DJ collective Agua de Rosas spread the gospel of reggaeton, and though they’re based in Milwaukee, they have an evangelist in Chicago too: Karen Valencia, better known as Karennoid. In November, the trio (Valencia, Julio Cordova, and Gabriela “Chanchita” Riveros) played their first Chicago gig at emerging underground dance haunt Podlasie Club. They opened for faceless Tijuana rapper Muxxxe, who stumbled onto the stage around 1 AM drunk on glamour and wine and threw down to a packed crowd that had already lost track of time writhing to Agua de Rosas’ reggaeton mix. Valencia would say that’s the magic of the music. This is how the DJ got her start.

As told to Micco Caporale

I grew up here in Chicago, on the southwest side in Gage Park. I’m first-generation Mexican American, and I was raised in a hardworking middle-class family. From an early age, I was encouraged to go to college and aspire to be a professional in a corporate setting—you know, something that my other relatives may not have had the opportunity to do. But throughout my childhood, I was always interested in music and other creative things, like writing. 

I’m the youngest of three, so I got exposed to all kinds of music growing up. My parents listened to more traditional Mexican music, like boleros and romantic and regional music from the 60s and 70s . . . also Mexican and Latin American styles of 80s rock. But then my older siblings had their own things. So I was exposed to hip-hop and pop punk and alternative rock. My brother was listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and turning me on to Chicago house and juke music. And my sister was into Shakira and exposed me to No Doubt and Smashing Pumpkins. I just had a lot of music that helped me develop my own taste. 

Musically I’m all over the place. I grew up in the “1, 2 Step” Ciara era and listened to all those bops in elementary school. Then in high school I was an emo kid. I was a hipster for a while too, listening to, like, She & Him and all these indie bands. Then I was into Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco and Paramore. I just love music so much. It was always really part of my identity, but I didn’t think of it as a career or even a hobby because I felt like I shouldn’t do that. Like it was taboo.

I went to Northwestern and studied English literature with a double minor in gender studies and film and media. When I was a kid, I dreamed of being an author, and even now, more people know me as a poet than a DJ. But after I graduated in 2015, I started working at Uber corporate. I was trying really hard to do what my parents wanted. If you talk to other first-generation folks, there’s this sense of guilt and responsibility to make these dreams come true that might not necessarily be yours. You want to be successful, not just for yourself but for all your family. And so I tried that. But I knew in my heart that I wanted to do something creative. I just wanted to be somebody else.

In 2016, I discovered this mixtape by an artist called Bad Gyal. She’s this girl from Spain, and the tape was all very raw, underground, DIY reggaeton and reggae-inspired music. That absolutely changed my life. I had reggaeton in the back of my mind—like, I grew up with stuff like Daddy Yankee and Ivy Queen—but it wasn’t a big part of my life. Then I heard this mixtape and I couldn’t stop thinking about reggaeton. 

Karennoid released this mix in fall 2021 through online label Caballito.

It just gripped me. Just as a listener, reggaeton gripped me to my core: my body, my mind, my spirit. Thinking about it as a performer, it just took on this whole new aspect for me. I wanted to DJ because I knew the power of music to move people—not just physically, but to make you feel something. I wanted to use it to build a world, tell a story. I’ve always been a storyteller and very theatrical—I majored in theater in high school—so I started fantasizing about being a DJ. Like I have very clear memories of going to the gym and thinking about it the entire time.

I built out my Spotify library and made tons of playlists. I envisioned myself performing reggaeton to an audience and imagined everything from the songs I’d share to the artistry. Like, what was I wearing? What was my attitude? Who was this persona? I could picture playing that beat—you know, that iconic boom-chick reggaeton beat blasting from the speakers—and people just going crazy for it. I had all these visions on the Stairmaster. 

This mix foregrounds the famous Jamaican dembow rhythm.

I felt alone in my little dream, though. In the beginning, I never, never, never told anyone because I was so scared of family reactions and what people would think. It was a secret I sat with for years. From 2018 to 2020, I was secretly researching and buying equipment and talking to other DJs I knew that were girls, like Squadooble and Cqqchifruit. Those two ladies really, really helped me get where I am today. Then in March 2020, I decided to quit my job and just go for it. March 6 [laughs].

