ANYONE WHO’S SEEN KARIZMA DJ OVER THE YEARS really doesn’t need me to tell them a thing about how good he is. Simply put, after 15 years of DJing there are precious few artists who make me feel like I need to go home immediately and practice more. Like, for another few years. Karizma is that guy. Often, us semi-skilled DJs can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that most “turntablists” can’t produce good music for sh*t, but Kris doesn’t cut us any slack there either: he’s equally talented behind the boards. He wears his heart on his sleeve and openly expresses his influences when making music, committing himself fully, executing cleanly and brilliantly. Whether mastering the creative potential of CDJs at a time when other DJs were simply using them play tunes from start to finish, or getting his head around the ASR-10 which he then used almost exclusively for his productions, Karizma proves that you don’t need a lot of equipment to do amazing things; you just need to practice until you’re able to manifest your ideas. In a cultural landscape that celebrates mediocrity more than ever before, it feels so important to have people to look up to. It’s beautiful to see hard work paying off.
A staunch supporter of (and great ambassador for) his hometown of Baltimore, Kris was recently awarded the title ‘Master Artist’ by the state of Maryland, as recognition of his mentoring work with young people in the city. A reflection of the city he calls home, Karizma’s approach to music is energetic, gritty and diverse. It gets to the point, fast. As I discovered in the following interview, so does he.
So how and when did you get your start in music?
I would like to say in church, especially in the youth choir, I had the privilege of learning chords, layering and vocal arrangement.
Did you start out DJing or producing?
Initially DJing, simply because I couldn’t afford any production equipment. When I could, I would borrow some of my friends equipment to practice or make tracks. Actually, “The Power,” the beats for Mary J Blige “Beautiful Remix” and “E.B.W.T.R.T.W.” were all done in one weekend. I knew I had to get the most out of that weekend ’cause who knows when I’m going to get to have the ASR-10 again? I did get my own, eventually!
The Basement Boys were obviously a big part of your early career. How did you meet?
Baltimore being kinda small, sooner or later you will most definitely bump into someone who knows someone in music. I of course knew The Basement Boys ’cause they were killing it production-wise and on the DJ tip. Everyone involved were crazy tight DJs and what I really liked was that everyone had their own signature. My luck was Spen’s wife at the time really liked my DJ sets so I think she put the bug in his ear about me. Spen put me on as a mix show DJ for V-103 and we bonded from there. I did some work on the Jasper Street album and two years after that got a call from him to work on the Mary J Blige record. The rest is history!
You embraced the Pioneer CDJ quite early on, and play it like nobody else. As laughable as this question may seem now, did you encounter a lot of resistance from other DJs when you first made the switch?
Not so much resistance, it was more like “WTF is he doing?” I practiced for a good two or three years getting my head around how creative I could be with the Pioneer CDJs. I think I shocked Spen when we started DJing again as Deepah Ones, because I was coming up with all this stuff and really not looking at the CDJ as just something that plays my music, but more as a way I could put my signature on a track/song. It’s like, OK we have all of this technology now where we can have seamless mixes. If I don’t have to worry about it being tight then I have room to be creative another way. At least that’s the way I think.
Honestly with a lot of what we do, if it wasn’t for social media what we call a “scene” would be gone.
What’s your current DJ setup?
x3 Pioneer CDJ 2000 NXS2, x1 Pioneer DJM 900 NXS2, x2 Technics 1200 and x1 Urei 1620.
The state of Maryland Arts Council recently gave you quite a prestigious title: “Master Artist.” What does this mean for you, coming from your hometown?
I’ve always wanted to pass on what I have learned to someone else, so I think it was the right time/right opportunity. I was approached by Emily Wessel to mentor a young man from PG County (Baronhawk Poitier) who was into my sound and wanted to learn. I had a bit of time at home and mentoring is something I wanted to do, so we applied for a grant and got it. The grant was icing on the cake. So, all of that said, I’m really proud I get to teach and mentor someone who wants to know and at the same time I’m learning what the kids are into, gaining a bit of understanding of what they are hearing. And it’s a bit of recognition from my place of birth. I really couldn’t ask for more.
Tell us a little about the music scene in Baltimore. The city has had rather a lot of negative press internationally lately. It would be great to hear another viewpoint.
The press as always presents what it wants. Yes there was trouble, angry people, but what did you expect? As far as the music scene, it’s like everywhere else I’ve traveled. There’s some good pockets of things happening but on a major scale, the stuff we love is still being pushed in a corner. Honestly with a lot of what we do, if it wasn’t for social media what we call a “scene” would be gone.
In twenty years of releasing music, you’ve managed to remain universally respected whilst becoming successful too. Is this a delicate balance for you, between underground sensibilities and financial pressures?
Music was never something I really concentrated on financially and I never really thought about keeping it underground. It was more a case of getting my expressions out, so I always thought if the hit happens it wont be something I “made” happen and regret playing for the rest of my career. So yes, there’s always a balance.
We recall you playing at Chicago’s own Prop House back in the day, a venue probably unlike any other at the time. Do you feel like your core audience has changed over the years? If so, why do you think this is?
I think your crowd should change and evolve, that’s the whole point of the journey. You change, your fans change: some grow with you, some grow out of you so to speak.
You’ve been quoted as saying you want to “shake the world, because people need to wake the fuck up.” Thee Album contains a couple of tracks with a powerful socio-political message. What do you think artists can do in order to help bring about change?
Continue to make good music. If you want to put a message in there, that’s cool too.
Your sound so clearly encapsulates your various influences all at once. Have you found this presents a challenge for stores and “marketing people?” Do you think that the digital age has created a largely conservative climate in dance music, with a lot of people sticking to one genre? What would be your advice to other artists who like you, don’t want to be pigeonholed?
Do whatever genre you listen to at home away from what people know you for. I like a lot of different music, so why should I stick to one genre? That’s crazy to me. I think having one or more genres in your music production/DJ skills always allows you to be more versatile, it allows you try more things. I would rather have people struggle to define me in any genre than “Oh, just put him in the House section.”
Your skills, energy and level of intensity behind the decks are at quite a different level from most DJs in dance music (actually much more akin to a hip hop turntablist). What are your feelings about the state of DJ culture in 2016? Do you think real skills are lacking in today’s scene?
I don’t think skills are the problem, now story telling and programming: those are the only issues I see as a problem, but I think with a bit more time it will be OK because everything moves in cycles.
Can you give us 5 of your current favourite artists and DJs?
Osunlade, Atjazz, Tall Black Guy, Hugo LX and Kaytranada.
In addition to Thee Album on R2 Records, look out for new projects including: St Germain – “Sittin Here” (Kaytronik DJ’s Dub), Hugo LX – “New York” (Kaytronik’s Mo Bounce Dub), Cassius feat Cat Power & Pharrell Williams – “Go Up” (Kaytronik Ascension Dub). You can find him at kaytronik.com, facebook.com/Therealkarizma and twitter.com/kaytronik.
Originally published inside 5 Magazine Issue #133 featuring Vincent Floyd, Karizma, Tony Humphries, David Marston, Doc Link, Deep Club Denver and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music – on sale for just $1 an issue!