Meet the Hype Woman Behind the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream

Photo: DwaShawn Scott

Jay Shalé’s path to professional DJ began with an unlikely instrument: the recorder. Born to a German mother and an American father, she spent her early childhood in Regensburg, Germany. “I found out the hard way that Americans have a very different relationship with the recorder,” she laughs. In the U.S., “You’re in kindergarten, you play your ‘Hot Cross Buns,’ and you move on and never see a recorder again. [In Germany], the recorder is very well-respected. I have a wooden one. I took lessons. My mom and I would do duets. It was a whole situation. That was really my first introduction to music.”

After permanently moving to the U.S. in 2003, Shalé had to pick an elective in school — band, orchestra, or choir. She told her mom she was going to play violin, but came home with a cello instead. “All throughout middle school I was in the school’s orchestra, and once I got into high school I was in the symphony orchestra and jazz orchestra,” she recalls. “I was in the city orchestra when I moved to Alabama my junior year.” Later, she picked up drums, then the piano, then a myriad of mallet percussion instruments, including the xylophone, glockenspiel, and marimba.

But Shalé also loved sports: She had dreams of playing basketball in college, but ultimately decided to go to Texas Southern University on a bowling scholarship. There, the team would remix songs to sing during the games, belting out their anthems to cheer one another on. Shalé found her audience, and she’s been performing as DJ Shalé ever since, taking on gigs after leaving a corporate job, until she started spinning for sports teams. Having DJ-ed for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, she is currently the first-ever front-facing DJ and co-host for the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream, as well as the DJ, music coordinator, and co-host for the Basketball Africa League and Overtime Elite.

“Music is at the core of who I am as a person,” she says. “To me, music is a universal language.”

Here, DJ Shalé talks about finding her niche as a musician and playing for her favorite teams.

On her typical workday:

On game days, we have to be at the arena four hours before the tip. With the Atlanta Dream, we have two DJs — me, the in-game DJ, and the music coordinator, who’s responsible for the music you hear during possessions and things like that. Me, I’m responsible for the pregame, timeouts, halftime, everything else. But I’m also the co-host. The way the Dream have it set up, I’m actually on the court, behind one of the baskets. I interact with the crowd versus just being tucked off somewhere, playing tracks. They’ve allowed me the flexibility to showcase my personality. I really enjoy having that dual role.

With the pregame, when the teams first come out, they’ll warm up, and then after the national-anthem singer finishes, they come back and it’s eight minutes of just like, Okay, let’s get everybody ready for the game. I like to check with the girls beforehand and tailor the pregame to what I know will get our players the most hype, you know what I mean? On my social-media channels, I also post funny little interviews to let people see their personalities.

On what songs hype up a crowd:

We have a lot of newer Atlanta artists, but it’s the classic stuff. Definitely some old-school Jeezy, TI, Gucci [Mane], 2 Chainz — he’s part-owner of the College Park Skyhawks and they play in the same arena, so he comes to the games a lot. When he’s in the building, we’ll get some 2 Chainz going. It’s a lot of fun.

Also, “Swag Surfin’” [by Fast Life Yungstaz,or F.L.Y.] — shout-out to these guys for making truly a timeless track that can be played anywhere. I know in the past couple seasons, I’ve gotten the girls hype with “Dreams and Nightmares” by Meek Mill. “Just Want to Rock” by Lil Uzi Vert. “Peaches & Eggplant” by Young Nudy. For a couple games through the season, I’ll throw in “Candy Rain” [by Soul for Real] and we’ll all sit there and sing.

On what goes through her head while playing:

Music is just so powerful. Let’s say somebody had a crappy week, and let’s say they’re coming to a game and they’re like, I don’t even really feel like being here. I just got broken up with. My friends dragged me out the house, whatever. My job for the next few hours is to create an escape for you through music. That’s the part that gets me the most excited: knowing I have the opportunity to really change someone’s day or add onto the amazing day that somebody is already having. You didn’t have to be here, you could have been anywhere else in the world, but you made the choice to be here today. Let me make sure I’m doing everything I can to make this a wonderful experience for you.

On her signature sound:

I consider myself an open-format DJ, which means I play all styles of music. I’ve done an EDM and house festival before, but personally, my favorite music is ’90s and early 2000s, hip-hop and R&B. I love when R&B used to have duets like Avant and Keke Wyatt, where the vocalists could really showcase their skills, no Auto-Tune, just riffs and runs, harmonies, background melodies. To me, there will never be another ’90s and early 2000s, R&B specifically. That’s my niche. I play everything else depending on what I’m booked for, but that’s my bread and butter.

On how to break into sports DJ-ing:

You don’t have to be the most technically advanced DJ. There are many DJs who can cut and scratch and do beat juggling, but you don’t have to wait until you’re able to do all those things to try it. Both Steph Curry and Shaquille O’Neal are incredible basketball players, but they do not do the same thing. Shaq can’t really shoot threes and Steph Curry is not ripping down the rims, but does that make either of them any less of a player? No! Finding your own lane, finding your niche — the more you focus on that, and the more you’re intentional with what you want to do, the more things will fall into place because then you’re being true to yourself.

The 12 Best R&B Duets, According to DJ Shalé

This interview has been edited for clarity. This story was later updated to include clarifications from the subject.

Meet the Hype Woman Behind the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream