Earlier this summer, while attending the REVOLT Summit New York, I got a chance to watch media personality Charlamagne Tha God interview District 18 CEO Brooklyn Johnny. During the interview, they said that people will respect an artist’s hustle even if they don’t respect their music…and I agree. Music is subjective, but there’s something about being able to witness hard work and dedication pay off for an artist.
There are many people in the city of a Philadelphia, myself included, who have been fortunate of enough to watch the growth of DJ Hvnlee, who continues to gain the respect and attention from her city. Since her early days spinning at Maxi’s bar on Temple University campus, the North Philly native has made a name for herself on the turntables and her music selection DJ’ing at different venues across the city like The Saint, Dolphin Tavern, the TLA and many more. The genuine love she has received from her city has kept Hvnlee going hard over the past six years.
As she prepares to rock out at another Philly hometown hero Dayne Jordan’s annual No Place Like Home concert, I was able to sit down with her to talk about her journey, the struggles of a woman in the male-dominated DJ industry, and how that caused her to create her own event, Honey.
The Key: When did the girl from North Philly decide to get on the turntables and become DJ Hvnlee?
DJ Hvnlee: Like 2011 or 2012. Honestly, when I first started going out to different clubs I started noticing the DJ’s more and how the crowd reacted to them. I liked how they were able to control a crowd off of playing one song, plus everything else that I tried to do in the music industry didn’t work out. Tried to do A&R, and even tried go the management route because I couldn’t play an instrument or sing, but once I came across DJ’ing it kind of fell into my lap and I ran with it.
TK: I remember meeting you at Temple University because DJ Lean Wit It brought you on to work with us at WHIP, while teaching you how to DJ. What are somethings that you learned from him around that time?
DJ Hvnlee: Be mindful, be aware, listen to yourself and practice. Practice was a big thing with him, he made me do a three- or four-song routine for a like a year straight until I got it and then I was able to do a gig. Practice man, that was the main thing that I got from him because even now I’ve been DJ’ing for so many years now, but practice is still key.
TK: I think that was also the same time you joined Ugly Bass Media with Lean, DJ Damage, Sonny James and DJ Royale. Are there any things that you picked up from those three as well?
DJ Hvnlee: Oh my God, honestly when he asked me to be part of it I was like “Why me?” Like, I’m still a rookie but I was just starting off and it was a lot of pressure to be around these amazing, talented-ass DJ’s. They’re the coolest and humblest guys, but they take their craft so seriously and that’s really inspiring to see that.
TK: I remember your beginning stages, seeing you spin at Maxi’s, and it’s crazy to see how comfortable you’ve gotten since then. What do you think has gotten you to that comfort ability of being able to control a crowd now?
DJ Hvnlee: Honestly, I still have nerves almost every time I do a gig just because you never really know…and Philly crowds are so judgmental. But at the same time, it gives you really tough skin. Doing so many gigs though has gotten me comfortable to the point where I start to feel the crowd out before and during my set because you can see people’s reaction and you’ll know when someone is feeling your set.
TK: I remember one time you were spinning at Kung Fu Necktie and you caught me off guard when you played “Take Me There” from the The Rugrats Movie soundtrack, because I rarely hear that song getting played at parties. Is there a certain process that you do when picking out certain songs for your sets?
DJ Hvnlee: Yeah and no. I don’t really like to curate sets so much because it kind of puts you in a box, especially at a set where anything can happen. Like if you have a set list, and you have these certain songs that you’re going to play and the crowd isn’t fucking with it or you decide to go a different way in the moment, it’s like okay why do that to myself? Honestly when I’m home listening to music or going through my library, I’m still finding songs where I’m like “Damn, I could fuck them up with this one,” because you never know. You’ll get that crowd and play a throwback and it brings back memories for them.
TK: Speaking of your library, I remember when I first met you I was shocked to find out that you’re a huge Lana Del Ray fan. What are certain songs that people might be shocked to find in your library?
DJ Hvnlee: Yes! Oh my God I love her so much! A lot of EDM, because I don’t even know if you even know when I first started, my first set at Maxi’s I played an EDM set. A lot of people may not know but my favorite decade of music is the 70’s: disco, funk, R&B, I love the 70’s! I love 80’s R&B. And I have some country songs.
DJ Hvnlee: Yes! I low-key love country music, not even low-key because I don’t care if people are like “Oh you like country?” It’s whatever, Carrie Underwood.
TK: No lie, there is one country song that I do like by this group Rascall Flats called “Hurts The Most.”
DJ Hvnlee: I like them too! [laughs] I love rock bands because my brother used to listen to that when I was growing up and I would grab his cd sometimes. He would have Blink 182, Green Day, Linkin Park…yeah it’s a lot.
TK: In the past six years you’ve made a name for yourself performing at multiple venues and different events like Heineken Green Room, Party For The Park, Friends N Family and All Love Block Party. What events or venues have created great memories in your career so far?
DJ Hvnlee: One of the most fun events that I did was Party For The Park at Voyuer. Oh my God, it was so dope! The crowd’s energy, the musical acts that they had, and I think they had aerialist. It felt like I was in Paris or some type of Cirque Du Soleil vibe. It was so dope. Actually I did a gig at the Art Museum not too long ago, that was one of my favorites because I got to dive more into my library and play stuff I that wouldn’t necessarily play at The Saint or something. Not that you can’t play certain things at the Saint but I felt like I could open myself up more and express myself more through my set.
