist that I was inspired by – I would still want to help him get his music out there – but it would be through another avenue. Not that I’m this crazy well-connected person but I would introduce him to another label that could help. At the end of day I don’t discriminate and would help anyone get their music out there. For Unspeakable, I wanted to have a platform just for women – can’t we have this one thing for ourselves? Is that too much to ask?
MXP: Describe one of your favorite performances.
Dot: My favorite, so far, was when I played Low End Theory in Los Angeles this past February. Last year, I moved back to Olympia to work on my music and to get my head together. I had just graduated and was having trouble finding work. I began to question my path and even wondered why I didn’t pursue medicine instead of making beats. I went home to work through all of that, make a bunch of music and pull myself out of that depression. I was nervous because it wasn’t a bass heavy set and I was going to sing rather than hide behind my computer the whole time. It was the best feeling to get up there and sing, and share a lot of the emotional shit I was going through. A lot of people really vibed with that – I felt the best energy and support from the crowd, it was a special night for me.
MXP: I didn’t know you were a singer, could you tell me about your singing background?
Dot: I have been classically trained in voice since middle school and that was the career path I wanted to pursue. When I first started at Chapman I was a voice major because I wanted to be an opera singer. I decided halfway through that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was really inspired by the music theory classes I was taking because some of my professors would ask us to write shorter pieces or chord progressions. Taking music tech classes with Steve Nalepa sparked this inner desire to create my own music. I could either sing what some dead dude wrote 100 years ago or create something of my own with the technology we have today. I have the utmost respect for opera but I just grew tired of it. Once I started messing around in Reason and Ableton – I was hooked.
MXP: What was your first record purchase?
Dot: [Laughs] It was a Britney Spears CD, the one with “Oops I Did It Again”, I was so excited. Not even ashamed to say it – it’s Britney – she was our Beyonce…and then she got weird.
MXP: Thank you so much for your time Dot! Lastly, what does Moxie mean to you? Or when you hear the word Moxie what do you think of?
Dot: I think of it as cooler than cool. It’s ahead of cool so by the time that it becomes cool – it’s no longer cool to the people who just discovered it.
Tamara studies Journalism at Cal State Northridge but she doesn’t pay too much attention because her brain wanders towards the chords of Vampire Weekend songs, the identity of John Snow’s parents and costco pizza. She blogs here and tweets @tafreaky.