DJ Reborn on Spinning for the Likes of Lauryn Hill

This NYC-based "sonic anthropologist" knows how to move a crowd

Whether she's playing an intimate club gig, an event at a major museum or opening for Lauryn Hill in arenas around the world, DJ Reborn is happiest behind the decks.

"I'm known for playing a really diverse range of music, but the common thread through anything I play is that it's soulful. Genre blending and melding, creating bridges between genres—that's my favorite thing to do," says DJ Reborn, whose sets include funk, Afrobeats, dance hall, jazz, R&B and reggaeton. "That's the fun of DJing—you're creating these conversations between artists without them having to do that work."


A post shared by Deejay Reborn (@djreborn)

Here, we chat with the DJ, sonic artist and music educator about what it was like to warm up crowds during the recent Ms. Lauryn Hill & Fugees: Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 25th Anniversary Tour. She also reveals how she picks her setlist and offers advice to aspiring spinners.

MUSE: Tell me about your background and how you got into DJing.

DJ Reborn: I was born in Chicago and lived in the city proper until I was 11 or 12. Then we moved to a suburb called Evanston. I left there shortly after graduating high school. I lived in the Bay Area for several years. That's actually where I got my start as a DJ, playing vinyl. Then I decided to move to New York to see if I could DJ as a full-time profession. I was doing it as a side hustle before, and I was like, "Let me see if I can do this in New York. I know that I can really stretch my wings there and, hopefully, make an impression with my style."

I saw you open for Lauryn Hill at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last December, and I was pretty far from the stage. What struck me is how I felt your presence and your positive energy despite the distance. You might as well have been standing a few feet away.

It's nice to hear that's the energy you are receiving. These big arena shows are interesting. There are so many people that it's almost preposterous. I'm just being myself and enjoying the process of moving people with music and warming up the crowd before Ms. Hill comes out and delivers her power.


A post shared by Deejay Reborn (@djreborn)

What's it like to play a huge arena as opposed to a smaller club?

Because of the sheer scale, it feels like the stakes are higher. But I don't think I'm any more nervous in front of a bigger crowd than I am at a regular club, or at a party, or a wedding. I'm probably more nervous with a smaller audience because the focus is so specific. If it's like 50 people and me, I'm going to feel that more, and I'm going to be a bit more concerned about the overall room. Whereas [on the Lauryn Hill tour], my job is to create something that I hope is in alignment with what Ms. Hill is trying to do and what the crowd needs.

What went into creating the list of songs you played on tour with Lauryn Hill?

My process has a lot to do with where we're performing. I do my research about what's getting people excited musicially in a specific country or city. I'll reach out to friends who are from that place, or who live in that place, and I'll ask them, "If I threw in a few tracks tonight, what would people respond to? What's local stuff that I may not know but that the crowd would appreciate hearing?" I do my due diligence. Then I leave room for improvisation. I love to have room for play and elasticity.

What songs did you toss in for the Brooklyn crowd at my show?

Brooklyn is a very discerning crowd, and you can't do just any old thing! I was thinking about the women of Brooklyn—Little Kim is a classic Brooklyn person to play, Foxy Brown, and then Leikeli47, who's a newer phenomenon. I was just trying to represent for the women in music because that's critical no matter where I'm at.

I always just assumed DJs played whatever they wanted to play. I didn't think about how, of course, you would think about your audience and where you are in the world.

A great DJ has a more egalitarian sensibility about the experience. Even though it's our job to please people, it's also our job to put people onto songs or artists that maybe they've never heard before. We're sonic anthropologists in that way. But yeah, I think most really good DJs are going to play what they love, satisfy the crowd, educate the crowd and make it fun. My favorite DJs are super thoughtful. Anyone can get up and play a list of music that's extremely popular and go from song to song. So there has to be a thoughtfulness and a storytelling desire, I think.

DJing is spirit work. It's not just you standing in a room with a bunch of people making them dance. Something is happening there that's transformative for all of us if it's done with the right intention.

Did you have mentors when you were starting out?

There's a woman that I knew in Chicago who was the first DJ I personally knew. Her name is DJ Heather. She's still a DJ and a producer. She's known for her house music sets and production. She was probably the first DJ I knew, which was really powerful. Also a Black woman. She was somebody who very much inspired me.

And then Qool DJ Marv. When I first contemplated moving to New York to pursue DJing full time, I had his mixtapes, and he had a phone number on them, and I called the number. I just wanted to pick his brain. He was extremely generous with his time and knowledge and encouragement. That conversation was pretty pivotal for me.

What's the situation like for women in the field today?

The pool of women DJs has exploded exponentially, particularly in the last 15 years since DJing became digital. I love seeing how many women are in the field.

Can you offer some advice for people who want to break into DJing?

Identify other DJs in the community that resonate with you in some way, whether that's how they play or the genres that they play in, or the venues where they perform, or the kinds of crowds that they attract. And if you don't already have a connection with them, try to establish one. I'm always excited when young women come up to me and say, "I'm learning how to DJ now, or I want to learn." I'm like, "Here's my email. Hit me up." I'm always open to mentorship in some way, shape or form.

The other thing I would say is that if you're already on a path to DJing but you don't know how to get gigs, identify three or four venues where the style and sound of what you have to offer would fit. For some people, that's playing in hotel lounges. For other people, it might be this certain kind of bar or clothing store. Then figure out who does the booking and then offer a day where you'll come in and DJ for an hour or two for free so they can see what you're like in action, and they can hear you. You have to align yourself with the people and the spaces that seem to fit what it is you hope to put out.

And then, try to build community. Nobody's doing this by themselves. For me and other women DJs, we do play together sometimes, but we're also reposting about each other's gigs, or supporting each other even if we physically can't be there. It's important to remember that even though DJing can be a bit solitary, you can always collaborate.

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