Runn Turner Talks Dirty South, Muscle Cars, and the Manners of Real Men
Runn Turner is a lot of things: DJ, Ad man, photographer, metalsmith--southerner, classic car connoisseur, and fashion pro. A native of Decatur, Georgia (Atlanta), Runn (DJ name KDS) ventured out to L.A. and Philly before settling on the Big Apple. All that, he says, gave him a greater appreciation for both his upbringing in the south and Brooklyn, the place he now calls home.
Photographer Amelia Tubb documents as the DJ gives us a ride in his custom-built ‘79 Camaro and later that night as he spins at Max Fish. No matter where Runn goes--from Madison Avenue to Lower East Side, inner-city Atlanta to the border of Bed-Stuy--he emanates raw authenticity and exemplifies an enviable, zen-like kindness. Simply put, the man is electric. Here we talk muscle cars, dirty south music, dating apps and what it means to be a man.
Where did you get this car?
I built it over the course of about eight months. The beauty of old cars is that they’re the easiest cars to work on. They’re simple.
It’s kind of a Frankenstein car, made from a ‘79 that was totaled, and another ‘79 that was in mint condition. I chose this color because it’s as close to the classic copper color that I wanted to go. The original copper from this year was too dark. If was going to do this, I wanted it to be bright and intense. I wanted “hot rod orange.”
Why not just buy a car?
I was working way too much and wanted to do something else with my money. I was missing the south on so many levels and I needed to connect to that life--for me that’s cars. Classic cars mean a lot in my family. The first time my dad talked to me about sex, we were changing oil in the pick-up truck.
Is it strictly a personal connection?
Where I’m from, everybody rides--or aspires to ride--a classic car. Growing up, both my brothers had hot rods. My sister had a Camaro, both my brothers had Camaros, so it was only natural that I would build one.
I’m very fortunate to have an amazing family. A lot of what I learned about how to be a man, I learned through my siblings. As a kid, my brother would pick me up from high school in his orange-and-black Chevy Impala, and I felt so good hearing that car come down the street.
Whenever I’m having issues up here, career wise or anything, the one thing that keeps me grounded is my southern roots and beliefs. This car--the whole process of building it, and also just going to wash it and drive it--it returns me to what I know and love about being southern...as crazy as that sounds, but you understand.
What does the south mean to you? Because I think our ideas, while similar in some respects, are also very different.
Atlanta was a really hard place. Like, I know you as a person, so you’re good people with me, but as a reality, when I look you, we’re completely opposite. My life, growing up in the south 40 years ago, was f@cked up. There’s a lot about the south that is terrible, and there is a beauty for those who survived it.
We have this old-school joke that’s like, “We survived the red-dirt clay.” That means you grew up truly in the south--on a dirt road. Your family reunions weren’t all glossy in the Hamptons. It was on a farm in the country, and you would kill the animals you were going to eat for dinner. That type of shit people don’t understand up here. Let alone do they recognize that there is value and respect that you give to that history.
You mean the kind of respect you give to your family?
I mean the kind of respect you give to people who have lived through it. I’ve put up with a lot to make shit possible for my nephews and for other young kids. But they don’t see that, or acknowledge that. There is always someone before you that helped make the privileges of your life possible.
The south, for me, is my identity--my awareness as a black man who grew up in some of the worst shit ever. Because I’m 40 I’ve seen both sides of it. All my siblings are older, so I went through a lot with them. I also got to see the transition of the south. Being in the birthplace of some of the first historical black colleges--Spelman and Morehouse and Clark AU--made a huge difference in my upbringing. I always knew there was a next step.
So your pride in the south comes from your community, and feeling that you were bonded together--
[he interjects] No matter what. It’s funny to put it this way, but the rap industry down there is like this: If someone puts out an album down there, it’s going to feature seven or eight other artists because the general rule is--if I’m doing OK, then I’m going to bring my friends up with me.
And that’s unspoken?
It’s a given. A lot of artists from other places, especially up here, don’t do that. In general, in the south, you help every-f@cking-body you grow up with. Even those people you might have issues with, you try to help them be better, especially if they have kids and a family.
When you DJ, do you promote the music of your friends back home?
My focus has always been southern hip-hop--Goodie Mob, Ludacris, Ciara, Usher, old-school stuff--even before it was cool to play trap music. I believe in promoting what I am and where I come from. I’m very protective of that. A lot of people are playing southern music because it’s popular and everybody wants to play 2 Chainz and Outkast, but they don’t understand what the music is actually about, you know?
I started DJing here in New York almost 10 years ago. I had a radio show on East Village Radio called Baller’s Eve. It was me and two other friends from Atlanta, and it was our baby. Every Wednesday we spotlighted new, up-and-coming hip-hop artists from the south. One of the easiest ways for me to “get back” was to give people a means to get their music out. Being from a community that was embedded in real southern culture, I just knew I had to do what came most naturally, which was southern hip-hop.
Right now I’m really into Bankroll Fresh, Lil’ Lucci, Trouble, and this kind of alternative group called Wedding Crashers. But because I DJ Southern music, a lot of what I listen to everyday is old-school Smiths and Morrissey. Oh, and I love Frank Ocean.
There’s such a history of storytelling in the south, do you think that hip-hop and rap out of the south reflects that?
Yes and no. Some of the more lyrical-based artists have that quality, but what almost all southern hip-hop has in common is that it makes you dance and it makes you happy. The key thing is that--because of all the hardship and the bullshit these people went through growing up in the south--music is supposed to put you in a safe place where you can be free to be yourself. Southern hip-hop makes people want to dance.
Is that why you love to play it?
Absolutely--anything to get outside of that negative place, or help people forget their issues. If I can get people in New York into something that is my life and culture, then I feel like I’m doing something right by having left the south. Because I’m still giving them what I believe in.
Do you miss the south?
I do. I miss the value that people have for others. Every time I go home, I get the same love from friends I haven’t seen in almost 10 or 15 years. But they are supportive of me having left the south and continuing to do what I need to do to grow, as opposed to being at a standstill down there. There is still a lot of growth that needs to happen down there.
I would go back if my family needed me. But for me to just move back down there...nah. The most difficult thing I ever did was to leave everything that was comfortable to me. But once I left, and figured out how to make it on my own, I realized that I could only keep taking steps up, up, and up. I can’t backtrack to any part of my life that I’ve already been to.
So how did you end up an Ad Man?
Before I lived in New York, my photography was in a gallery for years; then I went freelance. The biggest thing I learned during that time was that I didn’t know how to properly market myself and my work. When I moved to New York, I had no experience, but this one company gave me a chance.
In my interview I said, “If you hire me, I’m going to be here until you leave.” So I was there for 11 years, and worked my way up through four different positions. I was fortunate to be at a company that believed in me and allowed me to grow. Eventually I became Senior Director of Event Marketing, managing a 12M dollar department. It was the best experience ever. Now I’m a Senior Account Director at a small agency that focuses on UX and website-based stuff.
So what about your photography?
I got a B.F.A. in Photography at Georgia Southern. During my second year, I was dating this amazing, very open-minded Middle Eastern girl, and for my first photo study, I modified the assigned subject (a tree) and shot her nude.
All my work is nudes. It’s the only thing I know how to shoot, but ultimately anything to do with the human form in it’s purest state is what I deal with. That’s always been a really important part of my life--that connection to who you are as a person via your body and body image. Society is so screwed up because of the way women are portrayed. I shoot skinny girls, fat girls, black girls,white girls, Chinese girls. I shoot people. I shoot reality.
What do you love about your neighborhood?
There aren’t a lot of “real neighborhoods” left around here anymore. I like that I’m on the line between Bed-Stuy and Bushwick. I like Bed-Stuy, but I don’t want to be too deep in it. And I like Bushwick, but Bushwick has become so expensive and so overrun with people who don’t know anything about Bushwick, or have any respect for it. I can be just as much a part of gentrification as anyone else because I didn’t grow up here, but I feel comfortable in this area. There is a sense of community and I know the people that live next door.
How do you feel New York has changed in the last 10 years?
I liked New York City more before I lived here. Everything is about money now, which sucks because it strips away at the talent and even the respect that people have for their arts and their culture.
A lot of people today haven’t had to go through hardships to appreciate that it’s a privilege to live here. Don’t get me wrong, if I ever have kids, I want to be able to help them. But I feel like there are a lot of kids whose parents take care of them, putting them up in high rises. They have too much, too fast, to the point that they don’t understand what it took for some people to obtain that.
I see what you mean with Williamsburg. It's different because I am a privileged white girl that came into the neighborhood six years ago, and even the changes I’ve seen have been drastic. But I didn’t move to Williamsburg because I wanted this fancy bourgie neighborhood. Gentrification will continue to happen and I don’t have any right to complain because I am clearly part of that problem. But when I move to a neighborhood, be it the Lower East Side or Clinton Hill or Williamsburg, I want to be a part whatever that neighborhood is.
Right, and a lot of people move to a new area because they think, “Oh, this is a cool new area, I can push people out.”
