A Mini Moment With: Ashley Younniä

Photo by Courtesy

Some people communicate with words or touch. Others express themselves through actions. For Ashley Younniä, it’s sound. From the house music playing throughout in the background growing up in Essex County New Jersey, to the Southern rap she was immersed in during college in Kentucky and the sets she spins across Los Angeles most weekends, the DJ and multidisciplinary producer has always related to the world through music.

Ashley is a proud member of LA's queer-led house music community, taking the stand at regular gigs around town like Shaun Ross's Stardust parties and TheyHouseLA. Her instincts for music arrangements that make people loosen up and feel good come easy, and the joy she emits from behind the tables can be felt through a YouTube browser. You’d never guess that she only started DJ’ing a few years ago.

When Ashley arrived on the West Coast around 2015, she was a tour manager and day-to-day manager for music artists. She’d worked her way up the industry food chain, starting as an intern booking artists at a New York club called S.O.B.'s after college. She put together showcases, helped with marketing and tours, getting increasingly tapped into the creative community of artists, journalists, and venues. But she was always behind the scenes.

It was the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when everyone was craving connection, that pulled Ashley from the background to the heart of the dance floor. Since that first set, she’s found an innate skill in transforming mood and connecting people through sound. “Sonic storytelling,” she calls it, and cannabis has played a significant role in helping her channel her energy into each unique set. 

Ashley took a break from assembling her Pride mixtape to chat with us about telling stories through sound, her relationship with cannabis, the queer roots of house music, and the songs that bring her instant joy.

How did you get your start as a DJ?

I got interested in DJ’ing as a creative getaway between studies and the demands of a college athlete at the University of Kentucky. I was a heptathlete in track and field who was regularly drug tested, so I couldn’t smoke and couldn’t really drink. In that era of Limewire downloads, we found music through big parties. A bunch of colleges would rent out empty bunkers and people would party together, turning an armory into a dance hall and creating this space for everyone to experience new music together. I connected with a local DJ out there and started joining him for different events. I just observed, learning from him, learning how to beat match. I was drawn to this art of putting music together and bringing people together—how DJs tell a story of the culture and the moment through sound.

But it wasn’t until four years ago that I really got up behind the DJ stand myself. My local coffee shop, Sip and Sonder in Inglewood, was big on bringing the community together and they invited me there for Juneteenth in 2020 to just play some music during the festivities. They were partnering with a Caribbean restaurant so I leaned into Afro-Caribbean vibes. It felt like a Brooklyn barbecue. From there, I jumped to more cookout music that then expanded into more disco and dance eras. Shalamar; Earth, Wind, and Fire—block party vibes. People had a great time, and I was like, ok, I can do this. I can bring music together that brings joy and brings people together, and I wanted to keep doing it. 

What songs or sounds bring you back to your musical roots?

I grew up on house music. My mom was a house head. It was the culture in New Jersey and New York. That sound feels so natural to me, so nostalgic. It reconnects me with my memories of us all dancing in the park, hearing my aunts and uncles sing out loud.

Vocals from Kenny Bobien on a Louie Vega track—that soulful, Latin-flavored, African Diasporic sound always brings me back. Could be a gospel song, could be gospel lyrics over a house beat. “He Loves Me 2” by CeCe Peniston, the Steve Hurley remix, that’s one of my favorites. Reminds me of driving down the New Jersey Turnpike on my way to track meets or a family function. It gives me instant joy.

Has your journey in your queer identity intersected with your work as a DJ?

The people that created house music were Black and Brown queer people. You can feel the pride in being transmitted through the sound and the lyrics—the joy in being truly and authentically yourself and releasing any doubt, hurt, and pain through listening to this music and dancing. I feel like by just showing up and being my truest self as a Black, queer woman gathering my community with care and intention, I’m connected to and continuing the work of the people who came before me.

Many of these music genres are born out of the need for people to express themselves in times of oppression: soul was born during the civil rights movement; house music amid the AIDS epidemic. These are born from times when we had to find light and joy when we could, often on a dance floor. Whether it’s a lyric from Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” or The Jones Girls’ “Nights Over Egypt,” there are so many songs where you could find yourself, get lost in it, and just dance and sweat with your community. 

What role does cannabis play in your life?

Cannabis entered my life later, in my late twenties. It was something I perceived as bad, something that would take away the things I had in my life. Then there was a period when I was moving in a more depressed space and really started to reevaluate what I wanted and needed in life. I started meditating and doing yoga, and I found cannabis helped me connect with myself deeper and release stress I was holding onto. It helped me open up and learn more about myself. 

What’s your current consumption ritual?

I love a good pre-roll. I like to smoke a hybrid strain, sometimes mixed with other herbs from the earth like some mullein, lemongrass, and lavender. I’ll consume before or after meditation with some coffee. That’s my moment to tap in with myself and do something that allows me to ground myself in my day before moving out into the world. 

Does cannabis play a role in your creative process?

Cannabis is definitely a part of my relationship with movement and sound. It allows me to fully experience the vibrations and tune in with how I’m feeling and what kind of music I want to give to the space when I’m preparing for a set. I’ll dance in my living room, joint in hand, to music I’ve heard that week or reconnect to old favorites. Really loudly.

What have you been dancing to in your living room lately?

There’s this track I just connected with called “For Me” by Dawn Tallman. I love it because it just talks about doing things for yourself, moving for yourself, and loving yourself while you do it. Choosing that you’re going to be happy for yourself. I recently found it while driving with my mom, she was playing it.

How do you recharge?

Being in nightlife, being on dance floors—it’s a lot of energy exchange. I like active meditation. Going on walks, hikes, being in nature, and without music. Lay out in the park in the sun. Listening to my surroundings, focusing on my breath. If I listen to any music, I listen to one song on repeat. Also, talking with friends and family. If I can get a 15-30 minute FaceTime with a loved one before diving into a new setlist, it helps me recharge and nourish myself. 

What do you want to make people feel at your sets?

You’re going to walk away from my set feeling loved. I listen to a lot of love songs. I want you to love yourself. Love one another.