DJ Ca$h Era is a staple in Chicago’s rap scene. She’s the official DJ for Young Chicago Author’s Louder Than A Bomb, she DJ’s on air for WGN Radio, and when she’s not doing that you can catch her spinning on almost any given night. She’s been the official DJ for our Digital Freshness series and she has been absolutely killing it. You can catch her at our next Digital Freshness tomorrow spinning ahead of performances from Brittany Carter (who NPR just named on of the artists to watch in Chicago), Calid B and New York’s own Kemba. Get your tickets for that here. We sat down to talk about how she developed her talent, what it means to hear to be a DJ and the role of the DJ to keep artists accountable in the #MeToo era. Check out the full interview below.
rubyhornet: So I just want to start off by asking you to introduce yourself to the people who may not know you. Where are you from and how’d you get into DJing?
DJ Ca$h Era: My name is Casera. I am definitely known better as DJ Ca$h Era. Cash like money, Era, like a New Era hat. I am from the south side of Chicago. I was born south side and then raised in the far south suburbs, which is where I currently reside. And as far as getting into music and everything, I’ve always been a heavy music head. My mom definitely put me on to music at a very young age because she’s young, she was born in the late seventies, but 80s and 90s were heavily her favorite eras of music. So that’s where I got all the catalog and everything and just learned the history through that. And then as far as getting into actually DJing, I got, it’s funny, I got the DJ hero game when it first came out on Xbox and that was my jam. Like DJ Hero One, I beat the game and like two days and it was just beautiful. And then I ended up going to Columbia fresh out of high school and my freshman year I took a class called Club DJ 1 cause it was just an easy A. As soon as I walked into class, my instructor, his name was DJ INC and he had asked does anyone have any DJ experience? And I’m like, “Uh, I play DJ Hero” and he looked at me and I can’t make this up he said, “You already are ahead of the game because you know the basis of DJing.” And I was sitting there staring at him like, “Dude, I played a video game like over winter break. What are you talking about?” But sure enough, as soon as he started showing us everything and he started us with the basics and made us learn turntables first on vinyl, which a lot of people don’t know where I started at because I have friends that have been deejaying since they were five or six and even they don’t know vinyls that well. So he made us start with vinyl. Then we went up to CDJs and then he introduced us to Serato and introducing your laptop in with a controller and everything. And yeah, I took the class that very first semester – so that was at the end of 2013 – and at the end of the class he came to me and he was just asking if I wanted to pursue it and try to make some money from it. As a broke college kid, I’m like, of course, let’s do this. And he introduced me to the people at LTAB, Young Chicago Authors cause LTAB season kicks off in February and they brought me in and I was getting paid. So I literally finished that class in December of 2013 and February of 2014 it was getting paid to Dj.
rubyhornet: That’s really amazing. I want to ask about like your relationship with your mom and with music. You said that she influenced you, but how would you interact with music with her?
DJ Ca$h Era: That’s a really good question. No one’s ever asked me that before. When I was younger, I just remember always being in the car with her, my mom has always been my best friend and always will continue to be, so I would always ride in the front seat with her. And this was in the era of just CDs and when you would have the CD cases in your visor and she had so many CDs in these visor cases. They would randomly fall out onto my lap if she hit the brakes too hard or she accelerated too hard or just because they want it to fall out. There were always CDs falling in my lap. So I remember always looking at these CDs and it’d be like Janet Jackson, and then it would jump to the top eighties hits. She would just pop in random CDs and we would just ride around, listen to these songs. 112 was big, Nelly was big, TLC was huge. She was never really a Beyonce fan or Destiny’s child like that. Um, who else? Duran Duran. John B is her favorite artists. So I learned that entire album front to back very quickly. But even with road trips, my grandparents are from Pennsylvania and we would drive back just about every summer. But once you hit a certain point in Ohio, you lose all the regular good stations. And it got to the point where we would just be hoping for a commercial to come on that we knew the jingle to.And she’s very supportive and she always has been because even with me deciding to go to art school, when I graduated from high school, I was at Illinois state scholar and graduated in the top 10 of my class, but I had been accepted to like 17 schools and universities and two of them had offered me close to a full ride and I originally wanted to go to be a forensic scientist and then switched it up super last minute because my mom had introduced me into the world of radio and made it an option. Like you can study radio, like you could actually do this and make money from it. Cause you’re so outgoing, you like music. Like why wouldn’t you do this instead? So when I saw I was going to Columbia, she was honestly one of the only people that fully promoted it and was behind it like, yes, do it, we’re going to get you through this, let’s go. So yeah, music has definitely always been a binder between me and my mom. And now we’re hitting a point where she’ll come to a gig and I have to play newer music that she doesn’t necessarily know. But I’ll find a way to loop in music that she knows that she taught me. And it adds a feeling of nostalgia to my sets. Which is what I feel like I’m primarily known for. I’m not afraid to throw in that random 112 song or that random song by Nelly you haven’t heard in a while and then play like Too $hort or “Big Bank” with YG right after it. I fell like there’s no, confines to what I’ll mix together.
