Smile Politely

Chris Kinson’s unconventional path as a statistician and DJ

A DJ stands at a table with two laptops and various DJ equipment. The DJ is in a room with purple and green abstract light projections on the walls, creating a vibrant and immersive atmosphere. Several pieces of framed artwork are displayed on the walls, complementing the colorful projections. The room has an industrial feel with exposed ductwork on the ceiling. The overall scene suggests a lively and artistic event, blending visual art with music.
Chris Kinson

DJ and statistics professor at the University of Illinois, Chris Kinson, also know as DJ CK, has been quietly making waves with his passion for hip-hop and his commitment to fostering creativity and collaboration. From his early days of making beats in high school to his current projects with collectives like bla(CK)mau and Darker than Blue, Kinson has consistently sought to create spaces where artists can connect, inspire one another, and push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Kinson’s love for music was sparked at a young age, thanks to his parents’ diverse tastes. “My dad was really into funk,” he recalls. “He had a lot of records. I’m talking about Parliament Funkadelic, the Hendrix side of funk, but he also loved the James Brown side of funk. He had a lot of James Brown stuff.” Meanwhile, his mother’s involvement in the church choir exposed him to the power of gospel music.

As a high school student, Kinson discovered his talent for beat-making and rapping, thanks in part to a serendipitous English literature assignment. “I remember making a beat and a song actually a rap for like an English Lit class,” he shares. “It was about all the king’s men. I remember that did this rap [about] Humpty Dumpty. I did the rap in class, and everybody liked it so much they wanted me to do it in my calculus class.” This was the encouragement Kinson needed to proceed with his interest in producing.

Chris Kinson

This early experience planted the seeds for Kinson’s future endeavors in music production and DJing. While he pursued his education and career in statistics, he never lost touch with his creative side, turning to beat-making as a form of self-expression during the challenges of graduate school.

Kinson’s academic journey began at Albany State University, where he majored in mathematics. His honors status and involvement in research programs propelled him towards a specialization in statistics. Despite the rigorous and often rigid nature of his studies, Kinson found solace and creative expression in music. This duality of interests — statistics and music — has defined his unique approach to both fields. While Kinson acknowledges that there isn’t a direct connection between his academic background and his music production, he views music as a creative outlet that contrasts with the structured world of statistics.

The Blackest Hour, Kinson’s former radio show, was a testament to his dedication to showcasing the breadth of Black musical history. The show featured an eclectic mix of genres, from soul and jazz to hip-hop and beyond. Kinson curated each episode with meticulous care, drawing from his extensive personal collection and his diverse musical influences. His father introduced him to funk legends like Parliament and James Brown, while his mother’s gospel singing added another layer to his musical foundation. Growing up, Kinson was also influenced by the hip-hop and rap that dominated the radio waves, blending these sounds with alternative rock and other genres he encountered.

Chris Kinson – The Blackest Hour

The motivation behind The Blackest Hour was to highlight the contributions of Black artists across all genres and time periods. Kinson wanted to create a space where listeners could appreciate the richness of Black creativity. Although the show required significant effort, it remains one of Kinson’s cherished projects, reflecting his deep-seated passion for music and cultural storytelling.

“It was it was just supposed to be a show that would showcase all of the sort of music that Black people have contributed to and made throughout history,” he explains. “So I wasn’t limiting it to a particular genre. It wasn’t limited to a particular time period. It was it was all stuff. It was new stuff. It was blues, it was hip-hop, it was trap. It was rap, it was jazz. You know, I’ve tried to play anything that Black artists made or produced.”

While The Blackest Hour may be in the rearview mirror, Kinson’s passion for community-building through music remains as strong as ever. Kinson’s involvement with the collaborative group bla(CK)mau further showcases his commitment to cultural and artistic expression. Alongside Kamau “DJ KamauMau” Grantham and Stacey “Blackstar” Robinson, both also at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kinson was instrumental in creating immersive artistic experiences that blended music, visual art, and cultural commentary. The group’s work engaged heavily with themes of liberation and envisioning Black futures, often through an Afrofuturist lens. Their “Create and Chill” events exemplified this mission, providing a space for creativity, collaboration, and community connection.

Darker Than Blue at Gallery Art Bar

Through initiatives like the Create and Chill events at the Independent Media Center, bla(CK)mau has aimed to foster spaces where people can come together, work on projects, and connect with one another in a relaxed and supportive environment. “Right after the pandemic, it was about making people feel like they could be together again,” Kinson reflects. “Let’s connect again! Let’s talk together. Let’s share this space again.”

The Darker than Blue project at Gallery Art Bar was another significant aspect of Kinson’s artistic endeavors. The initiative merged visual art and music, offering a platform for local and visiting artists to showcase their work. The project aimed to create a welcoming and inclusive environment where attendees can experience the transformative power of art. Darker than Blue events are characterized by their diverse musical genres, including house, world beats, and disco, which created a vibrant and dynamic atmosphere. The collaboration with visual artists like KamauMau and Matt Harsh enhanced the sensory experience, making each event a unique celebration of creativity.

Kinson’s ability to connect with people through his music projects is evident in the feedback he receives from attendees. Whether it’s a heartfelt moment with a listener moved by a particular song or the sense of community fostered at events like Create and Chill, Kinson and his colleagues’ impact on the local arts scene is significant. Their efforts to bridge different artistic communities and encourage collaboration underscore their beliefs in the power of art to bring people together.

“[Darker than Blue] is a mixture of a lot of genres,” Kinson explains. “But we’re really about is getting folks comfortable and creative, which is why I think Gallery Art Bar is nice because you don’t have to drink alcohol, they have a lot of non-alcoholic choices, so it’s a safe space to come express yourself.”

As much as Kinson has already contributed to the local scene, he remains eager to collaborate and push the boundaries of what hip-hop can be. He’s excited about the prospect of working with other local artists to collaborate and to create something new and unique.

With his quiet determination and collaborative spirit, Chris Kinson is an artist to watch in the Champaign-Urbana music scene. As he continues to create spaces for connection and creativity, there’s no telling what new sounds and experiences he’ll bring to the community. But one thing is for sure: He’ll be doing it with a deep love for the music and a commitment to uplifting others along the way.

Music Editor

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