If I didn’t already know Chris Ju was a musician, I would have known from his style: bright, backward, yellow hat slightly raised and off-center, muted-pink sweatshirt over a white T-shirt, all tied together with a short silver chain.
Every musician I’ve ever met has this effortless cool, as if style is a natural side-effect of what happens when someone chooses to pursue art – a choice that bleeds into all other choices, every fiber of their life seeming to say they’re not just marching to the beat of their own drum, but to a beat they’re creating.
Chris makes beats and produces music, which he’s done for artists like Tyga, Snoop Dogg, Joyner Lucas, B.o.B, and Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan.
Most of his instruments live on the computer: there’s one right above a long keyboard edged in gold and two to the right of his at-home recording studio.
There’s a guitar in a corner, and on the walls to the right of it are two framed Billboard plaques: one for a song called “My Grandma’s Basement” which charted at number four, and the other for “Slow Motion Vol I”, which charted at number one.
Chris’ stage name, which you can hear in many of his songs, is Kato on the Track: “Most people call me Kato”, he tells me.
I get the sense that like many musicians, his stage name holds space for him to be someone he isn’t in his everyday life, but someone just as much a part of who he is.
But before there was Kato, there was Chris.
“Honestly, I was lost.”
It started with another guitar in the corner; this time, his sister’s. His dad bought it for her when she said she wanted to learn how to play, but once she realized music wasn’t her thing, Chris wandered into her room one day and tried to play.
He couldn’t put it down.
He looked up sheet music online and taught himself, then joined concert band in middle and high school (playing the drums), and started a rock band in high school called Morning After.
But music was just a hobby, not a realistic career.
When he graduated and left his hometown of Fairfax, Virginia, he attended college in Philadelphia to study digital media. He had a plan, but:
Honestly, I was lost. I didn't really have direction. I just picked digital media because I thought it sounded interesting enough.
He brought his guitar with him to college and spent a lot of time in his dorm room making music. But one night, it wasn’t working. Usually he’d have an idea in his head and be able to play it with the guitar. But on this night, he heard melodies and keys and strings he couldn’t replicate with the guitar.
He wanted to make what was in his head a reality. So he Googled “How to make beats”. He read all about it, downloaded his first production software and started making beats. What did it feel like, I ask, when he heard his first beat?
It was like a revelation because I didn't know I could do that.
To hear these ideas in my head and then be able to translate them in real-time, that was mind-blowing for me.
From then on Chris spent every moment he wasn’t in class, alone in his dorm room making beats.
By the end of his freshman year, when he thought about how much student debt he was incurring, and how little he was interested in digital media compared to how he felt about beats, he thought: “What am I doing here?”
He decided to leave college and move back in with his family who had recently relocated to Atlanta, Georgia.
“Being in a creative field like that wasn't a thing.”
Chris still didn’t think music could be a career, but he knew he didn’t want to invest so much money in a career path he wasn’t more excited about. He wanted to take some time to see what kind of career he could find at least a little bit as interesting as he found music.
Why didn’t he think about pursuing music as a career then, I ask?
Number one, I come from first-generation Korean immigrants, and so growing up, having a music career was not even in the conversation. It was like, “Go to school, get your degree, graduate, become a doctor, a lawyer.” Being in a creative field like that wasn't a thing.
And secondly, this was around the early 2000s and the only social media we had at that point was MySpace and Facebook. And even MySpace was super new. There weren't artists and producers blowing up on social media like we see today.
So it didn't seem like something I could pursue realistically as a career.
He moved back in with his parents and took it day by day, still making beats and writing songs every day upstairs. He didn’t know any rappers then, so he rapped over his beats himself.
His parents weren’t happy about him leaving college and pressed him to enroll at the local community college to continue getting credits so he could eventually go back to a university once he figured out what he did want to do.
He took a class here or there to appease them, but by then his heart was firmly rooted in music. So much so that he decided to finally step out of his room and away from his computer to perform his music on stage.
Being a super fan of hip hop and rap, he noticed his idols rapped their music on stages and performed with confidence, “I wanted to emulate that. I wanted a piece of that, because that's what my idols were doing.”
He found an open mic night in Atlanta. He was terrified:
It was nerve-wracking. I can't lie. I've never been so nervous in my life. Because I consider myself an introvert. I'm a shy person. So for anyone that’s an introvert, you can imagine how terrifying it is to get on stage in front of a bunch of people and perform something you created.
He can’t remember much about that first performance, and I like to think that’s because Kato took over.
Once you're actually in the moment and they push play on your music and you start performing, you go into a zone.
All those fears wash away and you start thinking about your music and what you're doing on stage and you forget about the people watching you.
Afterward, he felt immense relief – that it was over, but also that he had made a big step in his career. He felt accomplished.
