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Tuesday, 04 October 2011 06:00

88.1 KDHX DJ Spotlight: Chris Lawyer of Hip City

88.1 KDHX DJ Spotlight: Chris Lawyer of Hip City Sara Finke
Written by Kenji Yoshinobu
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For the last three years, Chris Lawyer has been the host of Hip City on 88.1 KDHX, each Wednesday, 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Central. Every show is an opportunity to get schooled on some of the best and lesser-known gems of '60s, '70s and current funk and soul music, with the occasional cut of hip-hop thrown in for good measure.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lawyer over some soda pops at Shameless Grounds to discuss the origins of his show, some of his favorite aspects of music and how the media has always dumbed down James Brown.

Kenji Yoshinobu: Have you lived here your whole life?

Chris Lawyer: Yeah. I was born, raised and educated in St. Louis. I went to college at St. Louis University. Moved to Chicago for a while and did some acting, but I came back.

What do you do professionally?

I'm an actor when I can find the work, but here you've got to have a day job also. I paint houses when I'm not acting.

How did you get involved with KDHX?

I was working in construction, so I was listening to the radio like eight hours a day. I listened for a long time. Eventually I started working for myself so I had a lot more flexibility schedule-wise, and I decided to help answer phones during one of the membership drives. I did that for several years and then they asked me to be a supervisor. I took the training so I could sub for people on other shows. And three years ago when they made some scheduling changes, they offered me a slot.

What is the origin of your show's name?

It is actually a song by Junior Walker and the All-Stars, a Motown band. I'd always loved Junior Walker and the name just fit.

How did you get into funk and soul music?

I was raised on classic rock and also the oldies in my mom's car. In my dad's car it was classical. I also had an affinity for rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll. But when "The Blues Brothers" movie came out, I was about 11 or 12 years old and I remember wondering what they were listening to. I saw they had a Sam & Dave eight-track in their car and I thought, "I gotta get that." I started picking up on stuff they were listening to along with what I had heard on the radio and just kind of kept going from there.

Do you shop for records often?

I don't know about often. The economics of the times have conspired against me buying lots of things. But buying used records is certainly inexpensive. I actually have a lot of success at the library. KDHX, with all the music coming in there, is a great resource. And it's nice to have people who look out for you, like our music director, Nick Acquisto. When something comes in that he thinks will fit my show he points me to it. There are a few other DJs who do the same kind of thing. Kate [host of Beep Beep Boop Boop] and Valis [host of Trip Inside This House] have turned me on to a few new things. It's a nice musical community here at KDHX where we're sharing with each other and there's this sort of cross-pollination between genres.

Are there any records that you're looking for to play on your show?

I've been trying to lay my hands on some late-era Sly & Family Stone. Sly got heavy into drugs and the band pretty much left him, so I had ended my exploration when the band was gone. I assumed he was so deep into drugs that his later work probably isn't worth exploring. But he has sort of reemerged recently and I've been reading interviews and doing research on some of his later material. You probably can't discount any period of an artist's work, especially if you like Sly as much as I do. So I've been trying to get some of those later albums from like 1974 into the early 80s. They are pretty rare because I don't think they sold very well, but those are the things I'm looking for whenever I'm crate digging.

Do you have a favorite record you own on vinyl?

I've certainly spent a lot of time with a few albums on vinyl. I recently got a James Brown record called "Hot Pants." I don't know if it is anything special, but it is something I've been enjoying. The first album I ever bought, when I was six years old, and is really important to me is ELO's "A New World Record" from 1976. I don't know how it happened, but my dad took my sister and I to a record store -- she got "Frampton Comes Alive" and I got "A New World Record." I played the hell out of it and it's really beat up but I still have it. I've since bought a newer copy because it is so beat up, but you know that record is pretty significant. The first album I went out and bought with my own money.

Here are some more "favorite" questions: Favorite Parliament/Funkadelic album cover?

The hand-drawn stuff is fantastic, but I like the staged stuff like "The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein" and "Uncle Jam." I just love the art direction and how it's all George Clinton being several different characters. It's really out there.

Favorite James Brown break?

"Get It Together," which is also one of my all-time favorite James Brown songs. It is an eight or nine minute track. My exposure to James Brown was on the oldies station, you know, songs like "I Feel Good." Those songs were all right, but they didn't light me up. When I was in high school and exploring more music someone I knew had a James Brown cassette that I really liked. And I started to dig a little deeper into soul and R&B and I began to realize how important he was.

