The House That Built DJ Shani Hébert
Decades in the making, The Groove Temple arrives on KUTX
By Kahron Spearman, Fri., March 3, 2023
There's a difference between needing help and helplessness. Shani Hébert sometimes needs the former, like prying open the heavy, prison-style security door with the magnetic lock at her East Downtown building. Beyond the entrance, she's quickly apologetic about the faint smell of neighbors' dogs through the large, winding halls. She is vulnerable, but never helpless.
"I forget I need it sometimes," explains the 44-year-old Chicago native, one of Austin's foremost DJs and host of KUTX's The Groove Temple, waiting on an elevator to her apartment. "I'm just walking around, and I go, 'Oh shit, I got to go.' Then, I get to the elevator, and I'm like, 'Where's my cane?' My cane is inside. So, I have to go back and get it."
She makes it look cool, the cane, because she is interminably cool. A necessary tool, festively adorned, it's efficient and practical for a host of jobs, as Hébert half-jokingly notes, from reaching for paper towels at a grocery store to intimating her requirement for seating at a restaurant. She isn't philosophical about the tool as part of an evolving state of being. Fortunately, whether as a coping mechanism or otherwise, she maintains a sense of humor about having multiple sclerosis.
Hébert's apartment smells like a hint of greens, cooked in honor of her cherished and deceased father, Rodger Hall, a native of Greenville, Mississippi. His birthday was the day before. He made his way from the South to Chicago, eventually finding Hébert's mother, playwright Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert. She's emotional in talking about him but quickly steels herself, offering coffee.
She goes on about her love for Café Bustelo. We discuss the calendar above her kitchen sink, littered with dates, appointments, and to-dos. The M.S. gives her brain fog. She has to check the weather, "'cause if I get cold, I lock up.
"It's been an adjustment," Hébert says of the condition. "It's been 10 years."
She nods. "Every day is different."
She says the coffee will be better if it sits for a while, and asks to go outside. She'll roll a cigarette. She'll mention that she's never had anyone in her house like this. No makeup, no airs – just living her story.
Hébert's club sets and radio show are a mixture of her Chicago deep house roots and other regional and "outernational" flavors. Though it informs her essence, she's not explicitly a house DJ in the purest sense. Her Nineties-launched radio show The Groove Temple, which moved to Fridays at 11pm on Austin's KUTX 98.9FM last October, largely features deep house, but also a collage of collected sounds from her travels.
There's buoyancy and effortlessness and definitive Blackness in her sound. As explained to the Chronicle in 2019, she plays "the Black side of electronic music, or the electronic side of Black music, depending on how you take it." She's one of a relative handful of regularly working DJs willing to stretch certain sonic boundaries, which can be a challenge in Austin.
Keyheira Keys, a city of Austin employee, writer, and connector of people, represents a slowly growing (or more readily appearing) set of listeners looking for what Hébert's offering at various venues and exclusive dates at the South Congress Soho House. "I'm more of a person with an eclectic taste," says Keys. "Seeing [Hébert] do a whole new sound and engage with the crowd, getting all types of people on the floor, but it's still very rooted in Black music and Black historical music, [is important]."
One common sentiment about Hébert comes from a friend, fellow Chicagoan, and world-renowned house DJ Ron Trent: "The thing about Shani is that she has good taste in music. I say that because taste isn't easily acquired. It's also something that's in you, that's formed over time, that informs you of how you buy your music, how you play your music."
Noted Chicago house vocalist and DJ Ron Carroll says Hébert "always wants to have sounds that no one else probably has touched or has heard yet, and [wants] to be able to display those things.
"She's always had that ahead-of-the-curve mentality."
Alongside curation, her live presentation keeps her booked. Stefon Osae, an Austin-based DJ and producer, notes how Hébert "clears the air" as she starts her show with incense and palo santo to build a mood. He adds: "I don't know why the music sounds louder when she's playing. I don't know what it is; I don't know what she does. I try to watch and learn."
Hébert's winding road to Austin started in Chicago on April 29, 1978. Her last name, deriving from a prominent Louisiana Creole family in maternal lineage, holds a bit of destiny. For example, by no accident, the Windy City birthed and raised Hébert.
