Beauty and the Beat

By Karen Beck

My name is DJ Shy and I am the first female on-air mixer at the No. 1 Top 40 radio station in America, 102.7 KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. This Clear Channel station with over 2.6 million listeners each week features Ryan Seacrest as the morning host. I got my nickname because I was really shy, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing a profession where I am out in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people spinning records to make them come alive on the dance floor.

I am also a second generation Korean-American who grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I also grew up in a single parent home under a strong, but protective mom with little interaction with my father until I was an adult. At the time, the fact that my mom was divorced carried a stigma among the other Korean-Americans I knew and that affected how we were treated by them.

Surviving the music industry is rough as a woman, but it’s even worse if you’re naive and soft-spoken like me. Despite my quiet demeanor, I eventually climbed up the ladder by spinning for the toughest crowds – black hip-hop clubs in Hollywood. A small-town girl from Pennsylvania, I was pretty innocent when I first got into deejaying. I had stars in my eyes when I first moved to Tinseltown, and people took advantage of me time and time again. I barely noticed the drugs and prostitution at certain parties when I first started spinning. After surviving a drive-by in Compton and midnight stalkers, I grew to be a little wiser.

Though I was naive in my early days, I have never backed down from what I want. I may speak softly, but I have an aggressive streak that doesn’t let up when I’ve got my eyes set on something. My fearlessness, belief in myself, and my passion for music have catapulted me to the top of the industry.

Many young people are told by their parents they shouldn’t dream of being a pop star, rapper, actor, or a dancer. Instead, they need to hit the books and pursue a stable career, like being a doctor, an accountant, or a lawyer. I decided to go against the grain. I definitely did not have the support from my family – my mom discouraged me from spinning, and I initially worked a corporate job after college to please her, even though I was spinning at night.

I hope to motivate and inspire others who want to live out their dream as well. Even if you long to be President of the United States, a star athlete, or the next Bill Gates, I want everyone who reads my story to realize their passion and potential despite the obstacles that lie before them. For me, deejaying is a passion and getting paid is a privilege. I want to share my secrets of success in hopes that others can achieve happiness and success in their lives too.

My dad did what few Koreans did (at least at the time). Against tradition, he left my mom, my younger brother John, and me and flew back to South Korea, never to come back. I had just finished the third grade, and we had only lived in Edison, New Jersey, for about a year. My dad was an engineer and worked for IBM. After my dad left us, we moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania which was much smaller than Edison. There was one main road, a tiny “downtown” area, one “mall” with maybe ten stores, and farms as far as the eye could see. The township, called Neshannock after the Native American phrase for “the land between two rivers,” was pure rural Amish country. The parking lot at the grocery store has special spaces reserved for Amish buggies. The Ku Klux Klan met once a month at the courthouse in Wilmington, just a short drive over into the next town. The population was so white and the town so small that virtually every non-white person around was directly related to me. Even to this day, more than 98 percent of the Neshannock’s population is white.

In high school, all the joy I had as a child left me. Being trapped at home; losing my friends; enduring vandalism and teasing; fights with my brother and arguments with my mom – all of it just made me feel different from everybody else. I hated being poor, being a minority, being locked down with a curfew, and not having a dad. Though John and I talked to my dad every once in a while, he was, for the most part, out of the picture. He never gave my mom a penny in child support. Even to this day, none of us really talk about their divorce.

I decided to room with my old friend from my hometown for my first year of college at Penn State. On move-in day, she and I found ourselves among thousands of other excited teenagers and nervous parents lugging suitcases from cars toward our dorm rooms. Later as I was walking back to the dorms, I heard someone call out, “Karen!” I was surprised – it seemed impossible that I knew anyone among the crowd of thousands of strangers. I turned and saw an Asian guy with a familiar face. “Joe! What are you doing here?”

I was thrilled. Every summer back in high school, I used to go to these Korean church retreats, where Korean kids from nearby states would join us. That’s where I met Joe Han. Joe couldn’t have come from a more different background than me, but we got along great. Joe came from a wealthy family in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents owned several businesses, so money was never an issue for him. But he wasn’t at all stuck up about it; he was actually very cool and very sweet. I was surprised to see him at Penn State, but also very happy to see someone I knew and got along with.

Joe invited me to come out to dinner with him and a few of his friends later that evening. They all turned out to be from his dorm building – and every single one of them was Asian – Eddie Chao (Chinese), David (Chinese), Carlos (Filipino) and Joe (Korean). They had all bumped into each other earlier that day and had instantly hit it off. I could see why. They were all so funny. They talked about random things and cracked each other up. Everyone was so easygoing. That first night having dinner with the boys was so much fun. I didn’t feel any pressure to show how much I knew about the latest trends or clothing. I was relaxed and comfortable, more so than I’d ever felt in any social setting before. For once, I didn’t have to worry about being able to relate about cute boys, clothes, or make-up. All I had to do was enjoy being myself. What a concept, I thought.

During graduate school, I got a job at the Laugh Factory as a hostess. Every Sunday night, a DJ named DJ Eque would spin from the second floor. She had spun for hip-hop artists like Faith Evans and Uncle Luke. She was a black female DJ who could command the entire room by getting on the turntables, and I remember thinking that was just the hottest thing. She’d put on a song, and then I’d watch the crowd’s reaction. The vibe in the whole room would change with each new tune. To someone who couldn’t even control a handful of people waiting in line at the Comedy Club, her ability to pump up a crowd like that with her music was just amazing. I just had to talk to her, so I ran upstairs to the DJ booth. All my words were rushing out in a flurry; I was like an excited little kid. This is so cool! How did you get started? Where did you get all this? I bombarded her with questions. She was busy spinning, but she was nice enough to talk to me for a few minutes. She told me to go to the Guitar Center, a local music store, and they would help me out.

So I bought some equipment and started practicing. After a month of constant practicing, I mentioned to my boss at the Laugh Factory that I’d bought turntables and was teaching myself to deejay. He was really excited for me and immediately offered to let me spin at the club some nights. He suggested that I start out with Monday nights, also known as Latino Night. Monday night tended to be a little slower and easier to navigate, so it would be a good night to deejay in public for the first time.

The time I spent working at the Laugh Factory left a lasting impression on me. I think that discovering something I loved to do – something that I could share with others – helped me to break out of my shell a little more and opened up my world of experience. As I was going to school, working, and learning to deejay, I also enjoyed just being young and living in one of the biggest, most famous cities of the world.

To read the rest of DJ Shy’s life story you can purchase her book (also available on Kindle) on amazon at

DJ Shy will be deejaying at APADRC’s Club Night Nonprofit and Scholarship Fundraiser on January 19th at Exchange LA. Click here for more information and to buy tickets:


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