“Hip-Hop Keeps You Young” - DJ Stef [1962 - 2017] Beloved Bay Area Hip-Hop Figure Whose Funeral United A Community in Grief

Posted by Billyjam, October 7, 2017 02:02pm | Post a Comment

As she so regularly did in life, at her funeral service yesterday at the Ouimet Bros. Funeral Chapel in Concord, DJ Stef continued to bring different people together through a shared passion for music.
Greatly outnumbering family, including her still-in-shock husband, best-friend and fellow DJ Sergio Ornelas, were a multitude of dear friends Stephanie Gardner Ornelas (aka DJ Stef) had earned over the decades thanks to her warmth and unique unifying role in the Bay Area’s hip-hop community.  Doc Fu, DJ Pause, Liz Novoa, Toph-One, Mr. E, Rasco, DJ Marz, Marc Stretch, Eddie K, Mark Herlihy, Bas-One, Z-Man, Luke Sick, Ren The Vinyl Archeologist and DJ Jester (who flew in from Texas) were among the many mourners who packed the overflowing chapel to pay respects to the beloved longtime Bay Area hip-hop DJ, writer and historian whose death was a total shock to all. Following a heart attack last Sunday (Oct. 1st) Stef died suddenly and unexpectedly. Further confusing was the fact that this ever-energetic, fit 55 year old looked at least a decade younger than her years. “Hip-hop keeps you young,” she once told me in a DJ profile interview that appears in full below (scroll all the way down to read)

Universally loved for her warm personality and unbridled passion for music and life, since news of her death began to circulate last Sunday night, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of grief posted to social media by those whose music-centric lives had been enriched by this special woman. As longtime friend DJ Design noted Stef was one of those rare individuals who was genuinely kind, engaging and supportive of all. For fellow DJs she was their number one cheerleader. “DJ Design is killing the Pharrell vs Timbaland,” she enthusiastically posted, along with a photo of the DJ, back in February this year from Flexus bar in San Francisco. DJ Design’s mate Marc Stretch (also of Foreign Legion fame), who referred to DJ Stef as his “Shero,” posted on Facebook at length in expressing his endless admiration. “She supported every genuine figure she came across, and she did it with a grace and warmth that won't soon be seen again,” he wrote in a beautifully sad heartfelt post. “Thank you Stef, for being the genuine person you were and enriching all of our lives. I'll try not cry because it's over, I will smile because it happened,” wrote Marc articulating what so many others felt. But it was Stef's prematurely widowed husband Sergio, still coming to terms with his new reality, who wrote the fewest yet most profoundly touching words when he took to social media on October 3rd (two days after her passing) to state, “I loved her more than anything.” Friend of Serg and Stef, Vinnie Esparza summed up their relationship: “The love between these two is the realest thing I’ve ever known. If you can achieve that in this life, then you’ve won.”

Sergio, in addition to her older brother, and Rasta Cue Tip (from Various Blends etc. who used to work at Amoeba SF) were among those to speak at yesterday’s funeral. “It was overwhelmingly packed and a really sad day,” said longtime Bay Area hip-hop photographer Timi Devlin who took the 90’s B+W photo below of DJ Stef with Rasta Cue Tip and Big DJ Serg (her partners in the Brick crew) along with Peanut Butter Wolf when he still lived in the Bay. Yet another longtime friend of Stef’s, Peanut Butter Wolf will be among those many DJs in an upcoming DJ Stef benefit/tribute event scheduled for October 17th at the Elbo Room in San Francisco (full lineup TBA on Monday). That event is been planned by Peter Agoston of Female Fun who just a few weeks ago at that very same venue had booked DJ Stef as one of the acts on a bill with Prince Paul. That gig, one of DJ Stef’s last, was just one of literally hundreds she had done over the years. Another upcoming Bay Area club event to honor the legacy of DJ Stef (and Matthew Africa) is The Generations Party at the Uptown in Oakland on October 12th with DJs Eleven, GoldenChyld, Mind Motion and Franchise.

As part of the Bay Area’s close-knit hip-hop community, DJ Stef was a ubiquitous figure dating back three decades with a DJ career that began in the 80’s and consistently continued up until just before her untimely passing. Her stapled, non-glossy but prestigious music zine The Vinyl Exchange, that she published in the 90’s (and later a website), was a must-read by DJs and hip-hop record collectors not just in the Bay but all over. As a female DJ in a male dominated field, she was a role model to many aspiring young women DJs who looked up to her for inspiration. Additionally Stef was also a gifted photographer and graphic designer (it was she who designed the E-40 Yay Game mixtape cover left for her friend, the late Matthew Africa). Two years ago she began working on a book project documenting San Francisco’s vibrant hip-hop party scene in the ’90’s: SF Hip-Hop Clubs 1990-1999 noting at the time how, “I was active in the scene as a sometime DJ/all-the-time partygoer.”

