City Paper is starting something new for our Eats & Drinks section: conversations with Baltimoreans where—via the places they eat, drink, and hang out—they show us what this city means to them. The interview below, with DJ Jessica Hyman, is the second in this occasional series.
One important thing to know about Kumari in Mount Vernon is their lunch buffet special is cheap—just $10, all you can eat. The other thing you should know is that it's good. The restaurant, which specializes in Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan cuisine, is packed when Jessica Hyman, also known as DJ Trillnatured, and I meet up to chat shortly after Christmas.
Hyman is part of Balti Gurls, a group of female-identifying artists of color who throw parties, hold performances and art shows, and more. She's won two City Paper Best of Baltimore awards for her ability to move a crowd—first for "Best New DJ" in 2015, and the following year for "Best DJ in the Club."
We fill our plates with samosas, rice, and butter chicken before sitting in the back dining room, our table flush with the wall, a small Buddha statue mounted on a ledge so that it appears to hold court over our meal.
I ask Hyman, 28, if she grew up eating the kind of food Kumari serves.
"No, not at all. I didn't grow up eating anything that wasn't regular American black food," she says. She's lived in the Mount Vernon area for about four years and discovered Kumari and its lunch special in her comings and goings around the neighborhood.
"It's like an enormous amount of food, and I love it better than soul food actually." She pauses, then adds, in a conspiratorial tone, "Don't tell nobody that."
Hyman recommends the chicken masala, which she says they serve every day ("that's like people's favorite dish"), and either the chicken or fish chili.
As we eat, our conversation turns to her full-time career as a DJ. She started when she was in graduate school, struggling with depression. She says that she has been DJing for almost three years, and that musician Blaqstarr gave her one of her first big breaks, asking her to play during an open mic event.
"DJing was it. Like, I found the thing that actually kept me going, and I found it at like the perfect time," she says.
"I didn't know that I was good at it when I first started. I actually bought a controller, which is what I DJ with, with a refund check. I didn't know it would mean so much to me."
Even though she didn't grow up wanting to DJ, she's always loved collecting and playing music. "Always cookouts—iPod on deck."
She says she has a pre-party routine where she tries to stay very mellow and relaxed before she plays.
"Pretty much on the days that I play. . . I don't do anything," she says. "I don't run around to the grocery store or Target because that's the kind of stuff that will drain me."
That changes during and after her set.
"I get this high from it, and during, I feed off the energy from the crowd and everything. After, I might go home or to an afterparty," she says. "It's just fun. Like I just kind of feel out the crowd, they give me energy, I give it back."
Hyman's DJing sets seduce you into dancing, and when you stop, you don't even realize that several wildly different songs have been played. "Trillnatured prefers groovers over bangers and ingeniously blends everything from sensual R&B to chilled-out hip-hop and clever mashups," we wrote about her in Best of Baltimore last year.
She says her way of playing is a little different, but it works for her: "For me it's more so, I know what to play and when to play it. I don't use turntables, I don't scratch, I don't produce music, but I know how to make people dance. And I do it the way that I want to do it. Some of the more open-minded DJs, you'll hear them say as long as you're rocking the crowd it doesn't matter because you can't teach that. You can learn the other stuff, but if you don't learn to play the right things for the right people then you can't DJ."
When she isn't working, she's eating, drinking, and hanging out in the city like the rest of us. At the urging of her girlfriend, Jenné, Hyman says she's been trying to live a more healthy lifestyle.
"I like Mount Vernon Marketplace, they have salads and juice and stuff. There's not too many places around here that I go to for healthy stuff. It's normally going to the market, going to the farmers market; or I like going to MOM's Organic Market. Jenné has been a huge help with that because she knows all the things to put in your body, all the oils, everything. . . . She knows foods I've never heard of before," she says, laughing. "I got, like, rosehip oil on my face, coconut oil in my hair. It's real."
She says she has hung out at Mount Vernon Stable & Saloon, and she also likes to go to Sugarvale, a cocktail bar owned by the same people responsible for the eatery Dooby's. "It's dope. Very good drinks. Chill."
At Sugarvale, she likes the Smoke & Fire, a mixture of Baltimore Whiskey Co. Apple Brandy, lime, cucumber, jalapeño agave, and ginger beer. "I've never tasted anything like it before. Hot. It's like you're drinking a jalapeño but it's refreshing at the same time."
In general, she keeps her alcoholic beverage of choice pretty simple. "My favorite drink is Henny and Coke. I don't drink stuff straight. Can't do it. Maybe I can take a shot, but I don't drink stuff straight. I've had a couple beers at the [Mount Vernon] marketplace, but normally I go to The Crown. They make specials every night. I think that's the best."
Hyman says she likes to collaborate with the people at The Crown to create special cocktails to serve on the nights when she has events there. She brainstormed with them, she says, to come up with drinks for the Balti Gurls movie series at The Crown last fall.
"We showed 'Watermelon Women' and I was like 'I'm gonna make a watermelon puree,' so I made it and brought it to the Crown and they made a watermelon rum drink."
She says she has a special relationship with The Crown. She frequently DJs there and has a monthly party, Version 1.5. The next installment is on March 11 with Tropixxx. It's one of the few places in the city, she says, where a black, queer woman can feel comfortable and safe.
"That's where my second show was and I've been playing there ever since, and I kind of learned my style [there]," she says. "I was able, and I'm still able, to try out a lot of stuff on the crowd because they're open-minded: house, dancehall, Baltimore club music, weird remixes. I love playing there."
I tell Hyman that I wish there were more places, especially black-owned places in the city, where she could comfortably play—and she corrects me. She says that even some black-owned places aren't necessarily comfortable with her being there. And she avoids places in general that are more about creating a scene and less about the music.
"It's about the music in these places like The Crown, EMP Collective, Windup Space. There's no dress code, it's about the art and it's about the music. There are very few places that are like that that are also welcoming to black women. Because a lot of the black spaces, you can say black-owned this, black-owned that, but like as a queer black women I don't necessarily feel safe there."
"It's easy to say 'support black-owned this—The Crown is not black-owned so don't fuck with them,'" she says. "They've always been—all I've asked is to be treated like a person. They have people of every color and kind up in there. I don't even call my parties queer because you don't have to."