Julian Leal is a 21-year-old college student majoring in business at Columbia College in the South Loop, but he’s better known by his stage name: DJ Drip. In his Instagram bio, he calls himself “The Midwest’s Youngest + Hottest DJ”—and depending on who counts as a DJ and how you measure hotness, that might even be true.
Over the past four months, Leal’s career has skyrocketed thanks to the success of the bite-size DJ mixes he’s posted on TikTok. “My friends had been telling me to get on TikTok for over a year. ‘Dude, you need to get on TikTok—there’s DJs on there and they’re wack, and they’re doing numbers,'” he says. He finally downloaded the popular app this past January, and now he wishes he’d started using it much earlier.
Leal has nearly 30,000 followers on TikTok, and his first Chicago juke mix—which features classic tracks such as DJ Deeon’s “Let Me Bang” and DJ Rashad’s “Juke Dat Juke Dat”—has racked up more than 331,000 likes since he posted it in early February. Leal’s love of the music is written all over him as he works, but he also knows he’s playing to a crowd. “I definitely do feel pressure, because they like [the mixes]—they like them a lot. I have to keep giving them more,” he says. “They’re just gonna forget about me; I have to be consistent.”
Leal says he does what he can to switch things up, including setting up his DJ gear in a variety of spots (a basement, a rooftop) so audiences won’t grow bored of the scenery. He’s also open to requests for future mixes, because he likes the idea of meeting a challenge set by a fan.
“I’m from northwest Indiana. From East Chicago, Indiana,” Leal says. “That’s actually a city—I was born and raised there.” His hometown has a population of roughly 28,000, and he reps it proudly when he talks about his humble beginnings, which aren’t too far in the past. He says he started DJing his freshman year of high school. “My best friend threw a party for his birthday, and he was like, ‘We need someone to play music,'” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, I got these little speakers in my room. I could use these and just use my phone.'” Instead of his phone, he ended up using a desktop computer, switching back and forth between songs playing in YouTube tabs to get the crowd hyped.
Soon other classmates started asking Leal to DJ their parties. “I was doing it just for fun, just because I had some good music and I was controlling the party,” he says. “[During] that [first] party, a girl was like, ‘Hey, my birthday party’s in a couple of weeks, like, can you DJ?” Leal was shocked by the invitation—at the time, he didn’t yet own his own laptop. He borrowed one and downloaded a free virtual DJ program so he’d be more prepared for this next event.
Leal grew up an All-American football player, but he knew he was never going to have a career as an athlete. “I wasn’t no crazy star player, but I was good,” he says. “But it was like I knew that wasn’t what I was going to do.” Luck and intuition led him down a different path, and it’s paying off in a major way. In October a promoter he’d already worked with in Indiana approached him with an offer for another gig: DJing at Ocean Gentlemen’s Club in southwest suburban Bedford Park. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna try to lock you in with the main promoter,'” Leal says. He clicked with that main promoter at Ocean, who made a bigger offer. “He was like, ‘Do you want to be the official DJ for Drip Thursdays?'”
Through his collaboration with Ocean, Leal has opened up for the likes of Tink, Lil Zay Osama, and Jacquees—he currently plays Drip Thursdays only when a big name is involved. Leal can also be found DJing the Baddie Brunch at the Luxur in Cicero, as well as in the Gold Coast as a resident DJ at Play Kitchen & Cocktails.
During the two years since his graduation from high school in 2018, Leal has created lots of opportunities for himself with his talents as a DJ. But coming into 2020, he still wanted to do something else to propel his career—and that’s what guided his decision to enroll at Columbia that fall. “I was DJing all these clubs. I was DJing every single 18-plus nightclub in the city at the time, I had residencies. I’m doing the biggest warehouse parties in Chicago, the biggest house parties in Indiana. But it was like, ‘OK, how can I take this to the next level?'”
Columbia has given Leal a chance to build his networks and understand the business aspect of his DJing, and TikTok has given him a new platform to use to expand his audience. His mom and dad both support his music, and they’re part of the reason he’s been able to balance his classes with his growing career.
“It’s all happening so quick, so it’s hard to manage all my bookings and school at the same time,” he says. “Life is going to make you figure that out one way or another, so I guess this is my way of figuring out time management.”
Leal has slowed down his TikTok output since March, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down. On Wednesday, May 12, he released 4/4: The Mixtape, which he’s calling an EP—even though its four mixes total more than an hour. And he’s got no plans to press the brakes on anything he has going. v