Being “outside” has grown into a term that signifies the amount of work put in, the battles you’ve survived and the love you’ve received. It’s a badge of honor.
When I think about people who’ve really been outside, I think of folks who’ve turned human interaction into a lucrative business model and some sort of spiritual exchange. People like DJ ShellHeart.
Last week, she hosted a birthday party for East Oakland lyricist ALLBLACK. A few days prior, I saw her dancing in the booth while DJing an event with visual artist Yanory Norwood. Last month I spotted her cutting up and spinning records with a bunch of fly sisters on the Tip Top Shape float at the Black Joy Parade.
As if that’s not enough, the next day, Saturday, March 26, Shell appears at the cannabis-themed brunch Blunch, organized and hosted by Oakland emcee and entrepreneur Ally Cocaine and her sister. And on Sunday, March 27, she’s at the Thrive City Women’s Small Business Market at the Chase Center, as part of the Golden State Warriors’ Women’s History Month festivities.
I’m laying out her itinerary to show you that’s she’s not only outside—pardon me, been outside—but that’s it’s clearly paying off.
“I been on the gas, OG Penn!” DJ ShellHeart tells me during a phone call last week, speaking in an audible smile as she runs down her current schedule, starting with her event series called Good Times.
Every first Sunday, ShellHeart along with other DJs host the day party that’s simply about coming together to appreciate each other. “A lot of people don’t get their flowers,” Shell says, in a tone that’s a 180-degree difference from how the call started. “A lot of people from where I’m from don’t get flowers until somebody is dead.”
So, before the event, Shell buys eight bouquets and passes individual flowers out to people “during the lit hours.” Shell says, “I pass them out to everybody, man or woman. That’s one thing that has been big for me for 2022: making sure people get their flowers.”
As of this writing, they’ve only thrown a few Good Times events. But each one has brought out hundreds of attendees. Now, they’re even considering a larger venue.
Over the past two years the Bay Area has undergone some major nightlife shifts, but ShellHeart isn’t concerned. “It’s a lot of clubs that are closing,” says Shell. “But there are so many that are opening. And they’re willing to be open for the young DJs to throw parties.”
It’s a big difference from a few months ago, when her holiday DJ gig, Rexx Life Raj’s “Rexxmas,” was cancelled due to the fast-spreading Omicron COVID-19 variant–a wave that brought Shell back to the first shutdown in 2020.
“When the pandemic came, I felt like I lost everything. Well, I did. I didn’t have a booking in sight,” ShellHeart says, reminiscing on recent history. But that period gave her time to plan. “And now I’m doing it, and it’s amazing,” she adds, audibly smiling again.
Born in San Francisco and raised in South Richmond, ShellHeart, given name Michelle Miller, is truly from the soil. She attended school in Berkeley, and church in Vallejo. But it was her time spent in Sacramento that set her on her path.
After relocating to the 916 for a job at Sacramento Children’s Receiving Home in 2014, she decided to fill her idle time with a new hobby. So she purchased a mini DJ controller that she could attach to an iPad. It wasn’t her first rodeo: when she was in high school, her dad gave her some turntables, but it didn’t stick—Shell was too focused on running track.
A little older and a little deeper into music, it was time. She got connected with Sacramento’s DJ Meli Mel, who gave Shell a real controller, a Numark NS7. “It was hella heavy!” Shell exclaims. “But I was like, ‘Thisis what I want to do.'”
So she did.
Back home in Richmond, an artist by the name of RBC Bugzy was on the rise, having released his first mixtape, Richmen. After a year in Sacramento, ShellHeart moved back to the Bay, living in Vallejo. That’s when she and Bugzy connected. “And we just kicked it off,” says Shell, matter-of-factly. “We already knew each other because we were both from Richmond, but once I became his DJ, we became a lot closer. That actually kicked off my DJ career.”
Bugzy was a goofy dude, Shell tells me. A happy family man who loved hard. They’d exchange early morning phone calls to check in, and often ride out together, driving around the Bay selling Bugzy’s RICHMEN line of shirts out of his trunk while playing his music and seeing people in traffic.
Bugzy was shot and killed in Georgia in late 2019, along with Atlanta’s Tuc Dolla. After his death, Bugzy’s brother, the retired NFL running back and current college coach C.J. Anderson, made it clear that Bugzy was a stage name: “His name was Bryon Edwards,” he tweeted. “Today we lost my brother Bryon Edwards.” He was a real person who was taken from this world too soon, leaving behind family, friends, and fans.
Plenty of photos exist of ShellHeart performing in a baseball cap with “Bugzy” embroidered on the side. But the image that really speaks to their connection is one she keeps at the crib. “I have this picture of [Bugzy] and my mom in my room, and I look at it every morning,” Shell says, once again in a tone absent of a smile. “When I go outside, it’s for him, it’s for them.”
When she’s outside, it’s not just in the Bay; in 2018, ShellHeart began touring as Rexx Life Raj’s DJ across the United States and Europe, hitting London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen and beyond.
Shell and Raj have known each other since their days at Berkeley High, back when Raj was a part of a group called the Goon Squad. “Me and Raj been connected, that’s what a lot of people don’t know,” Shell says, audible smile present again. “That’s really my friend. So, he just made me his DJ. And man, we been killing it… He changed my life, for real. He and Bugzy changed my life.”
Now, she’s at a point where she can support herself by doing what she loves. On any given night, you might catch her Milly Rocking in the DJ booth while giving shoutouts over the club’s sound system. She has events lined up for the summer. She released a line of hats last fall and has more clothing dropping in the coming months. That’s in addition to throwing parties, hosting events, going on tour again and possibly putting out her own music with some well-known Bay Area artists.
It’s been a long journey from when she started, back when she was hitting events and shaking people’s hands, hoping to get to know them and to make sure they got to know her.
Aside from DJ Backside and the late Pam The Funkstress, ShellHeart says that in those early days of DJing, she didn’t see many women behind the boards.
“And being a gay female, it felt like a lot of people didn’t know how to approach me,” Shell explains. “I’d get a lot of brushed-off shoulders. But I made sure to go shake those hands: I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but imma make sure you remember me.”
When asked what it feels like to have this kind of momentum, DJ ShellHeart answers with a rhetorical question of her own: “Why am I outside on a fucking Monday?” she laughs.
“It trips me out: Damn, I’m outside again?” she says. “But this is my job. This is my career.”