141: Ken Chen: DJ Sleeper On Rewriting The Stories We Tell Ourselves, Creating Timeless Work, And Living With Heightened Senses
Life as a DJ can get a lot more complicated than some people might think because unbeknownst to many, it’s not all just pressing buttons all the time. Plenty of thought goes into the process of being a DJ, from the learning to the set-up, before you can actually go out there and call yourself a DJ. Thane Marcus Ringler is joined by a rising DJ and producer, Ken Chen, also more well known by his stage name, DJ Sleeper. They talk about Ken’s journey to DJ’ing, and how he uncovers the many layers that music has to offer in what he does. They also go into tennis and its parallels with music, living with heightened senses, and the stories we tell ourselves, and how those narratives ultimately affect us.
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141: Ken Chen: DJ Sleeper On Rewriting The Stories We Tell Ourselves, Creating Timeless Work, And Living With Heightened Senses
Thank you for joining our community and being a fellow Up and Comer. In this episode, we have an interview that I’m excited to dive into with you. Before we get there, there are a few reminders I want to send your way. If you want to help our show out, which we need your help, we can’t do this on our own. If you wanted to help us, there are three easy ways. The first way takes about 1 to 2 minutes of your time and that is leaving a rating and review on iTunes. It’s sweet to have the feedback. It’s helpful for our show to be found by more people. If you leave a review, I may mention it here like this review. This is from Mitch Matthews. The title is, “This show fills a specific need.” He says, “Thane has designed this show for a space that has been wildly underserved. It’s for those people who are getting clarity on what they want to do and achieve and they’re on their way, but they need insights and strategies to keep them on track. Biblical wisdom that meshes with the practical, raw application. If you are an Up and Comer, give it a listen. You’ll be glad you did.” Thank you, Mitch, for that five-star review and rating. You are very kind. We’d love to hear from you and get your review mentioned here.
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This is an interview with Ken Chen. He is the love child of a composer and radiohead. He is also known as DJ Sleeper. Sleeper’s music has been featured on ESPN, MTV, TED and URB Magazine. He does an array of events from F1 racing to VJ showcases for Apple. Sleeper is the first DJ to hit one million views on a YouTube video. His DJ performances include artists such as Ludacris, Common, Mix Master Mike, Wyclef Jean, BT, David Beckham, Ryan Sheckler, Travis Pastrana and more. Sleeper’s Michael Jackson remix stayed number one for a month on Hype Machine and made it to Zeitgeist’s Best Songs of 2009. Stretching across genres, generations and styles, his ability to remix live while incorporating turntablism and video creates a sound that is distinctly his own. He has produced work for Adidas, Red Bull and Live Nation.
That is a little snippet of the man that Ken is. This conversation was such a fun one. Ken’s been a good friend of mine over the last couple of years. I’ve been wanting to have him on for a while. I knew that his story would be encouraging and a blessing and also something that we could all relate to. He is a man that feels and cares so deeply. He is one of the most unique individuals I know in my life. I love him dearly. In this interview, we talked about Ken’s journey to deejaying. We talked about uncovering the layers of music. We talked about tennis and its parallels with music. We talked about living with heightened senses. We talked about his childhood and pivotal moments. We talked about the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect us. We talked about creating timeless art, his journey with God, and some of what the future holds for Ken. This is one that you’ll want to make sure you pay attention to. It is filled with so much gold and I can’t wait for you to share a piece of the wonderful man that Ken Chen is. Enjoy this interview. Without further ado, here is Ken Chen.
Ken Chen, welcome to the show.
It’s good to have you here, finally. It’s been a long time in the making, but here we are at the kitchen table at Mi Casa es Su Casa. I know we’re going to talk a little about music because that is a big part of your life, career and calling. I also know from what I’ve heard and from what I know about you is that fruit is also a big part of your life. What is it about fruit and what is your favorite fruit?
I do love fruit. My parents are Asian hippies that fed me on fruit every morning. My dad would cut fruit before I walked off to elementary school or middle school, like papaya and banana. Those are in the top twenty. My dad would freeze bananas as well. We’d eat that as ice cream. Fruits are like a healthy toy dessert.
What is your favorite frozen banana dish? Do you eat them plain? Do you put them in smoothies? What do you do with frozen banana usually?
The best is straight up from Tupperware, straight out of the freezer. They’re sliced up and you got to let them simmer for five minutes. It has to be pure. I don’t like peanut butter sauce or banana split stuff. It’s great for tennis. I’m a huge tennis dork. I used to string tennis rackets. I play a lot of tennis and I love eating bananas while playing.
When did you start with tennis? When was the first time you held that tennis racket?You can use turntables to tell stories with music videos and film clips. Click To Tweet
I started probably middle school. My dad taught us and my dad’s good at ping pong, but not that good at tennis. With tennis, just like golf, fundamentals are important. I developed these homegrown funky strokes. I loved the game. I started playing in high school. I was on a high school team. I got a racket stringer in college and started stringing people’s tennis rackets.
You cut people’s hair in college.
I did it for friends with a buzzer. I started cutting my own hair early on because I felt like every time I went to get my haircut, it was hit or miss. One out of three times it’d be good and I thought, “I could do it better.” The first time I did it, it was pretty easy. I was like, “I can do this.” A funny story is I cut the hair of my DJ buddy at Indiana University. I cut his hair and I never used scissors. I always use the buzzer. Using scissors, I cut him open right between the ear and the hairline on the back of his head. I started laughing because I felt bad. I kept saying, “Does it hurt?” He’s like, “Yeah, it hurts.” The funniest part was his sink was working but his shower is broken. He had to wash off his bloody hairy head in the sink of a college apartment.
Was this the last time you used scissors or have you braved them?
That was the last time.
The traumatic scissor experience. I also had some background intel on you not cutting your hair for a while.
It’s been a few months. I’m wearing a beanie because long hair gets in your face, your mouth, your nostrils and your eyes. I made a spur of the moment bet with one of my best friends, Alice Isaac. She was like, “You’re not going to make it here on time from your pool party gig.” I was like, “I will.” She’s like, “No, you’re not. I’ll make you a bet.” I was like, “All right, fine.” She’s like, “If I win the bet, you can’t cut your hair until I say so.” I got to the event. It was a dance event, the KINJAZ band. They’re doing a choreographed cool dance performance. I got there on time but she said I had to be sitting at the seat by the time. The parking lot was far away and thus, I haven’t cut my hair in months.
Is this the longest it has been?
What is it about long hair that you love and hate?
I love that it looks cool. There’s something fun about playing with hair, then I hate everything else about it. You have to comb it every day. Think about the things you do every day. It’s not that many things. You don’t want to comb your hair every day. If you forget, it turns into a gigantic uncombable dread. Alice has come over to the house a few times to comb it out. It’s tough for tennis too. You got to wear a big headband.
I had a top-bottom at one point. That was as long as I’ve gotten and it was annoying after a while. It wasn’t even half where you’re at right now, so I can imagine. I want to know about tennis a little bit more. I’m curious about how playing tennis has made you a better person in life. I know golf is such a game of self-discovery. Golf and tennis share that as an individual sport. A lot of it is in your head. You have to work through your own limitations. Being an avid tennis player playing most of your life, how has the game of tennis made you a better person in life?
I love being pushed to the brink. The extremeness and when you have someone that can challenge you. There are many things that go to it like the pace of the ball and the spin. There’s this competitive complementary rhythm that you have to have to create a good match. When you have a crazy 3 or 5-setter match that goes 4 or 5 hours, there are tons of amazing shots that had to happen. For it to even be close or competitive, that’s what makes it fun. Whether I win or lose, I love thinking about all the cool shots I’ve hit or that they’ve hit because stuff happens where you’re like, “How did I hit that shot?” It’s cool to say, “Thank you God for letting me hit that crazy underspin, sidewinder, drop shot that was untouchable.” There’s such a beautiful rhythm with angles and tennis rallies as the ball go back and forth from person-to-person. It’s like music away. That’s therapeutic. I play a lot in Vermont Canyon and it’s in the mountains. The sound of the ball coming off the racket bounces off the mountains when you hit it. It’s like a meditation for me and it helps me breathe, slow down, think and be me. That’s the biggest thing for tennis for me.
We need those practices, especially in a place like LA. What I love about that is the practice of thinking about the cool shots. One of the things I didn’t like about my propensity and the team’s propensity that I was on in college was the easy traditional default we all fell under at the end of the round. In the van on the way home, you’re talking about all the bad shots you hit. It’s like, “It’s such a bad break and this and that.” You’re highlighting all the shots that got away. It was unhealthy because it perpetuates more of that or lower view of yourself and your skills than it’s helpful. To be able to remember like, “You should saw this one shot. It was so sick. I hit it this.” That produces much better results the next time because you’re elevating your esteem, not in a prideful way but in a supportive way of saying, “I am capable of hitting some sweet shots and I want to do more of that.” Have you always had that positive perspective or has that been developed?
It developed. It’s not natural to me at all. I focus on the bad, more than the good. It happened where I started learning how to volley a few years ago and realized I was good at it. That’s where you’re at the net and having more quick reaction, short angled shots, you’re not hitting the ball off the bounce. That unwrapped another layer of the game to me because there are cooler angles and there’s a shorter amount of time. There are faster-paced shots almost that you can hit. Because it almost felt like the game was reborn to me when I learned how to do that well and incorporating it in matches, I treasure it more because I didn’t have it in high school and college. Even in the program game now, volleying is pretty rare. It’s such a beautiful part of the game. I think it’s been grown for sure.
There’s a book by John McPhee, it’s called Levels of the Game. It’s a beautiful book depicting one tennis match between Arthur Ashe and one of his nemesis opponents in the finals. I can’t remember the guy’s name. That might have been the US Open at the time. He weaves the whole book around one match. He uses each player’s personal stories in the midst of the match to reveal how they play the game. It’s what you’re talking about. It’s the levels of the game. There are many levels to each arena that we’re in. The deeper we dive, the more beautiful and poetic it can be if we keep the main thing. A lot of times in golf, for me, it was all about results. I lose the beauty of it because I’m focused on the results that I’m producing versus enjoying the thing for the intrinsic value it has and letting the full expression come out. There’s a big difference.
It’s the thrill and agony. That’s why we love sports so much. It’s the story and these huge mountain tops, deep valleys and everything in between. UFC and MMA do highlights after every big fight and it’s called The Thrill and Agony. It shows what happens to the loser’s family when they get knocked out and the winners. It adds this whole story of what they’ve been through and their families there. They’ve trained for 7, 8 months to be at that moment. It’s their first title shot or their last title shot. It’s the same as any other sport. With sport, it doesn’t help to dwell on the bad stuff or to even think about it because I don’t think you can learn from it as much as maybe in real life.
It’s a parallel realm with real life in the sense that the more we focus on the bad, the more it’s going to be front of mind and even produced in our life. A lot of times, what you think is what you live out. It is a discipline to train. It’s harder to keep our focus on the good and not the bad. It is a discipline in that and it is generative a lot of times. It generates our reality or our perception of reality and what we can do with that reality. I don’t think there’s any good case for being a pessimist in that sense. I’m not saying you have to be an optimist, but to choose to be a pessimist is not a healthy choice. You can maybe meet in the middle being a realist or a skeptic, but not a cynic in that sense. Getting back to layers, I want to hear about what layer you’re currently unpacking in music.
A little background on my music. I’m in this small niche of people in the world that do video deejaying like performance. It’s where we use turntables to tell stories with music videos and film clips. We’re scratching films, music videos with turntables and vinyl. I’ve been deejaying for many years. I’ve been deejaying for Red Bull and Google. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to write music. My dad’s a composer. My mom’s a radio journalist. I grew up with my dad giving violin lessons in the basement. My mom would play the piano and we took the violin, guitar, clarinets and all sorts of music lessons.
Which ones enthralled you the most? Which one did you get the most life out of?
I hated almost all of those lessons. My dad tried to teach me to play the violin and it was this very tough thing where he was a 1% elite violin. He got his doctorate in violin. I think it was frustrating for him to have me and my brother as little kids, wanting us to be great and us not being great at the violin. I even took some choir lessons, which the music wasn’t interesting. Fast forward many years now, I love going through piano tutorials or production tutorials. It’s not from my dad. It’s Jon Rose that I love. I fell in love with anything jazz a while ago. I’m doing a boogie-woogie tutorial on the piano. Right now, the layer is I’m learning why music is important to God, how to work with God and how to play with God in a playground with music. Whereas in the past, I was a heavy drinker through college and a ton of years in LA. I always did the music for myself or for others to entertain and to get admiration. It’s okay for a decade but it became very tiring. I’m touching on how to truly enjoy and create with God.
