Sammi Kramer and her friends dressed to the nines and put on makeup for their big night out. After all, it wasn’t every day that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s DJ Jazzy Jeff came to Hancock, New York.

The rumors of a star-studded concert proved untrue. Instead, a different D.J. named Jeff—Jeff Yahney—performed. With a Tom Selleck mustache and hair that can only be described as Brian Grazer meets ’NSync, Yahney brought the house down. He stuck to the Top 40, but incorporated some dance classics, like “Apache (Jump on It),” by the Sugarhill Gang, and “Cha Cha Slide,” by DJ Casper. The venue: French Woods, Sammi’s sleepaway camp. The audience: nine-year-old Sammi and her tween friends.

In his prime, DJ Jeff’s tour included 40 camps per summer.

The light show and pyrotechnics left a lasting impression on the campers. “We were so excited when we saw what we were in for,” Kramer, now 32, says. “We had a blast.”

For the past 33 years, Yahney, who is now in his 60s, has spent his summers performing at tony sleepaway camps across the Northeast. DJ Jeff, as he is known onstage, regularly entertains New York’s middle-school elite at $14,000-a-summer camps such as Point O’Pines, Raquette Lake, and Camp Romaca, among many others. Some camps pay him nearly $5,000 per gig. At his peak, he cleared a six-figure income per summer.

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of kids grew up with me every summer,” the Long Island–based performer tells me. “It was nuts.”

For the nine-year-olds, his concerts became their first taste of raves. Campers would line up to snag autographs from the newfangled celebrity. Some campers held up signs reading: JEFF IS GOD and I ♡ DJ JEFF.

From summer 2021, the girls at Point O’Pines Camp, in Brant Lake, New York, go crazy for DJ Jeff.

But the 40 or so camps he regularly toured in the 1990s and 2000s have dwindled to about 10. In 2015, his business quickly waned when investors saw profit margins in his venues.

“There are very few camps that are still family-owned,” Yahney tells me. “A lot of these camps now are part of camp groups that just don’t own one camp—they own two, or three, maybe more.”

Long before private equity came for his turntables, Yahney, as a kid in Flatbush, Brooklyn, became transfixed by the Beatles’ American invasion. Music practically coursed through Yahney’s veins. (He claims that Barbra Streisand is his third cousin on his mother’s side.) He spent his weekly allowance on records and began performing as a professional D.J. when he turned 17.

He had built a nice life performing at parties in the tri-state area when an out-of-the-blue phone call in 1990 transformed his career. Peter Corpuel, the then owner of Camp Wayne in Preston Park, Pennsylvania, asked Yahney to perform at his sleepaway camp’s end-of-summer banquet. The event was a light-bulb moment for Yahney: camp gigs doubled as marketing for his year-round D.J. services.

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of kids grew up with me every summer.”

“I started getting phone calls after the summer for doing [campers’] bar mitzvahs. It mushroomed,” he tells me. “I called Peter Corpuel and I said, ‘Listen, I’d like to find out about doing more camps.’”

Corpuel suggested Yahney visit the American Camp Association trade shows, where he could meet more owners. The tip proved useful, and soon Yahney performed in front of 43 camps in 55 days. He named it “The Best Night of Camp Tour” and threw the kitchen sink of production at campers: pyrotechnics, dancers, lighting cues, and costume changes. Yahney traveled with four roadies: three dancers and one electrician.

Blake Friedman, a camper at Camp Saginaw, in Oxford, Pennsylvania, from 2008 to 2012, fondly recalls Yahney inviting people up onstage and throwing hats into the crowd. Many campers put their hands up, as if trying to catch a T-shirt out of a cannon at a basketball game.

A fan shows his support.

“I feel like he had plenty of them to go around,” Friedman adds. The reason Friedman feels that way? Yahney ordered 15,000 hats per summer.

“I needed to give out a form of advertisement, a business card that the kids could go home with,” DJ Jeff explains. Every camper was a soon-to-be-13-year-old client in need of a bar mitzvah D.J. When the price of the 70-cent hats went up, T-shirts became the new business card.

Despite his hold over wealthy young campers, as the years have progressed, Yahney has faced increased competition. At first, it was from “in-house” performers, code for counselors masquerading as D.J.’s. For camp owners focused on profits, the lacrosse instructor and his Spotify playlist is better for the bottom line than DJ Jeff.

For a bit, Yahney’s biggest competition was his estranged brother, D.J. Todd Yahney, who competed against him on the camp circuit in the early 2000s. “That’s a very sore subject,” he says. “He’s dead to me.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

By far the biggest blow to Yahney’s business has been profit-hungry investors. While no Wall Street analyst wakes up and checks a “camp index,” there are signs that sleepaway camps are attracting institutional dollars and blue-chip investors. In total, about 70 sleepaway camps are owned by multi-camp-ownership groups, according to Dan Zenkel, a partner at the Camp Professionals, a camp-advisory firm. In 2019, two Stanford M.B.A.’s raised a fund, Canyonlands, with a flagship business dedicated to purchasing sleepaway camps.

“I always thought it would be a great investment for family offices,” Zenkel says. While the business doesn’t scale easily, demand remains strong every year. “Once you get one going, they keep on going.”

One camp that dropped Yahney is KenMont KenWood, located in Kent, Connecticut. The camp changed hands in 2022, when an investor group, which included Goldman Sachs C.E.O. David Solomon, purchased the business for a reported $8.5 million, according to Bloomberg. Solomon, who also invested in Camp Robin Hood, is a D.J., too.

But a businesslike focus on margins risks turning camp into nothing more than a boring summer-long stay in the woods. Kramer, who attended French Woods from 2000 to 2006, remembers bonding with her now husband thanks to Yahney’s shirts. “One of the first times that he stayed over at my house, he brought a Jeff Yahney T-shirt to wear to sleep,” she tells me. “It just became such a funny thing, because we didn’t at all grow up in the same area, and yet we have this commonality from childhood.”

Traditions, like DJ Jeff’s performances, keep campers excited to return. “Those were the nights that you circled on your calendar,” says Jake Ritter, who attended Camp Saginaw from 2005 to 2012. “That was a tradition that we looked forward to.”

Andrew Zucker works at a television-production company in New York City