Chris Karns talks about retiring his DJ Vajra moniker and his new monthly at Beauty Bar
Chris Karns, the DJ formerly known as Vajra.
Had he not won the DMC championships in 2011, or almost won the Red Bull Thr3style that same year, or ended up competing on the VH1 reality show Master of the Mix, the Colorado streets would still be singing the praises of Chris Karns. If you've ever seen him perform, the dude's a beast on the turntables.
See also: DJ Vajra crowned 2011 DMC World Champion
Fresh off a stint as Yelawolf's tour DJ, and a turn on reality television, Karns has a new monthly residency at Beauty Bar that is an elaborate excuse to DJ with his friends -- friends, by the way, who just happen to be some of the world's best DJs. In advance of his party at tomorrow night with Master of the Mix champion DJ Jayceeoh, we chopped it up with Karns about retiring his DJ Vajra moniker and how his approach to deejaying has changed over the years.
Westword: First things first. Would you like to address the name change once and for all?
Chris Karns: Yeah, I just I got tired of the old name to be honest. I just couldn't deal with every time I was introduced to somebody having to tell them how to pronounce it, and how to spell it. What used to be a fifteen minute conversation is now a five second conversation. Plus, I never really liked it, and I wanted to change it, and then I got an email from the Master of the Mix TV show saying they wanted me to compete around that same time, and I figured that would be a good launching platform for starting a new brand.
Has Denver changed in how they receive you, post-DMC, Thr3style and Master of the Mix?
Definitely since I won the DMC. When I won the DMC and came back from that, we threw a party a few months later at Beauty Bar, and I was really overwhelmed at how excited people actually were. During my entire career people questioned me. That's something that happens to every DJ; people question you like: "He's good, but he's not as good as that guy. And after I won the DMC, all those questions are pretty much gone. I think people see how much work it took, and how long it took me to achieve that goal, and they show a lot of respect.
Are you getting recognized around the world?
Yeah, I feel like the majority of DJs out there in the U.S. and the rest of the world, there's always a collection of DJs from a city that will come out and want to support and check out what I'm doing. I've always felt like I had the respect of my peers, and now I've been able to kind of get a little more of people outside that DJ world and get a bigger collection of fans.
Has it gotten to the level where people are straight up stopping you on the street?
While the show was airing, yeah, that was happening. People were stopping me and saying, "Aww, I saw you on the show" and different reactions, mostly positive. I had a couple where people were like: "Aw man, you're such an asshole on that show!" But, you know, it is what it is. They [Master of the Mix producers] have their agendas, wanting to paint people in a certain light for the sake of entertainment. So, anybody who perceived me as being kind of a jerk on that show, it seems like when they meet me in person, they're like "Man, you're so different....you're actually a NICE guy" [laughs]
Is it any easier to get through airport security nowadays?
[laughs] I know a couple of the TSA agents at DIA, but I went out and bought -- I got myself a "Clear Pass," so I don't have to worry about that. Either that or TSA pre-check
How often do you play out in Colorado?
I am actually trying to not play out in Denver as much, to be honest. For one, I have started a monthly at Beauty Bar, and you know, I over exposed myself on this scene for a very long time and uh...
I don't think anyone would agree with you on that...
Basically, I have to look at it like "I'm not a local artist." I know that it's hard for people in their local scene because no matter where you're from, when you're at home you're a local artist. But the fact of the matter is I'm an international touring artist. Since I've won the DMC, I've probably only done a handful, a very small handful of shows in the Denver scene, and that's because I want people to be genuinely excited when I play. So it's not like, "I just saw him last week." I try and treat it more like a Z-Trip or a Q-Bert: They're not gonna play every week because people are gonna stop showing up.
You hosted Canada's Skratch Bastid in July, and now this month the winner of Master of the Mix, Jayceeoh. Is there a concept behind the Beauty Bar gigs?
Basically, the idea behind my monthly night is, you know I've been touring for ten years now, and I've met a lot of great DJs all over the country and all over the world. I've met a lot of DJs that I feel people in Denver may never get the chance to see, and may or may not know about. So the goal of the night is to bring these people out, no rules. We can just play whatever we want. Me and my guest kind of do a co-headlining thing on four turntables. Basically just throw a great party with a very low cover, so that people can come out and not have to spend too much money and get to check out some great DJs that they may have not seen, and may never get to see again.
