Campus student jockeys for success in DJ competitions

Shelly So Hee Kim/Staff

Thumping bass, sublime fusions of tracks and a roaring crowd. These are the norm for fourth-year UC Berkeley student Heather Lui, also known as DJ Eszair, spinning electro-house mixes for campus and clubs alike. Lui recently participated in the Campus DJ competition as part of the top-five Bay Area collegiate disk jockeys to make it to regionals. Though she didn’t win regionals, she still had the chance to make it to nationals through popular vote via the Campus DJ website.

Although her mixes brought her into one of the top categories of the competition, Lui has only been a DJ for a handful of years. “I did a (year) in Canada and worked at a radio station called Fusion Radio, and some of the DJs there started teaching me how to spin so I could make my own podcasts and mixes,” described Lui in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I’ve since progressed to doing lounges, club events and school events as well.”

As an international student, Lui has spun at a variety of venues in the United States and Taiwan. In her travels, Lui saw how party cultures varied among different countries, which intrigued her, as a political economy student. Particularly, in Asia she found that her work wasn’t over after she finished her set, as socializing with club owners and forming connections were just as important as fueling the club vibe. “There’s a really fine line between work and play,” said Lui. “Especially as a girl, you don’t want to be trashed and all over the place.”

With electronic dance music however, there is almost always a negative association with drug use. While ecstasy is a common EDM-related drug in the United States, Lui was shocked by the use of more harmful drugs in club settings abroad than she had encountered in the United States. “When I was working in Hong Kong, after alcohol, the predominant drug was meth,” Lui exclaimed. “I was like ‘What the fuck?’ They called it ‘ice.’ ”

Though “ice” may be out of Lui’s comfort zone, she constantly strives to push herself outside of that same zone, at least in terms of her music. The time constraints for the Campus DJ competition proved to be more challenging than she anticipated. 

“We only had 10 minutes to do our set, which was really short to me, since I’m used to just spinning for the whole night or having an hour-and-a-half guest appearance,” said Lui. “I crammed about 10 tracks into the mix. I wanted something melodic, something trap-ish with bass — a mix that allowed me to appeal to a variety of audiences.”

Impression is a large part of Lui’s life in the DJ scene. Colorcoding her headphones with outfits is an example of how Lui incorporates fashion into her music. Though she places her music above all else, Lui can’t deny the lingering presence of appearance and image in her industry. “Just as much as female DJs can be propelled into popularity and gigs because of their image, there’s also an expiration date on image — which is just the harsh reality of it,” stated Lui.

Image extends beyond the music industry and is a part of all aspects of life, according to Lui. People going to work in business casual attire is synonymous with how Lui views her work as a DJ. “While DJ-ing is a hobby, it’s also a job, and you have to dress appropriately,” Lui stated. “People interpret that differently, but I love having the liberty to interpret that as my own sense of fashion.”

With plans to go to law school, Lui doesn’t know what the future holds for her music and fashion. Though she wants to continue her passion, it’s a dream she’s hesitant to fully pursue, due to the pressure of landing a more stable job. Though the push to turn DJ-ing into a full-time career has yet to be unearthed, Lui doesn’t plan on giving up her turntable talents anytime soon.

“Every time I do something outside of what I’m used to, it’s worth it,” said Lui. “For me, the crux of it is forming connections and seeing the reactions of people who are enjoying what I do.”  

Ian Birnam covers music. Contact him at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Heather Lui spun at venues in Hong Kong.

Because of misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Lui spent a semester in Canada. In fact, she spent a year in Canada.

A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Lui hoped to make it to nationals through popular vote via the Campus DJ website. In fact, while she had the chance to make it to nationals, Lui didn’t have any particular ambition to make it further.

A previous version of this article also incorrectly quoted Lui as saying that meth, called ‘ice,’ was just “one side of the culture” in Hong Kong.