The only thing Ali Neff knows about her birth parents is that they were musicians. It's also the only thing they wanted to make sure she knew when they put her up for adoption.
"All I know about my birth mother is she said, if I wanted to study music and the arts, she wanted my adopted parents to support me," says Neff, 41. "That was the one message sent to them."
Turns out, she didn't need the push.
"Even before I knew that," she says, "I felt the music."
Even in Portland, where "music geek" should qualify as a census category, Neff's appetite for sound is especially voracious.
While her friends were doing "normal things," Neff spent her junior high years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, dubbing hip-hop mixtapes from their older siblings and buying 12-inch records with baby-sitting money.
After high school, she went to London and discovered raga and acid house, then to Brooklyn, where she devoured dancehall and jazz. She moved to Mississippi to study the blues, which turned into her master's thesis, then a book, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story.
She's been a journalist, record store clerk, band member, activist and academic, earning a Ph.D. in cultural studies and communication from the University of North Carolina. But in Portland, where she's lived for a year, Neff is perhaps most visible as a DJ. She spins around town under the name Dr. Dakar—a tribute to her time in Dakar, Senegal, researching the contributions of women in West African music culture. She first learned how to mix in San Francisco in the early 2000s, under the tutelage of local legends like the late DJ Steph.
Twelve years ago, while earning her master's, she began paying that kindness forward, offering lessons pro bono to women and other underrepresented groups within the turntablist world. While the DJ community is generally welcoming, Neff says it can still be a hard field to break into, depending on who you are.
"I still have men that stand at the turntables and look at me sideways, waiting for me to screw up," she says. "And what happens to my sisters who are 23, they become really intimidated by that."
In January, Neff, with an assist from XRAY.FM manager DJ Jimbo, began hosting free turntablist workshops, teaching such skills as beat-matching and set curation in what she describes as a low-anxiety, "femme-centered" space. So far, she's mentored 12 DJs, who are already getting gigs and flooding Portland with yet more music. For Neff, nothing could be better.
"Our project was to unleash a cohort of women DJs on Portland before the summer party season," she says, "and it totally worked."
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