MILWAUKEE — Is it possible to be an adult in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and never have a drop of alcohol? For this DJ, it’s an integral part of her foundation that’s lead to a career and unforgettable life experiences.
For Shawna Nicols, it’s been a journey of basketball and music, combined with Milwaukee culture that has made her a local icon. This week, Nicols was named a Milwaukee Business Journal ’40 Under 40′ honoree.
“I’ve never drank alcohol in my life. As most 21, 22, and 23-year-olds do they go to clubs and I would get kind of uncomfortable. It got old, to be honest,” Nicols said.
Little did she know that being uncomfortable would lead her down the path of becoming a DJ.
One night, Nicols was at a bar called Walker’s Pint with her friends and she found herself hanging out around the DJ booth with “DJ Rock Dee.”
“I would just watch him, week after week after week. We never spoke, until one day he looked at me and asked if I was a DJ. I said ‘no, I’m not a DJ.’ He transitioned and played another song, looked up at me and said ‘well, do you want to be?'”
In the moment, Nicols shrugged, but Rock Dee continued with “well if you want to, call me when you get two turntables and a mixer.” The next day, Nicols bought the equipment and the journey was underway.
For the next two years, Nicols and DJ Rock Dee worked together. “It was the best internship/mentorship…It started everything.”
But she didn’t become DJ Shawna overnight. As a matter of fact, it was more of a hobby for several years as Nicols finished up playing basketball at UW-Madison before heading overseas to play professionally.
After a few years passed, Shawna found herself back in the Brew City “hustling” to try and get local gigs.
“I found myself hounding [former Marquette Women’s Head Coach] Carolyn Kieger. I told her ‘there are all of these DJs! The Bucks have a DJ, the Lakers have a DJ, you need a DJ Kiegs.'”
The two played against each other in college. Kieger played for Marquette and Nicols played for Wisconsin. “After about two years of hounding her, she made it happen,” Nicols said.
Nicols now works for Marquette, the Bucks, and even nudged her way into being the DJ for the Big East Tournament and Final Four. Even though she was in the big leagues, Nichols says you can still find her at Walker’s Pint on Saturday nights when the Bucks are not playing.
Above all, combining two of her biggest passions, basketball and music, is something Nicols will never take for granted.
“It gives me chills every day. I’m extremely grateful. No matter how many games we have in a week, no matter how much I’m working or hustling, I love this game. If I could still play, I would,” Nicols adds.
It’s one thing to be involved in the NBA, but it’s another to be a woman in the male-dominated league.
“To be a part of it, especially as a woman, it’s something that I am really grateful for.” For Nicols, It’s also what the NBA stands for, other than great basketball.
“I love the social justice side of the NBA. It just hits on so many different levels. I’ve always felt like I am more than an athlete. When LeBron [James] coined that [statement], it was something that really resonated with me.”
When it comes down to all of the opportunities she’s had, whether it be with Marquette, UW-Madison, the Bucks, or in the NBA Bubble, “opening for Lizzo at Summerfest in 2019” is her greatest memory and achievement.
“I still tear up. It wasn’t my show, but I still get goosebumps. They were chanting my name. It was so surreal because I had never had that happen. People sang and danced, and to me, that’s what it’s all about,” Nicols concludes.
As for what’s next, DJ Shawna says Milwaukee “is home” and that she’s seen the world. She hopes to remain in Milwaukee and continue to grow in a city and state that shaped her love for sports and music.
“When the pandemic ends, we’re going to be good. We’re resilient and I am excited to be a part of it. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”