Hip-hop and Electronic Dance Music has been blending for years, with DJ’s remixing hip-hop tracks or taking acapellas from top songs and releasing exclusive mixes, the two genres have become deeply intertwined.
Recently one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed producers, Rick Rubin, and one EDM’s favorite acts Derek “Pretty Lights” Smith, have been collaborating on the music for an upcoming release. With help from Chris Karns, the 2011 DMC Champion and Yelawolf’s DJ, along with dozens of other musicians, Pretty Lights is taking his craft to the next level with the help of the legendary producer.
According to Karns, Pretty Lights ran into Rick Rubin coincidentally in L.A. over breakfast, “When Derek dropped his album Color Map of the Sun, and was even nominated for a Grammy, and at some point Rick had already become a fan of his work,” said Karns, continuing “according to him (Pretty Lights), he was sitting somewhere eating some pancakes and Rick sat down, and didn’t know what to say to him,” laughed Karns.
The conversation quickly turned into Rubin offering his legendary Shangri La Studios, and turned into Karns being invited to be part of that recording process. For Karns working with producer Pretty Lights has been both an inspiration and revealing process.
“He (Pretty Lights) likes to take risks, he’s the type of person to just go for it. He’s very ambitious, he’ll bite off more than you think he can chew, and right when you think he can’t swallow it, he gets it done. He’s a total genius and renaissance man,”
Karns went on to describe the five days he spent at the legendary studio, with dozen of other musicians as, “an incredible experience to be a part of. Derek literally had a semi-truck outside of the studio tons of vintage and rare gear from all over the world. So they would rotate instruments in an out of that session to capture different sounds.”
“The idea was that he was going to have all these people jam, but for the most part he was working as a director, from in the booth. He had a mic and everyone had headphones on, and he would just tell everyone what to play, and we would record breaks he is going to use to sample for his new music,” said Karns.
Karns first collaborated with Pretty Lights in 2014 at the Snowball Festival in Denver, Colorado. But the since the two had such amazing chemistry live on stage, they continued to collab on more shows. One of the most memorable in Chicago,”They had the stage set up in the end zone at Soldier Field, it was about forty-five thousand people which is one of the biggest crowds I ever played for,” said Karns.
“He was in Barcelona, and flew in, I was at the spot waiting for him, when he texted me saying, ‘I know we haven’t talked in a couple months and here we are with about to rock in front of forty-five thousand people, how do you feel about it?’ and I just knew we we’re going to crush it. We only had one song planned for the whole set, and we just winged it,” said Karns.
For the average DJ, playing an impromptu set with a live band and an international artist like Pretty Lights, it could be intimidating, but Karns spent years of DJing live with local bands throwing him in the mix, preparing for moments like these, “There was a two year period I would do a monthly gig with Bigwheel and basically they had an idea what they wanted me to do, but I had no real plan. I realized I needed to be organized. So I spent hundreds of hours organizing samples, putting everything in key, figuring out what samples need to go where. That was the ultimate training for me to play with any band moving forward.”
Working on Pretty Lights new album was taking the concept of impromptu jam sessions to the next level, “I would have a line from the guitar coming into my mixer,and I was recording what that guy was playing taking notes in my head,” said Karns of he recording session, “As soon as Derek would say drop something in, I would hit those cue points and do live sampling.”
Pretty Lights had gained confidence with Karns from several shows at Red Rocks, where Karns was the only one on stage with no set parts, and they would just let him drop samples and cuts in, ”I don’t think there is anyone else, as far as DJs who work with bands, who in their right mind would attempt to do this. Going live with a band and digging through random samples, in front of that many people, basically every song and it work out.”
As far as the music that will make the Pretty Lights album goes, Karns admits he was slightly trepidatious at first, “I had no idea what anything was going to sound like at first but I’ve heard some of the sessions, and they are incredible.”
See a live video of Chris Karns mixing below.