Celebrating One of Hip-Hop’s Cornerstones – The DJ

What’s a bar without a bartender? A train without the conductor? Starbucks without the baristas who specialize in misspelling your name? The United States without a President? Well, for that last one you could argue the last three years have shown us we may be better off without a President, let alone Donald Trump.

My point is that many of our common experiences, and even some of the larger aspects of life, wouldn’t be the same without people tasked to dictate how they operate. Pubs would be madness if the attendees had access to all of the alcohol behind the counter. Trains would crash into one another and operate on worse schedules than they already do if we controlled them (I’m mainly talking about the New York City MTA here).

However, it’s more than these people controlling the experience. They add a specific flavor to it. The barista who adds a smile and compliments your jacket. And honestly, probably makes a better latte than you do. The train conductor who lets out a resounding “yerrrr” every time the doors open and new passengers enter. These people give you something to stick to.

Several months ago I had an odd conversation where someone said DJs were becoming irrelevant because of how active the playlist curation community is. Sure, there are some huge curators within Spotify, Apple Music, Audiomack and many other platforms. Sure, artists are getting bigger pushes because their names are visible on playlists, as opposed to parties where you only hear the music and have to get the name from word of mouth.

I suppose if one is discussing an intimate gathering where a DJ isn’t necessary then okay, you can throw a playlist on shuffle or let the musically inclined friend with diverse taste handle the aux. But when it comes to a huge gathering full of folks dancing and cutting loose, DJs will NEVER be irrelevant. There’s simply too many different types of large events where they contribute more than a playlist ever could.

It’s been that way since the dawning of Hip-Hop. DJs often curated the sounds of a party prior to rappers attempting to rhyme over the beats. DJs contributed to what we now know and love as Hip-Hop. They broke artists, big records, and dazzled us with their creativity as they scratched on actual records and seamlessly transitioned from song to song like the sand does the water. It is because of this reality, and that misguided conversation, that I decided to speak with some DJs I see truly making a difference. I firmly believe it’s only a matter of time before these people become true household names.

It’s a scrappy profession. You have to almost be annoying in your self-promotion and remind folks what you can do through flyers, videos, mixes, merchandise and throwing the beloved “email in my bio for booking information” at the end of an Instagram caption. It takes time, effort and hunger to go from the house parties to tour dates. I enjoyed the insight these three DJs I spoke with provided, and hopefully you enjoy learning about them a bit more. Be sure to check out their social media accounts, which I will provide. They’ve got great content and even better personalities. This is the first of a series of articles just like these.

Adventures of DJ Zel

Photo by @cristiankaigler

Millennial renaissance man. DJ, barber, host, photographer, videographer, brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, guitarist, graphic designer, fashion designer. Lanzel Smith always had a love for music, but lives his life by the quote “versatility is gold.” He was introduced to DJing and mixing in high school while he was making music himself. Upon entering Syracuse University in 2013, he recognized a void in the social life. So he decided to DJ and curate enjoyable experiences for others. He added the barber element as a fundraising effort, but saw true potential and honed his talent to eventually become the most sought out barber/DJ in the Upstate New York area.

Zel has a motor like few, always coming up with new ideas and spreading good vibes to the masses. He would always make sure his presence was felt by DJing all types of events on campus and throwing free parties. He is very calculated in his approach, building up a following that eventually landed him with Smooky MarGielaaof Grape Records. He was one of his first DJs, performing at SOB’s and SXSW.

Having earned a taste of the road life, he’s full steam ahead expanding his brand. He recently collaborated with Black Sox Media on lyric video for “Money Up” by Shaggy and Noah Powa. He formed what he calls a multi-industry collaborative VVS, which stands for Versatile and Valued Society which is aimed at uplifting those who make a difference now and are destined to be trailblazers in the near future. A lover of superheroes, he sees himself as one and wants to empower the hero within us all.

He’s taken it a step further, forming his own playing card where those who attend parties with them in their possession earn different prizes and merchandise, courtesy of Zel himself. He says his favorite transition to hit at a party and really get the people going is Kranium‘s remix of Ed Sheeran‘s “Shape of You” into “Throat” by Gage. Be sure to follow him on Instagram at @zel_ent and tune into #TheAdventuresOfDJZel. Check out a mix below!

DJ Lefty

DJ Lefty is from Bergen County, New Jersey and made the transition from hooper to DJ. However, he’s always had an old soul especially when it came to music. Perhaps this innate ability to create a fluid environment through speakers was always within him, or the changes in life made him more open to going down this creative path. Either way, it’s been full steam ahead and he’s made some big strides locally and beyond the Garden State.

He has a strong love for fashion and pursued that avenue. Along the way he would invite people to come together for networking opportunities. By happenstance, a DJ he secured had technical difficulties so Lefty stepped up and held it down. After receiving positive feedback he stepped into the game full-time, learning the best way one can – trial and error. He applied the work ethic instilled in him as a youth and amplified by competing in athletics. However, it doesn’t extend beyond himself.

Bergen County is a very competitive area, but Lefty maintains his distance from anything that can set him back. He allows his actions to talk and people’s enjoyment of the parties he spins at is what’s placed him atop the totem pole in Northern New Jersey. As a result, he’s respected by many. That is also part of the old soul thing mentioned before. He understands everyone can eat and he wants them to. Focusing on other people doesn’t make his craft better.

Having grown up listening old school/2000’s Hip-Hop and R&B, he surely leans toward that type of content in the work he does. However, versatility is the minimum nowadays. He can just as easily fire off an energetic trap mix, woozy chopped & screwed mix, and get lite in the middle of the dance floor before nailing a sharp transition. He can even dip into house music. Due to his flexibility, he’s able to DJ for older crowds as well as teenagers and young adults. A true student of the game can cover the entirety of it. Lefty enjoys being a bridge. An articulate, objective bridge.

Lefty hits that Ginobili with his left hand up like woo. He actually takes much pride in being a lefty, as they are a unique brand. He refers to sports and how one has to plan for defending a lefty. He’s not easy to figure out. He had a few in mind, but one of his favorite transition to get the crowd going is Waka Flocka’s “O Lets Do It” into “Get Dripped” by Playboi Carti and Lil Yachty. Follow him @withthelefthand on IG and check out a mix below.


DJ Hu Dat

It’s 2019 and we shouldn’t be at the point where we made a huge deal of women doing what men have done for centuries. They’re just as capable, but the same opportunities haven’t been made available. That’s why it’s especially awesome to see someone like DJ Hu Dat, an Asian-American woman, making the huge strides she is making.

She never gave much weight to the reality that being a woman of Asian descent trying to be a DJ may make things tougher on her, and the confidence and composure shines through in her discourse. The lack of respect and weird looks haven’t phased her.

The Cornell University alumna has gigs on almost a nightly basis, whether at various venues in Brooklyn or tearing down the legendary Sounds of Brazil. 2018 was a huge turning point for her, but she’s been DJing for over four years. It really took off when she got to NYC, unsurprisingly. There’s a multitude of events and communities to take advantage of, which she has done.

Being a known music head, her friends would encourage her to go deeper into it when they’d be hanging out in dorms. She was tasked with controlling the aux, and had a love to creating a vibe. She started out with a simple table set, DJing at fraternity, sorority events, and local clubs in Ithaca, NY. After interning with a promotion company, she was able to build her network and land opening sets for Tokimonsta, DaBaby and Gunna multiple times. She’s also worked The Kickback Series for The Source Magazine.

A lifelong music lover with expansive interests, Hu Dat prefers to tap into the unsung heroes of music. The majority of her sets will feature non-mainstream talent. She loves ending a set and people coming up to her enthused about what they heard, because they hadn’t been familiar prior. She’s an event planner as well, which works hand-in-hand with her mastery behind the turntables.

She likes to play off the vibes of the party, but one of her favorite songs to electrify a party in Chief Keef‘s “3hunna.” Follow her on IG at @hu_dat_ and check out one of her mixes below.


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