One recent night at Tootsies, Ariana Grande was blasting through the shop, serenading more than 300 fashionistas, from designers to Astros’ wives, there to support Dress for Success Houston. They mixed and mingled as one pop song seamlessly turned into another, on their way to raising over $20,000 for the nonprofit.
The DJ boosted the crowd’s energy all night. She was wearing a striped woven dress, a bright-green backpack, and her trademark accessories—Balenciaga-inspired sock sneakers and a scrunchie around her wrist—at a turntable almost as big as she was. Massive headphones framed her freckled face, and she smiled to reveal a full mouth of hot pink braces.
She was 12.
“Most people are walking by and thinking that somebody else was DJing and this little girl just put the headphones on,” said DJ Senega Iles, owner of Premier Sound and Lighting. “Then they walk around a second time, or 10 or 15 minutes go by, and they realize, ‘oh, she’s actually the DJ.’”
The prodigy was St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School seventh-grader Maddy Rose Johnston, aka DJ Maddy Rose, who’s been spinning tracks for almost two years now, since she was just 10. Her first gig was her own birthday party.
Iles mentors Maddy and books her appearances. He set her up with equipment and showed her the ropes after meeting her mom, Wendy Johnston, and learning about her interest in music. But what started out as a novelty—a kid DJ!—soon became something else. Maddy turned out to be better than anyone expected.
“Once I saw it, I was like, ‘oh, this is gonna be a much bigger hit than anyone can imagine,’” said Isles, explaining that Maddy has a natural ear. “A lot of it we’re not even teaching her.” But his team is teaching her some things, like how to scratch records. “I really want to learn how to do that really well,” Maddy told Houstonia.
“I don’t want her to just DJ,” Iles said. “I want her to be old-school, new-school, and be able to put it all together. You’ll see this little girl and be like, 'no way can she do this.'”
Pop may be her favorite genre—upbeat tracks like “Nevermind” by Dennis Lloyd, “Promises” by Sam Smith and Calvin Harris, and “Boyfriend” by Ariana Grande and Social House appear frequently in her playlists—but Maddy’s musical taste is far more wide-ranging than that of her peers: She’s into ’80s, ’90s, hip-hop, and even lounge music.
“You have to listen really carefully,” Maddy said, which is all the more difficult when fascinated guests bombard her booth to ask questions and pose for selfies.
She’s also learning the art of selecting songs—taking into account tempo, timing, and the mood of the party—and mixing them. “You start feeling it eventually,” Iles said.
“Literally,” Maddy replied, referring to the vibrations of the big system she uses at events, where the bass rocks her tiny frame.
Maddy now DJs two-hour sets at charity events and women-focused functions three to four times a month on top of school and extracurriculars like soccer. And yes, sometimes that means staying out past her bedtime.
She doesn’t broadcast her life as a DJ, Maddy said, but the friends who do know about it think “it’s cool.” She still gets nervous before her sets, she admitted, adding that it takes about 15 minutes to ease into her zone.
Iles, who’s been in the business for 18 years, said he’s constantly amazed by her. “To be 12 and get up in front of all these people,” he said, “I don’t know if I could have done it.”