Work Redux #027: Karim Olen Ash

May 8, 2024

Karim Olen Ash is a Toronto-born and raised DJ and multidisciplinary artist, who has worked on numerous projects aiming to provide inclusive spaces within the BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities. Collaborating alongside Chippy Nonstop, he co-orchestrates the vibrant Pep Rally raves, where diversity and creativity intersect harmoniously. Karim's musical persona transcends mere description, blending the hard and soft with an irresistible allure of sensuality and whimsy. From pulsating house beats to the intricate rhythms of techno, he fearlessly navigates the ever-evolving landscape of new club sounds like Jersey and Ballroom.

You’re not only a talented DJ, but you're also an organizer of a couple different projects, including Pep Rally and Somebody Studio, so can you just describe those projects?

To give a bit of a backstory: I've always been a creative person. When I moved to the city I was doing photography, but I've always tried to find a way to work and be able to use all of my creative skills in whatever capacity. I didn't start off just focusing on one. I always wanted to be generally creative. I used to have this blog with my cousin called Freshman Friday, that was like a little documentary project that we used to find local creatives. She was doing it in New York, and I was doing it in Toronto. We’d give their voice a platform to share their story and get to know them creatively. This was around the time when Toronto was having its moment and people were like, “oh, we actually have cool people here in the city.” Through that I started working in some production roles with Fashion Week, and at the same time I started DJing more as an artist. That led to me taking my music knowledge and skills and applying it to a corporate or production setting. I became the music director at Disconnect, which was a kind of new gen vibe for Fashion Week. After that I was a full time DJ and I started Somebody Studio and Pep Rally. Pep Rally is a rave and event series that focuses on the LGBTQIA community, focuses on the POC community, focuses on women, and we try to bring together all those communities, because we felt there wasn't a space that was dedicated to them and highlighting them. I did that with Chippy Nonstop. That just led to a whole bunch of other events that I do, like NUNU with Phil V which is more of a house music party, and to the World AIDS Day Ball with the FUNCTION team, which is more of the ballroom end of things. In general, I like to be creative, I like community, and I like togetherness. The more corporate side of me is Somebody Studio, which is a production company that holds the same values as Pep Rally, where we focus on marginalized communities and their stories. It gives people that aren’t normally selected to be put in these positions the opportunity to show their work and share their perspective. In an advertising sense, you get to see different types of casting, you get to see a different viewpoint from photographers and makeup artists. Naturally, the photos will look different than the teams they were using before. We've worked with W Hotel, which gives us a little bit more creative freedom, and then we work with super corporate clients, like Amazon.

You’re so multifaceted and self-motivated. I'm wondering where the self-motivated entrepreneurial spirit comes from in you?

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit like my dad, he's an entrepreneur, he started his own business fixing heating and cooling units. So that was kind of my first introduction to the idea that you don't have to have a nine-to-five job. But then my mom worked at a bank. So I've always had this duality between practicality and impracticality, or the status quo and the alternative. It's the perfect storm which allowed me to achieve the success that I've achieved. But it was also innate to me. I definitely think I was a person who really just liked to do my own thing, who didn't like to wait on anyone else to do anything for me. I was pretty independent as a child as well. So I think all those things just naturally leads to more of an entrepreneurial spirit. After highschool I went to business school. I did a business management degree, and I majored in finance, which helped me be well-rounded as an artist. I think the most difficult thing – and something that I've done workshops with Chippy on – is having people be aware that you do need to have a little bit of a business acumen to be successful in the creative industry. You can have great managers and great help to get things done, but you're far better off knowing these things for yourself so that you can advocate for yourself, especially as a creative, because it becomes very difficult to navigate a lot of the hoops that you have to jump though, like taxes, sponsorships, and general organization. You need to be able to manage yourself. I think that I'm fortunate enough to have had things pan out that way. It’s important to practice and learn your craft, but I think it's always overlooked how important it is to have a little bit of a business mind, because you can't operate without that. And if you do operate without it, you have a lot of help, or you're lucky.

Did you have that big-picture view when you enrolled in business school?

Funny enough, I actually did not want to go to business school. It's not that I was forced to do anything, it’s just how things panned out. I wasn't able to go outside of the city for school, so that limited my options, and I think, again, I did have a more of a practical brain to me, that was like, what is something that can give me the general life skills that I need? This is no shade to any other field, but I just knew if I studied something like history it wouldn’t give me the practical tools I needed. If I had a million dollars back then, would I have gone to business school? Maybe not, you know what I mean? I probably would have done something else, but I'm so grateful that I did because it's definitely given me a huge advantage now in life. 

Going back in time, I read that you learned how to DJ in your living room with your brother. I'm wondering if you can paint a picture for me of what that experience was like?

I grew up in a musical household. Music was always being blasted on the speakers. On Sundays, it was gospel, soul, all those things, and on Saturdays, it was reggae and dancehall. One of my oldest brothers used to work for Universal Music, so he would get all of the hip-hop and R&B releases. He was on the street team back in the day, so he had all the promos. He had this massive CD collection, which he never let us open. He decided what to play, or what to open. He still has them. It's so frustrating. They're still in the package, waiting for someone to open them. I'm like, bro, CDs are not gonna appreciate in value! Anyways, I’ve always been around music. My cousin, he was a dancehall and reggae DJ, and that's how my middle brother learned. And then my middle brother taught me. It was actually because I was having a birthday coming up and I really, really wanted to learn. I always liked making playlists. I always like making mix CDs. I was like, let me learn how to DJ, and it was honestly the most frustrating thing I've ever done in my life. I like to be good at what I'm doing. I really am passionate about that, and I hate it when I'm not. I don't like to give up easily, but I also know when to cut my losses. So I had a limited amount of time to learn, but I'd already told everyone I was going to DJ. So there was no way I was gonna stop. I literally sat in my living room for hours and then finally everything just seemed to click at a certain point. This is a classic thing with DJs: you think you're not able to mix properly, and then at one point, you're doing it and you're not even realizing you're doing it, and you're mixing, and you’re like “oh my gosh, I got it!”

How did the party go?

The party went well, my set was fire, of course, duh. [Laughs] No, my cousin and my brother were very impressed. Obviously, they're super supportive. It was more of my family there as well. We just went to a restaurant somewhere on College St. Back in the day they used to have a whole bunch of those small supper clubs, and that was my first experience DJing for people. Then it just naturally grew from there. I think I took a little bit of time off of being the DJ and did it more as a hobby. Then I got a couple of opportunities to do it because I was already doing fashion production stuff and I was in that world. They were looking for DJs, and I had a friend who was an influencer at that time, whatever that was, and they wanted her to DJ and we would always talk about DJing something together. So I got my first opportunity like that. I did an H&M gig and a couple random one offs here and there. It was one of these things where I was going to these events anyways and I’d hear the music and felt I could do a way better job. That's no shade. I just knew I could actually get paid to do this properly.

I'm wondering about the style of music that you play, for the Work Redux mix and more generally. You touch on a lot of musical genres but it seems pretty rooted in house and techno. Was that what you focused on early in your career, on your first birthday party set, or did you grow into that style?

I grew up listening to 90s hip hop and R&B. That to me is the core of a lot of my tastes, which is why you'll hear a lot of vocals, R&B divas, or acapellas. But when it comes to house music, and just dance music in general, I was obsessed with Electric Circus when I was growing up. I always wanted to be on Electric Circus. I was just obsessed and watched it every Friday. I think that was my first introduction to hearing this style of music and kind of getting accustomed to the artists and the pattern of the music. I was just fascinated by it. I was also fascinated by how queer it was. Back then, when I was a child, I was like, “what is this world of people, this music, they're all dressed crazy, they're dancing and they're having a good time.” It just felt like a magical world that was my little secret. It made me feel a little bit more understood or seen. I felt like I'm not a weirdo. Then as I grew a bit older and Electric Circus ended, I was still listening to the music, but it wasn’t considered black. It was considered white music, or maybe European. The focus is that we're not the focus. So it kind of had me hiding that side of myself. But then when I did more research into what the origins of the music are, and I realized that it’s very black music, I understood that was another reason why I connected with this music; it was made by someone like me, a black and queer person. When I connected all those dots, that's when I knew I was meant to play this music, that this is what my calling is, and that I needed to be sharing this music. Not just for me, but for other little black kids like me, who would be embarrassed to say they like house music. I want them to see me doing it and be like, “this is for me as well.”

That’s a good segue into my next question about the kind of space that you make during your DJ sets. During your Boiler Room set for example, there's just so many diverse, beautiful people all being themselves and having fun. Do you know when you step up to the decks that this is what you're going to be doing: raising the biggest tent possible so people can just have fun and be themselves?

That's a huge core value of Pep Rally, where we wanted to create this environment that is open to all, but with a focus on marginalized people. It really is an umbrella open to all. Everyone let your freak flags fly! That was the whole origin of dance music to me. When you go back and you look at videos of people going to either raves or parties playing dance music or electronic music, that was the energy. It became homogenized at one point and very serious at one point, but that's never been my vibe. It's never been Chippy’s vibe either, which is why we wanted to create that space. So, to answer your question, yes, I kind of do know that, and I hope that that's what I'm projecting, because that, for me, is the utopia

of a dance floor. That's the job that I came there to do. It is very intentional to have fun. Even within the music, with the vocals, I like to throw in samples of people not taking themselves too seriously, cussing, or saying gay vernacular, or whatever. That's the type of fun that I want to bring back into DJing, because, again, we have a lot of shit to worry about in life, and I feel like it’s an escape and a release for people to be on the dance floor. You're supposed to have fun on the dance floor. You're not supposed to be sitting there sternly. I can't stand that. I guess that's kind of a very Berlin thing. I shouldn't be talking shit about it. But, you know what I mean? It doesn't have to be that serious. It's supposed to be fun. You're supposed to feel something in your soul and you're supposed to move your feet and and connect with people. If you can create an environment like that, I think you're winning.

Your Work Redux mix does exactly what you’re saying. I felt it was very comforting. It had a lot of classic house and techno elements, but then you throw in something a bit more surprising. Can you describe a bit about how you put the mix together and how you combine the expected and unexpected elements?

When I DJ, I am a person who likes to read the room. I love to look at and see who's on the dance floor and how they're responding. For East Room I knew that it's used for working and so, for me, I couldn't put out a 140 BPM hard intense mix and tell people to sit down and listen to this in their nine-to-five job at eight or ten o'clock in the morning. It just doesn't make sense. But then when it comes to the specific music that I collect, I definitely feel like my taste, although it is within this house, techno, disco umbrella, is very eclectic. I’ll try to make connections that are not just time-based. I'm not going to play you something from just one era, but there's feelings from each era that connect and resonate with each song. For this mix, I definitely wanted to present a more soulful side of things. I'm glad you had that feedback, or that response, that it felt comforting, because that's what I was aiming for. I wanted to show a different side of house. I think a lot of people in this generation love things very fast. If you go to raves now, all the kids want to hear really, really hard pounding stuff. But there is a beauty to me in the restraint of music that falls within these 120 to 125 beats per minute sub genres that is very special. I wanted to highlight that with this mix because I also think it's more appropriate for the time that people would be listening to this mix. If you want to get a late night mix, I have those on my Soundcloud, but I was definitely intentional with choosing songs that I felt can sit in the background and surprise you occasionally.

In terms of reading the room and playing to a feeling, do you keep a mental library of all the music that you not only want to play, but also can lead you in surprising directions?

It's difficult. I suck at knowing full details of songs; the artist, the title of the song, the album. I rarely know all those details. So, it’s a mix of visual and auditory details. I've always had this ear that can remember and break down songs into different instruments, different drum patterns, and I use that to connect songs, which is why I feel like I have a different sound than a lot of other people. Obviously other DJs do it this way, too, but I think it's something that differentiates me where I feel a lot of the elements separately. In a song, I'll feel for each separate element, and then connect those and play with that. That's kind of how I weave together my sets, which also enables me to cross genres easily.

Absolutely. Because if you're looking at something that is an individual element, you can relate to it across time and genre, because the element is the same.

Exactly. That's literally it. There's obviously so many different sub genres and facets of dance music that even if you play for six hours you’ll still not get through all the different parts of it. 

I'm wondering if you as a creative person and DJ feel that collective unconscious or that collective subconscious energy in the things that you do? Do you think there is some aspect of that within your artistic process, of tapping into what collectively people are feeling?

I think a DJ's job is to always have a side of you that taps into it, and the best DJs to me are the ones that can balance knowing what people want, but then also introduce them to new things. I'm not here to regurgitate what the most popular songs are. I'm here to listen to what people are actually digging, even in pop music. Some people might like dance pop, that means that they could potentially like some house tracks. So I'm not going to go into my bag and find the most intense, obscure house track that will be jarring for them. I think to myself, okay, if a person is listening to this, I can introduce them to this, which is, in my opinion, a way better version of what they like. Hopefully, that'll lead to them discovering more. It's about being that bridge. Music to me is something that's supposed to be shared and experienced together with other people. I think that with technology right now and algorithms, it's just not good enough for me to give people every single thing that they want to hear and base all the decisions like an algorithm would. That to me is what is ruining music a little bit, ruining the discovery. The most fun part about music is discovering new stuff. It is important for me to tap into understanding what people like, and what I can toe the line with.

Music is a healing force, and if you just are DJing because you have something to prove, it sort of misses this vitality of connecting and sharing. 

And some people like that! But for me personally, the way I feel about music is not about “you have to listen to what I like, and what I like matters.” Maybe one day I'll get there! Maybe one day I’ll be on the top of the game, and can just randomly pick songs, and everyone's going to go crazy, but until then, I think it's important for me to remember that there is a job element to what I'm doing, and at the end of the day, I don't feel good about a DJ set if people aren't dancing, or people aren't having fun. It's just not enjoyable for me, so why would I just play only what I want to hear, and be that self-centred? It's supposed to be fun.

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