above: On location at Sebass Events & Entertainment Warehouse; Hair by Sarah Clemente for Warren Tricomi; Makeup by Raymond Richardson; Jewelry by Shreve, Crump & Low
Photography by Kyle Norton
A midlife career change is bold.
A midlife career change to become a highly sought-after DJ is impressive.
Doing it all after a battle with cancer left you with one lung is just,
well, pretty damn awe-inspiring
Bottle service is flowing, a female drummer is spanking the bongos, and Beyoncé’s “Run the World” has a packed dance floor of women chanting, “We run this motha…” At forty-six seconds in, DJ April Larken slides her headphones on and says, “Watch this.” She slows down the BPMs and cranks up the bass on her Pioneer mixer. With her left Chanel fingerless-gloved hand, she slams the crossfader hard right; and with Queen Bey becoming a muffled memory, her free hand scratches in and drops in those three, notorious “Uh…Uh…Uhs,” belonging to none other than Biggie’s “Hypnotize.”
A certain phenomenon happens. It’s almost primal. People drop their drinks. Bodies run from the bathroom to the dance floor. Even the too-cool-for-school bartenders get that dead-eyed neck-bop, and waitresses start gyrating in the corners. Call it One Night Stand, a sicker than your average night in Greenwich. It’s April’s annual roving dance party with a New York City nightclub vibe, popping up again on April 3 at Douro (stay tuned at djaprillarken.com). The draw, she says, is basic: “People want to let loose. No auctions, no ball gowns. It’s all about the music.”
For April Caroline Larken, born in Tom’s River, New Jersey, it has always been about the music. “I was that kid making mix tapes for friends, burning hundreds of CDs in college, following the DJs,” she says.
While earning her bachelor’s degree in Art History at NYU and a fashion design degree from FIT in the mid-nineties, April hit the city hard most nights, all black lipstick and braided head knots, slipping into parties hosted by Funkmaster Flex, Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez back when DJs still lugged crates of records to clubs.
To this day, she holds onto a hot pink ticket for SSL Shift Thrust Gothic Slam from Limelight, the church-turned-nightclub that was white-hot twenty-five years ago. It’s a point of pride for April, who practices up to fifty hours for high-profile gigs, all to underscore the fact that she is not just some “housewife with a hobby.”
In fact, it was the fear of being branded #housewifenolife that propelled April behind the turntables in 2017. “I went to a friend’s fortieth and people were introducing me as ‘April, Wife of World Rackets Champion Jonathan Larken and Mother of Jasper and Ella.’ I love my husband, I love my kids, but where was I in there? Jo, in his British way, said I should stop complaining and do something about it. So I did.”
Later that night, fueled by liquid courage, she signed up online for Scratch DJ Academy. Her goal: to train under DJ Dirty Digits, who mentored Mad Marj (aka Marjorie Gubelmann), a force on the NYC social scene who became a DJ in her mid-forties. Serendipitously, April ran into Marj at the Polo Bar months earlier and picked her brain, thinking one day she might follow in her fabulous footsteps. He trained one housewife and made her magic…maybe he could do the same with me, April remembers thinking.
She almost chickened out her first day in the studio. Picture a forty-two-year-old Elle Woods walking into a room of wall-to-wall gold records from Run DMC, past rows and rows of vinyl turntables. “Digits looked at me sideways. Even I thought, What am I doing? This is so far from my comfort zone,” she says. “He asked me if I was doing this for fun. I said no. We started talking music, and he said, ‘I got you. You have the knowledge but need to learn the technology.’”
Fast-forward six months to her final session, and there was DJ April, spinning a thirty- minute medley of The Sugarhill Gang, The Chainsmokers and A Tribe Called Quest in front of Digits, triple-Grammy-nominated producer DJ Scratch and TJ Mizell (son of Jam Master J). At the end, Scratch gave her the ultimate stamp of approval: “That drop was dope.” Digits, who isn’t big on compliments, nodded from the couch. It spoke volumes. “For once,” she says, “I felt like I fit in; I was in the club.”
