For decades, Houston has been one of the most sought-after destinations for underground music. It’s a self-sufficient hustle town with a deeply rooted DJ culture and an abundance of sonic storytellers. Early acts like Darryl Scott pioneered essential techniques that would become popularized by DJ Screw, whose legacy is carried on by the likes of OG Ron C’s Chopstars, and still permeates much of what comes out of Houston today. Born in the Bayou City in 1966 and revered for his contributions to East Coast rap, DJ Premier is also an omnipresent force who has shifted the perception of where Southern tastemakers can go.
Across Houston, the kind of music played has varied from hip-hop to hardcore punk rock, to avant-garde to deep soul, with each turntablist staying true to a core set of values: share what you love, captivate your audience, make them move, and educate them in the process. That approach has remained steadfast into 2021, with the latest wave of underground DJs finding new ways to provide experiences that are equally enlightening and entertaining.
Arguably, the most important part of a DJ’s job is to build community amongst the people on the dancefloor, each of whom comes from different walks of life. DJs demonstrate sonic control through a mix of intentionally interconnected songs. Through this unique art form, different communities can share moments through sound. Best experienced en masse, DJing is the vehicle that leads to the bustling music scene going down right here, in H-Town.
After crossing paths in 2015, DJ Elevated and DJ Anarchy pulled off a successful, last-minute joint event, and Soul Control was born. “It was an easy synergy,” Elevated says. Once a month, the duo puts on its premier event, ElectroBounce, a high-energy dance party where they spin hip-hop, electronic fusion, house, New Orleans bounce, and a myriad of other genres and subgenres. “We specifically DJ to heal,” Anarchy explains, reflecting the event tagline “movement-based healing.” In addition to ElectroBounce, Elevated and Anarchy have a residency at Boondocks every first Saturday, called Fantastic Voyage.
Night ride Experience
Founded in 2018, Night Ride Experience (NRX) is where Houston’s underground music and car culture collide. “My car had a crazy sound system and I would just ride down Westheimer and blast music late at night. It was so therapeutic for me and I wanted to create that experience for people here,” says NRX co-founder and visionary Morgan Morgan who joined forces with ultra-talented musician and producer, Asa Davis to create one of the city’s fastest-growing events. Together, Morgan and Asa form Autobahn, a DJ duo within NRX that is inspired by the notorious European freeway with no speed limit. “The most rewarding part about DJing is seeing people dance and react to what we play, and putting people on to what they need to hear.”
After a lifelong affinity for hip-hop and R&B, Lonny was drawn to DJing in 2018 and appreciated it as a way to share his passion for music with other music lovers. To spread that opportunity to other DJs, he created Nights Like This, an inclusive, open-format dance party. “I want to help redefine what it means to be a DJ and show people that we are just as much of a creative, or an artist, just like any other type of musicians,” Lonny says.
The founder of the Pu$$yRap radio show on NTS, Jody Simms started her musical journey by playing the cello in middle and high school. Once Simms got to college, she pushed herself to pursue DJing, eventually going on tour with Junglepussy and creating SISTASPIN, a women and femme-focused collective. Simms calls Pu$$yRap “peak feminism” and a necessary interruption to the male-dominated hip-hop scene. “I want to be remembered as the type of woman who supported women who looked like her, and uplifted women who looked like her,” she says. “Everything is Black women.”
Classically trained as a ballroom dancer, Mark Sabinin started his DJ journey in 2018, three years after his family fled Ukraine and moved to Houston. His style traverses techno, house and disco. He regularly plays alongside his friend and DJ Malcolm Bravo at The Flat in Montrose, and has made an important imprint in Houston’s scene. For Sabinin, “the most rewarding part is getting back the energy I give. It’s not just playing music, it’s creating a whole atmosphere.”
Despite the fact that her father was a DJ, it wasn’t until six years ago that DJ Shantè was given a nudge by a friend to enter the trade herself. In the first year, she quit her corporate, six-figure job to be a full-time DJ. “I love music so much,” Shantè says. “I care about the way that it’s played and how it’s introduced to people. I take pride in my set.” In addition to residencies at The Spot and The Locker Room in Third Ward, Shantè hosts Houstatlantavegas on Sirius XM radio and DJs events for brands like Nike and Adidas.
DJ Cee Watts
DJ Cee Watts was self-aware enough to recognize that she couldn’t rap, sing, or play traditional instruments, so DJing became a natural path for her in 2017. “It motivated me because I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do, didn’t really know who I was — but I knew what I loved,” she explains. “So I just kind of took that and made something of it.” A resident at venues across Houston seven nights a week, Cee Watts is also Houston-based rapper KenTheMan’s tour DJ.
9th Sage is eight years into his DJ career, but his passion for music started at 8 years old, when he bought B2K’s Pandemonium CD. Since then, Sage’s taste has expanded to encompass a wider spectrum of R&B, hip-hop, and remixes, which he plays at events around the city, including his own event Heaven on Earth. “I just enjoy building communities and playing music for people, helping them enjoy themselves and escape whatever they’re going through for a few hours,” Sage says. “I like using my platform to bring people together.”
Hiram, co-founder of Open Source, was motivated to start the experiential event series in 2017, motivated by what he describes as a gap in what was available within the Houston music scene. “Certain atmospheres were missing in the nightlife,” Hiram explains. “Everything was so similar, so I was like, ‘Let’s try and switch it up.’” Alongside his co-founder Morgan Morgan, and 9th Sage, Hiram has added diversity to Houston’s “gray zone” by spinning Latin, house, Baile funk, Afrobeats, dancehall, and SoundCloud edits/remixes, at White Oak Music Hall every other month.
DJ Franki specializes in spinning dark ‘80s gothic music, which she’s been doing since the early 2000s. In 2014, Franki started playing music with Bewitched, a DIY collective, alongside her co-DJ Damon Allen. The brand has since expanded to include a troupe of DJs and musicians who have varied, but aligned tastes. On top of her live gigs, she also has a weekly show on Modsnap Radio, where she’s free to experiment more with her set. “My love of sharing music drives me to keep exploring music,” she says. “I love all aspects of it. It keeps me going every day.”
Kay Illah grew up listening to various subgenres of hip-hop, including the molasses-slow mixes of the late DJ Screw and other local legends. Those early experiences influenced her current DJ style, which she shares through her residencies at Rabbit’s Got the Gun and Sixes and Sevens. Kay Illah’s party Best Of features her favorite by whatever artist, genre, or region of her choosing. “Why do we have to fly to New York, and why do we have to fly to L.A. to go to parties like this, when it could happen here?” she says.
At 17, Hyro met and saw his musical hero perform live: DJ AM. That moment, he recalls, changed his trajectory forever. “The way he was able to mix every genre of music and make it all flow beautifully together, really inspired me,” Hyro explains. “He was more than just a DJ. He was a pioneer of the DJ movement, as far as them being headlining acts.” By age 18, Hyro started his own DJing career, and in 2012, he co-founded the tropical bass experience Blackout with Ape Drums and Leckie, with DJ Act Badd coming into the fold a few years later.
Other DJ’s and DJ Collectives to Know
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: “The COVID-19 pandemic really shifted our capacity to gather and be in community. I thought it would be important to shine a light on just some of the people and places that have made my time in Houston so special. I’m really honored to be a part of the next generation and this incredible legacy of DJs.” –Amarie Gipson, a.k.a. DOUBLEDUTCH and Founder of PHYSICAL THERAPY