As clubs have been reopening and shows have been resuming across the country after a year-and-a-half-long COVID-19 pandemic pause on the live music industry, Billboard is asking club and touring DJs about their experience fading between spinning at home to performing back outside.
Lala the DJ‘s taste in music is all over the map, just like her upbringing. Born in Morocco and raised in Israel, she came to the Bay Area at a young age and began to understand the world of music to be her oyster, with her taste ranging from Snoh Aalegra to “shooter music.” Lala finds herself at the intersection of being the touring DJ for mystery rapper-singer Vory, who gained prominence after being featured on Ye’s (formerly known as Kanye West) Billboard 200-topping album Donda, a producer and music journalist.
As music lovers returned to the R&B music of the early ’00s for comfort in the midst of COVID, Lala helped give them something fresh to relish in this summer when she DJed a four-week residency at Brent Faiyaz’s “Wasting Time” downtown Los Angeles release parties, in celebration and promotion of his Drake-assisted and Neptunes-produced Billboard Hot 100 hit. Her late-night spinning eventually rolled into the after hours, when she and a fellow female DJ temporarily ran the show at the Cheetahs strip club in Hollywood.
Billboard caught up with Lala the DJ to talk about which songs she felt didn’t get enough love during the pandemic, and the importance of all-female teams on every side of the music business.
Pre-pandemic, where were you spinning usually?
I’ve been DJing for Vory and Winter Blanco for years. [Winter and I] did Rolling Loud 2019 together. I also DJed shows for smaller artists — or when their tour DJ couldn’t do it, I would fill in, like Famous Dex. But in terms of regular DJing, I did a lot of private events for Nike, Adidas, companies like that. Because before the pandemic, activation budgets were huge, so there were always activations and little private events.
What music were you listening to a lot during quarantine?
Nothing new, really. I did a lot of virtual stuff where I found that people wanted to hear oldies — like ‘90s R&B, 2000s R&B, just familiar things. A lot of the virtual stuff was very themed, like I remember doing a West Coast party for Atlantic Records.
What other virtual events did you perform at within the last year and a half?
I did something for the Waze app, a little Hewlett-Packard thing. I actually have this contract with Live Nation for corporate stuff, so they still continued corporate conferences and events where I would open it virtually. And it would be like 500 people watching it, but I didn’t see any of them. It’s such a weird feeling — I feel like I’m playing to myself. On Twitch, you can see how many people are in there, but on Zoom, you don’t know how many people are watching you, because they’re all in a conference room on a big screen. So it was weird, but it was cool.
How have your roots/upbringing shaped the music you like to listen to and play live?
My family’s Moroccan-Israeli. And then part of my family is from Russia. I came to the U.S. like right before I turned 12, to the Bay, which is very eclectic. So I guess I just grew up around very different cultures. I feel like a lot of people pick a favorite genre when you’re growing up, and they feel confined to that. But I’ve always lived very free, moldable. I think that influences my music taste a lot because I like everything. And it depends on my mood, too. Some days I want to cry, so I listen to Snoh Aalegra and I cry. Other days, I feel charged up so I listen to shooter music.
What was the first live music event after quarantine that you attended as a fan?
I remember the last one I went to, 42 Dugg.
What was the first live music event after quarantine that you performed at as a DJ?
I did some clubs in Atlanta because I have friends out there. And I was tired of DJing on Zoom — because half of DJing is reading the crowd, who they are and how they’re reacting. So I went out there and had them set me up to DJ at Allure, the strip club.
Are there any songs you were listening to/spinning at home that you were excited to play for a live audience?
There were a lot of songs that came out and were super lit right before quarantine started but that needed a big crowd reaction. One of them is “The Box” by Roddy Ricch, some stuff by Megan Thee Stallion, some stuff by Latto, Rod Wave, especially if you’re in Atlanta. They love Rod Wave out there. They all had a lot of songs that at that time just came out and then two weeks later, pandemic hits. I remember thinking specifically “The Box” by Roddy didn’t get the attention it needed. I remember Drake had dropped Dark Lane Demo Tapes, with the “Demons” song with Fivio [Foreign], it was kind of like drill-ish. That I feel like never got the attention that it should have. People know it, but it came and went during the pandemic.
Did you have any worries that certain songs or albums might be considered “too old” because it came out during the pandemic?
Yeah, there were a few by Megan Thee Stallion, like “Savage” was in the beginning of quarantine. [Her EP Suga] never really got club attention. During the pandemic, you’re like, “OK, I guess I’ll play this” — but they’re turn-up songs, so it’s weird to play them at home. And then when the pandemic is over and you start DJing again, it’s like, “But are people sick of this? Because nothing new has dropped.”
What are some of the newer songs or albums that came out after lockdown ended that you’ve been hyped to play?
I love EST Gee and 42 Dugg, they’re my two favorite rappers. I really like street rap like that, ’cause Gee is from Louisville and Dugg is from Detroit, and rap like that wasn’t really mainstream. For a while, Atlanta dominated rap, and then before that, L.A. did, with YG and that era. But now, I feel like that Midwest genre is really dominating in the clubs — not just the strip clubs. Because the strip clubs is always on some street music. Street music has just become more popular, like Lil Durk and Chicago stuff. I’m really excited about those when they really go up in the club.
