#CareerInspo: What It's Really Like to Be a DJ

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, D.W. Waterson, known by her DJ name “hey! dw,” gives us a glimpse into her music-obsessed daily grind

DJ hey! dw

D.W. Waterson, a.k.a. “hey! dw” (Photography: Kat Webber)

Age: I’m going to say 25.

Is that actually your age? No! But people look at women differently in this industry. If you’re 25 and killing it, then you’re considered super skilled, but if you’re older, people see it like, “Well, you should be that talented by that age.”

Education: Bachelor of fine arts in film from Ryerson University

Length of time at current gig: four years

Did you know early on that DJing is what you wanted to do? I’ve always loved music. I started out playing drums in different rock bands when I was around 15. In my first year of university, I remember this jock showing off to the popular girls how he could DJ using software called “Virtual DJ.” I didn’t know anything about the DJ world but when I saw him do that I ran down to my room and downloaded the program and started DJing. I was a “bedroom DJ” for a couple of years—meaning I just DJed in my room—and then my friends started telling me that I was really good and encouraged me to get out there. I started working as a DJ and then built the brand of hey! dw and then incorporated my drums about one-and-a-half years ago.

What does it mean to be a DJ? I’m the party captain. I have a crowd where some people are wasted, some people are sober, some people don’t want to be there but their friends dragged them out. It’s my job, within the first 10 minutes of my set, to get everybody on the same page and from there, take them through a storyline of different beats and ways to dance—from really bassy to disco to remixes of songs they love. Then at the end, I build it up, do a huge drum solo over some tracks and everyone freaks out and then I get off the stage.

How did you make your brand unique from what’s out there? Most DJs kind of just walk up, plug in a USB key and hit some buttons. Then you have full bands with synths and all these original songs. I’m this weird in-between. I play drums and DJ at the same time while wearing a cheerleading uniform with cartoons blasting behind me. Anyone who sees me says it’s like nothing they’ve seen before.

How did you pick the name hey! dw? D.W. are my initials so when I was trying to figure out a DJ name I thought of the opening sequence of the children’s television series Arthur when he says “Hey! D.W.!” to his sister. I thought it was really catchy and that people would remember it from their childhood. And now people just scream “Hey! D.W.!” at me.

Is there anything in particular about D.W.’s character that you related to? She’s a little bit of a shit disturber and there’s one episode where she plays a song on loop because she loves it so much and I figured, I could definitely relate to both those things.

Has your DJ persona changed over the years? Totally! At the beginning, hey! dw was really juvenile and just wanted to run around and smash drums. Now there’s more sexuality to it. I made out with a girl on stage while a remix of Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” was playing. Hey! dw has evolved into more of a teenager, so it’s cool to see that change in a character that you’ve developed.

How do you know what’s going to get people up and dancing? A lost skill for DJs is learning how to read an audience. I think a lot of people just play the music they like, thinking that means that other people will like it also. Then they’re surprised when not everyone is into it, but they don’t have a backup plan. Every crowd is different and every party is different. Sometimes people want more Top 40 stuff, others want bassy stuff from the UK, some parties want more drums and others want less. It’s all about trying different tracks, seeing what the audience responds to, and then using that as your foundation for how to write the rest of your set.

How do you find good music for your set? I do a lot of crate digging—which is really blog digging—to see what people are talking about. You kind of just end up going down rabbit holes where you were looking for one thing, but then you find another.

Are you drawn to any particular type of music? I love everything, but for DJing, I like stuff that’s bouncy and fun to dance to or has really deep bass that pretty much blows your pants off. It’s cool to see crowds react to stuff like that.

What differentiates a professional DJ from someone who just downloads some software and makes their own mixes? Those people are flashes in the pan. They’re often college dudes who are somewhat attractive so they get hired to do some cool clubs. Then they drink and party their faces off until they realize that they can’t keep up with that. They’re gone within a year and a half to two years. So it’s really all about stamina. It’s about constantly hustling and networking for shows. The DJs who have a career understand that it’s a business, and the DJs who don’t, think it’s all one big party.

DJ hey, dw

The party captain is in control (Photography: Acey Hicks)

How do you get in the zone before a big gig? I chill out. I sit at home, maybe I’ll watch Netflix or dick around on social media, but when I put on that cheerleading uniform, it feel like the intro to Batman and Robin when they’re slowly suiting up. I put the cheerleading uniform on, red lipstick, a leather jacket and then I just become hey! dw.

Let’s talk about the costume. Where did that come from? For Halloween once, I went as Gwen Stefani during her Hollaback days. Then, a few years later, I was DJing a Halloween gig so I re-wore the costume. The next day on the Facebook event page, everyone was asking about the “cheerleader DJ” so I noticed it was an easy way to tag myself. So I decided to wear it when I DJed.

That’s so fitting since you are basically the cheerleader of the party. Exactly! And it loosens people up. A lot of DJs wear leather jackets and are all about being cool and having a squad. I’m up there, dancing my face off in a cheerleading uniform. It allows the audience to dance harder and realize that it’s not a pretentious, cool thing. It’s a party.

When you’re DJing, what are your hours like? I usually aim to get there around 10 or 11 p.m. and then I’m usually leaving at around 3 a.m.

How do you keep yourself going for the entire night? I run on adrenaline. I’m allergic to coffee and I don’t drink alcohol so this is a pure life high that I’m grabbing at.

You mentioned earlier that DJing can be tough for women, how has your experience been? It’s a boy’s club for sure. At the end of the day, I wish men were being asked these questions—like why there’s so few females in the DJ scene. But it is changing. There’s a lot of female hustlers in Toronto especially, but all of the gatekeepers of the gigs are men and they want their homies to come through and make money. For me, it’s also hard to be taken seriously in a cheerleading uniform. Working with a lot of bars, they have a hard time listening to a blond cheerleader directing them where the tech needs to go and how things need to get setup. Once, a sound guy didn’t realize that I was the headliner and kept going to the opener DJ asking what he wanted to do with the lights and stuff. He couldn’t figure it out that I was the person in charge.

Who is a DJ you admire, and why? Annie Mac from BBC Radio One. She is a god. I’ve been following her for years. She introduced me to falling in love with electronic music. She went from an intern at BBC Radio to having her own radio show to having the top dance radio show. She is the trendsetter in electronic music, she kind of dictates what kind of styles and sounds are coming out. She now throws her own events and has a festival in Malta that I went to in April. She has built an empire, which is amazing.

What’s the best part of your day? Anytime I can play music loudly.

What’s the worst part of your day? Ugh, waking up. I just always want an extra two hours.

What attributes does someone need to be a DJ? You have to consume a lot of music. All the time you need to be listening to SoundCloud, radio stations, Spotify, and also be practicing mixing, and hustling to get those little gigs so you can be in front of an audience and learn how to read a crowd. A lot of it is persistence.

How do you unwind at the end of the day? Hanging out with my friends and having some good healthy food. My friends really help ground me so it’s about being able to hang out with them and sharing successes and happiness.

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