rubyhornet: Did you have a relationship with radio before you went to Columbia?
DJ Ca$h Era: Yes. I used to really study the radio just on my own. When I graduated from eighth grade, my mom somehow talked to one of the personalities at 103.5 KISS FM. His name was Scotty K and he’s now out in Texas. But she messaged him or emailed him and asked him if I could come up to the station and just do like a four hour session with him and see what he does. And he said sure. So fresh out of eighth grade I went to 103.5 and just being in the station was awesome. Just seeing the views and seeing what he did because I would always see him at different events because my mom was taking me to concerts. I went to my first concert when I was in like fourth or fifth grade I saw Nelly and Fat Joe. I would always just hear him on the radio talking about what concert would he be at next to promote it or if he was doing a meet and greet somewhere. So it was cool to see this man at his job and then see him at the concerts he would work at as well. And then just see like, oh this is your office, this is also your office but you are outside talking to people. So after that I started paying attention to the radio stations that were here in Chicago and what changes they would make. So if there was a point where like 107.5 WGCI had taken two personalities from 92.3 and I noticed it as soon as it happened and I noticed the weird shifts that both stations took to increment the new people in. And it was interesting to me to watch and then I was trying to understand like well how did, how did they just steal these people?They just stole two people from one station. How do they do that? So when I got to Columbia I already knew the main basis of radio here in Chicago, which helped me to just study it to a closer range. I already knew the music is always on a rotator. Cause I knew that just from listening to the stations all day long. Like I’m hearing this same song five times in a matter of four hours the same time. Every station right now is playing this song. Why? I had questions because I was noticing things but didn’t have the answers yet. So when I got to Columbia, it wasn’t something new, like an epiphany. I already understood basics and it was just answering questions that are already formed for myself.
rubyhornet: How you think that the role of the DJ has changed? And I don’t just mean on the radio, but also within hip hop from back in the day when it was a Dj and an emcee no matter what. Now you get people who will either like have a full band on stage with them or they’ll have a backtrack.
DJ Ca$h Era: I feel like the goal of the DJ should always be the same in any venue. The primary goal should always be to make sure that your crowd has a good time and it’s up to you to figure out what that space needs to ensure that your crowd is having a good time. I’ve played with the full band before and I’ve played just by myself. And either way, my goal always was to look at the crowd and ensure they were having a good time. And I feel like that should always remain the core goal of the DJ. Actually, Boi Jeanius did an Instagram live and he said that, you know, the way that a DJ earned his respect is when they can do what they do. Well, it’s not always about like, can you scratch, can you whatever. It’s not always about what certain technique you’re using. At the end of the day it should be, “Did the crowd come here and did they leave with something from it? Did they have a good time?” Personally, my goal is to make you smile. If I can make you forget, whatever bs you have going on outside of the space, I did my job. I feel like throwback songs are my way into that cause there’s so many older songs and just have a good memory tied to them for people. Be it that you were playing with your friends one summer, you were riding in your car on lake shore drive one night, whatever it may be. That song’s going to take you back to that moment for a couple minutes and you can’t help us smile. You can’t help but dance. Even if you move your shoulders a little bit, I feel like that’s the most beautiful thing in the world. If I can just take you out of whatever headspace you were in before you walked in here and take you to a better head space.
rubyhornet: So take me through the process of reading a room, choosing a song and going from there.