In that process, what have you discovered in learning why music is important to God? What have some of those answers been?In a great story, you can get a long view in a short amount of time. Click To Tweet
I’m reading this cool book called Garden City, by John Comer.
He’s Legit. I got his book about unhurrying up on my desk.
He talks about the main theme of civilization and the word of God’s beauty and presence with humans. One of God’s main desires is for his beauty and presence to be with people all the time. You see that in Genesis. He breaks down how God created trees and trees that were pleasing to look at, then trees that were good to eat from. In Hebrew theology, whatever came first was of utmost importance. It’s cool that God created trees that were just good to look and not to eat from. Eating came after that. That’s how much God treasures beauty. This book’s been tingling with the importance of beauty. A lot of times with music, much of what you do is in the studio alone with collaborators sometimes or organizing music or working on a kick-drum. It’s hard to feel and see why working on a kick-drum for twelve hours is beautiful. It’s been a beautiful thing thinking about trees and how long it takes a tree to grow. Many years in deejaying and I’ve been writing music for a few years now, I’m starting to see the fun in it.
The best blog posts I’ve written so far are on trees. In Psalm 92, he talks about growing strong like the palm trees or the Cedars of Lebanon. These pictures and metaphors that trees are used to are helpful. At its core, it’s how can we have a long view of things. How can we take the long view and not this short-term sprint, which I suck at doing? I love for you to talk about that because even when you said it is hard to see the beauty of figuring out the best kick-drum for twelve hours. We’re all that way. It doesn’t matter what it is. Whether it’s creating music, trying to write something, preparing for a podcast, going into work or whatever it may be. It’s hard for us to take a long view of the moment. It’s such a helpful practice and those pictures that help us do it are life-giving. It’s sweet.
That’s why I love movies so much because it gives you a long view in a short amount of time if it’s a great story.
That’s something I wanted to touch on because multiple people that I’ve talked to have said that most people probably don’t know how important movies are to you. I’ve heard them said that if you see a bad movie, it will throw off your entire week, that bad creativity messes with you. You’re very critical of movies and often have a love-hate relationship with different films. I’d love to hear more about the power of movies for you and your experience of them or even in your creativity.
I love feeling stuff. I love sniffing my brother and I love squishing bananas. I love the feeling of the tennis string and the sound of tennis can opening. All those things are telling something good in a way to me. I remember Forrest Gump, ET and Lion King. I was crying my face off as a kid with Lion King when Simba’s running through the field and his dad’s in the clouds. Simba is like, “You said you’d always be there for me.” I even remember watching The Family Man with Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni. That was in the late ‘90s maybe. I watched it around 9:00, 10:00 at night with some friends and I had a tennis tournament the next morning. I didn’t get home until 1:00 or 2:00 AM.
My dad was pissed because he’s like, “You’re not going to be rested for the tournament.” I lost a three-setter. I was blown away by this movie, which is about this guy who is a billionaire. He runs one of the biggest companies in the world. He has an interaction with someone poor in a liquor store. This thing happens where he talks very condescendingly to the poor guy and the poor guy is like, “You think you have everything. Let me show you a glimpse of what your life could be like.” In his current life, he’s single, super-rich and very lonely but doesn’t realize it. It shows him a glimpse of him marrying his college sweetheart with three kids, very poor but full and content. To that, he sings a song.
When he flashes back in this movie, it’s hard for him because all the shiny stuff that makes his life easy, the cars and the help are all gone. For weeks he’s struggling until gradually he’s seeing the cool stuff. A climactic point is when he watches an old home video of him singing to his wife on her birthday. It makes me cry every time because it’s longing for something that was not there anymore. It’s longing for something that could be and that’s not yet. What I love about movies a lot is they can capture so much more than words. It can have dialogue, music and cinematography. When all that’s combined, there’s a supernatural feeling that can happen that’s so much more than what is on the paper and the screen. It’s a tiny taste of what the world could be of adventures and kingdoms. It’s this everlasting longing that I have very deeply.
That is beautiful. I remember seeing that. I can’t remember when, but it was a striking movie that cuts to the core of what it means to be human. Especially for Americans and this age we live in, where we get wrapped up in the things that don’t bring life but often rob us of life in that sense. Are there any other movies that deeply impacted you and why?
There’s a ton. A big one for me is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That’s with Jim Carey and some other amazing actors in that. It’s the synopsis of this guy who has a rough breakup, then a technology exists where you can wipe every memory of her out of your mind. He found out that his ex did that to him and then he gets it done to himself. They’re both wiped but over time they both come back together. God’s bringing them back together in random ways. He’s getting flashbacks. It’s not erased. Invincibility is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. When God wants to do something, it’s smooth and easy, but in regards to God wanting something from me, my family, my friends or earth. There’s something cool about seeing superheroes. That can’t be hurt or that get through crazy stuff. Something about that movie is it captures love in a cool way.
There’s a film called Force Majeure. It’s a 2017 Swedish film and it’s about a family that goes on a ski trip and there’s a controlled avalanche. The dad runs away from the family. They’re having lunch and the controlled avalanche gets close to them and it looks like it’s going to kill them. The dad freaks out and runs away. He comes back to his family a few minutes later and the wife is holding the kids. He blocks it out of his memory because he’s ashamed of it, but it’s also the fight or flight or spur of the moment thing. The whole movie is a brilliant dark romantic comedy about how do you show your family that you still love them when you feel bad. That’s beautiful. It uses classical music in short spurts. It’s on this beautiful mountain. I think it’s in Sweden. That one’s been one of the best from that year. I’d enjoyed 1917 from 2019. I cried for 4 or 5 minutes after that last scene. It was one of the most powerful scenes on death I’ve ever seen because so much was unsaid. You saw it through what they were doing. Pulp Fiction is one of my top ones. I love Vertigo. Shout out to my buddy, DJ Aristocat, who I met through Myspace and put me onto that. There’s a huge list.
Have you ever thought about being involved in making, creating, directing or producing the movie?
I’d love to do all that stuff. Right now, it’s music but I wrote a lot of depressing poetry as a kid. There are some stories in there. It’d be something where we have to try and fill it out.
Let’s go back to that time as a kid. Where did the depressing poetry come from or where did the poetry come from in general? What was your childhood like in that?
I was born and raised in Maryland. It was a suburb, dreamy childhood. I was such a deep dreamer. I had all these thoughts and feelings that I didn’t know what to do with. No one had told me how to journal or pray. I’d be filled with these thoughts of myself. I wanted to take over the world. I wanted to be an architect and lawyer. There are many things I wanted to be. I loved sewing but then I was in the suburbs of Maryland taking the Greyhound bus with my little brother to go to the mall to steal things every day. It was a lot of bus rides and a lot of stealing money from my mom. My brother would get a toy at the mall and I would get a CD. I started journaling in Hong Kong. We moved to Hong Kong when I was ten. Even before that, I remember writing sad thoughts out onto a page. It was therapeutic. I had a Walkman cassette tape that followed me around 24/7 as a kid too. I loved recording the radio. I was always listening to a lot of alternative rock. There was like the ‘80s and ‘90s pop station too. That was cool for me.
What did music bring for you in that season? What did that do for you in your childhood?
It helped me think because a lot of the thoughts I was thinking, I was too scared to say out loud or to talk to people about it. Songs were a comfortable way for people to say what they were thinking. I was like, “People are thinking of stuff through sound.” I think about music like U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins. I remember With or Without You. That was haunting for me for years. Smashing Pumpkins had that double album in the early ‘90s. It’s good. I even loved Backstreet Boys and their Millennium album had some good ballads. Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely is a good song.
Would you say that was one of the characteristics of your childhood, being lonely or feeling lonely?
I felt like nobody could understand me. There was something inside me that was different than other kids. Even in conversations through middle school or high school, I wasn’t interested in popular things. I think the stealing thing was a way to cope with that to give me some control of my life. I wanted to be known and I didn’t know how to tell people who I was because I still didn’t know what thoughts were real or what it all meant.
Those early years in dealing with that, how did you change or continue to deal with that as you got older? That’s such a fundamental foundational thing for all of us and it expresses itself in different ways. For you, part of it was the music and processing through these other outlets even with stealing things. What were these phases of that? How did you work on dealing with that in deeper ways as you grew older?
There was a big memory where I was in band class. The new cool kid at school walked in and he was a musician. I knew he played the piano. I played the piano. I was sitting at the piano when he walked in and I wanted to ask him to play with me like, “Let’s jam out.” I was scared that he’d say no. I was scared that I would mess up or not be able to keep up. I never asked him. That’s haunted me for decades. The whisper in my brain is like, “No one wants to play with you and you suck.” That must have been middle school. I remember going into high school in maybe freshman year, I heard LL Cool J. He had a track called The Ripper Strikes Back and it was a battle hip hop rap track towards Chino XL. They were battling like, “I’m cool, you’re not cool.”If there's no God, it doesn't seem like there's any true meaning to anything Click To Tweet
The production, the aggressive fiery nature of the lyrics and the pace, it felt like that was what a man was. That’s what I was supposed to be. All the cool kids in high school, they’re gangsters. All the guys that girls liked and knew a lot of people had some gangsters in them. Fight Club was a big movie at the time. There was this night at a basketball court with a bunch of bros and two by two you’d go out and punch each other. I remember I couldn’t throw a punch until this guy punched me and then that was the end of it. I couldn’t do it. It was so terrifying and freezing for me.
Going on to college, I watched Scarface for the first time, which is based on Tony Montana. He illegally coming into America and becomes the biggest drug lord of America. It’s such a deep and brilliant performance by Al Pacino. It’s this Breaking Bad narrative that’s like in The Godfather and a lot of brilliant stories of you make a lot of sacrifices to become what you want, but those sacrifices can be good or bad. The more bad sacrifices you make or the more bad decisions you make, it accumulates and things happened to you and your family that changes you. I wanted to be Tony Montana, but I was this skinny lean college kid in Indiana that was very bad at stealing cars and I was still searching.
I thought I should be a gangster but I didn’t know. I’d always get into these fights in college. I’d have to get drunk to get up the courage to do anything. I remember one night in the library. Some guy was looking at one of our friends. I took my shirt off and I kicked the door open. I smashed the door and ran outside. One of my friends got his hand cut on the window. There wasn’t any fight because it’s in the library and the security came. I remember going back to my friend’s apartment. I thought I was so cool because everyone was like, “That was cool what you did. You stood up for a friend.” I don’t even know if that guy was even looking at us or anything, but it was this sense of family, adoration and feeling like I can do something substantial or I can do something.
There are a lot of situations like that through college. A big turning point was in late freshman, early sophomore year. I was in a bar that was called Uncle Fester’s. DJ Topspeed was deejaying. I still think he’s one of the best DJs in the world. He must be in his 50s, rocks a Kangol hat all the time, XP boy, 6’4” white dude. This guy was playing two copies of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Hypnotize. He was juggling. He is going back and forth from these two samples of the record.
He was taking the best part of the song, which is the first piece. It’s one of the coolest parts of the songs. He was making it longer, but he was scratching and juggling it in this creative precise way. I’ve never seen that before. The whole crowd was dancing in time while he’s doing all this crazy stuff. I was mesmerized and instantly hooked. The whole night I stood right by him watching him. We had a mutual friend, DJ Tom Slick, who’s out in Korea. He introduced me and Topspeed was gifted at teaching and deejaying, which is such a rare combination. He’s a thumb sucker. I would drive to his house in Indianapolis. It was about a 45-minute drive from campus. He would shout instructions for me from the bathroom while he was taking a dump and sucking his thumb.
I learned quickly and started doing DJ battles. It gave me a lot of purposes and drive. I started doing radio and deejaying for Red Bull. I was dealing with a rough breakup too around freshman year. The pain, the loneliness and anger all went into music. I was like, “I’m going to show the world that I am somebody.” I started traveling with Red Bull. I was Red Bull’s main DJ in Indiana. I was making pretty good money. I graduated in five years in 2006. I knew I couldn’t stay there. I was thinking of New York, Chicago and LA. I was intimidated by New York. Chicago was the easy way out. I knew a lot of people there. LA seemed like the cool new unknown territory to explore. I remember calling my mom. I said, “I’m going to move to LA.” She’s like, “Go for it.” I packed up a huge truck and came out here. Now, it’s been years in LA.
That is such a journey. There’s so much that you shared that is so good. I wanted to go back to that whisper in middle school. That’s such a universal thing and it’s something that I’ve been talking about with my fiancée and soon-to-be wife. It’s this idea of the story I’m telling myself because everything is interpreted. In that middle school moment on the piano bench, when the cool kid walks in and there’s not the courage to ask him to jam out with you. That whisper of the story I’m telling myself is, “I’m not good enough. I’m not cool enough. I’m not brave enough,” whatever it may be. Those stories have the power to shape our lives and they don’t go away. It doesn’t magically change. We have to find ways to cope with those stories. What your story shows, it comes to some purpose or meaning that we can funnel that into. That’s such a universal journey. What would you say are the stories you find yourself telling yourself now?
Everyone is telling themselves a story. That’s a cool point. It’s tiring being your storyteller forever. Until I knew that I was a part of God’s story, that God chose me and knows me and everything specific about me is from God, through God, and for God. I’m saying that just to remind myself all the time because as we were talking about in this book, Garden City, that story I was telling myself grew and grew. In 2010, I hit a million views on YouTube on a video. Back in 2010, that was a big deal. I was traveling around and I was doing Jamaica and Europe. That story was still in my head but I was fighting it with my other story, which was like, “I’m an elite DJ that people want.” It wasn’t enough to fully quench the previous story.
It was this mix. Some days, I felt pretty good. That’s why alcohol felt so good to me because I was always thinking about these deep thoughts since I was a kid. Alcohol could black it all out and I could be this clown. It went from being angry and want to be gangster drunk throughout college to a funny comedic entertainer drunk in LA. Those first few years in LA, there’s no Uber or Lyft. I moved down to LA in 2006. I was driving drunk every single night. Everyone I knew was driving drunk every single night. I’d wake up on the side of the road in the shotgun seat with three parking tickets on my car, not knowing how I got there. I thought that was peaceful because I was like, “I got away again. I don’t have to think about anything. I can DJ and drink again.”
The low point was it was a Black Friday party. I was deejaying and I was pretty blacked-out. I threw a beer at someone’s face. It was a DJ booth on the second floor. I threw it at someone’s face. I urinated myself. I ended up falling asleep on the couch and someone DJ the rest of the night for me. I didn’t remember any of it. The next day, I called the promoter. I was like, “It was a pretty slow night. How about you just give me $300 or something?” The guy texted me back, he’s like, “$300’s cool and all, but we were wondering if you would take $200 because you hit someone in the face with a beer can. You almost got yourself beat. You were sleeping most of the time.” I was like, “I don’t remember any of that. I’m sorry.”
That made me want to drink more. I would miss flights to gigs in Texas and start drinking again. Through those first years of LA, I didn’t have much mental capacity to tell myself another story which I thought was a healthy way to deal with it. A few years ago, my brother moved to LA. I went through a horrible breakup. The breakup made me lose all my motivation for music because I had worked so hard to win this girl back. Every Sunday, my brother was like, “Let’s go to church.” I said no or a halfhearted yes. He would pick me up from my house in Venice and take me to a bunch of different churches.
We both liked this place called Reality LA right away. The music wasn’t horrible like I thought Christian music was. The music was also in the dark. It was a very meditative sound. There weren’t any lights on the musicians. It meets at a high school called Helen Bernstein High School. The acoustics in that auditorium is one of the best sounding venues in LA. The mixing sounded amazing and the pastor was Tim Chaddick at the time. He was preaching through Ecclesiastes and it’s a story of a King Solomon who was the wisest, best looking, most fashionable King. People would travel from all around to take a look at him. He writes this book called Ecclesiastes, which he’s trying to find meaning in life. He’s trying to find meaning in languages, knowing all these languages, having all these different women having all these riches. There’s this theme of it’s like chasing after the wind. He can’t hold on to any of it because he could die tomorrow and someone else would get all this stuff.
I was like, “If there is no God, there doesn’t seem like there’s any true meaning to anything.” I heard people praying and talking to God like a father. The more I heard people pray, I was thinking, “These people think that they can talk to God and that God’s listening.” That’s what began to change my story. I started talking to God. I was like, “God, are you real? Show me you’re real.” It was a 6 to 7-month process of asking God, “God if you’re real, show me you’re real,” every day. It was a gradual thing for me. Eventually, all that longing I had as a kid and all those dreams felt like a gradual filling of my soul. The more I talked to God, the more he showed me how I was a part of a story, how his story was true and how Jesus changes everything. That was a few years ago. That slowly began to change the narrative I was telling myself.
In that time, and ever since that time, in that narrative, what would you say is the core? What have been the versions of that narrative as you’ve progressed along in that journey? For all of us, there are two. There’s a momentary message changed. It’s like, “There he is and I can’t deny that.” Now everything’s changed, but then there’s this other narrative like, “This needs to change now” or “This is now the new reality.” I’m curious what may be that core was of that new narrative? In those 6 to 7 months, what was that core change for you? From that time over the last years, what have been the different parts of that story?
The core change would be, I got everything and everything’s cool because of God. The only thing that matters is what God did for me and it’s finished. Those first 6 to 7 months after that faith was given to me. I was in a hot tub of Jesus. I still think Jesus is the coolest. Everything awesome and great is from God. I couldn’t stop talking about Jesus to people. I lost a lot of friends because people don’t want to talk about Jesus all the time, especially people that don’t understand him or know him. I was unknowingly flamboyantly talking about God all the time. I didn’t care about work. I didn’t care about money or anything.
I had a tiny bit of savings but my parents ended up helping me out a lot during that time. I started Bible study and it was fun. It was with a lot of my close friends to this day. It was in Venice Beach and we had people from all different churches come. For about a year and a half, it went well. I was on this cloud/heart of Jesus. Then around the two-year mark, hard things started to happen in the Bible studies and that little group thing that we had. People are trying to cast demons out of people that didn’t have demons. People that didn’t go to church, that wanted to come. They weren’t allowed to come because they were hurtful to people.