John S. Butler, Ph.D. and family friend based locally as director of the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center at UT-Austin's McCombs School of Business, delves into her roots in Baton Rouge. He notes family success dating back to "the 1880s and 1890s." Butler received his doctorate at Northwestern, where Hébert's playwright mother, eventually a community arts activist, graduated following a dance career.
"And that's why she went to Chicago," he says of Hébert. "That's why she went to private schools in Chicago as her mother did, and her grandmother did. And that's why she speaks two or three languages. Because that's what they expect."
Hébert maintained a relationship with her vinyl-collecting father until he perished in 2008. A stepfather, Abdul Hakeem, guitarist of the Chicago-based multicultural fusion group Funkadesi, also raised her, further fostering her musical roots and tastes. He mentions a young Hébert making a humanitarian trip to Cuba as a young teen. She grew up worldly and without limit.
"No music apartheid, none," states the DJ's mother. "They grew up listening to Coltrane as their first music. We might play Tuvan throat music. We might then play Creole music, maybe some house, Chaka Khan, and then Charlie Parker. We played whatever we wanted; the playlist was so curated that they understood profound Black music. Nothing surprises me. When I hear Shani's work, I hear so much in it."
While somewhat rebellious and argumentative as a young person, Hébert shined in the classrooms of Latin School of Chicago, a selective private school on the city's north side matriculating future federal circuit judges, television producers, and Nobel Prize winners.
So, a prestigious school?
"Sure," says Hébert, sloughing the shine. "That's what they say is prestigious."
Then a rave kid and a linguistics maven, she wound up at Loyola University studying Spanish, even taking another Cuba trip, to Havana, to explore qualitative research methods. At this point, though, music kept her inspired.
Now a production manager at Lighthouse ArtSpace Chicago, Mati Johnson led Loyola's student-run radio station, WLUW 88.7FM, and gave Hébert her first crack on air. For the debut iteration of her notable show The Groove Temple, she knew what she wanted. Johnson offers: "She came in with the most fully formed idea, basically, 'There's more than one voice in [house music], and I don't think it's getting heard.'"
Even after graduating in 2001, she continued the show and down other music-related avenues, including freelance writing for various Chicago music rags and work at the world-renowned Gramaphone Records.
Then, for the lifelong trumpeter of her hometown's sounds, something shifted.
"I just get bored with the States," says Hébert. "I've been in Cuba, at that point, three times. Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, so I understand the Caribbean culture. I was like, 'Your last name is French. Why don't you go somewhere to really learn your French?' I could have gone to Haiti, Ivory Coast, or Guadeloupe, but I was like, 'I'm going to go to the source.
"'I'm going to go to France.'"
The iteration of Paris that Hébert witnessed in 2004, and perhaps even expected, was a far reach from the one famed author James Baldwin had lived. The Harlem-born-and-raised intellectual arrived as a virtually unpublished 24-year-old with $40 in hand. Over five decades later, she came partly on the frequent flyer miles of a dear friend.
The charm of winding roads, unique architecture, and composition of small, distinct neighborhoods – not unlike Hébert's Chicago – wooed Baldwin. Always an attractive hub of culture and intellectualism, the wounded metropolis was still healing from the effects of World War II in 1948 – an ideal time for the young man, who sought respite from his own war with America's aggressive discrimination. Though racism was (and is still) present in Paris, the city provided relative safety to work ideological jigsaw puzzles without the threat of racialized violence.
Hébert uses the word "bamboozlement" in describing portions of an ultimately valuable Parisian experience, a stretch within the "freedom fries" era, clouded by the so-called War on Terror. Baldwin explored diverse literary craftwork, and his taste in a diverse set of men, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in the 6th arrondissement. Hébert's continuing education occurred partly near the bohemian Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement and consisted of classes at l'Université Paris-Sorbonne.
"There is a point where I felt deceived because Baldwin, Josephine Baker, all these Black Americans, went over to Paris and did major things," she says. "All of my Black counterparts, older generation like my mom's generation, [say,] 'It's going to be fantastic. They love Black people; you'll be fine.'"
Her experience proved more confounding than anything, even the process of her first Parisian job. She tells the story of an almost-satirical bar manager, "an Algerian guy, who loved cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and big belt buckles," almost auditioning his American gravitas. To her occasional disappointment, her time in Paris – aside from the education – had many of these stories of men overintellectualizing to her.
