From The Ground Up With Kenneth Kyrell
A conversation with one of New York's favorite DJs.
The New York scene is known for its thriving culture and distinct nightlife. The city's infamous Studio 54 is said to be one of the greatest night clubs to ever exist. Sean "Diddy" Combs one of the greatest personalities in the party lifestyle resides from New York City. The one thing that is consistent and always talked about every time you step on the scene of an event is the music that is played and the vibe you felt that night.
Whether you are an emerging artist trying to get your music heard in the streets or a party promoter trying to have the biggest event of the year, there is a group of people who hold the responsibility to make this happen. Disc Jockeys aka DJs are the most important piece and pulse of what's hot and what's not. The thing is you can't just be any random DJ, but you have to be someone who is respected and has built a reputation over the years as someone who can make every experience one to remember.
Kenneth Kyrell is one of those individuals who is more than a DJ, but a curator, trendsetter whose charisma in the booth leaves everyone wanting him to host their next event. The rise from North Carolina to one of New York City's premier DJs didn't happen overnight. We had the chance to catch up with Kenneth to discuss his journey, brand, and misconceptions people may have about DJs.
Below is a conversation between Kenneth Kyrell and NBT.
NBT: Where are you from originally and when did you come to New York City?
Kenneth Kyrell: I am originally from North Carolina and currently back there with my family while quarantining. However, I have lived in New York City since 2012.
Prior to your career as a DJ what career path were you headed down?
I was working in the Fashion Industry. I started out as a Fashion Buyer and then transitioned to become the Fashion Director of Ready-To-Wear for a large retailer.
NBT: When did your journey as a DJ begin and what inspired you to join this industry?
I started DJ'ing full time in 2017. What inspired me to start DJing was being frustrated hearing the same type of music at many of the events I would attend for work. I was venting to one of my friends one day about the lack of variety when it came to DJs (specifically within the Fashion industry at the time; it has drastically changed since then). My friend suggested that I learn and potentially create my own events. I gave it some thought and ordered some starter equipment on Amazon and immersed myself in DJ videos on Youtube and started practicing every day. I started sharing some of my practice videos on social media and people started reaching out for me to DJ events throughout the city. Although I was super nervous to branch out of my bedroom to an actual venue; and in NYC at that, I did it anyway. I remember being in the cab on the way back home after my first gig and I felt like I had finally found something that made me extremely happy yet challenged me at the same time. I got better, the gigs were more frequent and the crowds and clients also got bigger. A few years later it was hard to juggle both DJing and my corporate job so I decided to take the jump and focus on DJing full time.
Who are your musical influences and/or which artist did you look up to growing up?
I have so many and they often change based on my mood and what I am currently dealing with in life. However, no matter what is going on and what I feel, you can find me listening to a lot of R&B. Especially that of the 90s and early 2000s. I remember my parents going out every Tuesday, when streaming wasn’t a thing, to buy the newly released albums. I was obsessed with my parents' music selection and taste; I still am, to be honest. They had a lot to do with my love for music and my appreciation for R&B. Everyone from TLC, Mary J. Blige, Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Floetry, and Prince to name a few. DJ wise, I really admire Kaytranada. As a DJ and Producer, he has such a distinctive sound and he doesn’t compromise his sound no matter what stage he is performing on or whatever Artist he is working with. He also creates when he wants and doesn’t get caught up in the pressure to create and have constant drops to keep up with social media and the industry. He’s a gem and his music stays in constant rotation for me.
Realistically a DJ can make or break an event based on the music they play or mood they set throughout the course of the night. Explain what your creative process is like when you are preparing for an event and the mentality that you have to have when it comes to song selection during the course of a show?
Every venue, city, client, and event calls for something different when it comes to music selection and energy. A lot of times when I am booked for an event I have a call with the client/promoter to get an idea of the crowd they are expecting, the run-of-show, etc. From the conversation I then work on the actual setlist. No matter what event I am DJing I always include music that I know will appeal to various people of contrasting backgrounds. That’s something that I have learned while being a DJ in NYC. There are so many different people and they all expect and deserve to have a good time -- no matter their race, age, sexual orientation, etc. I usually sit with the setlist a few days before the event and reference it from time to time to make any changes that I see fit.
DJs have always been an important piece to not only hip-hop culture but the music industry as a whole. Whether you’re playing a part in breaking a new artist or curating the next big event, DJs move the culture. What is the most satisfying part of this profession?
