"I don't have nothing to prove to no one in Colorado," claims DJ Chonz. "I already proved it."
He's right. The 21-year-old beat master has already amassed numerous accolades for his prodigious talents as a turntablist, including positive writeups in The Source, Rap Pages and Blaze, but he hasn't quite made the leap into the national spotlight. Locally, though, he's regarded as the best there is, thanks to a statewide DJ contest held last summer at the Eulipions Cultural Center at which he took first place.
"Every DJ that was supposedly somebody was in that battle, and basically everybody wanted me," he says. "They all think I came up too fast, and they don't think I have what I have. So I went down there and played my set, and I took them all out--no question. I didn't have to say nothing. And they finally gave me my respect."
Such acclaim is helping Chonz and fellow DJs such as Westword profile subject Jam X ("Jammin'," September 3, 1998) lead a local hip-hop renaissance. Thanks to their efforts, more and more people are realizing that deejaying is every bit as key to hip-hop as rapping is.
"Without the DJ, there is no MC," Chonz points out. "The MC can rock, but can you rock the crowd with no beats? No. So why don't you bring it back to the essence?" He adds, "DJs are coming up, and we are either going to surpass the MCs or we're going to be right there with them."
After honing his skills using his older brother's Fat Boys records, Chonz made his name locally via Eclipse, heard Sunday evenings on KGNU-FM/88.5. The program, which also featured Francois Baptiste, co-founder of 3 Deep Productions and producer of the KBDI-TV/Channel 12 video program Rhythm Visions, wasn't widely heard in Denver because of KGNU's limited broadcast reach, but those lucky enough to pick it up regarded it as one of the area's premier hip-hop showcases.
Chonz subsequently left Eclipse, and in the time since then, he's become a regular at dance clubs in the area. But the tradition he established at KGNU lives on in both concert appearances (he's opened for De La Soul and shared the stage with Cut Chemist and Ozomatli) and the series of mix tapes he's issued under the Radio Bums banner since his departure. Although such recordings are currently enjoying mainstream success (Funkmaster Flex and Kid Capri both put out CDs using this format last year), they've been popular in the underground for years--and Radio Bums Show, Chonz's third volume of mixes, demonstrates why. Complete with contributions from P.T. Da Pimp and DJ Ali Baba (aka Hakeem Abdul Khaaliq) and shoutouts from major players such as Mix Master Mike, the Invisbl Skratch Piklz member who spun on the last Beastie Boys tour, the cassette sounds like the work of a wrecking crew on the rise. But Chonz is the star, mixing, scratching and slicing up beats with Ginsu-like precision while flashing one innovative technique after another.
"We'll have three different MCs from three different records, and then we'll make our own choruses," Chonz says by way of example. "We put people together that you don't even think should fit, like D'Angelo and the Beastie Boys, and then we build the tracks up. We have one constant beat, then we have one line, then we have the chorus, verse, chorus, just like in a real song." As a result, the cuts reference original numbers by the likes of DJ Quik and Black Star without sounding much like them.
The radio theme is constant throughout: Radio Bums Show includes ID inserts and open requests from fans who left their suggestions on Chonz's pager. ("I want people to be a part of the tape," says Chonz, who can be paged at 303-509-2242. "You want to buy it, because you might be on it.") As for the cassettes' flip sides, they include songs from MCs the Bums want to give more exposure to. Past releases have provided a forum for Dent and Cosmo (a winner and a finalist at the Eulipions competition, respectively), as well as Kingdom and Bumpy Chill. "Side B is always going to have someone you don't know but who deserves a spot on the tape," Chonz says. "I'm looking for talent for each one. They usually come to the crib and we collaborate. I'll pick up all kinds of different people, and I just manipulate the sounds. I'm not a producer yet, so it's always going to be somebody else's beats, but I'll flip four instrumentals in a minute span. It's all freestyle."
This kind of creativity is rare on commercial radio, where even hip-hop is generally reduced to a formula. But Chonz and Baptiste have found another outlet for their music: the Internet. They were recently approached by representatives of Eclectic Radio, a growing Web company based in Boulder, to create a hip-hop show for Radio M, one of the firm's affiliates. The result is Radio Bums, which can be heard on www.radiom.com on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon, Wednesdays from 4 to 6 p.m. and weekends from 3 to 5 p.m. Baptiste acts as the program's host, while Chonz works the turntables, churning out a fresh alternative to those outlets bound by corporate straitjackets and demographically defined playlists. "I just go up there and go with it," Chonz says. "I don't beat-per-minute my records. My beats are memorized in my head."
Spontaneity is an important part of Chonz's style. "I don't go back to the studio and edit and fix. It's cool to hear a record skip or a needle jump, because you know everybody listens. It's cool to switch it up and just dig in the crate. We'll play a little of this and a little of that. I don't plan anything. One time we mixed Return of the Jedi with Wyclef just out of the blue."
When Radio Bums debuted, Baptiste admits that the response from Web users was underwhelming. But now, he says, "it's taking off. We have people in Canada listening and people from all over the country who e-mail us back." He's hopeful that technology will eventually allow listeners to mix their own beats and rhymes live alongside Chonz. The Radio M staffers "are definitely going to do a lot more for us," Baptiste notes. "They really cater to our needs. They've got sponsors for us, and when you're listening to the show, you have a playlist of what we're playing, so you'll be able to click on to what the song is and actually be able to order it from that Web site."
The audience for Radio Bums is somewhat limited by comparison with the public airwaves; as Baptiste points out, "You have to have a computer with enough memory to hear it." But the program gives Chonz an opportunity to let high-tech hip-hop heads hear tricks like doubling and beat-juggling that are viewed as too radical by some Denver club owners. "You've just got to play the record here and make sure it's on point," Chonz says. "You can't double up, you can't repeat verses. If they hear something different, they don't like that."
The situation is different in Southern California, where Chonz deejayed for a 1998 package tour that included appearances by acts like the Baka Boys, WC and Coolio. But while Chonz had a good time in SoCal--"it was cool, because I actually did that for a living four days a week"--he came back to Colorado early after suffering a bout of homesickness. "I love Denver," he says, "and I feel I am a part of bringing Denver on the uprise with the whole hip-hop thing--b-boying and graffiti and all that."
At this point, Chonz doesn't see the need to establish his skills locally; he feels he's already done that. But there's a regional DJ battle tentatively scheduled to take place in Boulder this March, and he's already looking forward to the challenge. "I'll enter that, because I have something to prove to the people in Arizona and New Mexico," he says. "But I won't enter any more Colorado contests, because I've already made my mark.
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