By Jasmine Shaw
For The Birmingham Times
Local DJ Gina Grayson feels her work is at the “heartbeat” of the music industry and for good reason.
“Without DJs (and producers), there are no musical vibes brought to clubs, bars, concerts, and so many other events,” she explained. “We got people through the (2020) pandemic, we provide playlists when you’re not listening to us live, and we legit craft atmospheres single handedly for people and places.”
The 33-year-old College Hills native saw an opening when she felt Birmingham’s nightlife left more to be desired.
“I knew there were people who wanted to hear something besides mainstream hip-hop, R&B, and pop, and I made it my business to introduce different genres of music that were not super mainstream … disco, house, international and remixes to familiar favorites are some of my avenues to dive into to the scene here,” said Grayson.
Homing in on fundamentals of the field gave Grayson a versatility that has been paramount to her success, she said, pointing to lessons from DJ Serious, who was performing at many local venues and hosted a mixshow for 95.7 Jamz.
“March 2015 was when I first reached out to DJ Serious for some advice…he offered to give me some lessons and was adamant about teaching me on turntables with vinyl.”
She added, “Being able to use whatever equipment may be at a venue or event when I pull up has been a game changer. Having such an analog foundation, like him teaching me how to beat match by ear as opposed to looking at numbers on a computer, has helped me get where I am.”
Paying homage to her father, Arthur Grayson, (her grandfather Art Grayson Sr. is in Birmingham music Hall of Fame), whose affinity for music gave his home a party-like atmosphere, Grayson channeled her love for making people dance into a career in the fall of 2016.
“My first gig was at the Syndicate Lounge (formerly in downtown Birmingham),” she said. “Two local creatives, Travis Rice and Carey Fountain put on an event called Lit House where they had a lineup of other local talent.”
Grayson has since performed at prominent events across town such as the 2022 Museum Ball, Art On The Rocks, and [Birmingham] Mayor [Randall] Woodfin’s Green Carpet affair.
“I love jogging memories of songs that people have forgotten about,” she said. “It takes a lot to not only perform a set, but to prepare for one. I dig deep when it comes to music and always try to present things in a different way — whether it’s something like a unique remix or an unexpected mashup.”
Grayson’s musical fervor also extends to the dance floor, which led her to join Ramsay High School’s Modern Dance Club and Blue Diamonds Dance Team between 2004-2008.
“I’d done ballet and jazz since I was 4, I was grateful that my parents were okay with me going to a school where I could be a part of a dance team,” she said. “It not only fed me creatively, but I cultivated friendships that I still have to this day.”
After graduating from Ramsay, Grayson joined Auburn University’s modeling board and served as President from 2011-2012.
“Not only did we get to enjoy the fun part of fashion shows, but we were also involved in the community,” she said. “This organization was advised by a professor (one of my favorites) who is a breast cancer survivor; we were able to put on and be part of several events that raised money for that cause.”
Despite having a natural knack for math and science, Grayson changed her major from biomedical sciences to fashion merchandising.
“To be honest, I didn’t have any career aspirations when I was a child. I didn’t realize until I was in college that I could actually pursue a career in something creative,” she said.
“Entrepreneurship has taught me that if I want to do something, I can. And that I have to say yes or no — whether it be to people, to bad habits, to complacency, to pay that’s offered, to taking risks — until that ‘something’ looks how I want.”
Grayson can also be considered a student of her craft.
“I’m always in the mood to listen to artists like Tame Impala and Kaytranada along with bands like Khruangbin and The Internet,” she said. As for songs during her set, “it really depends on the crowd, because they are all different. I know that sounds so generic, but that’s the truth… but, I will say in most settings, songs with a higher BPM (beats per minute) tend to get people dancing. So for example, a lot of house and disco (two very danceable genres) songs are gonna be around 120 BPM.”
Using music as a personal emotional outlet, Grayson prides herself on the authenticity she brings to each set.
“I enjoy [working in] atmospheres where the people trust me. I’m having to make decisions every 30-60 seconds for several consecutive hours so I’m focused,” she stated. “Additionally, I always bring my personal style to my sets. DJing is performing, so I love putting on outfits that reflect how I feel going into the set.”
Despite being a male-dominated industry, Grayson is grateful for the growth she’s experienced and credits her faith for allowing her to be in the “right place, around the right people, at the right time.”
“I owe everything to God,” she stated. “Make sure you know what kind of DJ you want to be so you’re not spreading yourself too thin or taking on gigs that you don’t really want to do or that aren’t relevant to your creative goals.”
Grayson remains humble despite numerous celebrity encounters and admiration from a Grammy winning producer.
“I was DJing at Revery, a virtual reality Bar in Atlanta where I had a Thursday night residency at a few years ago,” she remembered, “Bryan-Michael Cox [an Atlanta-based producer known for working on songs like ‘Burn’ by Usher and ‘Pressure’ by Ari Lenox”] was in the building and complimented me on my set. You couldn’t tell me nothing that night.”
When she’s not behind the DJ booth, Grayson enjoys nurturing her wide variety of plant collection from ivy to cacti – “I currently have 11 plants and they are spread out on my windowsill, bookshelf and on top of my fridge” — and picking out her next travel destination.
“Hands down, I’d love to visit Amsterdam,” she said. “It’s clean, safe, has lots of amazing shopping, historic yet modern at the same time, good food, and super walkable… I mean, I could go on.”
Tuning in to bands like Khruangbin and The Internet to help her relax, Grayson seeks out knowledge to sharpen her skills.
“Reading is something that I’ve recently started being a lot more intentional about,” she said. “I feel like there’s nothing you can’t learn from books. I’m currently reading ‘Purple Hibiscus’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A majority of what I read typically falls under things like self-help and business, so I felt like I should break it up with a fiction recommendation from a close friend.”
Knowing that her five-year-old self would think she’s “really cool” in the present day, Grayson now embraces personal growth through “therapy, exercise, healthy eating, reading, and spending quality time with friends and family are all things that I have become a lot more intentional about in recent years,” she stated. “They have all shaped me to be a much more grounded person, which is useful when it comes to navigating life in general.”
Currently, Grayson only DJs part-time to avoid burnout and collaborate with others in the industry.
“In this current season, curating is something I’m working on. Especially having a support system in the creative department because I don’t truly have that right now,” she stated. “You have to emulate those that you admire. Reach out to them, the accessible ones, and ask them what steps they took.”
You can find Grayson on Instagram, @ginatollese or on Facebook at Gina Tollese.