Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Welcome to the DJ Booth. Let me introduce you to DJ Chris Burns

Perhaps DC’s only DJ with a silhouette of the District tattooed on his chest, who has a thrill for cricket and a strange love for “1970s Yacht Rock,” DJ Chris Burns has morphed from his adolescence days of hardcore punk and Stanton DJ-in-a-box kits to a generation of dance music vibes.

From his early days of filtering through crates upon crates of vinyl at Georgetown’s Yoshitoshi to DJ Hut in Dupont, Burns recalls back in time when he had no idea what was actually good or what music he liked, he just instituted a “trial by error process” of snagging all the dope beats and learning how to mix them. “I would come home after track practice in high school everyday and spend an hour or two tinkering and figuring out how it all worked."

Hailing from Silver Spring, Maryland, Burns’ still makes his away back to the burbs often via Zipcar where he goes thrifting, checks out the cool mom and pop restaurants and shops at the mega-Asian supermarkets for weird stuff to cook at home. DC This Week had the opportunity this past month to interview Chris and learn more about his obsession with DC and with cricket, in fact, he had a stint on the Washington Cricket League and played for a club in Maryland.

So kick back, step into the DJ booth, and let me introduce you to DJ Chris Burns.

What are you currently listening to in your car/at home/ on your Ipod?

At home I like to put on full length LPs and recently have been listening to alot of 70s rock, krautrock and new-agey stuff. However staples include Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Funkadelic, Steve Wonder, Chaka Khan, Grace Jones, Quincy Jones, etc. When I go running, I keep my iPod loaded with podcasts so I can check new tunes from across different genres.

How has technology impacted the equipment and the state of music?

Technology has obviously made DJing alot easier in many regards. The way you access and buy music is a totally different experience with the near extinction of 12" record shops. I'm neither for or against this, they both have their advantages/disadvantages. The only thing I really do miss is the experience of going to a local record shop (for me it was DJ Hut) and talking to other patrons, shooting the shit, sharing knowledge etc.

I just switched to Serato about a month ago after playing a combo of records and cds for several years. I like it alot and it has been saving me a ton of time organizing my music and improving the way I play by having my loops and cue points saved and ready to go (as opposed to having to enter them each time I loaded a track on a CDJ.

However, laptop DJing has bred a high level of mediocrity. I stand firm in my belief that every DJ needs to start out playing records and by building a physical, vinyl record collection. To be honest, if you call yourself a DJ and you don't have a collection, I really won't take you seriously. If you can learn to play records the traditional way, everything else falls into its place. Buying vinyl records is something that no DJ should ever cease to do as there is always amazing music to be discovered that is not available on the internet in a high quality format. I think DJ's who don't have an emotional attachment to physical music media (LP album covers, 12"s etc.) are really missing something.

photo via Sexy Fitsum/iLLIMETER

In order to be a successful DJ you have to be in tune to what the people are feeling. How do you stay in touch with what's hot and what's not?

Playing these "underground" parties and scenes really makes you depend upon your own tastes on what is going to work and what is not. There are always a few breakout tracks and staples that the house crowd really loves and are go-to's if nothing is working, like those recent Teddy Douglas records, Mirror Dance, almost any of the Quentin Harris RnB remixes, etc. I try to work those in to my sets along with all the other discoveries I make.

I don't play top 40 or pander to a commercial crowd, though I occasionally love some of the stuff that does come out in the mainstream (Robin Thicke, MJB, Mariah Carey, that new Whitney Houston, etc.). To be honest, I basically try to find new and old tracks that are well produced and will fit together nicely depending on a certain kind of vibe I think will come up. I go out to alot of different kinds of DJ nights and parties and try to pick up on stuff that is good and will cross over to what I do as well. I have been lucky to start getting promos and upfront material from artists that I really respect so if it catches my ear then I will play it.

Are there any companies, sponsors and/or labels that you are associated with?

