Kris Klayton is proud of his heritage. Hailing from Baltimore, the far-reaching DJ and producer has spent the last two decades and more putting together sounds under various sonically-distinguishable aliases, catapulting himself across the world as a DJ in constant demand, but never losing sight of his roots. “There's a pride in coming from Baltimore, because a lot of artists when they get known they go away, and I never wanted to do that”, he insists. “I wanted to show that yeah, you can make it, and you can do what you're doing musically or in any career, and still stay in touch with the city that you came from.”
Best known for his work under the Karizma moniker, Klayton credits his mid-Atlantic hometown with inspiring a career that has seen him become one of the most appreciated artists in underground dance music, so it is no surprise that it’s from there that he calls on a brief break from working on material for his next album. “Baltimore is always seen as a very harsh city”, he concedes, “but out of harsh things come beautiful things, and hopefully I'm one of them.”
A church upbringing, he suggests, was instrumental in fostering the sense of attachment that he feels to the Baltimore city and its people.
“If you're a church guy, you're always taught to stay in a community and try to brighten it as much as you can, so I think that's my strong tie. I love Baltimore; there's always bad things about it, but I want to be one of the good things that come out of it.
"Coming from a church background, when you go into a club atmosphere, when you're playing music to people, you're more or less a minister or a speaker, so that's the role you take on. I don't think a lot of people really think about this in a DJ aspect, but you're giving positive notes or negative notes to people when you play music and the way you put it together.”
At first glance, Sunday sermons seem a far cry from the hedonistic environments that clubs enclose, but for Karizma, the two settings are much the same, both acting as vessels for human connections to be made.
“I think it all ties in, because church is a gathering of people where you share ideas and you share a faith. Same thing with music. You go to a club and it's a situation where you're all there to hear this person, this music or this genre that you love, so it brings us all together. So that's the tie. We're all coming together to hear and be brought the words, which is music”, he explains.
“Whatever genre it is, I think it's always a church experience, but people don't realise that it actually is. So I think that's what ties into this whole music aspect, it's a gathering of people. We're all on the same accord. Essentially that's what we all should be in general; music is the thing that breaks down all the barriers. This is what ties the church and music together, it's very closely related.”
It’s no coincidence that religious tropes are littered throughout house music, evident in the euphoric gospel classics of the genre’s birthplaces and the words of its pioneers. Venues like Paradise Garage in New York and Chicago’s Warehouse are etched into the history books as the places where house began, and inscribed alongside them are tracks like The Joubert Singers’ “Stand On The Word”, Pastor T.L. Barett’s “Nobody Knows” and NYCC’s “I'll Keep My Light In My Window”, songs of the church repurposed for dancefloors in the days when Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan were turning club audiences into their own congregations. At the heart of house was disco, and at the heart of disco was the music of black churches, which gave rise to soul, motown and R&B.
“Musically, great singers came out of church, and went on to be into R&B and things like that, so there's always going to be a tie between music and church”, Karizma emphasises. But is there an issue when music born from struggle, or from faith, is recontextualised to entertain a room full of party-goers?, I ask.
“I think all of it, all types of music, should be able to be played in a club setting”, he responds. “As far as gospel being brought to the clubs, I don't think you should be hammered with a bunch of gospel stuff, but every now and then it's good to hear something inspirational like that in a club setting, because you probably wouldn't hear it otherwise.”
Those inspirational moments, he insists, are necessary on any dancefloor, and gospel has always been impassioned.
“Most people don't go to church, you know. I'm very religious but I don't even go to church like that anymore, since I was a kid, since I was 17, actually. That's when I really stopped heavily being into church”, Klayton explains. “At the same time I give a ministry because of the music that I play, and because I'm trying to convey some positive message. It's not just about hot music - I could play that all day long, but I feel if you're not giving people anything to walk away with, it's a waste of time, you know?”
For someone so invested in the spirituality of the dancefloor, I muse, it must be difficult watching symbols of its heritage falling prey to the business interests of modern cities, for instance in the demolition of institutions like the building that housed Paradise Garage, as authorised by Manhattan authorities back in July.