What are you looking forward to during your future sets? Where do you want to perform next?
I’ve DJed at most major cities — like New York, Miami, Atlanta — but I haven’t DJed in Miami in like two years. One of my last big gigs was an activation at the Super Bowl [LV] before the pandemic. Miami is amazing, every venue is beautiful, the crowd is always great, and you get to play things you don’t get to play in L.A., which I love. That’s why I love new locations, new crowds: You do your research, and it’s slightly different depending on the state. So I’m looking forward to playing in Miami again, which hopefully should be soon. I have some things in the works.
What’s the point of connection you see between music journalism and DJing, and how did you access that once you figured it out?
Right now, what I mainly do is produce. Before I was ever a DJ, I started by producing when I was 19 and living in the Bay. I would make beats at home, but then I was like, “How do I even get them to people? I don’t even know who to send this to.”
I saw in an interview with Metro [Boomin] that he uses FL Studio. So I was like, “If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” So I got it and I learned off YouTube, and I would just do that at home. But then I was like, “How do I make money off of this?” Long story short, I said, “I guess I’ll DJ.” I started trying to DJ — but I wasn’t even 21, so I couldn’t really DJ at clubs. I worked for the Bay Area hip-hop station, 106.1. Then I moved to LA, and my ultimate goal was still to DJ and produce. I actually became a journalist, because I saw it as a way to meet people in the industry and gain access to events and stuff when I didn’t know anyone in L.A.
You’re also a producer. Considering the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s recent “Inclusion in the Recording Studio” report states only 2% of producers are female, how do you demand respect in the studio?
In some ways, I do have an advantage because I’m a girl. When I DM a rapper or their manager, almost all of them reply, because they think I’m joking. They’re like, “Oh, this cute girl makes beats. What?” It’s almost condescending, like they’re laughing at you — but once they hear it, this s–t is fire, and then they f–k with it.
But in general, it’s like any other field where women are the minority — just got to be professional and make it clear I’m there to work. I tend to go to studios dressing more like a boy. I don’t come alone, I try to bring guy friends, not even other girls. Unless the artist is recording, I prefer to not even go in person. I feel like I’d rather you guys not even see me — because that’s when the bulls–t sticks.
Vory has been getting a lot more attention after appearing on multiple Donda tracks. How did you two first met, and what’s been the most gratifying part of watching him grow as an artist over the years?
At the end of 2017, I was DJing on Melrose at one of those little clothing things. A man and a woman came up to me and they were like, “We manage this artist, Vory. He needs a DJ. He only works with women. And we love how you DJ.” So they introduced me to him. His first big thing was that he’s writing for Drake. So at the time, people only knew him for that. He’s very private. I remember the first time I went to his house, and he was like, “Come alone. I don’t like random people at my house.” I went alone, and it was cool. I think we hung out like two more times, and by the third time, he was like, “OK, you got the job. I f–k with you.”
Before [working with Meek Mill on Dream Chaser Records], he does love songs. But with Meek, he’s getting a chance to do more shooter music. I like that they let him do both. He sings and he raps. With Kanye, he’s singing. I’ve been encouraging him to make club hits — because he’s never really made club music, which is like the cheat code to go No. 1. You got to be able to play the clubs. I’ve seen his growth, I’ve seen him start to make club music, I’ve seen him make more upbeat stuff. And it’s just been great to see people embrace him.
You also DJed Brent Faiyaz’s parties in L.A. after he released “Wasting Time” with Drake. How did you sustain the hype for that one song over the course of a few weeks?
It was a four-week series at The Reserve in downtown. There was a release party, and then this was like the release party after the party, because it was club time. There was an R&B room and a regular hip-hop room — and some of the days, I did the R&B room, and the other days I did the lit room. It was supposed to be even longer, like six weeks long. Each night, it was sold out. There were lines out the door, down four blocks. I was like, “This can’t be for this.” But it was.
It was such a good song, and it’s Drake, and people love Brent Faiyaz. I feel like he’s pretty mysterious, too. He showed up and he performed the song. Once people heard that Brent shows up and does that, it became even more lit. It was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.
You also used to operate and DJ an L.A.-based strip club, Cheetahs, with an all-female team. Why was a strip club a premiere venue for you to tap into the management side of the business, and what’s DJing there like?
My friend who I did it with, this girl DJ Ferg, always does strip clubs. She’s been in the strip club nearly seven nights a week for years. She’s like the L.A. strip club queen. So that was the natural way we decided to do it. Strip club DJing is a little different than regular clubs: For a normal club, even if it’s a hip-hop club, you end up playing top 40 radio stuff. But strip club [DJing] is mostly street music, because you got to think of the crowd – rappers, athletes – and that changes what music you’re going to play.
And the pace is much faster. At a normal club, you can let a song run for two hooks, two verses, like a minute-and-a-half up to two minutes. But at a strip club, it’s like 45 seconds, next. It’s just fast. I think when people are throwing money, when they’re dancing, you can’t let it get stale. For me, I just love a woman-oriented environment, so it felt good to be a woman running it with female dancers and female bartenders.
Check out Lala the DJ’s playlist for Billboard below.
Editor’s note: Lala the DJ is also a contributing writer for Billboard.com.