While a star in her own right, DJ Stef was first and foremost a fan. Unlike so many she was content to be in the shadows simply supporting the music that she loved with a passion. For example a few months back at Amoeba Berkeley when DJ Platurn and Brian Coleman curated  the Checking The Technique panel on hip-hop, that included Domino, Adisa the Bishop, Prozack from Foreign Legion, and Eric Arnold, DJ Stef was happy to sit in the audience. “If the stage wasn't so packed that we were almost spilling over, we would have invited DJ Stef of the legendary Vinyl Exchange up there to share her own stories and wisdom. But we were just glad she was in the building,” said Coleman following the successful July event. 

As well as writing for her own and other’s publications Stef was always willing and ready to offer insights to fellow writers like myself over the years. Years ago, in writing a feature for the SF Chronicle Datebook on turntablism, it was DJ Stef who supplied the most concisely informative quote in the piece when she noted, "The foundation of hip-hop music is the continuation of the break in a song; using two records back and forth. It's not hip-hop without vinyl." A fan and frequent crate digger at Amoeba, DJ Stef also offered her thoughts and quotes to the Amoeblog many times over the past decade. For example five years ago, in September 2012, upon the death of Matthew Africa (another Bay Area DJ gone too soon) I reached out to DJ Stef to offer her input for her musical memories of her friend who had been tragically killed in a car crash. In that piece Stef shared how, “Matthew and my husband Serg started the Stay Hatin' podcast last year. They, along with Soft Money, play and discuss rap songs.” and how, “Matthew Africa was a great friend and I miss him terribly.” Now others similarly miss DJ Stef terribly. But perhaps the most insightful interview I ever did with DJ Stef was when I interviewed her back in the mid 2000’s for the HipHopSlam website. Highlights from that 2004 DJ profile interview, in which Stef answers a series of questions on her DJ history including the first records she ever got, follows immediately below.  

DJ Stef 2004 Interview with Billy Jam for HipHopSlam

Trademark saying or philosophy toward music/life?
DJ Stef: Hip-hop keeps you young.

DJ Stef: I was born in San Pablo, lived in Richmond as a baby, grew up in Concord, but I claim San Francisco as my hometown.

First record you ever bought?
DJ Stef: Other than a Chipmunks album when I was really little, Maybe Tomorrow by The Jackson 5 was the first record I bought myself. I was 9. I still have it too.

Most influential records in your life?

DJ Stef:
"Rapper's Delight" was the first rap record I heard, so definitely that one for introducing me (and a lot of kids around me) to rap. And then "Super Rhymes" shortly after that. I remember buying the first Public Enemy album without hearing it, just seeing it when it came into the store (Aquarius Records when they were on 24th Street), that it was on Def Jam and from the picture on the cover. The first Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and Gang Starr albums all blew my mind in terms of new styles and what the future held for hip hop at that time. Also when I was little I loved The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album. I'd sit and listen and follow along with the book. I learned how a record could transport you to another place.

When was the very first time you DJed?
DJ Stef: I used to play records during lunch in junior high. We played from a classroom next to the quad. But my first club gig was at DJ EFX and Mind Motion's Sunday night weekly at the Nightbreak on Haight Street. That was around '86.

Description of music you spin?
DJ Stef: I like to play a variety -- old to the new, underground to popular, hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk, electro, bass, jazz, rock, dance, electronic. I love it all but my very favorite sets are uptempo classic/old school hip hop or mellow, soulful stuff.

Is there a style to how you structure DJ sets?
DJ Stef: Sometimes I play a lot of genres all at once, sometimes I stick to a theme and sometimes I cater to a specific crowd or situation. Typically, if I have a gig, I'll start with something I think the crowd will dig and I'll like playing, and build from there.

Groups/crews that you have been a member of?
DJ Stef: Sister SF guest DJ, Brick crew (with Big DJ Serg and RasCue), and back in the day my partner Stacey and I were I.T.M. (In The Mix).

Your discography inc. mix-tapes?
DJ Stef:  Old School I and II, Hip-Hop '94, Down There, & “When I Hear Freestyle,” an 80s freestyle mix recorded for

Most memorable performance of your DJ career?
DJ Stef: I opened up for Atmosphere at the Fillmore [2003] to a packed house. I was scared -- I'm not used to people standing and watching me, especially that many, but once I started and got love from the crowd, it was fun. It was actually easier than a lot of club gigs because the sound was so clear and the equipment setup was perfect. (Thanks, JBird and Mr. Dibbs.) It's an historic venue. I can say, "I played
the Fillmore."

What made you initially want to be a DJ?
DJ Stef: I've loved playing records since I was a toddler. I wanted to make people dance and get the party started, or keep it going. I would think of mixes and then HAVE to hear them for real. It was especially fun to mix in the 80s-- throw together Miami bass, freestyle, R&B, hip hop, new wave, rock.

And what makes you continually want to be a DJ?
DJ Stef: Music soothes and excites me. I get a kick out of playing that right record at the right moment for the right people. That keeps me going. As long as people keep asking me to spin, I'll spin. And it's still fun to mix!

Rest In Beats DJ Stef

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Dj Stef (7), Foreign Legion (15), Vinyl Exchange (2), Toph One (5), Peanut Butter Wolf (32), Liz Novoa (1)