When DJ Oreo turns 26 on Sunday, he’ll celebrate by facing off informally against Elz the DJ, another young Chicago talent on the ones and twos. “There’s been ongoing talk about who’s better between me and Elz the DJ,” Oreo says. “This is Tyson versus Holyfield.”
Oreo may very well see this as a clash of titans, but he also calls Elz his best friend—which neither of those boxers would’ve said about the other. Oreo began spinning about a decade ago, and he’s worked as a touring DJ for Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa—he’s made a lot of friends through the years, and some of them have appeared onstage with him as part of the hip-hop blowouts called Oreo Fests that he’s sporadically thrown since 2015. He originally wanted to have a three-day Oreo Fest this weekend, but he decided to make his battle with Elz a one-night preview of the next party. That won’t be till November, in part because he’s about to hit the road with Lil Yachty as part of the Atlanta rapper’s fall tour with Rae Sremmurd.
Growing up on the west side, Oreo became entrenched in the city’s footwork scene. Before he graduated high school he cofounded footwork battle clique Heat Squad, and he still serves as its CEO. “That’s where it all started for me—when the FootworKINGz went to America’s Best Dance Crew, I was there for the entire thing,” he says. “It was seriously some of the greater times in my life.” Oreo spends more of his time behind the decks these days, but he’ll still bust a move if given the chance. When Chance the Rapper debuted “Angels” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last fall, Oreo did a front flip onto the stage at the beginning of the song, then conducted a fluid demonstration of footwork and bop moves alongside Chance, Saba, and Dlow.
Footwork music and footwork dancing feed off each other—pioneering producer RP Boo is also a dancer, and he helped create the footwork sound by responding to dancers’ fast, ferocious movements. Many of footwork’s best producers have danced, in fact, and Oreo learned to DJ from the best around. “The entire Teklife crew are the guys who taught me to DJ,” Oreo says. He befriended Teklife cofounder DJ Rashad and wound up part of the collective’s circle of friends. “I was running around the city doing teen parties with DJ Spinn,” he says.
Oreo says he also curated War Zone dance battles, which have been integral to Wala Williams’s CAN TV show, Wala Cam. And Oreo’s involvement in footwork colored his early DJing and production. “I was producing juke music for a year and a half,” he says. “I realized you’re a lot cooler when you can do more than one style of music.” When Oreo DJ’d his own 16th birthday, he rented a space above an underground strip club, and its adult clientele would wander through the party and respond better than Oreo’s pals—an eye-opening moment for him.
Oreo has a gift for understanding what gets people moving—I’ve seen him show off his skills during unannounced DJ sets at local rap concerts, blending in requests that people send him on Twitter without disrupting his flow. He says he’s been to so many shows where the music fell short that he decided to take charge and throw his own big event: “I wanted to see if I could create an atmosphere that didn’t stop.”
While on tour with Vic Mensa in Australia, Oreo organized the first Oreo Fest, which he hosted at Reggie’s Rock Club in March 2015. “I spent a week and a half having 36-hour days—talking to friends in town, setting alarms, getting up in the middle of the night, posting things on Twitter and Instagram,” he says. “Then I came home and I spent about three weeks panicking that it wasn’t gonna be successful.” Oreo managed every detail of the event, coordinating with artists and their managers, working with staff at Reggie’s, and taking calls from friends who were eager to get into the show through the back door. He was at the venue hours before the show, then ended up bailing for home to do the last bit of preparation there—a failed attempt to find a moment of peace. “It was probably one of the worst days of my life,” he says. “It was both a gift and a curse.”
The lineup for that first Oreo Fest included west-side rapper ZMoney, drill queen Katie Got Bandz, the MC then known as Lil Herb (now G Herbo), and eccentric Save Money duo Leather Corduroys (aka Joey Purp and Kami). Needless to say, Oreo shouldn’t have been worried whether it would succeed. “Reggie’s was kinda pissed at me because we somehow fit 650 people in the venue—four fire marshals were there before 12 o’ clock, but it was worth every moment,” he says. “I knew that if I put everything that I wanted into it, and I controlled everything, that it would come out exactly what I planned for. I actually planned for insanity, but that level of insanity I didn’t plan for.”
Oreo has since brought his event to Thalia Hall and the Portage Theater, and he says the next Oreo Fest will be the biggest yet. His battle with Elz the DJ, who also performs at the inaugural Hip-Hop Summer Fest on Saturday, will be more intimate than a typical Oreo Fest, but it’ll have the same spirit. “At the end of the day, anything that I do is not for financial gain,” he says. “It’s all for the city.”