I have done parties in conjunction and with the support of brands like Scion, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Colt 45, Flying Dog Ales, Amp Energy Drink, Sweetgreen, DURKL, Kia, Red Bull and probably a few more I am forgetting. Scion has been a real blessing for many of us who try to do things outside of the mainstream clubs and has provided solid financial support in order to help us deliver quality events.

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What is a common misconception about DJing?

That you can buy a computer and learn to do it overnight. It takes times and patience to learn how to mix, program, read a crowd, build a music collection, etc.

What are your thoughts concerning DJ's and their role in the music business?

The priority of the DJ is to entertain and provide a great atmosphere that people will enjoy. There is so much music being made and released these days that the DJ is another filter and that is important. If a few DJs start hammering a hot track at parties around town, people are going to want to go download it for themselves, therefore making the artist more popular and consequently making their appeal/draw as a DJ or performing artist increase.

Do you think that your work supports or subverts most artist?

I am not sure how a DJ would subvert an artist? By playing their music you are thereby promoting their work. I do however think sometimes these edits/remixes can destroy what was originally a quality piece of music.

Who was the first person or artist who you heard growing up which got you hooked on music?

I have no idea. My parents were always playing all kinds of different music around the house or in the car when growing up. Lots of stuff from around the world, classical, George Winston, a little bit of soul, some classic rock, etc. I think I connected the music that I liked with my own personal identity and when I was about 13.

What do you think differentiates you from other DJ's?

I really believe in trying to achieve and play music at a high sound quality. About 65% of the music I play has been ripped from my own vinyl collection. I don't think alot of DJs put care into this and are all too eager to play mp3s. Earlier this year, I invested a nice chunk of change in an old audiophile turntable with a moving coil cartridge, high-quality phono preamp and apogee duet a-d converter. The rips I am getting from this setup sound really nice and warm and I don't downgrade to .mp3. When I buy music or get music, I insist on .wav files. I do play some 320kbps files here and there, but I really try to stick to high quality files.

Musically, I think I try to bridge alot of different kinds of music that I considered compelling, deep and moving. There is quality to be found in almost every genre and I think I try to contextualize and breakdown the mood and appropriate vibe of every piece of quality music I come across. I try to be creative and break things down, especially at the end of the night. I absolutely hate being at a party during the last 30-45 minutes and the DJ is playing like its still peak hour. I love to slow the tempo, get real romantic and moody with that shit.

My background with how I got exposed to dance music is a bit different than most in DC. When I turned 21, I would go to clubs like Shelter when visiting NYC and continue to try to get to NYC as much as I can to get tastes of that NYC house/disco legacy. My experiences at Shelter and seeing Timmy Regisford play have had the most impact on how I DJ. The emotional release you get from dancing in a club with a serious soundsystem for 6-8 hours at a stretch with a couple hundred other like minded people is incredible. No drunks, no fake people, just the realest vibes on Sunday morning afterhours.

On that note, I don't think many DJs care or appreciate the history of where this music comes from. I love the history, characters and past of club music. There are so many DJs in DC who wanna claim that they play or rep house yet have probably never even been to a proper house club or night in DC or anywhere else. Same goes for all these people playing Baltimore club music. And trust me, that kind of ignorance shows. I try to take the lessons and experiences from going to the parties with the older DJs and knowledgeable crowds and apply them to my own stuff.

What is your favorite piece of music? What are your favorite albums?

Too many to name, but a few off the top of my head include Transfer Station Blue, Quincy Jones' "The Dude", Herbie Hancock "Headhunters" and "Sunlight", Alan Parsons Project "I Robot", Steve Wonder "Songs in the Key of Life", Jean Michel Jarre "Oxygene", Walter Carlos "Sonic Seasonings." Just a good balance between the soulful and the trippy.

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What are some of your favorite places to unwind in D.C. and around D.C.?

Spaworld in Centreville is the dopest for relaxation! The weekend Indian vegetarian buffet at Woodlands in Langley Park is also a favorite of mine. The Gibson is awesome for cocktails on off-nights and Marvin is great but has been getting too crowded in recent months. Sundays at ESL with Sam Burns are always fun. I probably eat at Distrito Federal at least once-twice a week for tostadas and tacos. The roof deck at Local 16 is chill in the summer/fall and I like the laid back vibe of Red Derby.

