My name is Ben Stepnowski, but I go by DJ Step. I was born and raised in Glastonbury, Connecticut, but have lived in Chicago for the last decade by way of College.
When did you first start finding your creative talents?
I think the first thing creatively that I was interested in was music. I played trumpet classically trained for almost 10 years. I learned how to read music and got very involved. I started in the 4th grade and played all the way until college.
When did you transition into DJing?
DJing didn’t come about until I moved to Chicago. I went to school at Depaul, not really knowing what I was going to do, like pretty much a lot of college students. Depaul had a pretty sweet Theatre and Performing Arts program, however, I knew that I wasn’t going to be a performance artist major for trumpet. It required to be good at playing keyboard and voice lessons. I wasn’t functioning or good in either of those. I ended up packing away the trumpet.
Unlike really any other place that I’ve been in my life, when you’re in Chicago you’re surrounded by music. Not just music, but DJs. DJs are front and center, even if they don’t want to be, in this city. I got swallowed up by that and eventually started collecting records and truly practicing.
When did you realize that DJing was going to be more than a hobby?
I think the seeds were planted originally as a young grade school student. I’d go to school dances and see the DJ performing, but didn’t really understand what they were doing. I didn’t get how one record can mash onto the other or whether they were mixing live.
Once I got to Chicago, I had my brother’s real ID as my fake ID. (Thanks Justin) I began going out in the City and at the time there was a monthly party at Lincoln Hall called ‘Just Desserts’. This was around 2010-2011. I remember seeing Matt Roan DJ and I was like this is so tight. He was able to blend dance music and hip-hop effortlessly. Once I saw that I just committed myself to learn more and truly indulge within the craft.
Did you ever get to tell Matt how much of an inspiration he was to kickstart your career?
Matt ended up being one of my closest DJ friends and mentors. I’m dating myself, but this was during the MySpace era. I would go out and see DJs, mostly local ones, and I would follow up with them on social media afterward asking them questions like, “How did you do that?”, “What was that one record you played that went like this?”, etc. Most people honestly would shrug me off and not respond. Matt was the one that was very direct and honest. I think there was a good connection between us because he went to the same school as me for undergrad.
We ended up connecting and he introduced me to this company called, ‘Crossfader King’. It was a booking agency for local DJs based in the city. Matt had a partner at the company and his name was Emilio Abadia (E-SIX). I would start going to their studio (The Music Garage) on the weekends and get lessons in return for doing studio work. I would digitize records, help them list products on Craigslist, and in turn, they would bless my hard drive with catalogs of music that I would’ve never been able to get.
Talk us through your first gig DJing here in the city
I had a group of friends that had developed a hip-hop magazine and digital blog called Elevator, that’s popular here in the city. They were guys that were in the dirt doing real work for the music scene. I ended up opening for one of their events at Lokal in Wicker. I remember being petrified. I made a bunch of mistakes and probably sucked.
But the first paid gig I had was through my ex-girlfriends brother, as he was part of a fraternity up at Northwestern. After I got the check, I photocopied it and put it on my wall. I was so excited because I was willing to do this for free and someone paid for me for it. It was such a great feeling
Over the years of being in Chicago, you ended up landing a position as the Chicago fire DJ + Music director. How did that come about?
I’ve been a lifelong Soccer fan. The opportunity honestly came by chance. I think like most good things, they happen accidentally. I had this idea of making a scratch routine video before there was an epidemic of DJs posting themselves doing routines and blends. I posted it online and passed it off to a few MLS/sports related blogs. A couple of them picked it up. The Fire caught wind of it and reached out to me. They said, “We have someone DJing right now at games, but we’ve never seen what you were doing before. Could you do this every game?” I was like yes, absolutely.
Our working relationship ended up starting in 2015, and near mid-way through the season, they brought me in. It’s grown completely since then, in terms of involvement and what role I play. I now partner with the league on All-star activations, helping produce the audio for commercials, partnering with La Liga, or even doing things for the Mexican exhibition matches.
Knowing your love and passion for both soccer and music, how important was it for you to get this position and be able to merge your two favorite things in the world into one night?
It was super important. I would say that it was vital to me because at the time I didn’t know what direction I was going creatively. I had experimented with a regular 9-5 but felt a distinct disconnect between making any physical or humane impact on people around me. When I used to work a 9-5, in their mantra was the term ROI. If you can imagine being able to carve out a sane place for yourself when the plug for someone is business as business, it’s a little bit difficult for someone that’s left brain.
I think I’m still experimenting with it, there’s a lot of uncharted waters that I’m hoping to traverse. The gauntlet has been laid down for that, and it’s only going to expand.
Talk about how performing for the large crowds at the Fire games has helped impact your performance at a club, or a venue where there are only a few hundred people.
You have a bigger chance in making a change on people if there are more folks involved. Having the experience of playing with a major sports team and having major crowds, I’ve learned to understand that while I may want it to be a purely positive impact, I truly enjoy when people reach out to me and tell me my set sucked. I’m never going to please everyone in the room or at an event, but having honest conversations with people in many cases turns people into fans more than glossing over inconsistencies and thinking things are okay.
In this day and age, social media and peoples supposed personas only want to focus on positive things. Me personally, I’d like to think I’m pretty no bullshit about everything. If I’m not doing well or having a shit day, most people will know about it or be able to tell. That’s the same with DJ sets. With the Fire, it allows me to take major organizations and the structure of that and apply it to a smaller room or club. I’ve learned that between certain time periods I know I’ll need to get in this, this, and this. That same idea exists in a bottle service night club, wedding, corporate activation, etc. So, I think both scenarios play off each other and help sharpen one another.
Being in Chicago now for 10 years, how much of an influence has this city has had on you as a DJ and as a person?
I think it’s immense. You know you say as a DJ or a person… but the first one didn’t exist before I came here. I definitely have the city and the relationships that I’ve made to thank for that.
As a person, in the same regard, it’s had a huge change and influence on me. I think the important thing is to still keep the same essentials that brought me here in the first place.
Throughout your career now, have you ever felt like quitting? And if so, how do you find the motivation to keep pushing through?
Dude, all of the time. Last week, the week before that. Maybe next week, haha. The alternative is worse. My motto has always been, give people something worth cheering for. It’s very easy to be the person that always wins, or you know always one that ‘secures the bag’.
The important thing is to show depths of progress. To be able to show where you made mistakes or where you could’ve done better or where you are shooting for next. If people see that vision with you, I think they’re more willing to go to bat for you. I can’t stress this enough, certain people only show their wins and the byproduct of doing things, but being able to show a full scope of who you are and your narrative is what’s going to win overall.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the years?
The first one is one I’m still learning myself, but, knowing when to decline and say no to things.
The second thing is something I tell myself every week. Don’t assign value or meaning to your own work through the lens of others or in comparison to others.
Now that we are officially past the half-year mark, if you can hold yourself accountable for accomplishing one goal by end of the year, what would that goal be?
It would have nothing to do with numbers or end products, it would be hoping that I end this year happier than I started it. Or, ending the year in a position to step myself up for a better place next year.
Written by: Nico Rud
Header Photo By: JP Calubaquib