But quarantine really forced me to hunker down and learn to DJ. No more treadmill daydreams. My name “Karen” is bilingual, so I wanted my artistic persona to also be bilingual, because I carry my Mexican American identity with me everywhere. One of my friends came up with “Karennoid,” and I liked it because it fused my name with something more technological, like an android. I’m super inspired by Y2K cyber realness. Even though I’m a digital DJ, I love physical media from that time—like CDs, floppy disks, cell phones, things like that. Neoperreo is clearly my biggest influence: the music, the fashion, the Gothic-style lettering—just being hard-core but being cute while also being very, very Latina. Being Karennoid lets me live in this cyber-matrix world that’s flirty and gothic and unapologetically Latina.

My first DJ set was at a Pilsen art gallery in July 2020. I kept playing house parties and generator shows. Then flash forward to 2021, around April or May, and I was releasing things on Soundcloud and promoting it on Instagram. That’s how Julio Cordova found me. He’s the cofounder of Agua de Rosas, alongside Gabby Riveros. They’re Milwaukee artists and DJs who love underground reggaeton.

This mix combines underground dance styles from Mexico.

I remember Julio followed me on Instagram, and I was like, “Oh, who is this? He seems super cool.” And then I saw the Agua de Rosas Instagram and was shocked. Right away I was obsessed with them. I invited them down to see me play a going-away party around Memorial Day, and we learned we had so much in common. Like it was crazy how much in common we had. We even had tattoos by the same tattoo artists. In June they asked me to join their collective.

Until I met Gabby and Julio, I felt very alone in the specific reggaeton I liked. It’s funny because we had already sort of met before, but we didn’t know it. Tomasa del Real, an amazing reggaeton artist from Chile—she came to Chicago for Ruido Fest in 2019. At the time, I was freaking out, but no one else I knew liked her. Meanwhile, Julio, Gabby, and all their friends from Milwaukee drove down to see her, and we ended up in the front row together. Like a few months ago we discovered a photo of me photobombing them at the show. It’s beautiful.

Tomasa Del Real, Agua de Rosas, DJ Papa J
Fri 1/14, 9 PM, Subterranean, 2011 W. North, $20, 21+

Joining a collective has changed everything for me. As a DJ and an artist, it can be very lonely. I had a very small support circle, and social media makes you compare yourself to everyone. Finding collaborators has given me confidence, but it’s also encouraged me to experiment and push boundaries. I’m very much still a beginner DJ, but it feels like I have a family challenging me and cheering for me. 

The oldest mix on Karennoid’s Soundcloud page isn’t quite a year old.

As a collective, we’re trying to put a flag down. We’re saying, “Hey, we’re here too, and we want to be part of the reggaeton party map.” People overlook the midwest, but Chicago is so rich and diverse in culture and music. I want Agua de Rosas to help grow the reggaeton community here because Chicago music is friggin’ iconic. We don’t just DJ here. You’re going to experience something multidimensional that’s, like, attacking all of your senses. We’re more DIY and bring a lot of artistry, and that makes it really special. I just want us to get bigger and better so we can gather more people and showcase more underground and local talent.

Reggaeton is really similar to hip-hop culture. The tone is heavily influenced by rap, and a lot of reggaetoneros are rappers. But they’re also singers, and dance is a big part of reggaeton culture too. Literally the gyrations—the movement of your hips. The beat influences your body and takes over your mind. I read on Instagram that there was a study that reggaeton activates more brain activity than classical music. So there’s science behind the power of this music to move our bodies. 

The culture is really about bodies being together and having freedom to express our sexualities without judgment or inhibitions, so there’s a fashion that goes along with it too. It’s very specific with an iconography that evolves with the subculture, but you generally want to feel sexy. You want to feel like your most powerful, best self. But there’s also reggaeton slang. The culture is very, very rich. If you’re a diehard, you recognize other followers like it’s a religion.