Is it a competition?
It's not a competition at all, it's just a party. It's going up and having fun and just letting loose. The main draw for these DJs to want to come out, is not just that they're friends of mine but also because Beauty Bar is one of those places where people can go hang out, and it doesn't have that pretentious bottle service type of vibe. You know, everybody is welcome there, and it's a very diverse crowd, and it's a friendly and open environment. Also you can go there, and you're not going to hear the same Top 40 playlist that DJs are playing everywhere else. You're gonna go there and just hear good music across the board.
Did you have a relationship with DJ Jayceeoh before you guys competed on Master of the Mix?
Yeah, I did. I met him I think it was back in 2002. So I've known him for like a decade just through battling. I was in the DMC U.S. finals in New York back in 2002, and he was there with some friends, and I think he was living in Boston at the time. I think it was four or five years later. I was playing a weekly at 'Round Midnight in Boulder, and he was doing the Alizé tour, and he got booked to play at my night through Alizé. So he came out and we did like a four turntable thing there.
Honestly, I played at 'Round Midnight off and on for eight years, and that was the, probably the best DJ set that I ever saw down there. From that moment on, I was like a huge fan of what he did. Later on, he asked me to be a part of his Super 7 Mixtape series, so I did that, and it was myself, Jayceeoh, Jazzy Jeff, Z-Trip, Revolution, Gaslamp Killer, and Mick Boogie.
So yeah, me and Jayceeoh have been in contact the whole time. Actually, I kind of found out that he was going to be on it leading up to it. So we both knew we were going to be on it before we got there. So we were both excited to have at least one friend to kind of go through that experience with.
Let's talk about Master of the Mix. This season, it was a different show than it had been. In the previous two seasons, it seemed more rooted in the hip-hop thing. Just Blaze was the host, and I think credited as one of the producers/creator. This season, it seemed like the focus shifted away from that into the world of Hollywood nightclubs, bottle service and movie stars. Did you know that going in, or did they catch you by surprise?
I did not know going in, and in fact, I was told the exact opposite. I was told that it was going to be about, you know, that their whole goal was to like "preserve the culture," and that it was gonna be more focused on trying to be about legit deejaying. And I'm not trying to discredit people who DJ in that type of environment, but there's a lot more aspects to deejaying than just that.
So, it was very clear once I got there, like, the feedback that I was getting from the judges, like what they were looking for, is not what I do! That's not what I do, and so instead of just trying to conform to the mold of what they felt every DJ in the world should be like, based on that show, I decided to just do my thing, and continue to just do myself, even though I knew that meant the possibility of winning was going to decrease dramatically.
Okay, what about Kid Capri? Is that somebody that you looked up to? Was it at least exciting to get to interface with Kid Capri?
Yeah, um, Kid Capri, definitely. I've known about Kid Capri basically since Def Comedy Jam was on TV. When that show first aired, that was the first time a DJ was ever really featured on TV like that to people who grew up in middle America like myself. So, that actually inspired me, and a good friend of mine who I grew up with, that inspired him to buy turntables.
And I remember going to the thrift store with him, back in like the early '90s and him saying, "I want the turntables that Kid Capri has." I remember being with him at the store when he bought those, and going back home with him and setting those up. That was a direct result of seeing Kid Capri on TV, so it was definitely an honor being able to be in that situation with him.
It's wild to think about how long that guy has been deejaying. Did he give you any tips as to how you can "keep the party going" and continue to DJ for a long time?
Uh, not really, you know. We weren't legally allowed to really even have a conversation.
Right! Because he was the head judge...
So, um, I didn't really get a chance to talk to him that much, and haven't really talked to him since the show. But he was very supportive with what he could say, and gave me a lot of positive feedback. So he definitely seemed like he was into it.
Okay, so you mentioned the early days, and I remember the first time I met you, you were working at Bart's. What's the worst job you've ever had to hold down?
[laughs] Aw, you know what? Before I had that job at Bart's it was just a non-stop carousel of rotating [bad] jobs. I was incapable of holding down a job for more than like a couple weeks. Maybe there were a couple of jobs that I had for more than a few months...
That wasn't because you were a bad employee. I'm assuming that was because of your dedication to deejaying?