DJ Ca$h Era: Got You. Any gig that I have, I arrive 30 to 45 minutes early, especially if I’m spinning after someone. If it’s my first time there and I’m the entire night, like a 9:00 PM to 2:00 AM set, then I just have to watch the crowd as people come in. So I try to take note of who comes in by themselves and who comes in with a group. I don’t know why, but typically if you see like a person who by themselves, they’re just in because they had a really rough day. They just want to drink, they want to relax. They don’t want nobody to bother them. If people come in with a group of friends, they’re there to have a good time. They’re probably meeting up for whatever reason, maybe celebrating something. And then if you see the birthday sash or the birthday crown, it’s a birthday, and with that it, I usually just try to start off light. I feel like I try to play artists that everyone loves. So like Rihanna is a hit. Beyonce is a really good one. Um, we’re in Chicago so you can’t deny house music, but it also depends on what kind of venue it is. If it’s a bar that has an open dance floor or a club especially, I’m playing more songs that make you dance. But if we’re at a laid back venue and they’re just having a happy hour or they have a drink specials and everyone’s kind of dressed up, you’re not really there to dance and sweat you more so want to relax. So I’ll go more towards a lower bpm status and just play songs or you’ll just want to sit back and vibe out, just nod you’re head a little bit because you’re not really there to get amped up and bounce off the walls. I feel like that is definitely a big thing. Piggy backing to the job of the DJ, I also feel like the DJ now has a very, very important job of holding artists accountable. And I say that because I was talking about that earlier today with my friends and in the wake of this R Kelly news, you have so many artists that are being called out and being identified as an abuser. So I feel like it’s definitely the DJ’s job now to hold these artists accountable because as we see with Robert, the law doesn’t always do it. So I’m fully behind the mute R Kelly movement. And then other artists that were brought to my attention that were identified as an abuser, like Sheck Wes identified. So as soon as I heard that, I was like, well, Sheck Wes cut now. I feel like it’s, it’s definitely the job with the DJ to stand firm in that because I’ll even have gigs now where someone will walk up and ask me to play R Kelly and I have to just look at them like, are you serious? No, I’m not playing that. I don’t, I don’t care what your views are. It doesn’t matter. I’m not playing. I don’t even have his music in my catalog anymore really, I can’t play it for you.
rubyhornet: How is it working with LTAB?
DJ Ca$h Era: LTAB if whoever’s listening doesn’t know what it is, is Louder Than A Bomb and it’s the world’s largest youth poetry festival that takes place right here in Chicago and it’s like a month long poetry slam and it’s intense. When I first started I was just thrown into it because I had never heard of Louder Than A Bomb. And just growing up in it, it’s funny because there’s a group of kids that will be graduating this year and they started LTAB with me and now they’re ending LTAB with me. So it was, it’s pretty cool like, oh I remember when you were a freshman doing this. But I love LTAB because it provides a space for these teens, all throughout Chicago to tell their story. And I think that is so vital and crucial in the times that we have now where all you have are these news outlets and especially Donald Trump just talking about the violence here in Chicago. They just talk about it like it’s just such a foreign thing to them because it’s just so far away from them and they won’t be touched by it. But then you have these kids that are coming out here and you know, they’re, they’re talking about the stuff that people don’t really want to talk about. And they were talking about how, yes, you may say there was a black man shot on whatever street, but that was my cousin. Like you don’t even know who he is to me. And then you have other kids that come out and talk about the great side of Chicago that people seem to always fail to forget about and they’ll talk about their favorite food spots are what they do for fun, like where they hang out at, stuff like that. It’s crazy to see how creative these kids are because I can tell you right now, when I was in high school, I couldn’t write poetry the way that these students do. But honestly, it’s like I’m working with these future artists that are going to change so much. And you know, a lot of these kids they rap, you know rap and poetry are very closely related. They’re basically brother and sister. So it’s like I’m working with the future rappers and I feel like I’m working with young Tupacs and young Notorious B.I.G.s Cause the way they just articulate and the way they tell the story, it’s just so beyond me. It’s mind blowing.
rubyhornet: Do you have some favorite songs you like to blend that people don’t expect or is that a trade secret? You can keep that.
