Meet the DJ
DJ Chitown Shani
Shani Barnett, aka DJ Chitown Shani, got her start in the entertainment industry as a choreographer and dancer, but after seeing the effects of playing music to crowds first hand, she took the plunge and found success as a DJ, MC and event producer…
DJ Chitown Shani – real name Shani Barnett – is a successful DJ with a wealth of experience in the entertainment industry. Unlike most DJs, however, she has a background in performing arts, as well as being skilled at ‘interactive MCing’ – two things which set her apart from the crowd in a male-dominated industry.
Born and raised in Chicago, Shani eventually left the Windy City to attend college in Florida. After graduating, she began her life in the entertainment industry by going on tour as a professional dancer, pursuing her dream. It was only when she saw the effect that music, played by DJs, had on the crowd that Shani realized her newfound passion.
“While I was working as a choreographer and dancer back in the day, I spent my down time hanging with the tour DJs,” says Shani. “I was mesmerized by the effect their mixing had on the crowds and started falling in love with DJing. My love for music and dancing helped motivate me to learn the ropes of DJing and mixing back in 2000.”
Since her epiphany fifteen years ago, Shani has gone from beginner DJ to all-round entertainer, turning her hand to any form of entertainment that throws itself at her. “I consider myself an open-form DJ who can play to any type of crowd,” she explains, but her resume also includes work as an MC, interactive entertainer and event producer. The latter of these job titles has seen her produce corporate conferences all over the US, and Shani is equally as prolific with her DJing: enjoying work as both a mobile and club DJ.
What can we expect from her sets, though? “I really do love all types of music,” begins Shani. “But Chicago House and Classic House music will always have a special place in my heart. This type of music takes you on a happy spiritual journey that touches your soul.”
Despite her deep-seated love for house music, Shani tells us that “it’s not always about house and EDM music all the time for me,” going on to recount the joy she gets from playing music of all genres and eras, and the freedom of choice it brings. “I always smile more when I can play a Michael Jackson song from the eighties, or an early-nineties dance club set,” she says. “What really gets me smiling from ear to ear is when I can play an early-eighties rock set that includes songs like ‘Jack & Diane’ (by John Mellencamp).”
During her years behind the decks, Shani has gathered plenty of fond memories, though one in particular – involving her hometown basketball team – evokes particular enthusiasm: “I am blessed to have a lot of great memories over the years, with more to come,” says Shani, “but one of my favorite memories is DJing for a former Chicago Bulls player for his birthday. The vibe was incredible from the start and only got better throughout the night. The best part of the night was the old-school dance battle, with all the NBA players, that lasted almost thirty minutes. There was so much trash talking it sounding like the Championship game was on the line! At the end of the battle they all broke into the dance routine for New Edition's ‘Mr. Telephone Man’. It was an epic night!”
Of course, Shani isn’t always entertaining celebrity guests; she puts on one heck of a show each and every time she gets up in front of a crowd, no matter who they are. Perhaps what has seen Shani become so successful is her role as an ‘interactive MC’. “That doesn’t mean I turn events into a Zumba or aerobics workout,” she jokes. “It just means I make sure I step away from behind the DJ booth to get personal with my crowd and guests. I make the party more intimate, no matter how big or small; I make every guest feel comfortable enough to want to be on the dance floor and enjoy themselves.”
With all this in mind, it’s clear that Shani has earned her reputation as a top-class DJ through hard work and on her own merit. However, it’s intriguing to hear how, as a female DJ, she has succeeded in an industry dominated by men, on what must have been a long and at times difficult road.
“Of course there will always be those rare occasions where I have to really sell myself to a client because I am a female,” Shani explains. “When I ask why they don't want a female DJ or MC, the answer is usually the same: they have never seen me in action or heard anything about me before. They feel a female can NOT command the crowd or take control of the event. Without hesitating, I explain that in this industry I am a DJ, MC and entertainer first – a female second. I show my video promo and give them client references, if they want them. But I never take it personally if they still don't want me because I am a female.”
Those deciding not to hire Shani are undoubtedly missing out, because her skills don’t end with MCing and DJing. She also runs a successful production company and has planned loads of events across the US. “Our production company is a full-service event planning/production and entertainment company,” Shani tells us. “We specialize in creating the ‘wow’ factor and building memorable, high-energy experiences that motivate, educate, captivate, and inspire event attendees for maximum impact. We customize all our production services to meet our client's unique theme, values and goals.”
These events require high-quality lightshows, as do Shani’s events as a DJ and MC, and it’s a factor that plays a huge part in her planning, whether DJing, MCing or producing an event. Shani notes the favorable changes in lighting over recent years, particularly the creative freedom offered by modern fixtures: “These days you can be so creative with lighting! Now we can fit every client's taste and budget; from quiet and elegant to the intricate design of computer-controlled lighting, GOBO projection and special effects. The lighting industry has come so far!”
With all of this on her plate, you’d think Shani had little time for anything else. Unbelievably, when she isn’t busy with work, she likes to continue teaching dance across the Chicago area, and pursuing other hobbies. “I have season tickets to the Chicago Bulls and love going to the games with my family and friends,” Shani says. “I am also a 3rd degree black belt martial artist and still train when I can. But I also love food! Living in Chicago I can tell you where all the best Steak Houses are…”
It’s a busy life for this versatile Windy City DJ then! And, on top of all of this, Shani also manages to fit in DJ conferences, where she meets with like-minded DJs, and regular networking through social media. “Some of my closest friends are DJs from all over the United States,” she says. “Most weekends I have late night conversations with them on the way home from events. I know that these colleagues have my back and are there for me whenever I need them, because of the strong bond we have created over the years. I love it when I get to see them at trade shows or when I have an event in their neck of the woods.”
The friends Shani has made in the industry are also vital to how she critiques herself and moves forward as an entertainer. This, incidentally, also forms the basis for her advice to up and coming DJs: “Even though I have been in this industry for twenty years, I still take time to practice my craft and look for ways to better myself,” Shani explains. “I have mentors who I can reach out to at any time, and I believe that everyone should have at least one person they can go to who can be real but not judge them. Egos do not go far in this industry.”
Down to earth, despite her success, DJ Chitown Shani is living proof that female DJs are entertainers first and foremost. And that, with hard work and a passion to pursue their dreams, up-and-coming DJs, both male and female, can enjoy the same success.
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