Hey, DJ: DJ Umami

Photo by @54ghosts

With nearly a decade of DJing under her belt, local DJ Umamis moniker alludes to the Japanese concept of a fifth flavor which cannot be described, only sensed. For Umami, it means providing dancefloor selections to her audiences that create indescribable experiences, whether its spinning hyphy jams outside The Oracle for postseason Warrior games to playing funky selections in The House by Heineken at this past weekend’s Outside Lands festival.

We caught up with Umami about pursuing a full-time DJ career, her must-have albums, and her recent gig at Outside Lands. Find her this weekend this Friday, August 18 at UNDSCVRD: A Creative Night Market in Mint Plaza and later for So So Anxious at Starline Social Club and Saturday, August 19 for Body Party at El Rio and Crush at Luka’s Oakland.

SF Weekly: Give us a brief history of how you got into DJing.
DJ Umami: As a kid, I was always fascinated with music and the art of DJing. My neighbor had a set of turntables at his house, and I would watch him scratch. I used to religiously listen to the radio and record my favorite songs on a cassette tape and give them to friends.

I really doused myself in the culture about a decade ago when I was working the door at Voodoo Lounge in San Jose, for The Bangerz Crew. I would be at these events from start to finish listening to my friend’s mix throughout the night, getting almost every weekend. I decided to buy my own pair of turntables and messed around with the few records I owned. My really good friend, Cutso was kind enough to show me a few tricks. I would spend hours trying to perfect these things that he made look so damn easy. He still schools me and has me drooling over his sets to this day!

When did you realize that it was a full-time profession you wanted to pursue?
I kept a day job in tech until last year because even though I was booked almost every weekend, I still considered DJing something I loved versus being a job. I didn’t realize that you could do what you love for a living, you know?

On Mondays, I would literally walk in the office at my day job tired af, miserable, asking myself why I was there. One day my boss told me he was going to stop being flexible with my schedule and not let me leave work early to DJ at the Warriors games. He told me, “Next season, you’re going to have to choose which you’re more serious about.” I quit the next day, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far.

If someone were looking into making DJing their full-time job, what advice would you give them?
Put music first, always. Respect the craft and its history, stay humble, be nice to your fellow DJs, and practice your ass off!

You’ve come a long way since you began, with you now DJing events like Warriors games and Nike’s women’s marathons. What’s a mantra you’ve kept with you throughout your musical career?
I think that humility and gratitude go a long way in life. I like to put that energy out into the world when I’m playing, I’m always gracious to the people who book me, and I’d like to think that things have been abundant because of it.

It’s like when you say thank you to your parents and take out the garbage without them asking, they’ll likely say yes to you when you ask them for something next time (cough cough, Ajrien and Demarcus).

This year, the Warriors got the championship. What was your most memorable gig with them this year?
I still can’t believe I get paid to play music before the postseason games and then come in the arena after I’m done to watch the hometown heroes win their way to the championships.

At the end of this last regular season, I got to cover for the main, official DJ, D-sharp, for one of the games on International Women’s Day. I DJ’d during halftime and I was so proud to be highlighted as a woman within the Warrior’s organization.

You also got to perform in the Heineken tent at Outside Lands this past weekend. How was that experience?
Performing at a music festival was definitely on my bucket list, in terms of gigs. The Heineken Tent was fun AF! This year, they had a rotating DJ booth in the middle of the tent, which made it really fun to connect with everyone in the crowd as it spun around. I had an early set Friday, so I got to enjoy the rest of the festival for all three days. I left the festival feeling inspired and motivated with hopes to do more festivals in the future.

What’s a song that always kills it at your gigs recently?
My sister teases me about playing this song all the time, but it’s because every time I play it, people love it, or at least I do. “Heard It All Before” by Sunshine Anderson has been on rotation (probably too much). I feel hella saucy when I play it! One time I played it during warm-ups at a Warriors’ game and Steph was hella dancing and singing along while practicing free throws. I died inside from excitement!

You’ll be playing UNDISCOVERED SF this weekend, an event focused around Filipino culture. Why is it important to you to represent your heritage in the DJ game?
I’m so proud to be on this lineup for the opening night. Filipinos make up the second largest ethnic group in the United States. With that said, I feel as if our food, culture, and people are underrepresented in mainstream media. The SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District’s night market is giving Filipino artists a platform to shine and highlight all the things that make our culture amazing.

Earlier this year, I took a trip to the Philippines and the people out there take pride when someone of Filipino heritage in the U.S. gets even a little shine. I had a few interviews while I was there, and they were stoked to see a Filipino woman working with the best team in the NBA.

In this profession, it’s easy to run into adversity or challenges when it comes to bookings. How have you managed to deal with this?
When doing what you love, sometimes that means dealing with things you don’t, everything from politics to blown egos. I’ve definitely run into some less than desirable clients to work with. I was recently scrutinized for trying to negotiate my rate because of the lack of followers on my social media platforms. And what is crazy, the guy hadn’t even heard me play.

Those kinds of things are definitely disheartening because it’s definitely something that I’ve seen change the DJ culture in terms of booking talent. In those cases you got to continue your stride, and know that these things come up because you have to make room for the bookings that are worth your time and effort.

What’s your favorite post-gig meal?
There’s this shrimp truck across the street from Somar in Oakland that has a mean lamb schwarma. I try really hard not to eat at 2:30 a.m. but there have been many nights where my cravings win. Make sure you ask for their house-made hot sauce on the side.

If you had to listen to one record forever, what would it be?
If I had to choose it would be a toss up between Marvin Gaye’s I Want You LP, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, or Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. All three albums just get me in my feels. They all carry songs that I have cried to, felt empowered by, and to loved to.

Hear DJ Umami’s latest mixes here.

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