Q&A: DJ Hesta Prynn on the power of musical storytelling

Hesta Prynn in her natural habitat
Hesta Prynn in her natural habitat

Music can be an often-overlooked part of branded experiences. Julie Potash (also known as Hesta Prynn) explains why that's such a massive oversight.

How many events have you been to that just seemed off, even if you couldn’t pinpoint exactly why?

The conversations might be great, the hors d'oeuvres delicious and the drinks free, but something is wrong, and you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. 

Well, it's probably the music. Or lack thereof. 

If you’ve ever been serenaded - or suffocated - by '80s pop music, EDM or silence at an upscale cocktail event, then you understand why marketers shouldn’t rely on their totally awesome Spotify playlists to get the crowd moving. 

That’s where DJ, brand consultant and songwriter Julie Potash (stage name Hesta Prynn), comes in with her encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much all things music. 

First off, I love the stage name. Do people generally understand the meaning behind it? Or is it something you have to explain?
When I was in my early 20s I was in a feminist hip-hop group called Northern State and we were all trying to come up with our MC names. We were having drinks and I was reading the Scarlet Letter at that time and it stuck. At every gig at least one person will come up to me and say "Scarlet Letter!" 

How did you get into DJing? 

We signed to Columbia Records and toured all over the world and recorded with my heroes like Chuck D, Pete Rock and Adrock from the Beastie Boys. We worked with Cypress Hill in LA for a month, they used to train guard dogs in the front yard and store pot butter in the fridge - I guess we can say this now. 

We toured with The Roots for almost two years. I loved music and being creative, but did not love being the ‘front person’ performing in a band. One night in Philly we were in the studio and Questlove taught me how to mix vinyl using a record called Kites Are Fun from The Free Design, a Psychedelic group from the sixties (look it up). He taught me to appreciate the many genres of music and think about songs in a whole new way, a lot of what I do in my work now I think ‘what would impress Questlove’? 

When the band first started I was 19 and a fact-checker at Details Magazine. I became friends with Andrew Essex, a future advertising baller and at the time the music editor. I asked him if I could open his mail so I could see how the artist’s press kits looked, he told me to keep the CDs and throw away all of the paper, so when we made our first demo I had the bio and contact info printed directly onto the CDs. 

How did you find yourself in the event DJ space? Is that where you wanted to be?

After I was done with the band I went headfirst into DJing. I had just come off of a set at Bonnaroo that had received some good attention and the bookers introduced me to Spotify which has turned into a great long term relationship to this day. 

At that point, Spotify was just launching in NYC and they asked the Bonnaroo team to recommend a DJ for an intimate event with three seemingly disparate acts - Vampire Weekend, Janelle Monae and Frank Ocean - they needed someone who could play in every genre and put it together for a small group of industry VIPs. 

Instead of just playing songs I thought were cool, I used what I knew about musical genres to create the link - "to go from Vampire Weekend to Janelle Monae you start with Paul Simon then the music of the Africa Diaspora then Motown, etc." I told a musical story because it was what felt right and real to me. The theme of the event was "Music for Every Moment", and I accidentally figured out that there was a sonic bridge between what I could do musically and how to tell a brand story in a way that would connect emotionally in an authentic way. 

What’s your approach? 

When I get called onto a project I spend a lot of time thinking about the product or the brand and noticing how it makes me feel. I think about songs that make me feel the same way, and then I think about which of those artists who have the right musical vibe also have the right message, or are from the right era or region and then I connect these things together in a way that feels right for the experience. 

You state that brands should be the star of an event that they’re throwing. Do you think they ever have too much control?

The real creatives understand that music is the secret weapon and I love working with people like that. The back and forth is exciting to me, I love collaboration. 

Have brands taken the audio aspect of their events more seriously since you’ve started doing what you do?

If it's a live event, a playlist, a brand consulting project or curating music for a space, for me, it always starts the same way - who is here and what do we want them to feel in this moment?  At the end of the day, I am always going to read the room and make sure that everyone is having a good time and that everyone feels cool. That is really important to me.

What is a word of advice to aspiring female DJs looking to follow in your footsteps?

A word of advice for all human DJs would be: Do good work. Keep your word. Aim to make others successful. 

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