The DJ collective Blessed Up Gang formed in the summer of 2021, at a time when many people were finally beginning to re-engage following a long stretch of COVID-driven isolation.
“Seeing spaces open up and seeing that vacuum for club music and the sounds we were really trying to push, it really inspired us to start doing [music] again,” said Obi-wan Shinobi, who joined fellow group members Love Higher (aka Reg Zehner) and DØN for an early June interview.
In the months prior to forming Blessed Up Gang, Shinobi navigated the pandemic virtually, DJing and crafting mixes live on Twitch, YouTube and various streaming services where the community surrounding queer, Black-led club sounds continued to flourish.
On the other end of the spectrum, DØN said the COVID shutdown led them to consider quitting music altogether – a fleeting thought they described as an ongoing part of their creative process. “When it comes to my interest in music, among other things, there are ebbs and flows,” DØN said. “Sometimes I feel like giving up, but that’s also when I’m most inspired. I’ll sit and reevaluate, and ask what’s making me want to give up, what’s making me frustrated, and how I can overcome that. And that’s usually what pushes me further.”
This natural push-and-pull evidences itself in the members’ occasionally divergent interests. Shinobi takes inspiration from the world of anime, with its vivid, explosive color palette, while DØN tends toward horror films that lend the music comparatively dark shades. “And I’d say it blends well,” Shinobi said. “We’re each versatile DJs, and we’re able to pick things apart and vibe off each other.”
Musically, the three share numerous touchstones – particularly the sounds emanating from queer and Black-led club scenes in Chicago, Baltimore and New Jersey. And when the group formed, the three initially kicked around the idea of crafting a footwork-driven concept album centered on Waffle House.
In the months since, Blessed Up Gang's sound has evolved, with the members pulling increased inspiration from their varied musical interests. Love Higher said they draw heavily from footwork and techno, in addition to the DIY punk scene, while Shinobi introduces elements of UK garage. DØN, meanwhile, started as a dubstep DJ before starting down a darker dance path.
“I watch horror movies … and I really like dark techno and the wrongness of some of those sounds. With techno, sometimes it literally sounds like a factory, and I’ve always been interested in those kinds of sounds and textures,” said DØN, who described themselves as the kind of person who can pull rhythms from the natural motion of day-to-day existence. “I used to like going to the gas station and just listening to people pump their gas. … It’s fun to bend things and turn something you take for granted into something that you can dance to.”
While their musical interests might vary, all three share a similarly exploratory mindset, which has left them open to surprise and in constant search of new sounds.
“That’s DJ life right there,” Shinobi said. “You’re always looking for the next-next level sound. You’re always exploring subgenres of subgenres, finding your favorite curators and mixers and going from there.”
“The searching is how you build your taste, but it’s also about who you’re becoming as a musician,” Love Higher said. “It’s something that’s never stagnant.”
At times, even almost imperceptible sonic brushes can result in deep dives, with Shinobi recalling how hearing a single video game sound mix on YouTube triggered a weeks-long spiral down a jungle music rabbit hole. “It was like, ‘Oh, I guess this is my obsession for a bit,” Shinobi said, and laughed.
As a result, Blessed Up Gang’s sound has continued to evolve, gravitating from more traditional footwork into a constantly mutating mix of techno, UK garage, drum and bass – all of which appear on the group’s self-titled debut EP, due later this summer. (The trio is also slated to perform at the Gravity Mural Fest, which takes place in Franklinton on Saturday, June 24.)
“You can expect to hear full-spectrum rave music when you come to a Blessed Up Gang set,” DØN said. “It’s been really exciting to see us expand and flourish past generic club and footwork.”
“When you're first in a collective, you have to figure out how you should all play together,” Love Higher said. “Now, two years later, I can comfortably say that whenever we’re all three playing together on a bill, we kind of know we’re going to be great. And I’m not trying to hype us up, but … playing out live we’ve really been able to figure out who we are.”
This onstage growth, in many ways, can be traced to a deepening friendship between the players – the improved chemistry and communication revealing itself in the effortless way the beats flow between the three.
“Working in any group … there’s always going to be ego, and there are always going to be people who have strengths in one area and weaknesses in another,” DØN said. “So the best way to go about any collaboration is to be open and communicative and to listen to other people. … It’s not about being right but finding a way we all can win.”