Kings of Cross
By Julie Carney
At a time when the dance
music community is going through many changes, Fort Knox Five brings
something fresh and innovative to the scene. The rousing and honest
excitement of this group proves that the upswing is coming, so get
ready for it.
Consisting of Steve Raskin,
Sid Barcelona, JonH, Rob Myers and Steven Albert, the quintet has
released three 12-inches on its own Fort Knox Recordings imprint.
The members belong to a number of other overlapping projects. Raskin
and Barcelona are the masterminds behind Thunderball, a funky-downtempo
project on the Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label. JonH and Raskin
release music on Red Menace Records under the name JonH and Raskal.
Myers plays sitar and guitar in Thunderball, and plays sitar for
ESL Music heads Thievery Corporation. Albert plays drums for Thunderball
and has recorded with Thievery Corporation. And together with Thunderball
vocalist Miss Johnna M., three of the Fort Knox Five membersRaskin,
Myers, and Albertare part of Liftoff, a project that recently
remixed Thunderball's "Welcome Back Cooper."
Fort Knox Five is
pretty eclectic. How would you describe your sound?
Steve Raskin: We've been saying beats and breaks, but again,
genres themselves are part of the problem of music in a way; they
start alienating. I think what we've always tried to do is blur
the lines. Take elements of house that we like and put it into drum
'n' bass, take elements of soul and put it into a ska song. It's
just this idea of experimentation to blur the boundaries of genres.
JonH: Which is why we invented "cross beat." Cross
beat is our new anti-genre.
SR: Cross beat, cross tempo; it's a non-adjective. It's really
not a description, it just says that is crosses tempos, and that's
really what we do. We do songs that are hip-hop tempo, breakbeat,
we do drum 'n' bass. We'll do whatever is necessary to capture the
idea of the song.
JH: The only thing that is necessary for everything is breakbeat,
whether it's breakbeat slow or breakbeat fast. When we DJ now, we
try to be very eclectic with the whole cross beat thing. We'll play
new and old stuff that has got that funk, got that flavor.
SR: We've been saying funk and soul in the feeling sense,
not in the terms or genre. It's got to be funky. Jon and I were
just in Germany and this kid came up and asked what it is we called,
JH: It happens to us all the time, any time we play: "What
kind of music is this, where can I find this, what is it under?"
SR: Funky. It's not under anything; it's funky.
JH: There's a lot of new stuff coming out in Europe that
[uses] live instrumentation. I think that's the next generation
of electronic music; that's where you get the funk feeling. You
can't get the funk feeling playing with a computer all day long.
You get that with a live guitar player, a drummer, and various samples.
We all use computers to make this musicit's very importantbut
the fact of the matter is that the computer is a tool and you need
to use other tools with it, or else it will sound cold and dry,
with no feeling to it.
Is Fort Knox a side
project relative to everything else you guys are doing, or is it
JH: We each have our own focus, but we wanted to have an outlet
to do everything our own way. It's all do-it-yourself. When we put
all of our minds together we come up with Fort Knox Five; [it's]
basically our parent company.
SR: Originally, the name started as the name of our recording
studio for Thunderball. We always used to joke that it wasn't glamorous
enough, that we were recording in the crack house on the corner.
It was a joke going along with the Thunderball thing, evoking the
'60s and '70s larger-than-life images that we grew up on and liked.
As an extension of the studio, last spring we officially launched
the label outlet of it, and then Fort Knox Five was the project
JH: Fort Knox is the label, the studio, the company and a
SR: Fort Knox the studio started as our tongue-in-cheek way
of having a fancy name for working in our house, which has basically
moved with us as we have. I can't tell you exactly where it is because
it's our secret.
Rob Myers: It's a stone's throw from the Beecher Street house,
Dischord House, which is where the DIY/hardcore/ punk scene started.
In what ways do Fort
Knox Five and the other projects overlap with one another?
SR: Fort Knox started now, in particular, as an extension of
the last several years that Sid and I and the other guys have participated
with the Thunderball project. It was a natural evolution of that.
As we've been experimenting, pushing the envelope of the definition
of Thunderball and [the Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label], we've
been doing a lot of experimentation stuff that we like, that we
like to play. It's the natural evolution of writing music, not having
to write in a specific voice. We can write songs now where if it
has more of a Thunderball sensibility then it goes into the Thunderball
project. If it's more electro, breakbeat, it goes under the JonH
and Raskal project.