Getting gig-ready was a faster process than April expected. “My first big break was warming up the crowd for Flo Rida for the Greenwich International Film Festival. Wendy Stapleton hired me on blind faith,” she recalls with gratitude. “Women have been my champions from the start. They don’t question my experience, my rate. They get the job done. It has given me the confidence to keep growing.”
More jobs followed, largely rocket-boosted by women. Think: spinning for Valentino’s Fall Gala at The Plaza; rooftop galas at the Mandarin Oriental; Friends of the Hudson River Park at Chelsea Piers; Allure’s Best of Beauty Awards at the Condé Nast headquarters at One World Trade Center; and curated sets for Bridal Fashion Week and Michael Kors. “People like to throw shade, like, ‘Wow, you must have a lot of connections,’” she says. “Hell, yeah, I do. I’ve worked ten, twenty years for these connections. I value my relationships.”
While April continues to broaden her reach, local causes remain paramount. “My mother delivered babies for thirty years,” she says proudly. “I chaired Greenwich Hospital’s Under the Stars in 2015 and DJ’ed the event the past three years, which has been amazing.” The Breast Cancer Alliance Fashion Show is another event she has been working for three years running. “I gravitate toward women’s health issues. That’s where I do my time, all my volunteer work. It’s what I care about.” The clincher is her connection to the women on the runway. “I have friends who are survivors, like Hillary Corbin and Nina Lindia, who walked this past October. Nina’s only request to me was, ‘April, don’t play that f-ing Sara Bareilles song, “Brave”.’ So I played “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. That’s her, that’s Nina. Connecting the song to the survivor felt incredible. People went crazy, they cheered, they jumped up. Amazing vibes, best vibes of any gig.”
It would be enough to call April bold for doing a career-180 in midlife, making the kind of scary but ultimately satisfying shift many restless people only talk about when they’re three drinks in. But there is a bigger reason for a shout-out: April has been spinning all of this magic on one lung.
Let’s rewind to 2005. April was a newlywed, fresh from her honeymoon, and killing it in the world of bridal design. Former stints at Carolina Herrera, Serafina Bridal House and Romona Keveza had primed her for her biggest job yet: Vera Wang. Fittings for J. Lo and Jessica Simpson? Just another day at the office. Nothing could get in April’s way—especially not the asthma-like symptoms she’d been battling the past year. But pregnancy goals forced her to get a chest X-ray so she could get a better medication, since the inhalers she’d been prescribed weren’t working.
“I was on my lunch hour at work,” she remembers. “I had one of my best friends, a pattern maker, with me, and I was like, ‘Let’s just do this really quick and then we’ll get lunch.’ It was such a joke, something stupid.” The X-ray technician asked her if she’d swallowed a plastic bottle cap. When she answered no, he disappeared and came back with a group of doctors. “They told me, ‘There’s a mass that’s in your bronchus that’s so big it looks like it’s gone into your lung and it’s closed up your entire left lung.’” She was essentially a hot air balloon, half-deflated.
“I was a kid, I was thirty. I wasn’t a smoker. But I had lung cancer. A month later I was being operated on at Memorial Sloan Kettering and having my left lung taken out,” April says, voice quavering. “I couldn’t even fathom what the rest of my life was going to look like. Maybe I’d have oxygen tubes in my nose. Maybe I wouldn’t live at all. I had this dream of being a mom and all these things, but at that point I thought, Okay, I’ve gone this far, if this is it.” Post-surgery in PACU was no cakewalk, either. “You’re on machines helping you breathe, helping you exist,” she says. “You’re hooked up to life support, basically. You’re in there on your own, and the doctors are just watching and praying your body can accept the trauma.”