He also felt seen. At that open mic night he found there was a real music community in Atlanta. It was the first time he was able to make friends with people who loved what he loved as much as he loved it.
For the first time, he felt like he fit in:
All my life I had been trying to do things or be someone that I wasn't. I struggled with my own identity, especially being an Asian American in hip hop music; at that time in Atlanta, that was pretty rare. I would go to shows and literally be the only Asian person in the entire building.
But once I saw the reception and the feedback that people were giving me on my music and they saw that I was really passionate about my craft, they gave me the same level of respect as everyone else. We had that mutual bond.
A bond he was going to need more than he could have predicted; because a year and a half after he moved to Atlanta to live with his family, his family fell apart.
“It was scary being on my own.”
Chris’ parents sat him down and explained they were getting a divorce and selling the house. Chris didn’t see it coming. They also explained that after selling the house they’d leave Atlanta – his dad for a new job in Virginia and his mom to live with her family in Salt Lake City. They asked who did he want to live with.
Neither: he wasn’t ready to leave the community he’d just found in Atlanta.
So he stayed behind and got a job to support himself; it was the first time he was truly on his own.
It was scary being on my own, but that time was so critical for me to learn how to survive on my own. And it gave me thicker skin. When your back's against the wall, you just figure things out.
At first he strung together whatever part-time jobs he could find, working for a martial arts gym and as an exterminator.
Most people are surprised when they find that out. They're like, “What? You used to work for an extermination company?” And I’m like, yeah, I had to do what I had to do.
Music was still his outlet, and it got him through that tough time – especially the community. And the more he got to know them, the more he realized how music really could be a career.
The first person who helped him see that was artist, rapper, and Atlanta native Jarren Benton. They were almost always performing at the same shows and Chris loved his work. They became friends and eventually decided to get into the studio and work on some music together.
Their work caught on: people talked about it, blogs wrote about it.
That’s when I slowly started to realize, “Wow, this could actually become something bigger.” I didn't know exactly where it was going, but I could see the momentum building, and I liked where it was going. So we kept doing that.
They weren’t making any money at that point, but it was the first time he saw an audience grow, and it was thrilling: “We were just two kids who loved making music and performing in front of people. And we had this wild energy. We go all out at our shows. We stage dive.”
“When your back's against the wall, you just figure things out.”
They gave it all they had, night after night, and the audience noticed.
Eventually, an independent label noticed too. Jarren got signed to an independent hip hop label called Funk Volume, and they signed Chris on as the producer.
That independent label made millions, and it was the first time Chris saw, up close, how making music could also mean making a living.
Jarren went on tour and Chris, as Kato on the Track, DJ’d his live sets. Between the tour income and selling beats, Chris was able to quit his part-time jobs and do music full-time.
It was a dream come true. But he couldn’t help but wonder: How long will this last?
“I didn't know how to make money off of my music.”
After six years, the label dissolved.
Not long after, Chris was evicted from his apartment, his car repossessed.
His girlfriend at the time lived in a 2-bedroom apartment with a roommate; they let him move into their living room.
He remembers thinking then:
Alright, I got to do something. I got to figure this out ASAP. Otherwise my girlfriend's going to hate me or break up with me.
By that time he and Jarren had charted number one on Billboard. But now he was homeless.
But not discouraged. Because now he knew what was possible:
It felt like a new start to me because I had just come off this high of touring.
He was determined to find a way to make a living making music as an independent producer.
He’d already dedicated six years to his craft. Now it was time to dedicate himself to learning the music business. Once he realized how precarious it could be to rely on a label as his only source of income, he wanted to learn how he could take his music career into his own hands.
I started learning about the music business and that really took my own business and mentality as an entrepreneur to that next level.
He started doubling down on his efforts to build his own audience and sell his own music directly.
It was still a struggle. For like three to four years after that, I was still barely getting by just off of my music income.
But it was progress. And that's what I was paying attention to.
He didn’t know then that one day his music would help him buy his own house, but before that he struggled financially for years, the heat sometimes being turned off. I asked what kept him from giving up and getting a job where he wouldn't have to worry about money so much.
Because I was just having too much fun.
My fear was that if I did go back to getting a job I'd be moving in the opposite direction. I just wanted to have constant forward momentum.
Even when it was really difficult, I would rather max out my credit cards than go back to getting a job so I could pay the bills. I just wanted to make sure I could focus all my energy on music.
He was optimistic, especially when he got feedback from his fans:
Anytime I got positive feedback from people who would listen to our music, that was the ultimate rush for me.
Whether it was on stage or whether they heard our song off of our mixed tape, or just seeing the comments on MySpace or on social media.
That was more than enough to keep me going.
When he wasn’t making music, he connected with fans:
One of the biggest lessons I learned from being on Funk Volume was how to utilize social media to engage directly with fans.
So I started doing that a lot more heavily, creating more content and engaging with people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.