Um, no...actually. I mean, I worked at Wendy's for a year and a half. That was my first job I worked the drive thru window. A job is a job, and it's good to have a job, whatever you can get, whatever you can do. I just, I mean I feel bad for people who work in that situation, because I've been there, and I know what it's like. The people who treat you like you're not even a human being anymore because they are in the safety of their cars, and you're behind a window, and they don't have to treat you with the same kind of decency and dignity that every human being deserves.
You just feel completely worthless, you're getting paid like you're worthless....I think I was getting paid like $4.75 an hour! Even back then, I wasn't really trying to be a DJ at that point in my life, but I saved up a couple thousand dollars, and I was like sixteen. I had no car. I had nothing. I grew up with not a lot in life, and I was like what do I want to do? Do I want to go buy a car? Nah, I'm gonna go buy a stereo. I just really wanted to hear my music. That's what I spent all my time and my money on, and even my whole life before I was a DJ, I was buying tapes and CD's and all that stuff.
So then, getting the job at Bart's that was a big blessing for you right?
It was...you know, I was actually stocking shelves for Pepsi at the time. That was not a very fun job either getting up at four in the morning and driving to different accounts. Basically, my plan at that point was I was saving money to move back to where I'm from, which is Fort Wayne, Indiana. So that was my plan at that point. I was deejaying at that time, but I wasn't trying to have a career with it because, at the time, I felt like mixing, making money with my love and my passion. I thought that it would ruin it.
Turns out, I was right. [laughs] So I would go in and buy records every day, and I would talk to the guys who worked there, and I would always ask them about new releases, and they didn't even know what I was talking about. They were ordering stuff, and I kept coming in like "Yo, you guys need to stock this; you need to carry that!" I was always joking like, "are you guys hiring?" like, every time I went in there, which was a lot. One day I said "are you guys hiring?" kind of joking, and they were like "actually..." and literally, I just felt like I was just FLOATING like "OH MY GOD!! Are you serious???"
I think I started working there like the next day, and I just remember being like, "This is unreal." That was definitely a great job. I held that one down for about five and a half years and working for Bart was amazing. Just being able to learn that side of the music industry from within. I didn't know anything about how record labels worked, or the ordering system. I got the chance to meet a lot of people and talk to people at record labels...I learned a lot from just being in that position.
So record store employees are usually able to come up on some pretty priceless gems; is there anything you remember that you were able to come up on when you were like, "Man, this is livin!"
You know....there's always been some things for sure. I wasn't the greediest record store [employee]. I didn't fit the mold of what people would consider the average record store employee. I think most would be considered very rude, and just keep everything for themselves. I wasn't completely like that, if stuff came in. There were definitely some times when people would bring in collections of '90s hip-hop, and if I knew my friends or other customers were looking for those records, I wouldn't just keep them to myself.
I remember once, the 12-inch for Skillz' "The Nod Factor" came in, and DJ Low Key just happened to be in there when I was processing it. I was like, "Man, you don't even wanna know what just came in," and I let him take a peek, and he saw that record, and he was so mad, he was just like: "Man, fuck you. I can't believe you're gonna take that! That's messed up. You don't even give people a chance!" And I was like: "Dude! I put stuff out all the time. I'm taking this one!"
Well, it was actually just his birthday a couple months ago, and I went and played with him at the Meadowlark, and as a surprise, I actually brought that record for him -- this was like ten years after the fact -- I brought that record for him and gave it to him as a birthday present. So I got to get that karma back.
Did tears flow? It feels like tears might have flowed...
He was definitely pretty happy about that, for sure, man. I think even the next day I couldn't believe that I let it go, but...whatever, man! It's just a thing, when it comes down to it. People are worth more than things.
As a seasoned traveler, do you have any great airport tips?
Man, I wish I did. I feel like it's just a nightmare every time. If you're able to not check a bag, that's probably a good thing. Try to avoid connecting flights if possible. That's definitely one tip I would have. Even if you have to spend the little bit of extra money, it's worth it to get yourself a little bit better seat, or get yourself a non-stop flight because, like, anything can happen in between [destinations].
I've definitely been in situations...I was in a situation recently where, just because I paid a little bit extra, I got bumped up to first class. The flight ended up getting canceled, but before it got canceled, we were sitting on the runway for three hours. I'm sure everybody in the back was just completely miserable, but we're up in the front, because we paid that little extra, getting served drinks and food the whole time! And it's like, "You know, this could be waaayy worse!"
