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Cover Story: Beat Queen

DJ Apryl Reign's soul songs

By Dani McClain · October 22nd, 2003 · Cover Story
Love Reign: DJ Apryl Reign rocks a recent Liberated Souls event.
Matt Borgerding

Love Reign: DJ Apryl Reign rocks a recent Liberated Souls event.

Ever since Pam the Funktress of The Coup showed the world she could scratch records with her breasts, it's been big up after big up for female DJs.

Chloe Sevigny and other New York club-kids-turned-indie-film-ingénues have tried their hand at the wheels of steel, and former model DJ Beverly Bond has co-hosted Weekend VIBE and graced the pages of XXL. And not in the "Eye Candy" pinup section, but as a featured artist.

Hidden somewhere behind all the press about glitzy celebrity DJs are the sisters who spin at the top of their game, people like DJ Kuttin' Kandy and DJ Reborn in New York and Chicago's DJ Dayhota.

Add Cincinnati's own DJ Apryl Reign to that list.

Strangely enough, the best thing that ever happened to this 28-year-old Dayton native was getting all of her DJ equipment stolen from her car two years ago.

"I had just played a gig and my car was parked in front of my house," she says. "Thankfully, I had homeowner's insurance, so the equipment was covered. But all my records were stolen."

Still, the theft was a blessing in disguise. "I was playing the mainstream, thugged-out type of stuff. The money was good, but I was having little panic attacks."

The mindlessness of Ludacris and Nelly and the rest of the Clear Channel diet had Reign on edge. So she switched gears.

"I just really needed to reevaluate and play the kind of music I wanted to play," she says. "I started building a collection of more Jazzy, down-tempo stuff that I could play and be at peace.

But there's not a big market for that here."

Talking to Reign is like being dropped in the middle of that classic Mo' Better Blues conversation between Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington, the one where the debate between the purist and the sell-out becomes an indictment of the black music-listening and buying population. Its result is a question for the ages transcending genres from Jazz to Blues to Hip Hop.

Reign wants to know why black folks won't show support for an art form we created -- real Hip Hop, not the kind diluted by misogyny, materialism and the moneyed interests of record companies.

"Around town at places like Top Cat's they're there breakdancing," she says, referring to the coffeeshop chicks and backpack-toting white dudes comprising most of the local underground Hip-Hop scene. "It's like Rock & Roll and Jazz. It's been taken from us, not because they took it over but we cause we let it go. Hip Hop isn't dead, we just ain't there representing."

A graduate of Central State University with a degree in psychology, Reign's speech is peppered with acronyms like "bpm's" and references to the pantheon of DJs and producers who inspire her. This woman knows her craft, and she's experienced enough sexist condescension to last her a lifetime.

"I was in a DJ battle in Columbus," she says. "I got up there and did my thing, but my needle kept skipping. I wasn't at my peak, but I got second place. I felt like it was because of my gender. People give you more because of what you are, not what you can do."

What she can do is create a soundtrack to keep spirits lifted and ears tuned in tight.

At this summer's Scribble Jam she released her first CD, Reign Songs for the Soul. On it, the superstars of so-called conscious black music are all there: De La Soul, Talib Kweli, KRS-One.

But it's the way they're woven together, in a seamless conversation with each other, that keeps this fresh. Stevie asks, "Where were you when I needed you last winter?" and without missing a beat Erykah responds, "I was standing downtown, staring at the puddles on the ground, tryna figure out a way up out this town..."

Using other artists' words, Reign created a narrative soundtrack to her younger brother's life.

"He's at a place in his life where there needs to be some changes," she says. "He heard it and said it really spoke to him."

This isn't the usual paint-by-numbers product. There's nothing contrived in the album's four lengthy tracks, the first and last of which Reign produced.

She beat matches Bahamadia and 50 Cent for a sultry drum n' bass duet. The Last Poets, sandwiched between Mos Def and Common, go hoarse screaming about the white man's God complex.

Crosby, Stills & Nash offer a psychedelic intro to Jill Scott's "Slowly, Surely." Here, the folk icons' falsettos pull listeners into their eerie harmonies when, slowly, surely ... Jilly from Philly takes center stage.

Settle into a pensive hip wind when India.Arie's melodic deconstruction of atheism rides the beat from Beenie Man's "Who Am I?" Pure genius.

Reign got her start by asking DJs on Central State's campus to give her lessons and show her tricks of the trade. Her efforts to get skills sometimes put her in sticky situations.

She got used to handling the disrespect and sexual harassment. "Those are the kinds of things that easily discourage you. But looking back, I wanted it so bad that didn't even phase me."

She cut her teeth among the college set, spinning at house parties and homecoming dances. Long before this, though, she was taking in her mother's Classic Rock records and following the progress of Total Look & The Style, an R&B group her father managed in the early '90s.

The group was a pet project of Public Enemy, backed and promoted by Chuck D. Their career didn't last long beyond their one hit, "Room 252," but the experience taught Reign that making it in the music industry was possible.

"It seemed like I had a link, like I could get my foot through the door," she says.

Apryl Reign doesn't rely solely on the memory of a defunct girl band to help her keep moving forward. She kicks ass.

And she doesn't even need a pair of knock-off Manolo Blahnik high-heeled Tims to do it. ©



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