That helped me build a platform for myself where at that point I could just try different things. I was still kind of in the trial and error phase.
The biggest struggle he had: how to turn fans into customers. How do you really turn a craft into a living when it’s just you?
I had these songs with these dope artists, but I didn't know how to monetize it. I didn't know how to make money off my music.
“The more you think about the uncertainty, the less productive you're going to be.”
But he didn’t let himself drown in those questions. He held to a strong belief that he would eventually find the answers.
As creatives, I think the more you think about the uncertainty, the less productive you're going to be.
We almost have to trick ourselves into believing that we're 1000% on the right path.
We just need to keep doing what we're doing and wake up every single day with that mentality. You program yourself to maximize every minute of the day with what you're doing.
Every day he tried new things. And every day he connected with his fans online, getting to know them.
Because of that, he learned there were also other musicians in his audience too, and they had a lot of questions about what he’d learned from his time with one of the biggest indie hip hop labels.
So I had an idea to start a monthly subscription program for producers called Beat Club.
I didn't have any of the actual business part of it figured out.
All I knew was that I'm going to charge people between $30 and $80 a month to be a part of this mentorship program. And I would do live streams with them every week.
This was 2015, before live streaming was common. But Funk Volume encouraged its artists to live stream with their fans all the time, and Chris saw the impact it could have.
He didn’t know much about selling online at the time, but he did know how to sell martial arts memberships from his old part-time job at the gym, so he posted his Beat Club idea on social media and told anyone interested to DM him their phone number and he’d call them.
I just literally started calling people on my phone and I was like, “Hey, I got this new program. It's going to be really dope. It's for producers. I'm going to do tutorials with you. Talk to you about the music industry. It's $30 a month. Are you interested?”
I made about $10,000 just from calling people every single day.
I ask him how he managed that, especially as an introvert:
If you have ever had a sales job, you know the best way to interact with people is one-on-one. And sometimes you get that kind of confidence by just cold calling people and getting hung up on.
He’d once spent his days cold calling parents to sell martial arts memberships that cost $5,000-$7,000; asking for $30 a month didn’t feel so scary.
After years of trial and error, Chris was starting to find a business model that worked for him and used all of his best skills – producing, making beats, teaching, and building community around music.
But his methods weren’t sustainable: he knew he couldn’t spend all day every day calling people. He had to find a better way.
“How do I get my music out there?”
He started using his email list more:
Email became really important to my business as it started to scale and grow. Once I started to build my online social media platform, I realized “Hey, my posts are only reaching a very small percentage of my audience at any given time.”
Whether I'm providing a service or selling beats or selling any products, I need to be able to reach my audience directly with no middleman.
Once I realized that, I started creating all kinds of different landing pages and funnels and incentives for people to just give me their email.
Even if I sell beats through a platform like BeatStars, for every single beat sale, people are putting in their email. So those are people that I can follow up with later and be like, “Hey, I got this two for one beat sale going on, come shop with me.”
As my business started to scale I realized the importance of doing that kind of stuff.
He also loved having a direct line of communication to his audience and fans:
I think that's really important to build your community.
And you make more money. You're able to sell a product directly to your consumers, your customers, without going through social media where only a fraction of your audience gets to see it. You just have a much higher sell-through rate going directly to your customers.
That’s not to say Chris abandoned social media. He just realized it’s the place to find new fans and start new conversations, but isn’t where the conversation should end:
Social media I kind of look at like my own TV show. It's great for branding and bringing in new audiences to the top of your funnel.
To deepen the relationship and build a long lasting and more direct connection, he uses texting and email:
The next level to that is like, “Okay, I want to be able to keep in touch with these people on a regular basis.” Social media is becoming less and less that.
So that's where I start using email marketing and text marketing. Once I get their phone number, their email, then I can communicate with them directly if I want to sell them a product or a service.
Chris also likes how targeted texting and email allow him to be: if he’s going to be in a particular city, he’ll email and text just the people in that city and let them know where they can buy tickets.
In 2019, he created a Sound Advice workshop event where he toured 27 cities, connecting with other musicians and producers in person and talking about the music business, like how to collect royalties as an independent artist, how to network, and how to build an audience online.
The most common question musicians had for him, I ask?
How do I get my music out there?
Most artists long to share their work, and while it’s more accessible to do that than ever, it’s also more daunting. “Out there” can mean a million different things, and it’s impossible to know where to start. It’s also hard not to feel like trying will just make you feel worse: lost in the noise, feeling even more invisible than you already do.
Focus on “just getting one new fan every single day.”
“I think it's just sharing that common bond with your fans.”
How do you do that?
For Chris, it’s about taking what he learned from Funk Volume and applying it to the internet: “I really credit the independent artists I saw coming up in my career with teaching me how to build my own community as a producer.”