When you're waiting in the terminal, how do you usually spend your time? What are you doing with your free time?
If I've got a lay over or some extra time, I'm always trying to find an open power outlet, which is a challenge. Especially at DIA -- if anybody reads this, they definitely need more. But I also collect refrigerator magnets from different cities, and countries, so I might be trying to search for some cool ones.
Alright, time for the tough question: Earlier this summer on Facebook, you dissed the new Daft Punk album, you called it "EDM for old folks." Do you remember saying that?
[laughs, hard] Yes, yes I did.
Has your opinion changed of that record at all over time?
I actually deleted it off my computer. I don't have room on my hard drive for boring ass shit like that. But you know what? I've grown tolerant of "Get Lucky" and "Lose Yourself to Dance." I think those are the only two that are remotely playable, from a DJ perspective. I'm not saying it's bad....
You're a fan of Daft Punk?
I've never been a huge fan of theirs, no. But I think they make good music, and I think that album was extremely well done. But it's not for me at all. Like, if I was going to listen to that style of music, there's a million other things I would choose first. But with that being said, if somebody had the new Daft Punk on at a party, it wouldn't bother me one bit. With all the hype around it, and what expectations were, considering the fact that they had some dancefloor classics....I expected some DANCEFLOOR CLASSICS! They didn't deliver that. But it's not about me; they didn't make it for me. They did exactly what they wanted to do, and more power to them. They are great artists, but there are a lot of great artists that I don't own their albums.
That brings up another question: As a turntablist, on first listen, are you listening to music differently? Are you asking yourself, "What could I do with this record?"
A lot of times, yeah. But really, I go through music constantly. I go through hundreds of records a week, just digging and searching. When I'm searching, if there's something I hear that I could never ever play, but it hits my ear and it's just something that sounds good, I will download it and listen to it still. I'm a fan of music. I always like to listen to music, and it doesn't matter if it's country or classical if it sounds good I'll pick it up. I'm a fan of music, like ALL genres.
Has there been a place that you've gotten booked and you stepped out on stage and thought, "Man, never in my wildest dreams did I think it would come to this"?
Hmmm, yeah. Yeah... there's been some moments. I guess, I never really thought about it. When I started deejaying, the goal was never, "I wanna do this show, or this and that." It was all about well, this is fun. I mean it was fun. I never even cared about making a career out of deejaying until Bart's was basically going under, and I was like "I'm not gonna go get another job. I would rather risk destroying my passion and making a career out of deejaying." Even from there, I never thought about doing a lot of these venues and being able to get onstage at like Bonnaroo or Roskilde in Denmark standing onstage in front of thousands of people and having them go crazy.
It's an amazing feeling to know that, when you love something and you work hard at it, sometimes it actually does come back around and pay off. And it's nice to know that there's a lot of people that appreciate the time, when you go up there and show people what you do, all the work that you put into it. When people actually appreciate what you do it's a great feeling.
Okay, last question, having said what you said, and knowing what you know now of the music industry, the business of deejaying and just life: What would you say to him if you could talk to that early '90s Chris Karns on the way to the thrift shop with his friend in Fort Wayne, Indiana?
There's nothing that I could have said to that Chris Karns because back in those days, the early '90s, Chris Karns did not listen to anybody! And to be totally honest, early '90s Chris Karns was a HATER! So if I would have told Chris Karns... if, when I started deejyaing, if that person had seen some of the things that I've done, he probably would have hated on the current me. But people grow. You have to learn how to grow and expand your horizons.
The choices were: Do I want to -- and there's nothing wrong with either of these choices -- stay true to what I thought was "keepin' it real" and just continue to just play nothing but early '90s classics? Like some DJs do that. You go and see them, and they've been playing the same set for the last twenty years. Or do I open my mind up to different types of music and try and stay more current with what's going on in the current music scene.
I'm glad I'm doing what I'm doing. It's a lot more work to stay on top of all the new stuff, but I'm to the point now where I wanna be the person who's finding the songs and playing different shit. Setting the trends for other DJs to follow, and not just being left behind. I wanna be on the cutting edge of the music, and definitely, the Chris Karns of old would not have had any of that, not for a moment.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.