RM: From a songwriting and music standpoint, there's no preconception
for any track. We can do whatever we want; they just filter into
SR: We've been stockpiling these songs that never really
had an outlet. We never wanted to get signed to another label; if
we were going to do anything, we were going to do it ourselves.
Do you have specific
roles when you work together as Fort Knox Five?
SR: In order to run the label and be able to do all these projects,
each of us has different roles. Jon is basically acting as the label
JH: He's the biatch! (Laughter.)
SR: Jon's the muscle. What we do reflects our personalities.
There isn't a power struggle; everyone is in it to carry it further,
get the music out there. Whatever it takes. Promoters can't afford
to fly all five of us out there, and all five of us don't DJ out
together anyway. Jon and I might be out there together, but we'll
be representing everybody.
Have you played out
in D.C. yet?
SR: We did a record release at Lemur Lounge [in May 2003]. It
was great! It was for our first single, in June. Honestly, we play
more outside of D.C.; we play more in Europe.
Why do you think that
JH: That's where people pay money for DJs.
SR: It appears, in Europe anyway, the people who are putting
on the shows and going to the shows range in age from all over the
spectrum. It's not just a youth movement. People go out from 18
to 50 because they sincerely love the music. The boundary of what
is acceptable [is different]. Maybe it's just being over there and
we feel freer, but it seems we can really be true to our idea of
People in Europe are
more open to the differences you are trying to incorporate?
SR: It seems like people are actually listening to the music,
instead of listening to what they are told to listen to.
JH: The crowds in Europe, from what we have experienced,
are very reminiscent of the old days in the U.S. when the rave scene
was first blossoming and there were a lot of breakbeats going on,
a lot of funky breakbeats. In Europe you can drop a big, big record
and people will cheer. They really know and study the musicthey
have that passion. It's disappointing [that it's gone in America]
and I really hope that it comes back.
SR: I think it's a reflection that electronic music is considered
as a youth movement in the States. There's [a feeling that] it's
a phase that people can't be a part of any more. There's more of
a stigma; as an adult, you're not really supposed to enjoy music
in the same way you did as a youth.
What kind of venues
have given you positive responses?
SR: I personally like playing small-size venues. Those seem
to go with the kind of music we are playing. It sounds cheesy, but
it's the house party vibe. It's not that the music is not serious;
it's that you're there to dance. We're there to play music, and
we want to have fun. We want to have this conversation with people.
We're playing music that we want to dance to or have fun to, not
the chin-scratching kind.
What makes a great
JH: Chunky funky beats. (Everyone laughs.)
SR: It's gotta be funky-ass shit.
That seems to be your
SR: Yeah, it's sort of a generic kind of thing but it's true.
JH: It could have the funky horns, the funky guitar; it just
needs funky beats. It's got to put a smile on your face and make
your head bob.
What does the future
hold for Fort Knox Five?
SR: The future we've been talking about is what we did with
Thunderball: Fort Knox Five as a live thing, a live funk band. Strip
JH: This is what we can finally drop: we linked up with the
pimp godfather of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa. I ran into him at the
record store and had to scrape up some records real quick. He gave
us a call 15 minutes later after listening to a CD in the car. He
was driving to a gig and called us up and said, "I want you
guys to do some work on my next album." Last weekend we were
in the studio with him. He flew out one of his MCs who's the secret
Zulu Nation battle weapon. King Kamonzi is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin,
believe it or not. This guy is amazing, unbelievable. He's ragga,
he's hip-hop; it's all conscious. This guy doesn't rap about gangsta
stuff, drugs, beating people up; it's all about social consciousness,
politics, love and everything for the kids. He's a P.E. teacher.
It's quite moving to meet somebody like him.
We put on a six-minute song and from the beginning to the end he
would freestyle the whole way through, without dropping, without
losing the beat. After he did that, he would do the same song ragga
style. It was unbelievable. Hopefully the future sees us doing a
lot of work with this guy. We're really excited about it, and I
think he's really excited about it as well. Hopefully it will be
some music that has the opportunity to get to a whole new area,
a whole new crowd. The people who are going to use these records
are going to expose to a whole new audience what we are all about
as Fort Knox Five. We'll see how it works out; I think it will be
SR: For us, we've got each other, but it's always nice to
meet people who share the same mindset. It's not even a specific
goal in words, but it's an approach to music, the way you see the
power of music or how you can play with music, the art and fun of
music. He's one of the few people we've met in the last few years
that gels with the way that we work, who has the same approach to
Sid Barcelona: One of the great things about with working
with Bambaataa is just talking to him about music. Like us, he's
a huge music fan, not just about hip-hop, not just about electro.
