DJ Chris Grass: Atlanta
As Fresh as Grass — Atlanta’s King of the Eclectic Groove
By J.C. Tripp
Atlanta might be known for its “dirty South” sound but fans of downtempo, house and broken beat know there’s a vibrant underground scene to satiate their tastes. And they know that talent abounds, with artists like Jhelisa, Julie Dexter and the city’s most diverse DJ, Chris Grass calling the city home. Grass has become well known for his imaginative, melodic performances and impeccable track selection. His sets are a melting pot of musical genres, flowing from cosmic downtempo funk and atmospheric deep house to fiery Afro-Cuban grooves and the soulful fusion of West London brokenbeat, with a dash of dub and a sprinkling of drum n’ bass thrown in for added flavor!
It is this inimitable style that distinguishes Grass from his contemporaries — an amalgamation of nearly three decades of musical influence, seamlessly held together by the common threads of funk, jazz and soul. Firm in his belief that music be as spontaneous and dynamic as possible, Grass often incorporates percussionists, horn players, and vocalists into his live sets, adding a whole new layer of improvisation to the mix. Taking his cue from the new school of club DJs, Chris is well-versed in the idea that a DJ should not only entertain but educate as well, moving both mind and body in the process. Grass’ presence in Atlanta is well known and his Friday night residency Atlanta’s Halo Lounge is a staple of the scene. Grass is also co-resident at Bazzaar for Atlanta’s only downtempo music monthly, “Adagio”, and just picked up a residency at one of Atlanta’s largest and most distinguished venues: Opera (formerly known as Eleven50). In addition to DJing, he has been involved, along with a dedicated group, in bringing leading international talent like Jazzanova, Kyoto Jazz Massive, Toshio Matsuura, Jeremy Ellis, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Capital A, Bembe Segue, J. Boogie, Thunderball and a host of others to Atlanta. His dedication to quality, diverse dance music keeps Atlanta’s scene fresh as…Grass.
MUNDOVIBES: What were the early “youthful” influences and experiences that shaped your musical tastes?
CHRIS GRASS: Well, I grew up listening to big band jazz and fusion, plus I played trombone for about 12 years, so you could definitely say that jazz influenced my tastes. However, I was also big into fuzzy, spacey indie rock (Failure, Hum, My Bloody Valentine, Jawbox, The Clouds, etc.), so I definitely have some rock/pop sensibilities in my sets. The minimalist John Adams (of classical music fame) was a huge influence on me while I was in high school, especially his works “Harmonielehre” and “The Chairman Dances”. Front 242 and The Orb were my first real introduction to electronic music in high school. Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines” and Failure’s swan song “Fantastic Planet” were essential listening for me in the 90’s.
MUNDOVIBES: Was there any one track or moment where you thought “Hey, I really dig this!”
The first time I heard Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine”, I was completely enthralled. The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” was pretty swell, too.
How did you get into DJing?
I used to be in charge of music at all the parties I went to as a kid, and then I was a radio DJ in college, then a big band/jazz DJ shortly after, so spinning in the clubs seemed like the next logical step.
What is your DJ name and why?
I just use my real name – Chris Grass – because it works, and also because I can’t come up with anything original. When I spin with live musicians, I use the name ‘Soulshape’, which is more of a collaborative thing…and will hopefully bleed over into some production work soon!
Who are your DJ heroes?
Gilles Peterson, Mr. Scruff, Sabo and the Unabombers
How have you seen the role of the DJ evolve?
Well, unfortunately, clubs these days expect DJs to be promoters as well as DJs, and to be honest, I think that this totally dilutes what a DJ is all about. Promoters should promote, and DJs should play records. As far as evolution goes, I do see many more DJs these days taking more chances, which is always exciting for the listener. There’s no limit to what can be done in the booth with all the neat musical toys that are available!
What are the rewards of DJing?
Other than the obvious (making girls dance!), I just like seeing people get into new music that they
normally wouldn’t get a chance to discover.
What do you do with annoying people who tap on the DJ booth and say “you got any….”
I try to be as polite as possible…if I get a request that makes sense in the context of the set that I’m
playing, and if I actually have the song, I have no problems with playing it. This rarely ever happens,
though, but you should always treat your audience with respect, even if they don’t reciprocate.
Greatest challenges to DJing your music?
Getting an audience to realize that there is more music to discover than what radio and MTV are telling them to listen to.
How do crowds react to what you play?
Almost always positively! They usually express their delight by dancing, nodding their heads, tearing off their clothes…
As a DJ have you ever saved someone’s life with what you played as in the song “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life?”
No, but I’ve gotten kisses for playing good songs! Is that the same thing?
What do you feel makes a great DJ?
It’s definitely a combination of elements – technical skill, music selection/programming, timing, and the ability to read and move a crowd. Stage presence is pretty important, too – and by that, I mean that a DJ should always be into what he/she is playing. Bored DJ=bored crowd.
Your sets are impeccable in their selection and blending. How do you create your sets, how much is pre-planned and how much is spontaneous?
I really don’t pre-plan anything I play…I do try to concentrate on working in as much new music as I can, but in order to challenge myself, I like to be as spontaneous as possible. Inevitably, I always finish a night without having played a few tracks that I was really hoping to work into my set!
Who are some of the other DJs to check out in Atlanta?
Nabani Banks, Mike Zarin, Kai Alce, Justin Chapman, Kemit, DJ Y, Rachael, Chris Nicholson, Jeff Myers, Brian Edwards, Mike Katz, Karl Injex, Scott Saunders, Shaun Duval, David Waterman, Anne Tyler, and Rare Form are just a handful of the talented DJs in our fair city.
Do you feel like you have to “educate” a crowd about the music?
