According to San Francisco-based hip-hop DJ Ryan Nolan, aka Ry Toast, her two professions of DJing and yoga instructor really aren't that different. Both involve a sweaty crowd whose mood and enjoyment are dependent upon the skillful decision-making of the professional at the front of the room. While we might not hear Bubba Sparxxx during her class or be able to sit Indian-style on a club dancefloor, for Ry Toast yoga and hip-hop are inextricably linked, like an urban yin and yang. Growing up in New Jersey and moving to S.F. in 2007, Ry Toast's DJ career took off when she decided to make the move from bedroom DJ to club DJ, which involved taking just about every gig she was offered. Now, only five years later, she shares bills with DJs like renowned Bay Area hip-hop DJs like Shortkut, Prince Aries, and Mind Motion. We recently spoke with Ry Toast about her hip-hop influences, her struggles as a DJ, and her newest mix. She plays this Friday at John Colins for The Dip, hosted by Fran Boogie, and next Wednesday, Nov. 21, at Brick and Mortar for Whiskey and Ink.
Tell us a little about growing up in New Jersey. What drew you to hip-hop?
I was drawn to hip-hop at a very early age. I can remember putting a Tone-Lōc tape into my Teddy Ruxspin when I was like 3 years old. But high school was when I fell in love. I lived in a picturesque suburban town, and hip-hop took me to a different place. It was an outlet. I really felt it. It's hard to put words to that feeling. It made me feel like me.
You mention in your biography that your mom had a big influence on your love for hip-hop. What does she listen to these days?
My mom is amazing. She still listens to the same CDs I left in her car when I went to college, like Wyclef and Slick Rick. She loves Santana and the Gipsy Kings, too. I send her mixes also so she can hear what I'm up to when I'm playing out. I think she listens to them!
Which hip-hop artists have had the most influence on your career?
Biggie. Ready to Die was a game changer for me. Biggie took me from loving rap music to needing to be a part of hip-hop culture.
What do you mean by "needing to part of the hip-hop culture"?
I remember at that time being so enthralled by the music. Just listening for hours and wanting to talk about it with everyone. Going to every show I could and cramming into the front just to get closer to the MCs and the DJs. Needing to know every damn word. Studying the CD cover art. Just doing anything I could to get closer to hip-hop. But there was always distance, like being a fan on the sidelines versus playing in the game. I knew I was never going to be content just listening to the music. I wanted to be hip-hop.
You started out as a bedroom DJ. What instigated that jump to make it into a career?
I always dreamed about DJing professionally, but I was too scared to try. It hit me in a yoga class; this thought that I'd never regret going after my dream, even if I failed miserably. I'd only have regret if I never tried at all. After that I knew what I had to do.
What was important to keep when there was a possibility of failure?
It's less about DJing and more about life in general. You just have to believe you can do it. If you don't believe in yourself first, rest assured that nobody else will either. And if that doesn't work, fake it until you make it.
What was the biggest struggle for you when you were an up and coming DJ?
I am very much still an up and coming DJ! I struggled a lot with confidence. It was hard for me to be aggressive about getting booked because I didn't believe I was good enough. Years later I still get nervous; I have just gotten better at channeling it in a positive way.
What's something you continue to learn through your DJ career?
It's not about being perfect. You're always going to hear your mistakes and think you could have done something better. To me, DJing is about getting out of your own head and being in the moment, and making everyone within earshot do the same. It's like yoga in that you could never master it. It's like life -- you can't take it seriously, you got to just have fun with it!
Next: How DJing is like teaching yoga.