DJ Carisma Is L.A. Radio's Biggest Champion of West Coast Hip-Hop

DJ CarismaEXPAND
DJ Carisma
Photo by LaLo the Giant

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.]

You could stroll back and forth down this blah stretch of Burbank and never realize that you’d passed one of the most influential corners of West Coast hip-hop.

The nerve center of Young California can’t be seen from the street. The only signage attached to the sunbaked taupe building belongs to an insurance company, a psychic and some plumbers.

But should you enter through the back parking lot, you’ll hear DJ Carisma controlling the microphone, surrounded by vinyl records and perched behind a permanently open laptop.

Over the last few years, the Power 106 DJ has helped break more local R&B and rap records than any of her peers. In addition, she’s built her Young California crew (formed in partnership with the Bay Area’s DJ Amen) into a major force for West Coast rap artists, whether through hosting mixtapes, online radio shows or the collective’s blog.

“There are four types of DJs,” Carisma says, wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, her dark brown hair tied in a ponytail. She has the engaging smile and genial nature of a good host, minus the forced slickness often found in on-air jocks. “There are DJs who only do parties and clubs. There are DJs who don’t actually DJ but host mixtapes. There are radio personalities, and there are turntablists. I try to be all in one.”

Her resume certifies the claim. The DJ born Cathleen Robertson was raised in Santa Ana by a blues-loving and Harley Davidson–riding father, and a Mexican-American mother obsessed with Hawaiian culture and hula music. As a student, she DJ’d football games at Corona’s Santiago High. Her earliest musical memories involved listening to mix shows on Power 106 and the defunct 92.3 The Beat.

“I’d listen late at night for any new hip-hop and R&B. I’d read magazines and run to buy everything supposedly new and hype,” Carisma says. “Once I got in a position of power to share more new music, I wanted to take advantage of it.”

The vinyl sleeves taped to the walls of Young California’s studios reflect the wide reach of her tastes: everything from Gregory Isaacs and James Brown to TLC, Lil’ Kim and Stones Throw’s Lootpack, the hitmakers and legends occupying equal real estate with underground cult heroes. After all, Carisma’s career offers credence to the idea that today’s untested rookie can be tomorrow’s radio killer.

After a stint at radio school in Minneapolis, she moved back home, bought a pair of Technics and thousands of records, and rocked parties at churches and youth events. She kept applying to work at Power 106 but received only rejection letters.

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Eventually, a series of serendipitous breaks led to her joining the station’s street team, where she spun at high school charity basketball games. From that vantage point, she watched the growth of the jerkin’ movement in 2008-09, which she spread to Power 106 program director E-Man. Impressed by Carisma’s tastemaking and affability, the Power 106 brass gave her the midnight-to-2 a.m. slot on Saturday nights and, later, the 10 a.m.-to-noon Friday slot.

Since her first on-air appearance in 2009, few California stars haven’t received a boost from Carisma. That’s partially why her debut compilation, DJ Carisma Presents, reads like a roll call of the state’s most popular young artists. Due in January, its collaborators include DJ Mustard, Y.G., TeeFlii, Sage the Gemini and Chris Brown. The goal is to be the West Coast incarnation of DJ Khaled.

“I just want to bring back the feeling and sound of the music that I grew up on and loved,” Carisma says. “I’m proud to be a female in a male-dominated industry. I’m a record breaker. I’ve got skills and I can rock it.”

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