“All of the birthplaces are very important to us, and I wish they could stay around, but at the same time as much as I really miss these places - and I have to add in we just lost our biggest club in Baltimore, Paradox, which was our Paradise Garage - to see these places leave really is upsetting, but you're hoping that that opens up a gateway for new beginnings and new people to start something in that vein. Hopefully there will be another type of Paradise Garage, or another Paradox, or this or that, so that we can continue with the tradition.”
Baltimore is often portrayed as a city divided, with vast inequality and a racial dynamic that has often led to conflict, and Paradox was seen as a place where anyone could express themselves freely. Having partied with noticeably mixed crowds during his formative years, Klayton found that it was when running his own club night that the pervasiveness of the city’s racial tensions became apparent, something that he had not previously associated with party culture, and it was this that made him so appreciative of spaces that fostered integration.
“It was really weird because it was basically a white-run club and they felt comfortable and it was great, but then once I started inviting my people down there, they were a little scared for the first year or so, they would leave and then the black people would come in and there would be some type of tension, when there really needed not to be (as) it was all about the music. After a year they started to trust each other and we could party together, but that was the first time I realised how segregated even the dance community was, which didn't make sense to me, because when I was coming up as a kid, I partied with all types of people.
“In time, all types of people came to the party because they felt it was safe, and you know, it really opened my eyes to something that I didn't think exists, but it does.” His appreciation for the communal power of clubbing environments is clear, and I ponder whether their importance is heightened in the increasingly polarised society of Trump’s America.
“I really think any institution that supports dance music is important, because at the end of the day we all need some type of let off. We all have our vices. Dancing and letting off steam is a good one, because in these days and times, with the Trump situation - but not just Trump, all over the world - things are getting really crazy, so to lose some of these places and not get them replaced is just more tension, and that's not a really good thing for our culture, or for the human race, because we need some type of outlet.”
More important than the big clubs, he argues, are the “small, hole in the wall” clubs that embody the underground rather than cater to commercial interests. “The bigger [clubs] are suited more to money than music, and I'm hoping that smaller ones will open up and allow the underground scene to flourish. You have to have some foundation, which is the underground. We're the guys that keep the commerical things going.”
Heading to London on Saturday 28th October, Karizma is joined by long-time friend DJ Spen at Egg, another Baltimore native.
“It's always great playing with Spen because we were damn-near married for like six or seven years at Basement Boys. When you're in a room with someone constantly, that is a marriage that happens, and musically you prepare a bond that over time for some breaks, but for some reason we just always can click. Whenever we get on the road together it's really really great, because we have energy that won't seem to go away. I love that dude, it's always a pleasure.”
(Karizma and Spen in Halloween attire at last year's Egg appearance)
With a local comrade at his side, a taste of the classic Baltimore sound might be on the cards for the UK audience, I hypothesise, perhaps stating the obvious.
“Something from Baltimore always makes my playlist, I don't care where I play at”, he asserts. “I give them a taste of everything - I'll never not give you some dirty. That's just crazy to me to not play anything dirty because it's part of my heritage to play something kind of percussive and dirty and crunchy, I like that. I can also give you the hard and sweet and whatever you need, I'm always feeling out the crowd, but I'm always wanting to give you a part of where I came from.
“Most of us house DJs don't listen to house all day long, so why would I deny my crowd that opportunity to actually hear who I am? Because just playing house doesn't represent who Karizma or Kris is. When I play across the board, that generally is me because that's what I listen to at home. You should be just as diverse as you are at home when you are in the club setting.”
Regardless of the setting or the audience, he argues, the music all comes from the same place: “hopefully from a place of love.”
“There shouldn’t be any distinction…”, he starts again, but corrects himself. “The only distinction there should be is good or bad music. That’s it.”
Karizma plays at Hollywood Forever Halloween at Egg London on Saturday 28th October, with DJ Spen at his side and Christian Smith, Drunken Kong and Matt Sassari also on the lineup.
Photos courtesy of Karizma