What is your Favorite Global Venue to Spin at?

Paradox in Baltimore. I have been lucky enough to play at Ultra Nate's "Deep Sugar" twice in the past year and that system is a real beast. I was intimidated the first go around but the second time this summer I really had a blast and warmed up to it. Clubs like that one, that were built for specifically for house music with big, 3-way analog setups have almost become all extinct. I think alot of DJs would be surprised how much better you can sound stylistically with a rotary mixer and a single eq control for the master out.


I will say that I am really excited for what Will Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth have in store for their new club, U Street Music Hall. If all goes to plan from what I am hearing and what Will has told me, I think they are going to be filling a much needed niche.

What is your advice to up-and-coming DJ's?

Be passionate and excited about music. Go with your gut. Balance what you feel with what the crowd is looking for energy wise. Do your own thing. Don't follow trends and do your best at playing music that you think is good and that others will like too.

Other than being a DJ what talent would you most like to possess?

I wish I was alot better at art. I can't draw or sketch for the life of me. I need to be a better musician. I played cello and bass as a kid. I have been doing some self study to get my musical theory back on point so I can flush things out quicker and not just have to rely fooling around with a piano and my ear.

Which gig/tour will you remember forever?

This year has been really exciting and I have been able to play and book alot of legendary DJs that I really look up to at 411 NY Ave. and the Trinidad and Tobago Clubhouse. Having Timmy Regisford come down to DC, especially since he hadn't played even in NYC in a while, was really special. The turnout for that was insane with folks from all over DMV, NJ, NYC, Philly, etc. making the pilgrimage. Warming up for Danny Krivit and Ron Trent during Inauguration weekend was also a real honor. The atmosphere surrounding the party, that weekend and the diverse turnout was incredible. I was really nervous when DJing that night because Danny was standing behind me and he is someone I really admire and respect. I was allowed to keep playing alot later than I thought and I was really taken aback when he complimented me on my set. Unfortunately that party got shut down early but during the moment it was Cloud 9 for sure.

This past April I was invited to play a club called Langstons in Brooklyn, which is known for being a club for real hardcore NY househeads. It was my first time playing a really packed, underground club in New York. I think alot of people got taken aback when they saw me take over in the DJ booth, but the crowd really responded and I was able to get really deep and historical with my selections. I also was introduced to Boyd Jarvis that night, who is another musician/producer who I look up to for his work with Timmy Regisford in the 1980s. He helped make some of my favorite records from that era and his live synth overdubs on the radio mix shows on WBLS in the 1980s are nothing short of mindblowing.

Was it difficult to get into the DJing scene? Were you taken seriously?

Being a young, long-haired white dude playing predominately black/gay music was a bit tough at first and it took a while for people to accept that I was serious about what I was doing. I had a couple incidents where I got screamed at or mocked but I guess it's all a part of paying your dues. I have come to realized that not everyone is going to love, accept or respect what I do, but that's something every person who entertains has to face.

So what's the deal with your music production?

I had been doing my own edits/re-edits for a couple of years, but in the past 5 months have really started to take producing my own stuff seriously. It can be frustrating at points because there is so much to learn, but I am having a blast and get that excitement that I felt when I first was learning to DJ. I have been trying to work on lots of different stuff. With Gavin (of Nouveau Riche), we made a couple of original commercial house tracks under the "Party Bros." alias that have gotten really good feedback. I have done some balearic/downtempo stuff that I haven't put out or shared yet, including a Dance Party remix that I am stoked on that I hope they release soon on their new deal with Atlantic. I also am doing something for Exactly right now as well. In terms of deep house, I just recorded a couple of really talented vocalists for a piece that I wrote and have like 3-4 other half finished deep house projects waiting to be worked on.

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Describe music in three words.

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2 comments:

DCFab! Girl said...

Luv the interviews! Do more :)

Bis said...

Sweet!