Tune in to KS 107.5 radio station on a weekday afternoon, and you can hear the voice of a CU Denver alumnus. His name is Mario Rodriguez, better known as “DJ Chonz,” a long-time disc jockey for Denver’s largest hip-hop station and one of Colorado’s most well-known DJs.
“My roots are in hip-hop—that’s what I’m known for,” said Rodriguez, a Denver native who began spinning records in 1993 in his parents’ basement. Three years later, a year out of high school, he began getting paid gigs with Pepsi Co. and opening up for famous groups like De La Soul. But he knew that getting a college degree was essential for his long-term success.
He chose to get his bachelor’s degree from CU Denver and, in 2001, became the first person in his family to graduate from college. Now, more than a decade—and thousands of radio hours—later, he’s back to get a graduate certificate in public relations.
“If you want to be good at anything, you have to continue to sharpen your skills,” he said. “I’m coming back to CU Denver, so I can learn how to communicate better.”
“Desire and grind”
Rodriguez has worked alongside famous musicians (Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, to name a couple), received many awards for his DJ-ing and created his own music business, Radio Bums. But his success didn’t always seem inevitable.
“It was looking like I wasn’t going to go to college at all,” said Rodriguez, who struggled with standardized test taking in high school. He spent several years at a local community college before transferring to CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media to earn a degree in music industry studies.
“I worked from the very bottom all the way up,” he said. Refusing to take out student loans, he DJ-ed at night clubs to pay his tuition, sometimes working until 1 or 2 in the morning and then waking up for his 8 a.m. class.
“I have this desire, and grind,” he said. “If that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“A blueprint for my life”
Rodriguez said his career advanced, in large part, because of a 50-page term paper he wrote at CU Denver—a special assignment an instructor gave him that allowed him to miss classes while touring as a DJ and complete the course.
Rodriguez transformed the paper into an opportunity to map out his future career goals.
“It became a blueprint for the next five to 10 years of my life,” he said. “I [researched] local radio and record labels and laid out how I would start a record pool. Without me writing it like that, it probably would’ve just been ideas in my head. Everything I said in that paper, I’ve done.”
While a CU Denver student, Rodriguez got an internship with Cali Kings, a music promotions company in Los Angeles, before landing the DJ job with Denver’s KS 107.5.
“It’s all relationships”
Among the things Rodriguez has done is build a stronger DJ culture and community in his home city. While working with big record labels in California, he witnessed the impact of record pools, which are grassroots music-sharing groups that empower DJs to develop their careers.
“I wanted to do the same thing in Denver,” he said. So, he created Radio Bums, a record pool that has since developed into a worldwide DJ network and non-profit foundation. After he became the first Denver DJ to perform live on commercial radio, he began helping others do the same.
“I opened the door for DJs like myself to be heard commercially,” he said. “I’m good at introducing people who I think could work well together. It’s all about relationships.”
“The perfect time to challenge myself”
To increase his networking and communications skills, Rodriguez returned CU Denver this year to study public relations in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Being a student again has been a challenge for him—especially (this may come as a surprise) the public speaking.
“At five o’clock, I talk to [an audience as large as] three Invesco Fields at one time,” he said of his radio station work, “but when I have to speak in class and I’m being critiqued, I still get nervous. I don’t want to leave out any details.”
Not everyone with Rodriguez’s success would make the choice to get another degree, especially if they have a wife and two kids. But this CU Denver student is not just anyone—he’s DJ Chonz.
“I’m at the top of my game, but I don’t like to be complacent or lazy,” he said. “I’m always looking to challenge myself, both personally and professionally.”