I hate confrontation now and I hated it way more back then. It became very draining and people started moving and getting married. It quickly became me trying to keep it going on my own and it wasn’t an option to stop. Eventually, it slowed down so much that I stepped down and I took a break. I immediately went into my first Jesus relationship, which was also extremely hard. We both have not had physical intimacy with someone while dating. It was a lot of wanting to do the right thing instead of being and enjoying God. Three, four or five years in, I was very burnt out. Nothing was happening with music at this point. It ate away at me because I love creating and making stuff.
Several years into now, the last few years has been a relearning of how to work. I have my first music writing partner. His name’s Anthony. We have our first band called Elevator and we start on the floor talking to God and asking God to help us and give us ideas. It’s so much fun to write music with a homie like that. It’s been healing even to this day on that live from the piano in band class. I got my first cool manager. His name’s Aaron. A few years ago, I had a moment deejaying at The Wellesbourne, which is a cool speakeasy lounge. It was a very slow night and I was bored. I get energy from people and I had no energy because there were not that many people there. I was asking God, “Show me that you’re here.” In about 30 minutes, I had this cool sensation of deejaying in God’s lap and that I was performing for God. I couldn’t do anything wrong because he has died for me. It was this aura of invincible calmness that was given to me at that moment. I started weeping in the middle of this lounge while I’m deejaying. That was the beginning of understanding work truly. I still feel like a baby with it.
Thank you for sharing. That was beautiful. It’s interesting to hear about those years of almost being in the desert. It seems like that is something that all who follow Jesus go through. Even Jesus himself is going through the desert or going through the time preparing him for his ministry. Even from a business standpoint. There’s a great book by Seth Godin called The Dip. It’s all about learning when to stick and when to quit in that desert time that we inevitably go through. It’s cool to hear about your own journey through that and figuring it out. There’s probably a series of that throughout our lives, especially in following Jesus. I want to hear what you brought up at the end. What a lot of people wanted to know from you on too is expounding more and talking more about why you do what you do as a DJ. What it means for you to create music with a spiritual connection or how do you bring your heart with God into your DJ work and creation itself?
We were talking about movies earlier and it’s the sensation of the long game of wanting to have a true big perspective of what’s happening. Music and video deejaying, it’s a cool way to knowingly and unknowingly tell stories because you can listen to music and not be listening and have it affect you or you can be listening deeply and have it affect you too. That’s what’s so cool about art and God. I think God is the ultimate romantic in the way that he uses everything that you like to show you more of who God is and who you are through who God is. What I mean by that is when I finish a cool project, some of my projects in the past have been a remix of La La Land the movie and it was in these different chapters.
I’ve done a project called Only Love, which we had lost a lot of cool people around that time. I starve to create timeless stuff. I’m always wanting to make something that can be listened to or watched over and over. I think a lot of artists would say that. God’s gifted me with a cool taste on what fits together, images and audio-wise. Also, cool rhythm and how to move through an atmosphere of a dinner or a corporate event. How to create life through rhythm. I was talking to Ben Corns, my Canadian homie. He’s one of my best friends. He was saying there was a study that’s been done on people’s heart rates at symphonies. After a few minutes when people are listening to a symphony all sitting together, their heart rates become the same rate.
It is crazy how powerful music is. We had many of the guests on the show talked about the power music, how it impacts the soul and how it comes from the soul. That’s why we connect to it so much. What you brought up about is whether you listened to it or not, it has an impact you. You cannot be listening to it and it still affects you or you can be paying attention and it has a deeply profound impact on you. In your opinion, what makes work timeless? That’s going to be specific to music too.
These are my three criteria with what makes a movie great to me. Number one is the experience of watching it for the first time. I remember watching Drive in the theater. It’s Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn is the director. It must have been 7, 8 of us. My brother and Aristocat were there. It was at the ArcLight Hollywood and the sounds of the car from the very first scene, I think it starts in a hotel room and then it goes immediately into a car. It’s about this mysterious getaway driver who you don’t know anything about his past. He’s been through a lot and he’s very capable of fighting and defending himself. That’s in my top ten because that first experience of watching it was so good. That’s number one, the experience of what it was like the first time.
Number two is how the story makes me feel or how the other story moves like a love story. Number three is how it stands the test of time. When you re-watch it, how it makes me feel. In a simple way, making stuff that I want to re-watch over and over, making stuff that makes me tingle. There’s always a tingle test. Is it making me tingle? It has to tingle. That’s a big test for me. You see many collaborations with fashion, music and everything. Tying it into other stories, that helps too if it can tie into greater stories and make other people feel a part of the story it’s telling.Everything is for a purpose and nothing is random. Click To Tweet
That first impression, the story it tells and whether it lasts the test of time, those are beautiful. When you think about your creative process, I know several people were curious to learn more about what that is. How would you describe or define or put structure to your creative process now as you strive to create music?
I don’t have much structure or a process as you know. I’ve been organizing a lot of my sounds into folders and organizing a lot of my digital library. I was thinking about DJs and musicians, specifically DJs and producers, they’re extremely organized people in very specific ways. We’ve been friends for a while now. I’m very not organized in most parts of my life, but I was going through my DJ library and I was in awe of how organized it was because you have to find a song within one second at any moment and in any genre that you’re thinking about. You do that with keywords, tags and folders.
I don’t have much of a creative process but a lot of the things we talked about helped me write or create. A great tennis match or a great movie, 1917 inspired me for weeks. I’ve been getting into gardening, which has been cool. I got some goat yellow leather gardening gloves. I was cutting branches off this lemon tree in the backyard for a good hour and then wrote music for hours after that. It can be a certain scene in a movie that inspires me. It can be other music. I’m inspired by Mark and Jacob Collier, a lot of these one-man-band people, especially Mark. He has such a pure kitty joy when he plays.
He’s a singer, drummer, bassist, guitarist, pianist and also a comedian. This guy can tell funny, deep, cool stories through music on the fly by himself through a Boss loop station. He’s selling out every show. Watching him play feels genuine and he’ll be performing. He’ll go into little bits but he genuinely loves making the coolest music possible. I feel that with Jacob Collier too. He’s touted as the savior of jazz. He’s like a one-man human being band as well. I love slicing choreography into stuff. Choreography that sets to one music and then making it fit another type of music, that’s cool to me. Video deejaying is the majority of what I do in the past few years. Society is only touching on the beginnings of what’s possible with it. I’m still figuring out my process.