Even with that, she had planned to stay and leverage her language talents and Sorbonne education into hospitality work. But she did not have a work visa and flew back stateside. Hébert returned to writing, producing The Groove Temple, full-fledged DJ'ing with various residencies, and working the city's events and festivals.
Tragedy hit in 2008, however, when her father and both of her grandmothers died within eight months of each other.
"It's like having a map to your life," she says. "You have your legend, your compass, your water. You know where you need to go, you know how to get there, and then you fall asleep, and all your shit is gone."
Hébert found her way, or at least a way, forward and eventually moved to Austin in 2010. Family friend-turned-mentor Butler suggested lucrative work as an interpreter at Dell or Apple. Rather, she sustains as a tax professional for creatives, stating that a corporate gig would likely mean sacrificing her ability to work as a DJ.
The practice connects her to her ancestors, her grandparents, and her father, and is also necessary as therapy for her multiple sclerosis. The artist was first diagnosed back home in Chicago, as she assisted her mother through a significant medical emergency in December 2013. Regarding her mother's unspecified illness, Hébert elucidates: "She got sick, really sick. We were like, 'Is she going to be around?' That's how sick she got."
While handling her mother's affairs, her own symptoms, including vision issues and a sudden limp, appeared. A friend suggested she visit urgent care, where other causes, such as stroke, were crossed out. During a weekend stay at a local hospital, doctors discovered abnormalities in her right frontal lobe and, following an MRI, provided the diagnosis of M.S. They told her she would become incontinent and could require chemotherapy, depending on the severity.
"I started politely, gently, calling him out of his name," she recalls of cursing the doctor who delivered the news. "How are you just going to tell me, 'You're going to die from this?'"
Alas, she thrives today, to the chagrin of a supposed fate levied upon her, though not without challenges.
"On my good days, I forget that I have [M.S.] because I don't need my cane," she says. "I walk outside, doing my thing. On my bad days, it's like, if I could glue it to my face, I would.
"It's a blessing, though it can be a curse occasionally. I was an athlete, and I played soccer and softball; I used to box, fence, all the things. But when you go from that to having to learn how to walk again and not being able to use your limbs and maybe not being able to see, you get a little time to ..."
Whether as a coping mechanism or otherwise, she maintains a sense of humor ...
"First, you get some good sleep; let's start there. Okay. Oh, sleep is so good."
Again, her levity as a salve for the heaviness. "And then you have to reassess. What can I do so that I am not falling down?"
Hébert has an increasing desire to be fully understood. She says people can "hear her" through her mixes and radio show, but she's ready to be seen whole.
"In addition to me trying to inform and educate people about house music, [I teach that the] mobility-impaired are people, too," she says. "So anytime I produce an event, I gather and make sure people with wheelchairs, canes, and walkers are welcome to the Boogie. Because that's what house music is about. It's about PLUR – peace, love, unity, and respect. And that means for everybody. We don't care what you look like; we don't care how much you make."
She explains that the first four to six months following the diagnosis were the roughest. However, she does not speak through the lens of survival or overcoming as much as knowledge of inherited wealth – an ancestral fortitude to endure.
"I was never upset with myself when I shot up to 200 pounds or when I went down to 120. I was sad when I couldn't run or walk or dance, but I knew it wouldn't be forever," she states firmly. "It's more like, 'Okay, this is fucked up. Let's be a little sad about it, but let's figure out how we can power through this – but then have grace within, and not go balls to the wall and try to do all the things all the time.
"I realized that I know who I come from. I know what I come from, and I have never been like, 'Why did this happen to me? Why me, God?' It does not matter. You gotta keep going. You got to still keep it moving. My daddy always used to say, 'One monkey don't stop no show.'"
She will be here long enough to play you a song that just might change your whole life.
Hear DJ Shani’s curation as The Groove Temple every Friday, 11pm – 12mid, on KUTX 98.9FM. Hébert also performs at an official South by Southwest showcase, March 16 at Speakeasy Ballroom, with Body Rock ATX, the Brothers Groove, and more. Below, preview the new documentary short series Another Day, by writer Kahron Spearman.