A Binghamton University student is breaking the mold of what it means to be a DJ. When she’s not studying for exams or working at the radio station, you can find Laurie Azoulai, general manger at WHRW 90.5 FM and a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience, DJing at a local house party.
Azoulai started DJing during her sophomore year when her brother and friends began to experiment with the art. As she started playing around with professional equipment, Azoulai’s passion for DJing flourished.
Now, Azoulai performs both locally and internationally. She has DJed for venues in Binghamton, Brooklyn and even for a radio station in Paris. Although Azoulai has found widespread success in her career as a DJ, she says it all started in the Triple Cities.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for [BU], I don’t even know if I would be this far off as a DJ,” Azoulai said. “Being up at school, in my own niche, really helped me discover [my passion for DJing].”
A large part of Azoulai’s interest and development as a DJ stems from her involvement in WHRW, BU’s student radio station. Through her experience with the club, Azoulai met a supportive group of student DJs who shared her goals and passion for music. This year, she also helped plan parties and events which gave her valuable venue contacts and connections. These events, including Cafe O’Spacis, HOTBOX 001 and RAVE at the CAVE, also gave Azoulai the opportunity to perform.
Despite her success, Azoulai said it wasn’t easy to break into the seemingly male-dominated industry at first. When she began performing, Azoulai noticed that most DJs in Binghamton were men. However, she believes her female presence in DJ culture has helped break down gender barriers, making the art more attainable for others.
“I think that being a woman, one of the few women that is doing this in the Binghamton scene, made people feel more comfortable getting involved with it as well,” Azoulai said. “Because like I said, it was usually predominantly men and DJing seemed like something that was so inaccessible. But I feel like now people understand it more and appreciate it more because they see that anyone can do it.”
Azoulai goes by the stage name Ora Z, which stems from a combination of her Hebrew roots and her last name. She plays a diverse range of music in her sets and said her music style changes based on the context and atmosphere of an event. While Azoulai tends to play house, techno, disco and funk music, she also likes to sprinkle in remixes with popular artists.
“I try to incorporate, you know, random experimental stuff or really famous tracks like Cardi B,” she said. “We’ll have crazy remixes or even Beyoncé, like things that have been reworked but that people will also recognize and lose their shit to.”
However, DJing isn’t always about playing the most popular songs or artists. Sometimes, it’s about helping others explore new styles of music. Azoulai said although there are varying ideas about what skills are most important for DJs, the connection with the audience is key.
“This has always been a debate, about whether it’s more about the skills or about your song selection, [but] I like to believe your track selection is more important, you know, what you deliver and if you’re able to read a crowd and communicate with your audience through music,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the time my audience was one that wasn’t familiar with what I was playing, but it’s also about discovery, you know? Like people end up on the dance floor dancing, not realizing that they’re enjoying this. It’s a whole experience, you know, that extends beyond music.”
Azoulai likes to stay in the moment when she performs, never having a concrete plan of what she’s going to play. She said she is on the same musical journey as her audience, and each experience is different, providing unique and spontaneous sets.
“I come in with a playlist made, but I don’t have an idea of what it’s going to come out as,” she said. “It’s very much like, on the spot — something happens with the way I interact with my crowd and I’m able to have a really good succession of songs or surprise people with what I play. In a way I don’t even know, I surprise myself too because I don’t calculate my every move or every track.”
But Azoulai wasn’t always so impromptu with her sets. Since she started DJing, Azoulai said her music style has evolved. As she branched out in her music taste, immersed herself in dance culture and kept up with new releases, she began to create a more personalized style of DJing.
“I feel like when I first started I didn’t know as much, so I was playing things that were more generic and a little less diverse. Now I really explore things more underground,” Azoulai said. “I’ve been to nights out or events and things where I’ve heard this new style of music that I once thought I didn’t like, and then it grew on me and then I personally was motivated to get into that and explore it more.”
It’s the type of transformative experience Azoulai said she hopes to provide her audience. She tries to keep her sets diverse, allowing people to let loose to new styles of music. However, some songs are too good to pass up.
“Sometimes I’ll be a little selfish and I’ll play songs just because I really want to hear them, but they happen to be songs that people lose their shit to and I get to bond with them over it,” Azoulai said.
For aspiring student DJs, Azoulai suggests that they take advantage of on-campus resources such as the music department, WHRW and Binghamton Production and Mixing, as well as finding a strong support system.
“Try to research how it’s been done elsewhere [and] try to find friends that [are] interested, like it’s definitely easier if you do this with a team,” she said. “And it takes quite some practice, you know, you’re not going to get it easily and it’s something you really come to — it’s not always natural with everyone.”
After graduation, Azoulai plans to continue her passion for DJing and wants to explore producing tracks and collaborating with other DJs. But most importantly, Azoulai said she wants to remind people how liberating the power of music can be.
“I know a bunch of people [and] they would have never thought they would come across such a situation in college or such an event or such style of music, and they really get absorbed in it,” she said. “You know, it’s very freeing in a way. And I like that a lot about DJing, you kind of just lose your mind and let the music flow.”