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She’s got the boys beat

Ms Thang calls herself a ‘novelty’ in the night-life industry: a powerhouse DJ in lipstick and stilettos

Beth Ladew spins under the name DJ Ms Thang during her Friday-night residency at Woodward at Ames hotel. Beth Ladew spins under the name DJ Ms Thang during her Friday-night residency at Woodward at Ames hotel. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / April 14, 2011

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D ark red fingernails flutter over spinning, neon-green records. Smokey eyes scan the dusky lounge: Men and women in casual business attire are scattered among tables and booths.

The disco beat subtly vibrates, gets shoulders swaying and heads bopping, mingles with the low drone of chatter.

“Your job as a DJ is to read the crowd and gauge where to go,’’ Beth Ladew, a.k.a. DJ Ms Thang, said from a perch behind turntables and a mixer at Minibar in Copley Square. “You’re kind of the puppet master.’’

If a hot nightlife scene follows a formula, Ms Thang is the one testing it — adjusting the proportions, making sure the ingredients are right, standing back to see how the crowd reacts, giving them more if they like it, sending out something else if they don’t.

Versed in old-school vinyl and vibes, she is the city’s temptress of the turntable, due as much to her style as to her skillful and eclectic sound selection.

The 29-year-old (now and “forever,’’ she says coyly) Jamaica Plain resident provides the beat-mixing and matching at various clubs: every other Friday at Woodward at Ames hotel; Tuesday nights at Minibar; Saturdays once a month at Royale, not to mention fashion shows, private parties, swanky fund-raisers for the city’s well-to-do.

Her savvy spinning has also earned her a rotation of gigs in Toronto, LA, even Anchorage. (Most “lower 48ers’’ have no idea the frigid city has an incredibly happening night life, she says). She’s even opened for Grammy winner Questlove and Lindsay Lohan’s ex, DJ Samantha Ronson.

To DJ internationally is Ms Thang’s next ambition, and eventually, she’d like to produce her own tracks.

Ultimately, hers is a lifestyle she calls bizarre, vampiric, certainly never boring, and forever enlivened with a menagerie of “interesting characters.’’

“It’s been such a strange ride,’’ said the smokey-eyed blonde, her dark red nail polish, rings, and bangles a blur as she gestured along with her words. “I didn’t know it was going to turn into this.’’

DJ Ms Thang is a relative “novelty’’ (her word) in the nightlife business: a sought-after female DJ who can get a room pumping whether she’s spinning for 20-something club kids or a ballroom full of gala-goers. Those skills, as well as her runway-model good looks (she’s sometimes been booked on those alone, she acknowledges), make it clear that “I can hold my own with the boys,’’ she added slyly.

To those who groove or merely toe-tap to the selected beats she puts out, the allure is in her perceptive crowd-reading, and her soulful style, a melange of genres.

“She can play a little bit of everything,’’ said Kyla Moore, a manager at Minibar, where Ms Thang has been spinning weekly since early 2009, and where she creates, as Moore describes it, a “chill, laid-back Miami kind of vibe.’’

East Boston graphic designer Paul Ferraro, an avid night lifer and former club promoter, appreciates the DJ’s international influences, from the Spanish pop-flamenco of the Gipsy Kings to the South African-influenced Black Coffee. Ms Thang hails from Cambridge but says she grew up “all over.’’

Ms Thang stressed that it’s her responsibility to be a connoisseur — she always has to be researching music, vintage and contemporary, and constantly adding to her cache. “If I’m out and I hear a song I’ve never heard before and I like it, I’m like Sherlock Holmes,’’ she said.

But beyond an extensive knowledge of music, she also has to have a technical understanding of the beats and threads that pull different tracks and genres together. It’s a skill she started honing about five years ago after several of her male friends got into it. She was always musically inclined, singing in chorus and the church choir as a kid. Starting out, she spent hours, several nights a week, with vinyl and turntables at a friend’s house, timing and counting, training her ears and fingers to beat match and seamlessly blend one song into another.

Today, it’s something she can do intuitively with just the right flicks on the turntable.

“I didn’t realize how much work would go into it,’’ she said, calling it “intense,’’ and lamenting that some DJs allow new technology to do the complicated task for them.

As for her own musical favorites? She’s drawn to soulful melodies and harmonies, no matter the era or genre. But when it comes to individual artists, “it’s impossible for me to answer,’’ she shrugged. “I’ve been exposed to so much.’’

Indeed, her laptop right now holds a stash of about 10,000 songs: classics, reggae, old-school hip-hop, funk, new disco. But not, she said sternly, “Top 40.’’ (OK, OK. If that’s what the crowd wants, she’ll play it.)

Which brings us back to her role as a DJ: to read the crowd, pick music based on their mood, build on that, pace them.

“She’s using her sixth sense,’’ said Ferraro. “As a DJ, you’re responsible for steering the vibe, directing energy, picking tracks to create a story.’’

So, Ms Thang is constantly scanning the room: How old is the group? Are they low-key or high-energy? Out for a simple drink or eager to dance and hook up?

“You’re like a sociologist,’’ she said, in her case, one in stilettos, jeans, and lace fingerless gloves. On a Tuesday night at Minibar, the sonic sociologist spins some mellow tracks for a reserved sampling of clubgoers. She starts with the Revenge Rework of Marvin Gaye’s “Heavy Love Affair.’’

From her narrow nook in a window, Ms Thang — in drapey white shirt over tight black pants, silver headphones hugging her neck — shifts between a laptop, a mixer, and two neon green spinning control records. Her fingers start to work the right turntable, melding into the next song, an edit of Sammy Barbot’s “Mexico,’’ until the first tune fades out and the latter takes over.

Clustered around, business people, sleeves rolled up, sit in hunched conversation, sipping wine, eating fries. Waitresses in black clear away empty bottles. The Bruins game plays silently at the bar. Taxis hustle outside.

“Everyone seems in a good mood and cheery,’’ she said, scanning the room. “I don’t want the tempo to be too fast or too slow right now.’’

The music cascades: a Greg Wilson edit of “Secret Sunday Lover,’’ a Le Loup remix by Soul Clap, a rework of Lenka’s “Trouble Is a Friend.’’

The songs melt into one another, new beats mixing in. The night grooves on.

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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