In a lot of ways, you are the pioneer in the field of video deejaying. I know we talked a lot during that time. In seeing the need for something or in discovering this new genre of deejaying, how are you able to create this new work? How did you uncover what video deejaying could be for you and learn the ropes on that? Anytime you do something for the first time, it’s extremely hard, especially when there are no real examples to look to. I’d be curious to hear more about how you learn that new skill.
It felt very natural shockingly because most things don’t, especially the first time. I remember seeing Mike Relm, who DJs for the Blue Man Group. He did a lot of work on The Baby Driver. He’s a cool dude, producer and a scratch DJ. He was scratching videos early on. I remember the technology sucked at first but I felt at home. When the technology first came out, there was a huge lag latency between when you’d move the record and when the image would move or even the sound in the Serato, which is a digital DJ technology that we all use. As soon as I saw a video of Mike Relm doing and then when I would fade the volume fader down and up, it would fit the image to black and up. I was thinking, “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Why haven’t they done this a while ago?”
I didn’t quite know how to use it yet. There were two early events. There was a TED event that I got asked to do with my cousin. He couldn’t do it. I think he had to go on a tour or something. I ended up doing that alone. That pushed me to create something, then I did the Only Love piece. I had a friend in Chicago who commissioned me to do a video DJ set. That pushed me to push the envelope of what was possible with it. Through that video Only Love, I got booked on a bunch of huge tech events around the world like Inspired Minds, Google and stuff like Novartis. There is somewhat of a process. I usually start with the music first and then put video to it, but that’s been flipped. There’s so much cool video content that’s inspiring me now.
It is pretty impressive and inspiring to see when it all comes together because it does take an immense amount of work. For our audience who can either go video deejaying or just deejaying in general, what do most people not know about the work or the craft of deejaying?
DJs are doing a lot that you don’t see. The reason you don’t see it is because the buttons are so tiny. The cross-fitters are so small. It’s another reason why I love video deejaying because it allows the audience to see what you’re doing in a much greater way. It’s not like a guitar string or a piano key where you can understand in a logical way what’s happening. The control for it is very minute. The keys are tiny. That’s one thing. A lot of our time is spent alone, which I want to do less of in 2020. It’s tough because no one’s going to organize your DJ library for you or download music for you and production as well. Collaboration has been huge with my buddy, Anthony. I see when he comes and if my stuff’s not organized and I don’t have a plan, it affects negatively what we create. I don’t mind spending that time alone setting stuff up. It’s a lot of setups.
It’s true of anything or any field that we see. Everything always takes more work than we assume or think. Nothing just happens by chance ever. One of the things that you’ve already brought up is the importance of listening that corresponds to creating good music. Would you say that your work in music has made you a better listener in general? Have you always had those character traits? One of the strengths and superpowers that other people shared is your ability to listen and the way you listen to others. Multiple people said that. I’m curious if that’s more natural or more developed through music or a little bit of both.
I don’t think I’m a good listener. If I think about it at this moment, I think it’s given than it’s been honed because I can hear keys very well. When I hear something that I love, I love it immediately. One of the most attractive things to me about people is their voices. Not just a singing voice, but the cadence in which they talk, the words they use, the timbre of their voice and the way they pause are so sexy to me. How guys and girls talk. I also know if there is some music on while I’m trying to talk to someone, it can be extremely distracting for me. I do love driving in silence because I’m listening to music so much. There’s a rooster that lives behind my house. I have this Airbnb. I’ve been struggling with it because it starts crowing at 2:30 in the morning to about 2:30 PM. I hear it. I can listen to the rooster.
That’s something you wish you weren’t as good as a listener too. Another superpower that people brought up that I would also attest to is your empathy, your ability to meet people where they’re at and to build people up in that. Do you see empathy as a strength or a hindrance to you? Because I think at times, it could probably be both. How do you strive to see and meet people in that?
I’m a big feeler and it used to feel like a hindrance for sure, but it’s 100% a gift. Anyone that has deep feelings and can feel other people’s feelings. I’m on dating apps for the first time and I can’t do them because I realized that I feel the emotions of every single picture that I see. It doesn’t feel like much when you go through 5, 10 pictures. When you go through 15, 20, 30 pictures within a short amount of time, it weighs on me. I feel the loneliness, the desperation, fanaticism or whatever is in there. There are some very close up pictures on that stuff. I’m checking it every other week. Maybe it’s not a healthy thing for me specifically.
One thing I’m asking God is I want to be more immediately aware of what’s true and what’s not true. Because I have so much empathy, a lot of people will say stuff to me verbal or nonverbal. I love to dwell, think and break down things or thoughts. If it’s true, I would love to dwell on it if it’s something worth dwelling on. If it’s not, I’d love to brush it off more. If you’re a big feeler, not all feelings are true but you feel everything. Everything does feel true at the moment. It’s being able to talk to God through that process.
That’s a good word. I want that for myself too, be more immediately aware of what’s true and not true at the moment. The second you say that’s not true, then it’s a lot easier to say, “I’m going to show that or discard that or not dwell on that.” When there’s a question maybe or is that, then the mind will chase the rabbit for a long time. That isn’t helpful. What do you see in your future? From this vantage point, what would your vision or hope be for the next five or ten years for you, your life, your work, for what God has for you?
I have enjoyed babysitting for the past years. One of the coolest things about it is with Coronavirus, the whole world could be burning and she’s getting her diaper changed or unzipping a jacket. It shifts time for you. I want to be more like her in some ways. As we were talking about feeling stuff in the ways that I’m cutting off things that aren’t true. I’d love when I feel something good. I want to enjoy empathy more as long as I am alive, as I was saying with gardening and organizing sounds. We’re supposed to finish an album about a month ago. I’m hoping to release this album. It’s going to be a huge thing for me because whatever happens with the music is cool. I hope it speaks to people and tingles people.
To be able to finish a piece of music would be another death to that band memory of asking that kid to play with me. I feel so cool to put stuff out, just be done and release it. I do want to shower more. I shower every other day. I’d love to get to 1.5. I find I sleep better. I end with a cold shower, but I can’t do a whole thing cold, not yet. I think a big theme that I want to grow in is being God’s child and however he’s created me to be. I want to learn and be and enjoy that more. I want to get a sewing machine too.