TK: I read that Matthew Law said that a perfect Saturday night party is one that has no request. What’s a perfect Wednesday night for you at the Saint?
DJ Hvnlee: I’m going to go off what he said with no request. That’s always a good night when you don’t have any request, when I can be myself, play what I want and get a good vibe from the crowd. Most of the time it’s a little insulting when someone has a request, but sometimes they’ll have a request and I’ll be like “Damn I didn’t even think of that,” because sometimes that happens, you never know. It may be a song that you love to play but you weren’t even thinking of it at the time, but most of the time it’s super annoying because you’re playing Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” and someone is like “Can you play Britney Spears?” I’m like, I love Britney but where I’m out now is not going there so you either got to let me get there or leave me the hell alone.
TK: Word, “Lemonade” is not going to match with “Britney Bitch.”
DJ Hvnlee: [laughs] We not in that pocket now.
TK: Word, I want to talk about the event you created Honey which is suppose to highlight women, baddies, babes and bosses in the music industry. What made you want to create this event?
DJ Hvnlee: I wanted to bring female artists and DJ’s to the forefront because we all know the music industry itself is male-dominated, especially in Philly. It’s crazy, but there’s a lot of female DJ’s that are up and coming, and even like ones who have been around who are just now getting their shine. So I wanted to put us in the front and get a party for us while creating a safe space for women, because even me personally, sometimes when I go out, I don’t always feel comfortable. People are aggressive and I wanted to create something where you don’t worry about someone trying to grab your arm, your butt while you’re trying to dance by yourself or with your girlfriends. That was the main purpose to put female DJ’s on, to bring more awareness to female artists and to create safe space.
TK: Who are some of your favorite up and coming female DJ and artists in the city?
DJ Hvnlee: Oh my God. Kill Sing, Dj Ken Dollaz, A List, Mother Mary Rose, Yolo Ono. It’s so many other female DJ’s that I’m glad I have so many around me now because I didn’t know there were so many when I first started. You got NA$H, Dame Luz, Harley Beretta, Tati Mia, Magglezzz who does Drake Night at The Fillmore, Guns Garcia, DJ Diamond Kuts.
TK: Who are some of your favorite baddies and bosses in the music industry that you look up to?
DJ Hvnlee: Rihanna of course, she’s just like it! It’s this one girl that I like Kari Faux, she’s super dope. Diana Ross, Anita Baker, Lana Del Ray, Lil Kim, the list can go on forever.
TK: You talked about the difficulties of being a female DJ in a male dominant industry. What are some similar experiences that you and other female DJ’s have gone through in your own journeys?
DJ Hvnlee: One of the main thing is being shut out or not being looked at as equal. That’s happened plenty of times. Sadly, that’s really how it is because there’s not many of us as there are male DJ’s. That’s how it’s been for a long time, and I’m hoping that it’ll change. That’s why a lot of us are doing are own thing. Also, another thing could be — and I’ve had this happen before plenty of times — being looked at as an object instead of an actual person or DJ. A lot of guys have tried to book me just to try to talk to me and go down that route. That’s happened quite a few times and I’ve talked to a lot of other female DJ’s and some of them have had the same problems…and the main problem is not being looked at as equal which is super frustrating. Like, we work just as hard and we deserve the same amount of money and respect. It’s progressed a little bit, but we still find ourselves dealing with some of the same situations. But like I said, that’s why a lot of us are making our own way and lanes so we don’t have to deal with the bullshit anymore.
TK: That’s real. Now one of the ways you made a name for yourself by being a part of events like the All Love Block Party, a event you’ve been a part of since the beginning. How did you link up with DJ Taaj to be a part of that event?
DJ Hvnlee: Such a dope event! I knew Taaj since our Temple days because we went to Temple together too. Just being in the same circle of DJ’s and events and we were always cool and I was glad to get the call. I felt like Philly kinds of needed that, a dope event to bring a lot of different DJ’s and circles together and bring the community together. Honestly I was nervous again for the recent one for some reason, but after I got off I got on my phone and started seeing all the repost of videos me and when I went into the crowd I really felt the love. That’s the best part, because whether you think you do good or bad, the love is still going to be there, whether it’s your friends or people you’ve never met before but they following me and be like “Oh my God you did so good!” Honestly the genuine love is the best part of DJ’ing, because nobody is trying to get anything from you, they’re just showing they appreciate what you do. I can’t remember verbatim but the last Heinenken Green I did with Jidenna, I got this one comment from this person and she told me that I made her night because of the music I was playing. Stuff like that makes me want to go harder and keep going.
TK: You’re going to be a part of Dayne Jordan’s annual No Place Like Home, sharing the stage with local acts like Dayne Jordan, Beano French and Aime. What makes your hometown different than all the other cities you’ve DJ’ed at?
DJ Hvnlee: It’s Philly, it’s hard to explain. It’s so much good talent in this city and we can be hella hard, but when the love is there, it’s there.
DJ Hvnlee spins at No Place Like Home at The Fillmore Philadelphia on Saturday, August 17th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at its Facebook event page.
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