There are so many fulfilling aspects of being a DJ. I love people and being able to inspire people to let loose and become one in the moment and with the music. I’ve seen people laugh, cry, and experience so many feelings during my sets and it reminds me every time the power that music has on people and the culture as a whole. I also love putting people on to music, both Artists and sounds, that they weren’t familiar with before. A big part of my job is digging for music and Artists; and I love incorporating them in my sets and sharing with everyone whether it be at a club, on social media, or in conversation. One of my goals is to do more A&R work and lead conversations related to music. Being a DJ helps me sharpen those skills daily.
What is the biggest misconception about being a DJ?
I can’t speak for all DJs but a lot of people think that since my job is to entertain people and be out a lot, people often assume that I am always “on” and turned up 24/7. To be completely honest, and those that know me well beyond the booth understand that when I am not DJing, I am very chill and enjoy as much time to myself as possible. DJing for crowds takes a lot of energy and being present in that moment. It is so important to recharge and beyond popular belief, I enjoy being home in sweats watching nature documentaries in between naps while my phone is on do not disturb.
Being in a city like New York you are exposed to plenty of potential opportunities. What was your first big gig as a DJ and how did you get it?
One of my first big gigs was DJing an event for Dolce & Gabbana. It was the opening of their new store in Soho and it was a big deal for me. The DJs were myself and Kitty Cash and Justine Skye also performed. Everyone from Naomi Campell to Christian Combs and so many others attended this event. The brand had reached out to me initially from Social Media and an internal recommendation. I still think about that night to this day!
Last summer one the biggest conference for creators of color was held in Brooklyn, New York called Culture Con. How has your experience at Culture Con, and how did that opportunity come about?
Culture Con is by far one of my favorite events to DJ. I have been the DJ for Culture Con since the beginning. Imani Ellis, a friend and the founder of The Creative Collective NYC reached out to me to DJ a networking event when I first started DJing. From there we continued to work together and the whole CCNYC team became part of my creative NYC family. To be part and witness the growth is such a rewarding and inspiring feeling. It started out small and has grown to be one of the most attended conferences for young creatives and entrepreneurs. This past Culture Con was probably one of my favorites. Being able to play Diana Ross as Tracee Ellis Ross walked on stage and to make her dance and thousands of others that day will be something I will never forget. I am extremely grateful for the continuous support and partnership from The Creative Collective NYC.
Is there a difference when you have a show in New York City versus having a show outside of the city? (The vibe, song choice, appearance.)
There is indeed a major difference but it keeps me going and constantly challenging myself to become a better DJ and artist all around. NYC is one of the toughest crowds in the world in my opinion to perform for. If you can really move an NYC crowd, you can more than likely rock out anywhere else in the world. When I first started DJing in NYC it wasn’t easy and I had to find my groove and find the sweet spot in terms of what they were used to hearing and what they didn’t know they wanted to hear. I’m from the south and a lot of the selections I incorporate in my sets you do not hear from many DJs in NYC; it's what sets me apart from everyone else. With that being said, it's important to know your history when it comes to New York-based artists, venues, and the culture altogether. When I perform outside of NYC I make sure I do my research and cater to that particular crowd and city. I also play the music that I like and that I know will get people moving. No matter where I am in the world my goal is for people to leave saying: “Damn, that was a good time. The DJ had me moving and dropped some stuff I didn’t even know I needed to hear.” When that happens, I know I did what needed to be done.
What’s the message you want to put out through the art that you continue to make?
It’s ok to be your authentic self, no matter what. We will never be able to please everyone and we shouldn’t even try. As long as you find fulfillment in your art; whatever the medium maybe, that's all that matters.
What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Not to follow in my footsteps because my footsteps are unique to my dreams and the things I face personally. However, if someone out there is looking for advice to become a DJ, I would tell them to do it for the right reasons. There are a lot of “glamourous” things that come with being a DJ but there are even more things that require a lot of time, energy, and skill that people don’t always see. Learn and study music that makes you feel good, constantly practice, and aspire to learn and study the art and craft of DJing. Also, be ok with going against the grain. After all; there are so many DJs out these days. Ask yourself: what makes you different from the rest. Never forget what makes you special and why you started.
For more information on Kenneth Kyrell follow the links below.
Official Website: https://www.kennethkyrell.com/