I’m not even from the neighborhood and I'm frustrated by the people who say “Oh, I can’t afford to live in a high-rise in Manhattan, so I’m going to get one in Williamsburg.” For whatever reason I feel this allegiance to the neighborhood because of my husband's experience seven, eight years ago. He lived at Death By Audio in an artist’s commune and now it’s a J.Crew. Now Glasslands is gone, DBA is gone, Zebulon is gone.
The scary thing is that I have no idea where this is going to go in 5 or 10 years. There’s so much saturation. New York has become so expensive. Artists flocked here decades ago for art, music, culture, and design, and soon that’s all going to be gone. It sucks, but that’s the reality.
How do you feel like New York has influenced your style?
I’ve always been this way. I was best dressed in high school. I was prom king. Becoming successful in New York has just made me more confident with making my own decisions--all decisions.
How was your style aesthetic informed by the south?
This is a f@cked up answer, but it’s a real answer: If you are a minority in America, the only thing you have is your presence. Which is why you see kids in the hood wearing clean-ass Jordans. There is a sense of self that you must have because you grew up having people take that shit from you. So, my style is southern because it says “F@ck you, I’m gonna put on polka-dot socks with a floral print,” and just own it.
Is that because growing up you didn’t feel like you have had the means to own those things you wanted?
My dad raised five kids in an amazing family and we never went without. I look back and see that there were ways my parents would organize our routine to conserve money, but we had what we needed. I can’t say I had everything, but I always had a taste of stuff. My dad took me to San Francisco, which was a lot. No one I knew was going anywhere outside of Alabama and North Carolina. My parents definitely wanted to show me that there was more out there beyond Georgia, that I was going to be more than just my surroundings.
Is that why you’ve been able to have the success you have in New York?
Hands down. If I didn’t have my family unit, I would not be where I am now. There are certain things my dad instilled in me that I still live by.
It can be something as simple as opening doors; if we’re cooking, we’re all going to eat together; or just walking on the outside of you [author’s note: to those unfamiliar, it’s a traditional act of chivalry that if a man and woman are walking down the street, etc., that he stay on the outside of her.] Just simple values of respect. Even when men are rude to me, I just think of it as: I’m sorry this guy is having such a bad day. And there’s no such thing as giving up. I definitely think that’s a southern pride thing.
My parents went through the hard shit. And me? I’m getting paid to have a fun, cool job. Who am I to complain? So I have this reality check that’s like--if I don’t do better each year, then I’m the only one to blame.
So speaking of all this chivalry, when you want to impress a girl, do you take her for a ride in your car?
When I want to impress a girl, I cook.
Do you have a staple?
My southern fried chicken! It’s pretty good.
Damn, Runn! Why haven’t you ever made me fried chicken?
I mean, it’s seriously good.
This girl you’re seeing now, how did you meet?
At a bar I was DJ’ing.
Are you a stickler for meeting someone in person, organically, or are you into dating apps?
I do believe there is a certain value in meeting someone face to face, but I completely support dating apps. There was a period in my life when I met so many people through OK Cupid. I could never knock that. I’m also really big on how someone writes and speaks, and you can learn a lot from their online profile.
But don’t you think that can be deceptive? Sometimes people aren’t as good in writing as they are in person?
Absolutely, just like all those Instagram filters. Online is just where we’re at right now. We spend most of our time commuting and at work. So when are you going to find yourself face to face with a bunch of potential partners?
What’s your advice for single ladies? Do you think women should buck traditional trends and be more aggressive because that’s the world we live in?
Ok--great question. A while ago I knew this crew of really attractive, successful girls. The girl I liked at the time had been coy with me. But there was this other girl who was really cool, and she just walked up to me and said, “I love how you DJ. Next week I want to take you out for a drink.” I had so much respect for her. It sucks...but she beat her friend to the punch.
I’m a traditionalist in that, the first time we meet, I’m going to take you out. I wouldn’t even allow her to pay, but just to know that she had that in her was cool.
It’s hard for me give advice to women in New York, though, because it’s tough here. This is probably one of the worst places to date. When you factor in the transient, beautiful females here, and then you factor in successful, independent women, and then you look at the small amount of dateable men here... I think, just be yourself.
What’s your man beauty routine?
I like Kiehl’s. I also like old-school Dove soap. I know everyone is into beard oils and all this other stuff now, but just...just wash and shampoo your beard. Condition it every two or three days.
I was raised that being a man means you’re going to take care of your presentation because you’re representing your community. For me, everything I do and say is a reflection of my father and how I was raised.