He saw how the artists would meet their fans on tour. Take photos. Talk to people.
The one-to-one still mattered, and Chris saw how you could continue to make those connections even when you weren’t on tour.
He continued to focus on using the internet to scale the one-to-one feeling, sharing his work online and creating community.
As an introvert, how does he feel about putting himself out there so much? How does it not drain him, I ask?
I think it's just sharing that common bond with your fans. That common bond of music. And once you find that, then it becomes a lot easier to talk to someone.
And making that first step to actually reaching out and talking to people, I had to get over that. I quickly learned if I want to have a career in music and entertainment and build an online social media platform, I got to get over just being scared all the time.
I'm still awkward to this day. That'll always be kind of inherently who I am, but I've gotten better at it, and I think it's so important to develop that skill as a creative.
That skill helped a lot when the pandemic cut his Sound Advice tour (and income) short.
He pivoted to launching his first full course called Music Branding Mastery, sharing it a few times on social media and via text messaging to get people excited, but telling them to sign up for his email list to really learn more.
From there he focused the majority of the marketing on his email list (thus only talking to people who were interested and not crowding his social media feed with sales copy). He launched the course to his email list and via text and it sold out in 48 hours. He made $200,000.
Chris also makes money selling beats and producing music for award-winning artists, but the other music-related work he does is what provides that sustainable income that makes him feel freer to create and be the artist he wants to be and continue to do what he and Jarren did from the beginning, without the pressure:
Ultimately I don't think success is a monetary amount or how much money you make or how much clout you have.
I don't think it's any of that. I think it's really just being able to recognize your purpose. What makes you happy What do you love to do? And if you're able to do that, then you're successful, you've won.
I ask him how he sees his own purpose:
My purpose I realized a long time ago was to make people feel something through the music I create or what I put out into the world.
He gets emails and texts and DMs all the time from people he’s helped with his courses and music. He remembers one not too long ago that said: “I used to listen to you and Jarren back in middle school. You guys got me through some really difficult times.”
Hearing stuff like that is just affirmation that I'm glad I didn't quit.
“Now you’ve got a groove going.”
After I ask Chris my last question, it’s time to meet Kato. I’m going to watch him finish a beat he started working on this morning.
As he turns to the computer I ask about the picture on his desk of a young woman and a dog, and he tells me that’s his girlfriend and his dog Cali. “Is that the same girlfriend who let you live in her living room?” I ask.
“Yes,” he shares.
“Wow, I did not think the answer was going to be yes but I had to ask.” We both laugh.
“Believe me, for a while there, I didn't think we'd be together either. We have been through it. We've been through the thick and thin together. She supported me when I was a broke, starving artist musician. So yeah, I think that's made our bond a lot stronger. We've been together almost seven years now.”
“You don't live in the living room anymore, I'm guessing?”
“I don't live in the living room. Thank God.”
He has his own office and music room now. Though I do notice in one corner, to the left of the large ATL black and white banner, there is a tall shelf filled with high heels.
Once the software is open on one of the two monitors in front of him, Kato opens up the track he started this morning with a guitar loop.
He adds drums and explains:
So now you’ve got a groove going.
I watch him add things, using various programs and plug-ins as instruments, the laptop keyboard becoming a way to play almost anything.
As the song builds, so do color blocks on screen, a kind of Tetris. Despite playing clarinet for one year in 7th grade, I do not understand the mechanics of music, so I ask him about things in relation to what I can see: “So, the orange with the stripes, the kind of tiger thing up top, that's the guitar melody? Then is that yellow block the drums?”
Yes, he tells me, exactly.
Then he points out the red blocks that represent a sound effect he brought in. But then I get lost again in terms like “open hat, reverse sweep, 808 bass.”
But what I hear, I understand. Because you don’t have to understand music to feel it.
Before he finishes for the day, adding blue, gray, green (aka a keyboard, a kick drum, and some counter melodies), he explains how important it is to also leave room for a vocal track so that the artists can envision where their vocals could sit on the track.
This track is called “Ruby Red”, he shares, and sometimes it takes years for an artist to pick up a beat. But he doesn’t think too much about that – he just keeps creating.
A few months later, I email him to ask, just in case, if anything has happened yet with “Ruby Red”.
It’s still being shopped around, he shares, but, something else happened since we last talked.
It turns out another song he produced, “So Pretty” by Reyanna Maria, is the number 10 most viral song in the world on Spotify and number six on the US Charts. They also just dropped a remix featuring Tyga.
How did it go viral?
It launched the #imsoprettychallenge, with over 30 million views to date and celebrities like Gabrielle Union taking part. The challenge involves people pumping their palms toward the camera, covering it completely, in line with the beat Kato made, over and over again. Then, when they remove their palm from the camera for the final time, they sing the opening lyrics and reveal a new version of themselves.