CaSera “DJ Ca$h Era” Heining, 25, is a producer at WGN Radio and runs her own mobile DJ company. She’s also the official DJ for Young Chicago Authors’ annual Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival and competition.
As told to Leor Galil
When I hit Columbia, my freshman year—that was fall of 2013—I took a DJ course. It was called Club DJ 1, and I took it because I needed to hit 16 credit hours. My guidance counselor was like, “Just take it, it’s an easy A and it’s in your building.” I was like, “Yeah, ’cause I don’t want to have to leave during the wintertime anyway—let’s do it.”
I excelled better than I thought I would. My professor was DJ I.N.C., and he was working with Louder Than a Bomb. So when the semester ended, he reached out to me at the beginning of January and was like, “Hey, would you be down to DJ some poetry events on campus and get paid to do it?” I’m like, “Hell yeah—I only gotta walk from building to building, and I can make some money? Let’s do it.” I literally finished the class in December, and then February 2014, I started DJing for Louder Than a Bomb.
I always thought of that as a side job; my main focus was always radio. I first wanted to be on-air at a radio station, and then that energy switched my junior year, ’cause I kept hearing horror stories—like on-air talent can get let go at the drop of a dime for nothing. I was just like, “I want something with a bit more job stability.” So I started looking at the production side of radio—sales, music programming, music directing. By my senior year, I was looking at DJing way more seriously because I was full-time at that point.
I didn’t have a plan; it all kind of just came to me. I was doing one of the ballots for LTAB, and this girl walked up and asked me if I would DJ her birthday party. And I agreed. As soon as I said yes, I text my mom, like, “Hey, I have to buy equipment.” I had no speakers—all I had was my laptop and a small controller, like the cheapest one you could buy from Serato and Pioneer.
My mom, she was always in my ear, like, “OK, you need to go online, and you’re gonna find a set of speakers. You’re gonna use this credit card that we gave you—that way you can build up your credit. And then make sure that you make payments to pay that back.” The very first pair of speakers that I ever bought, they were a pair of JBLs—I still have them and use them to this day. Bought them back in 2014. Then after that, my mom came back and was like, “OK, you need business cards.” I had no logo at the time; all it said was my name, my e-mail, and my phone number. It was a very stock design from Vistaprint, and I started using those business cards.
YCA had me DJ their open-mike series, WordPlay, every Tuesday that summer, for a month or two. When I got back to Columbia for my second year, some of the people on campus started learning that I was a DJ, so then different orgs would book me. Northwestern University caught wind of it, and then my junior and senior years I was going out to Evanston to DJ their football and basketball games. All the while, I was still working a job off campus ’cause I commuted.
My first job was at Culver’s—I stayed there until sophomore-ish year, going into junior year, then I left and went to AMC Theatres. When Northwestern picked me up, I went to my manager—months in advance—like, “Hey, I got this super cool job DJing for Northwestern. I’ll need certain dates off on the weekends. Can you give them to me?” He looked me dead in my eye and he was like, “No, we can’t do that, ’cause you already only work Friday, Saturday, Sunday for us.” As soon as he said that, I took a piece of receipt paper and said, “Well then, I quit. I’m putting in my two weeks now.”
After graduation I had the scare of no job reaching back out. I applied to everywhere in Chicago and nothing was coming back, so I started looking at other cities. Kevin Coval sat me down, and he was like, “Yo, we are not losing you. We need you here—what do you want to do?” He helped me to meet the right people to get me a job at WGN Radio.
August, September of 2017, I was just getting booked a lot. It just kept growing from there, and it got to a point where I looked at my funds and I’m like, “Yeah, I make all of my money DJing right now.” WGN is cool, and I still get paid from that, but the bulk of my income is DJing. I just started putting way more energy on that.
I didn’t really look at myself as a full-time DJ until mid-2017. I was still so in my head about wanting to work in radio or television. I was so in my head about what my degree was actually in. It took a while for me to actually look at myself as a full-time DJ. I feel like everyone else around me saw it before I did.
When the pandemic hit, I lost all of my gigs in two or three days. I had to wait for all the e-mail cancellations. Louder Than a Bomb went fully virtual—they had me hop on and DJ, so I had to master Zoom in a matter of a day or two. That helped me in the long run, ’cause then other orgs started to book me. I even did a New Year’s party via Zoom, so that was different.
I started looking at Twitch—for a couple months, I was just DJing for tips. Luckily the community that I have around me, they were pouring into me as much as I give out to them. It was beautiful, and I definitely cried some nights. Like, that’s what helped me—the people that I DJ for all the time, they came back to pay it forward. And they don’t have to, ’cause we’re all in a pandemic. v