DJ Ca$h Era: No, I can talk about it. Okay. So one of my favorites is, I really like to play the original and then play what’s been sampled. So, one that comes to mind off the top of my head is with Santana’s “Maria, Maria” I’ll play that into “Wild Thoughts” when DJ Khalid and Rihanna. But then I’ll switch it up and I learned that the instrumental to New Edition’s, “If It Isn’t Love”, sounds really, really nice underneath Rihanna vocals. So I’ll bring that in for the entire second verse of “Wild Thoughts”. And older people will hear it. Younger kids that watched the New Edition movie somewhat hear but don’t really know it yet. And then as soon as I bring it in all the way, you’ll have just a wide variety of ages doing the dance moves because so many of these teenagers watch the movie they did and they remember the dance moves, they were so iconic. And then you have these older people that are like, “Oh man, I love this song.” I like doing that. I also like to loop a part of a song and then bring another song that relates to it underneath it. So, one that I just started doing is a Beyonce song… I forgot the name of it. The Beehive is going to come after me. Oh, well. But the song is a part where she says, “A man ain’t never seen a booty like this.” So I loop that and it just says that over and over again. And then I bring “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child underneath it. I like that. I also like playing Disney hit’s like Cheetah Girls had some hits. Cinderella goes over really well, shockingly. The All That theme song by TLC is a pretty good hit that people enjoy. The Kim Possible theme song is also a good one. Honestly, there’s literally like no holds barred as to what I will and won’t play. I’ll mix in anything. It doesn’t matter to me.
rubyhornet: How have you liked working with us for the Digital Freshness series?
DJ Ca$h Era: You know, when I first got booked for it, I’ve heard of Closed Sessions and I’ve heard of RubyHornet, but I didn’t know a lot about it. I knew Jamila Woods was affiliated with it. So I started doing research and then one of my friends saw the flyer and they were like, “Oh shit, you’re working with Closed Sessions.” And I was just sitting there like, “yeah…” And it took my friend explaining it to me more. As soon as I fully understood what she was saying and did my own research, I was like, ‘damn, this is, this is pretty dope.’ It’s an awesome experience.
There was so much love in the room and that’s what I really appreciate. My first time spinning, I was actually really nervous cause I’ve never really had to just sit in front of a crowd and play like that, without needing to talk on the mic or anything. But it was cool because, I’m always able to do me, but people in the crowd actually took notice to what I was doing and appreciated what I was doing. I feel like a lot of the transitions I’ll do, like even what I had said to you, with the loops and stuff, if I do that a party, sometimes people will notice it but not really. You’ll have like one or two people that are like, ‘aw man, that was cool. I see what you did there.’ But to DJ somewhere and have the entire room notice it because everyone’s looking for stuff like that. It’s beautiful because it makes me feel more appreciated and adds value to what I’m doing because once I see that they like what I did, but they’re also enjoying it because I can hear them singing and then I said the people at the bar drunk dancing, I’m like, great, everyone’s loving it.
But I love what Closed Sessions is doing because I feel like with them bringing in such a big name or a bigger name and then using local artists it’s great because it helps take these local artists to a whole new level, brings them a whole new platform, and brings them new followers and new exposure, which is huge, especially when you are an artist in the music scene. Chicago is big yet small. Everyone knows everyone. But you know, even when I was there, I met two people that were in from LA and just happen to be in town for the show. And it’s like you don’t know who they know… They’re going to leave in two days and go back to LA. And when they get back their friends are going to ask them, oh, what’d you do? Boom. You just gained four new followers and you never know who knows who and you don’t know what a retweet on social media can do. What a certain like from someone can do. You literally never know.
And I feel like Closed Sessions is really pioneering something that we need to keep active in Chicago, which is bringing these artists that need to be recognized in Chicago to a stage where they will be heard. Because you have a lot of open mics and stuff and yeah, people go, but most times it’s just other artists. And sometimes you have artists that aren’t trying to support other artists. They’re only thinking about themselves. But when you have a show, like what Closed Sessions is doing with Ruby Hornet and you have people that are there just to experience the music and they’re there to hear what you’re saying. Because they always stay true to what it is all about, which is the music. That’s it.
Follow Ca$h Era on all social media @djcashera and check out her most recent DJ Mix below.