What is it about sewing that fills you with joy as a kid or even now?
It’s being able to change things, cut and re-arrange. Hopefully, making something better using its original parts. It’s almost like a remix or a mashup.
That ties a lot with music and what you’re doing, which is interesting how you say that. I do love the imagery of being God’s children. That’s always a return to being more childlike and how can we embrace that childlike awe and wonder that he originally designed us with. It is the journey that we’re all on, especially in the mid or second half of life. It’s how do you return to that place after we’ve left it. One of the things that someone brought up that I also am curious to know is if you have a most meaningful or favorite tattoo and what that piece of art means to you?
I’m not a favorite guy.
Maybe one that you’re reminded of the most.
On my left ribs, I have an abstract couple holding each other and they’re in full vibrant blue, red and orange, then at the bottom of them, it’s a little kid with a cape that’s looking up at them in black and white. I probably think about that one the most. It’s based on, “For now we see in a mirror dimly and then we’ll see face-to-face. Now I know in part, then I’ll know in full.” It’s this idea that everything is a taste of what it’s supposed to be. There are some cool moments we have on earth. When heaven comes back down and God remix the city, everything will be in true color. It’s in black and white in a way.
It’s based on my childhood too of looking up to my parents, looking up to how hard they worked and how they gave everything for us. That still wasn’t enough to know who I was but I’m so thankful that they are my parents. I have this image in my mind a lot of a kid with a sword and a shield in the attic, in the basement, looking out a window, wanting to go out to play, wanting to have something to fight for, play for and adventure for. That’s what God’s giving me every day through Jesus. It’s like, “I’m adopting you over and over every day into this infinite family. Come play with me. I love playing with you.”
What does faith mean to you now?Faith is the gift of wrestling with what's true. Click To Tweet
Faith is the gift of wrestling with what’s true. What I mean by that is when you wrestle, you go down a pool slide, a water slide or a mudslide. It’s fun and it’s hard, but is it true? That’s when this power is based on history and evidence. More so than anything, God is showing me this is true through this conversation or this piece of music or this story. Faith is re-falling in love with the story that God’s given me and the story that he’s made me a part of daily. It’s a daily word and a daily activity.
Those are both good, re-falling in love with God’s story that he’s given me and then the gift of wrestling with what’s true. You’ve still got some poetry left on you. I have a few last questions here. What can you not imagine living without?
Family is the one that pops up, but nothing sticks out honestly.
That speaks a lot to who you are in that sense, which is sweet. What do you believe to be true that you wish everyone else believed?
I believe that everything is for a purpose and nothing is random. There are a lot of things that seem random in my life, but when I brushed it off as random stuff, it affects my faith. I become disconnected from God and myself. I don’t have to know exactly why it’s not random but I’d love for people to see how everything is connected to God in some way and that God’s holding everything together.
What question do you ask yourself the most?
I don’t ask many questions to myself. It’s been, “Should I date her?” It’s mostly talking to God about that. A lot of times it’s not quite audible but it’s a tangible yes or no. That’s been there. Maybe it’s more on the tennis court, but I don’t talk to myself much at all.
What book or books have had the biggest impact on you? You mentioned Garden City. Are there others that come to mind?
I’ve read Andre Agassi’s autobiography called Open. It’s about he’s one of the greatest tennis players that ever lived but he hates tennis because it was forced and drilled into him aggressively. He learned to love it towards the end of his career. Sleepers is a book by Lorenzo Carcaterra. I read that maybe in middle school. It’s about a group of tight bros in Brooklyn or Hell’s Kitchen. They accidentally kill someone and they get sent into juvenile detention. Horrible things happen there to them, then it fast-forwards into their adulthood and how that’s affected them. It got turned into a movie with Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman. The book was spectacular, their brotherhood and sense of family.
Where did DJ Sleeper come from? Was it related?
It wasn’t related. Maybe subconsciously, but it comes from the word sleeper. The term meaning a sleeper car. It’s like a 1988 Toyota Camry or Toyota Corolla that has a Porsche engine inside of it. When you roll up to a light and try to race, it smokes because all the power is hidden on the inside. You can use the term sleeper for NCAA team or sleeper movie of the year. It’s like an undercover hit that the power is not immediately seen on the outside. I love that. I used to be into cars.
This is the last question. This is what we ask every guest that comes on. If you could send a morning text reminder to every up and comer out there, what would you say and why?
I put up this verse on my ceiling. I have a loft bed that’s quite close to the ceiling and it’s a Psalm. It goes something like, “He knows what I’m going to say before I say it. Every thought is known to him. He’s close to me when I travel. He’s close to me when I’m far away.” It’s such a hugging way to start off your day that God knows everything about you and loves you perfectly. He’s fighting for you and doing more than we can imagine or think. He’s so close and big at the same time.
That’s beautiful. There was a sign over my desk in Latin from a book called Whisper by Mark Batterson. The Latin I would butcher but what it says is, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” I thought that it was a beautiful time to tune in. This has been awesome. Thanks for coming on and sharing about your life and your story and your process. Where can people learn more about you, find your work, connect, contact, shout out and say what’s up? Where’s the best place for people to do that?
Thanks so much for having me. It’s DJSleeper.com. You could find everything there.
I don’t know if you’re still that much of a sleeper, but you’re still going to come up always, we all are. Thanks for being a faithful friend and for sharing all of your experiences. It’s been awesome.
I love you. Thank you.
Until next time. We hope you all have an up and coming week.
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- Ken Chen
- Levels of the Game
- Garden City
- The Dip
About Ken Chen
The love child of a composer & radio head, Sleeper’s music has been featured on ESPN, MTV, TED & URB Magazine.
He does an array of events from F1 racing to VJ showcases for Apple.
Sleeper is the first DJ to hit one million view on a YouTube video. DJ performances include artists such as Ludacris, Common, Mix Master Mike, Wyclef Jean, BT, David Beckham, Ryan Sheckler, Travis Pastrana, etc.
Sleeper’s Michael Jackson remix stayed #1 for a month on Hype Machine & made it to Zeitgest’s Best Songs of 2009. Stretching across genres, generations & styles, his ability to remix live while incorporating turntablism and video, creates a sound that is distinctly his own.
He has produced work for Adidas, Red Bull, and Live Nation.
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