Karizma: A House Iconoclast

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Self diagnosed as “a.d.d. with music,” Chris “Karizma” Clayton has always aspired to be a producer who “keeps changing and moving on to different things for the challenge.” This is not always the easiest way to make a name for yourself in a music scene that praises a “signature sound.” But now, after 15-plus years as a pioneering producer and DJ in the Baltimore club scene, Clayton is getting attention worldwide, and most of his accolades are actually of his diversity as a producer.

Beat Street
Last year was truly big for this laid-back, thoughtful proponent of drummy deep house and artfully broken beats. He released his debut full-length, A Mind of Its Own, for the R2 label, as well as mix CDs for notable house labels NRK and Soul Heaven. Karizma remixes appeared on a brilliant spectrum of labels, including Defected, Yoruba, Sonar Kollektiv, Compost, and Raw Fusion. When I catch up with Karizma, he’s just returned home to Baltimore after a whirlwind two-month European tour. “I’ve been loving the last couple months [on tour],” he says. “As a DJ, I’ve been able to play everything I want to play, not be in a box as a regular house DJ or what have you.”

Karizma’s gratifying DJ tour may not have been possible, if not for the love A Mind of Its Own has been receiving. BBC radio DJs and nu-jazz tastemakers Gilles Peterson and Benji B latched on to the album, showing a particular amount of love to his raw, hypnotic, percussive workout “Twyst This,” a track that, transcends its B-more, broken beat, and house influences.

“The album was a really big extension of myself musically,” explains Clayton. “It’s everything I wanted to do. It’s all in the album: broken, hip-hop, moody stuff.” He goes on to talk about his appreciation for his new audience with the nu-jazz/soul heads (the kind that around Straight No Chaser magazine and Peterson’s Worldwide show). “I’m trying to slip away from the house stuff,” he explains. “You really can’t please the house crowd. No matter what music you do someone’s always saying something, like ‘You changed your style, you’re trying to do this now.’ If you stay at the same place you were two or three years ago, or even a day ago, then you’re not growing.”

Charm City Child
Karizma debuted on the Baltimore scene at age 13, DJing small house parties and fashion shows around the city. These early gigs helped him form his eclectic tastes, he says. “You couldn’t just play one kind of music. You had to play hip-hop, you had to play classics, you had to play the slow song for the dudes and girls to grind on. Seriously, dude, you had to play everything at the party.”

A stint as a hip-hop DJ on Morgan State University’s college station led to linking up with local house music staples Pope and Oji. Together, the three DJs forged their way into the Baltimore club scene, with some help from Basement Boy and Code Red Recordings owner DJ Spen. Karizma and Spen began recording under the Basement Boys moniker, starting with a remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Beautiful.” “That solidified how well we worked together,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Dude, lets take over! We could be the next Masters at Work.’” Perhaps due in part to their regional limitations, they didn’t reach MAW’s ubiquitous status, but their partnership led to over 30 mix collaborations and numerous original productions. Along the way, Karizma even made a few rough ‘n’ ready breakbeat house-meets-Baltimore club music EPs (as K-Man) for Scottie B’s Unruly Records label.

Eventually, Karizma drifted away from the Basement Boys to do his own thing. These days, he’s working with West London’s Simbad as Izmabad, a project that combines their respective backgrounds to create a vibe that is simultaneously unpolished and edgy, underpinned by rich, deep house touches. With Canadian producer Martino he forms Soul Intentions, who create a more classic New York house sound akin to Masters at Work or DJ Spinna. He’s also teamed with New York soulful house don Dennis Ferrer for the first single on Ferrer’s Objektivity label.

Vision Thing
His dizzying collection of projects, aliases, and appearances on an array of labels–from Soulfuric and Yoruba, to Brownswood and Co-Op–has proved to be just what he needed to garner fans worldwide. But, say those who work with him, it’s Karizma’s sound that really leaves listeners wanting more. “He knows how to bring the vibe on the dancefloor and beyond with his beats,” concurs Simbad. “Somehow, most of his productions have a timeless element to them.”

“Everyone knows Karizma is a great DJ and beatmaker,” professes Martino. “He's got the appreciation for beautiful melody and chord progressions, but at the same time, the raw, grimy edge has to be there as well–almost instinctively. Few people can get as dirty as he does.”

Perhaps those raw drums and grimy edges popping up in the music are a testament to Karizma’s Baltimore roots, or maybe it’s the musical aggression of a producer fiercely trying to do things his way. “Karizma is a dude who has to be by himself,” says longtime Baltimore club DJ/producer Scottie B, who worked with Clayton and the Basement Boys in the ’90s. “He has his own vision and it has to be that way. He’s a genius, this guy–his shit is hot and he’s a great DJ–but geniuses only know themselves.”

Clayton might not put it the same way, but it’s clear his success has been based on doing what he wants, even if that means severing relationships and rules. “You gotta change within yourself musically,” he offers. “Even if people don’t follow you, it’s just something you gotta do for yourself.”

Karizma on Dennis Ferrer:
“I met Dennis at [London club] Egg with Jerome Syndenham; we were enjoying ourselves and from that point on I just knew he was a cool cat. You know how you know a person and you know you’ll be able to get along with them and there’s no worries within your relationship, you know you’ll just be cool with this cat forever? Dennis is that person to me. We’re also each other’s ears. That’s the type of relationship we have, a real brotherly-type thing. Anything he needs on my end he got, and likewise. What Dennis is adding to the scene is what I like to call “out of the box”. He approaches music from a different angle. A lot of people like to do it the simple way or the way other people are doing it. Dennis cares but, then again, he doesn’t. It’s kinda the way I think about stuff: I don’t even think about what’s going on out there musically, I just do it. If it feels right then I do it, and that’s what I love about Dennis.”