He loves Led Zeppelin, he loves Three Dog Night, and classic '50s.
It's amazing. Seeing someone like that at his level, it's kind of
reaffirming and reassuring, because we love music in the same way.
What does the Fort
Knox Recordings label offer?
SR: Good, funky tunes. You will always be able to count on Fort
Knox. One song on every single will be a dance floor gem. At least
one of the songs will be designed for the floor. At least one of
the songs will be designed for the smokers out there, for the heads.
JH: This whole cross beat thing that we mentioned earlier
will be found on pretty much every Fort Knox record. We might have
a downtempo song or a mid-tempo song, or even a drum 'n' bass song,
or a hip-hop song. The whole point is that we want to start getting
people out of this [idea] that you have to follow a guideline as
a DJ. For years and years I was guilty of it; I was strictly a breaks
DJ or strictly a house DJ and I would never veer off the guideline
and I would probably move within five BPM of whatever area I started
in. Now, I might start at 95 BPM, go up a BPM every couple records,
until we get to 165, 170 BPM.
SR: All the way to drum 'n' bass.
JH: And then drop classic funk and soul. It's all innovative
mixing. It basically is more of a feelingnot concentrating or paying
attention to what you are doing. By [concentrating too hard], you
forget about the dance floor.
What inspired you
to break away from genre-oriented expectations and go to a wider
variety of styles?
JH: One of the reasons we started getting into styles of music
like this is from DJing overseas. If you play straight music at
one tempo for half an hour, it's very easy to lose people. The dancers
there want to go all over the place, and every once in a while you
have to break it down.
SR: We bring stupid amounts of records with us when we travel.
We could very easily bring a bag of records and probably play the
amount that we are supposed to, plan it out, but over the last year
we've tried to do it differently. When we were just in Germany,
the promoter came up to us and said they'd never heard anyone cover
the genres we covered, still beat matching it in. Mixing is still
important, there is still an art involved, but there's a certain
freedom: "Hip-hop's not working now, let's go drum 'n' bass,
let's see what happens." Some places want to start off more
house-y and if we drop hip-hop later, people go crazy. Some places
you have to start slow and build it up and do downtempo.
JH: The big thing about playing overseas right now is that
you have to be able to cover several different areas. We will play
certain things that will not work. We have gone to Austria, played
funky, Jurassic 5, Blackalicious hip-hop, and people are like, "we
don't want hip-hop here," so we'll go into some other funky
stuff. You have to be able to cover that ground. In Germany we played
for very close to eight hours, two for two, 10 o'clock at night
'til 5:30 in the morning, to a completely packed club going off,
covering any tempo from 95 BPM to 170 BPM, back down, all over the
place, just freakin' people out and it worked really well.
What can we expect
from Fort Knox Five in 2004?
JH: Some dope, phat electro-funk tracks with godfather Afrika
Bambaataa. We just completed a remix for Rodney Hunter of the Afrodelics,
just an old school funk, hip-hop thing. That album is coming out
on Kruder and Dorfmeister's label. We're still waiting for approval
on the remix. We've got a lot of remixes for various European labels.
SR: We're puttin' the Chocolate City back on the map, baby.
JH: We have two releases that are being mastered right now.
The next one is called the "Blowin' Up the Spot" EP, which
features a remix by Ancient Astronauts of Switchstance Recordings
in Germany. It's a real funky hip-hop number. There's a dancefloor
one that Fort Knox Five did.
SR: And then there's Latin-influenced breaks.
JH: The next breakbeat one will be "The Brazilian Hipster."
By the [Winter Music] Conference, we're going to try and have an
introduction to the full-length by Fort Knox Five.
For more on Fort Knox
Five, check out www.fortknoxrecordings.com.
The project will be doing DJ sets at Mantis on Friday, February
20 (an event sponsored by Innerloop), and at Lemur Lounge on Friday,