I used to feel very strongly about this, but nowadays I don’t let that view dominate my sets. It can really alienate a crowd, and there are only a few DJs who can get away with it (Gilles P, for example)
Shuya Okino, Nabani, Chris Grass, Daz-i-kue
You have a regular Friday event called “Illuminate” at Atlanta’s Halo Lounge. Tell us about this. What is the music selection and the vibe?
The goal of Illuminate is to expose the audience to new & cutting edge elecronic music, all while
promoting a solid, positive vibe and an atmosphere free of pretention. Music styles range from Domu/Bugz in the Attic broken boogie, to Fort Knox/Tru Thoughts style funk and soul, Freerange/Winding Road style house, hip-hop a la Freddie Cruger and Nicolay, and
then the world music of Turntables on the Hudson and Organic Grooves. There’s also a bit of soulful d’n’b thrown in, such as Makoto and London Elektricity. No genre is safe, really! The only real rule I have is that the music be as cheese-free as possible, while still being both fun and accessible.
What other clubs are you involved with in Atlanta?
I’ve played just about everywhere; Bazzaar, Lava, East Side Lounge are some of my favorite venues other than Halo. I am also now a Saturday night resident at Opera, formerly known as Eleven50. Check it out at http://www.operatlanta.com (shameless plug!)
What most influences people’s musical tastes in Atlanta? Are they hip to the latest style?
Atlanta is obviously known for its contribution to hip-hop, but we have a strong soul scene bubbling in the underground. There is also a growing indie/dance rock crowd here as well, and our house music scene is strong as ever. The drum ‘n’ bass heads are solid, too.
Have people gotten more sophisticated with their listening choices?
For the most part, yes, although mashups are popular everywhere right now, and most of those aren’t exactly sophisticated. I have mixed feelings on this, as some are fairly brilliant, but there are also a lot of rubbish mashups getting played out. They are trendy right now, but I feel like a backlash is coming.
What are the most current genres that you are playing a lot of music from?
For me, it’s not so much genres as it is labels! I’ve been playing pretty much everything from Tru
Thoughts, Especial, Sonar Kollektiv, Schema and Compost Records, and I really like the Freerange
label’s recent output. The disco resurgence has been full of surprises, too. The Noid label is one to watch for sure.
Do you have any memorable sets like DJing on a tropical beach in the Caribbean or a fabulous penthouse in Hong Kong surrounded by supermodels?
DJing at Co-Op in Miami in 2006, and spinning with Shuya Okino of KJM at Halo this year. Daz-i-kue showed up and played MC for about 2 hours at that one, and I have the pics to prove it! Incredible, memorable nights.
Downtempo has become a very popular genre with groups like Thievery Corporation selling hundreds of thousands of records. How do you see this genre evolving?
I see it getting even more cosmic and emotionally deep than it has ever been before…the Elektrolux and Mole labels have taken that ball and are currently running with it. Downtempo is one of my first, true loves, and I hope that the genre continues to evolve, forever. Ulrich Schnauss, Nathan Fake, The Egg, The Cinematic
Orchestra and Fenomenon have released some of the most beautiful downtempo I’ve heard in recent years.
When was the last time you played AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”?
Who the hell are AC/DC? 😉
You are known for DJing very eclectic sets, what types of music do you play and how do you tie it all together?
Again, I try not to limit myself by genre…I just try and play connect the dots with just about everything I play, which is how I challenge myself musically. I’m definitely a champion of the new school of music…I enjoy the classics, but plenty of DJs already play them, so I focus more on emerging music and artists.
Grass with soul diva Alice Russell
What are your primary sources for music — local shops, online, digital downloads?
Brick and mortar shops are a dying breed, which is very sad for those of us still committed to vinyl (and CD!). Nowadays, I get 90% of my music online, from places like Groovedis, Dustygroove, Soulseduction, and GEMM.
Do you think vinyl is on its way out? Is it the same without records to spin?
I am actually a relative newcomer to vinyl, having only spun it for only 5 years, so I hope it’s around
forever. I’m still buying plenty of vinyl, so the well hasn’t quite dried up yet. I haven’t switched over to
one of the laptop formats because (to be completely honest) I really dislike staring at a computer screen for hours on end when I don’t really have to. It’s one thing to do it at my dayjob, but I’m just not ready to extend that to DJing just yet. It’s really hard to get inspired by staring at a computer screen. It’s great for travelling DJs, though!!
With the internet it is easier than ever to sample new music, the only problem is the sheer volume of what’s out there. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?
I just do a lot of listening…it doesn’t take long to figure out if a track is garbage or not…still, there
are plenty of fantastic ideas floating around out there, and with all this access people have to them,
the “chaff” is usually weeded out pretty quickly.
Do you also produce music or want to?
It’s on my shortlist of things to do!!
What are the DJ tools that are essential for you?
2 turntables, 2 CDJ1000-MK3s, 1 Pioneer EFX-500, and a decent mixer!
What would be your dream DJing gig other than sharing a stage with Paul Oakenfold and Tiesto?
What the hell is a Tiesto? I’d love to play at Plastic People sometime…or at Yellow or The Room in Japan.
Current top 10 tracks
1. Milton Jackson “Cycles”
2. OK-Ma “Baby Blue”
3. Studio R “A & R”
4. Lovebirds “Behind You”
5. Afromento “Baya”
6. Parov Stelar “Rock For”
7. Force of Nature “To the Brain”
8. S.U.M.O. “Gravity”
9. Solo Moderna “Ride”
10. Fenomenon “Pearls and Gold”
Current top 5 full-lengths
1. Secret Stealth “Mince and Onions”
2. Beatfanatic “Around the World in 80 Beats”
3. Solo Moderna “Boogalookalikes”
4. Buscemi “Retro Nuevo”
5. Kraak & Smaak – “The Remix Sessions”