Around that same time Eddie Murphy did a spoof of James Brown in this skit on "Saturday Night Live" called the James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party. Because of that a lot of people from my generation only knew James Brown from that skit where Eddie Murphy is like, "Whoa! I'm James Brown! Too hot in the hot tub!" He became a caricature, you know? A punch line. It always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, so I started championing his cause. There was this great box set that came out in the early '90s called "Star Time." A lot of people consider it to be the greatest James Brown box set ever, and since then a lot of his work has become more available.

But at the time, the rarities and the singles, all the stuff that they had compiled on "Star Time," the full tracks rather than the two minutes and 30 seconds that they played for the radio and sped up, are now available. "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" is seven minutes, but what most people have heard is the sped-up version. When you hear the original track it is a little slower and everybody in the band gets a solo. It is phenomenal! There has also been a release on Hippo Select that has all the James Brown singles. To find all those James Brown tracks would've been impossible because he was always recording.

Favorite funk/soul movie soundtrack?

"Shaft." It was an important album certainly for Stax. But Isaac Hayes pretty much started that wave of soul singers and composers doing all those blaxploitation movie soundtracks. Those strings and that heavy orchestration in the arrangements on "Shaft" were also important for R&B and soul in the early '70s. Isaac Hayes laid down the blueprint, and it is an awesome movie.

Favorite bass line of all time?

I love the bass guitar. That's a tough question. I used to put on my sister's copy of "The Joshua Tree" and listen to "With Or Without You" and crank that up to hear the room vibrate to the bass line in that song. Also, Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into The Fire" -- it gets so low. Not necessarily soul bass lines, more rock 'n' roll, but those ones really vibrate the room.

Favorite newer band/artist?

Fitz and the Tantrums were my mania for quite a bit of last year. I was in a play and I'd listen to them going to and from rehearsal like every night. I played the hell out of their album ["Pickin' Up the Pieces"] last year. I really like the Kings Go Forth too. I'm waiting for some new material from them. Mayer Hawthorne, I really like his work too. I look forward to seeing him when he comes back to town. I got to see him play at the Firebird. It was really good, but there should've been a bigger crowd.

Favorite live show ever?

Paul Simon performing "Graceland" at the Fox Theater back in '86. It was amazing. He had his big African band. Ladysmith Black Mambazo played. Miriam Makeba. Hugh Masekela. All these big South African artists played and of course the apartheid was still going on. It was a big moment for all these artists. It was a very reverent show. But that one is right on top of a very short list.

Favorite shows on KDHX?

"Memphis to Manchester" is a great one. "The Record Sto'" on Thursdays. "Radio Rio" on Saturday nights. Brazilian music. That was one that I subbed for a few times. It was a challenge to do music that is not even in your own language. I learned so much about Brazilian music from listening to that one.

You play a lot of artists that are no longer living or are no longer making music. Who would you bring back to play an in-studio session on your show?

I'd love to bring in James Brown. But that's a tough question. Yeah, probably James Brown. He changed my life.

With which band?

Probably the New Breed. Bootsy and Catfish Collins. The crew from the early '70s.

Then they start playing Parliament songs and it turns into this awesome reunion show.

Yeah, it would be incredible. Around the time James Brown died I was going to Chicago for a wedding and there was going to be this funeral at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. There was this huge concert with a lineup of who's who in soul music. It was like a six to eight hour show. I was in the hotel in Chicago watching it on TV and my wife was going out to do stuff with her friends and I told her, "You go! Don't worry about me!" I just sat on the bed and watched the concert for hours. I was a captive audience.

Last question. What have you learned about music from doing your show?

I don't think you can dismiss anything -- any artist or any genre. That has been more of my experience with KDHX because I trust them with my ears. I trust the DJs and the people that are programming. I've learned so much and been turned on to so many new things by just being open to new sounds. I have the soul show, but I also love hard country and traditional country music. The guys who do those shows are so passionate about it and their knowledge is so incredible. I've learned so much about how country and soul music are so alike. It has really taught me to be open and not dismiss anything.

The world of music is so vast. It is great that there are still new bands and people making music today. I always felt I could just keep digging into the past, but with the need to put on two hours a week of music and try to keep it fresh, you have to keep up with new things too. Music is art and all art stands on the shoulders of that which came before it. [With new music] there is a melding of a different sounds and different influences, and it has made me a lot more open.

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