DJ Stef and I first met around 2011, when I, as a 21-year-old UC Berkeley student eager to leave campus and experience real culture, started frequenting Oakland warehouse parties. Though I barely knew anyone at first, many like-minded music lovers who lived for wild nights in dingy warehouses and dive bars turned into longtime friends. On one of those nights, in a venue that smelled like liquor, spray paint, and sweat, I met Stephanie Ornelas, a.k.a. DJ Stef.
Like many, I was devastated to learn that Stef passed away from an unexpected heart attack at her San Francisco home on Sunday morning, leaving behind her husband, Sergio Ornelas, and an enormous circle of friends and admirers. She was 55 — only a couple years older than my mom — and was universally beloved as the “cool aunt” of the local hip-hop scene.
Stef made an impact on Bay Area culture in innumerable ways. She was a gifted DJ with an enormous vinyl collection; a graphic designer and self-taught web developer with an impressive client base; a hip-hop journalist who enthusiastically embraced the internet before it became mainstream; and a gregarious networker who introduced future spouses, business partners, and creative collaborators to one another.
I don’t know anyone in the Bay Area who attended as many shows as often as she did — her diehard fandom gave her more stamina than music fans my own age. Whether in the audience or behind the decks, Stef always wore a band tee and an effusive smile, ready to share a laugh and geek out about mutual faves like E-40. And even though she rubbed shoulders with prominent figures like Living Legends, Peanut Butter Wolf, and Z-Trip over her three-decade-plus tenure in the local music scene, she remained humble and open.
Ian Taggart, a San Francisco producer who goes by Young God of the group Blue Sky Black Death, remembers talking to Stef on a hip-hop message board before meeting at a concert in 2001 when he was 15 years old. “I was this teenager with no social capital, and from the very first time I met her, she just welcomed me into her circle,” he says. “She was never in the music scene to be cool. She just cared about music and appreciated other people.”
“She amplified what a true hip-hopper should be: a fan, creator, and a lover of the art,” says Dream Nefra, an artist and DJ who knew Stef since 1994. In the early 2000s, Stef built the website for Nefra’s crochet business and DJed her launch party. The pair remained close friends. “She was very much a mentor, a good big sister-type friend that I could call anytime day or night,” says Nefra, “and she would be there for me and didn’t let me down.”
In the early ’90s, Stef founded an influential hip-hop zine called the Vinyl Exchange, where she covered underground artists like DJ Shadow and J-Rocc. The zine evolved into a message board and, eventually, an online magazine with a YouTube show. Up until her death, Stef remained active in the scene: She maintained a popular DJ residency at Drake’s Dealership in Oakland through this past summer, and she was prolific with her graphic and web design business, boasting clients like the show Entourage and the San Francisco nightclub Monarch. She also designed countless show flyers, often for free, and made turntable-shaped cakes for friends’ birthdays.
“She kind of presented herself at just an enthusiast, but if you looked at everything she’s done in life and all the people she helped, it’s very clear she was more than just an enthusiast,” said Mosi Reeves, an Oakland-based music journalist. “She was a very important industry figure.”
Though many regarded Stef as a familiar face in the local scene, her death has had a national impact. Since her passing, prominent hip-hop artists like DJ Premier, Peanut Butter Wolf, Run the Jewels’ El-P, Lyrics Born, and Equipto have mourned her on social media.
heartbroken to hear about dj stef passing. truly a lovely, kind soul.
— el-p (@therealelp) October 2, 2017
— Lyrics Born (@lyricsborn) October 2, 2017
Love for DJ STEF 💔😢 pic.twitter.com/kcOXZ5LzET
— Equipto (@EQUIPTO) October 2, 2017
Stef had a profound impact on everyone she came in contact with, including me. She was continuously and generously supportive of my journalism work and other creative endeavors. After I learned to DJ and started getting gigs two years ago, she’d shout me and other young, female DJs out on social media — despite the fact that I use my laptop and she was a vinyl purist. And even though I might not have realized it at the time, it was huge for me to see an older woman in the scene — a woman who came from an immigrant background like me — who made a name and career for herself in a notoriously male-dominated industry, mastering a variety of creative disciplines along the way. She made that path visible and attainable, and seeing myself in her gave me the confidence I needed to thrive in those formative years of my early twenties.
— Stephanie O (@djstef415) March 9, 2017
For a cover story last year for the East Bay Express about gentrification pushing out underground Bay Area venues, Stef told me she worried that young people might lose the freedom to throw the kinds of underground shows that enabled her generation to flourish. “I’m concerned for young people who are just coming up and getting old enough to go out,” she told me. “Where are they gonna go? What are they gonna experience?”
That’s the kind of person Stef was: A tireless advocate of the arts who was eager to uplift those around her and make way for future generations. The Bay Area is better for her having been here, and she won’t be forgotten.