Fortunately, April’s did. From there, it was the ICU, then six weeks of rehab at MSK, with a constant epidural to blunt the pain—which meant she was bed-bound. “My gay friends came and did my hair. We watched Absolutely Fabulous. They were Feng Shui-ing the flowers, moving the furniture around. The doctors came in and were like, ‘You need to put things back the way they were.’ My friends’ responses were, ‘We’ll have the filet mignon, she’ll have the Jell-O.’ It was morbid and horrible and body bags would go rolling by, but we found a way to have a party.”
Part of that levity was possible because of Jonathan, a husband who was reeling from the possibility of losing his bride, but never let on. “Jo moved into the hospital with me,” April says matter-of-factly. “His attitude was, ‘You’re young. This was a mistake, a blip, we’re going to get through this.’ He was the secretary, the scheduler, he asked all the questions. He had a binder of research five inches thick. Every doctor that came in there, he knew their first name, and he asked questions they never thought anyone would ask. I used to joke, ‘I’m just a piece of meat lying on a table, being injected with dyes and being cut open. Jonathan is the patient.’”
April looks back at lung cancer with mixed feelings. “It was the worst thing that happened to me and the best thing that happened to me,” she says. “If not for cancer, I would have still been in Manhattan, working like a dog and not have time for people. I’d be a different person … someone I don’t like very much.” Slowing down brought what mattered most—creating a family—into focus. But it was the very nest she built that crystallized the importance of having her own life, her own thing, her own song. “I’m a proud member of the second chances club, which means I’m not wasting a second of my time on things I’m not passionate about,” she says. “Music is my passion, lifting up women is my passion.” Next month, April performs in Washington’s Union Station for the LUNGevity Foundation’s D.C. Celebration of Hope. She DJ’ed its NYC gala for the past two years, and was also honored in 2018. “There aren’t many lung cancer survivors, and just me being up there telling my story is inspirational to them. Someone who had it fifteen years ago helps them to see that it’s possible.”
What else is possible? DJ April Larken scratching vinyl. She’s been back at it with Digits, shuttling into the city, messing up, mixing it, making strides. “A female on vinyl is really rare. If I show up at a gig where there are vinyl turntables, I want to be able to do this,” she says, steadfast. “I’m still counting beats. I’m still learning. I’ll always be learning.”
IN THE FLOW, YO
April lays down five tips to keep your dreams on track
1 NO EXCUSES
“At every single gig, women come up to me and say, ‘I wish I had the guts to do that.’ I tell them they do, and they tell me they don’t have enough time or money or willpower or support to start a business, change their lives. That’s just fear talking. If you want it that bad, take a step that locks you in. Mine was signing up for a course I couldn’t back out of.”
2 MENTORS MATTER
“I read about Mad Marj long before I met her, so the questions flowed when I ran into her. I asked her, ‘Who was your mentor?’ Then I went to the source. When you have an example to follow, someone you’re inspired by, it’s that much easier. You can’t get intimidated. People, for the most part, want to help.”
3 BE YOUR BRAND
“There’s lots of DJs who are so good, so hot, and doing it in bikinis. Digits told me, ‘Don’t try to be like the girls in bikinis. You’re in couture one night then on the soccer field with your kids the next morning. That’s your brand.’ I turn down gigs if they aren’t on brand. Figure out what your own brand is, how to be true to who you are while holding space for who you want to be.”
4 KNOW YOUR PRICE
“Good DJs aren’t cheap, and cheap DJs aren’t good. I charge what I do because of all that. Many clients say to me, ‘I can’t afford you, will you do it for this?’ I turn down work, unless it’s worth it to me personally. If you make yourself small to meet people’s expectations, you’re selling yourself short.”
5 STAY LIT
“As moms we tend to put our children’s and husband’s lives before our own, and doing this for years leads to a big pile of resentment. Don’t forget to keep your own candle lit. If people don’t get it when you take more Me Time, remind them that they’ll get more out of you if you get more out of life.”