In the Studio: Karizma—The Baltimore Bass Guru Talks Building Drums and Drama


Wham City and club music aside, Baltimore is still a place where you can roll up to a red light and hear deep house thumping from a car window, or find a "House Music Lives" sticker plastered on an alley door. Before club music, house was the dance music of the city—and its old-school residents remember it fondly. Right as Baltimore club exploded into the world's DJ crates, Karizma (a.k.a. Chris Clayton) got into the studio with the Basement Boys team of DJ Spen and Teddy Douglas, and learned how to make house music. After a baffling amount of remix work, and a well-received leap into solo production, Karizma is keeping the house music faith alive. On a stifling early-Summer day in Baltimore, we caught up with the producer and DJ on a brief stop back in his hometown to talk about learning from the masters.

XLR8R: What are some of the biggest things you learned from working in the studio with the Basement Boys?
How to structure a song. And, from Spen, I learned engineering and the technical aspects of the studio. It's a big part of everything I do now. Unruly [Records] was different—[I] pretty much made the Baltimore [club] tracks and that was it. This was a whole different meal. I learned song structure, how to make drama in a song, how to make something happen when there is nothin' happening with voices and stuff. I don't think I would be half of what I am without that experience.

Why did you move from making club music to house tracks?
It was what I wanted to do with music anyway. I had this Baltimore record that was nine minutes long—the longest club record ever. It took a year for anyone to play it. They was just used to three- or four-minute songs playing the same thing over and over. I used to tell the DJ, 'You gotta play for at least five or six minutes. It does different things.' When I saw that happenin', that they didn't want to let the song do anything, that's when I became discouraged and decided to move on. I thought the music should always grow and develop into something else. Moving to the Basement Boys was a breath of fresh of air. I was constantly doing remixes, constantly doing something different drumwise—which doesn't apply to Baltimore club. I never used the same drums at Basement Boys, and that was something I promised I would never do.

Karizma - "Drumz Nightmare"

When you hear a track, what tells you whether or not it's something you can work with as a remix?
If I think I can take it a different way, or it's a good song—hopefully both. If I just hear, like, a chant in the song I think I can work with. Or, the third thing is just something completely different that would give me a challenge. How can I make it way different than what it was, hopefully to make it a better track? I always try to throw different things into the circle so people don't become bored with what I do.

Where do you start in the studio?
[It] depends. Sometimes the [Ensoniq] ASR-10, because that's what I use for drums. For years, that's all I used. I never even used to use computers in my stuff. I was just too scared. I like the sound, the dirtiness of the stuff that's analog. I kind of do a little bit of both now—call it digi-log. I take stuff from the ASR or the MPC and then dump it into Logic. The majority of the time, it starts out with my drums. And then keys or synth.

Why did you decide it was cool to start using a computer?
It just seemed like the right move. Some of my friends were just killing it on Logic. I used to use a PC, which is really cheap and you can get everything cracked—but it's not the most stable thing. Viruses come, and then you lost your song. 95% of my friends use Logic and a Mac, so that's how I ended up making the move. [Live], I still use [Pioneer] CDJs. I still don't have enough trust in the computer.

What piece of gear do you covet?
An original Moog synthesizer. I wish I had one of those.

What production technique or style are you just sick of hearing?
Right now, I guess a lot of the big-room stuff I really don't like because it's just all the same and there's nothing different. Like, you can expect that 16 or 32 bars will be filtered down and come back up. When I can figure a record out two or three minutes in, those are the types of records I can't stand. I like records that take me somewhere else or throw me [for] a loop. Predictability in a track is what turns me off the most.