YOU KNOW THE DRILL: you’re on a desert island and you’re only allowed to take one book, one person and one record with you. Asking a DJ to reduce his collection to one crate would be hard enough, but not for me. I’d be discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude with Dennis Hopper, and the music in the background would be “All I Do” by the Cleptomaniacs, produced by John Julius Knight.
His cover of the Stevie Wonder song, “All I Do” is definitely a classic track, but John Julius Knight (or JJK) is more than just a one-trick pony. For years he’s been releasing essential tracks, from “Find a Friend” on the label he’s most closely associated with, Soulfuric (and the Soulfuric Trax sublabel), to last year’s “Infrared/The Groove”, the first release on his own Reversoulmusic imprint.
We were able to conduct an interview in late August 2007. We managed to discuss his early days in Brooklyn, his current home in Miami, his two year summer residency at Cielo (one of New York City’s premiere clubs) and more – and I still think we didn’t scratch the surface.
You were born in New York. What was your early life like and how did you get your start as a DJ?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My family life was great – I grew up listening to old Studio One Jamaican tunes right through to Club Classics that my brother turned me on to. When I was around 13 I started helping him carry those crates and big speakers around townÊand sometimes he would let me spin a couple of records. Being a part of all this spawned my passion for wanting to be a DJ, the only thing I ever really wanted to be.
On the matter of musical instruments, I was part of a choir and dibbled and dabbled with the piano for a while. I nowadays regret not having taken the piano lessons more seriously though.
What role did radio play in fostering your love for House Music?
Radio was a big part in my love for club music way before House Music was even thought of. In NYC we had this radio jock named Frankie Crocker on WBLS who would break new artists that we had not heard of before and make them household names. A prime example is Imagination (“Just An Illusion”). Around the same time we had Tony Humphries on Kiss FM and Timmy Regisford on WBLS battling it out every weekend. I would tune in and tape each show for years. So when club music was taken over by this new sound called House Music, Tony was one of the forerunners who played an influential part in spreading the word through his show every Friday and Saturday night.
House is more or less gone from the airwaves, but I notice you’re carrying on the torch on Traxsource.com’s radio show. Is there going to be a point in the future when Internet (and satellite) radio will be equal to or greater than FM radio?
Regular radio is still free and because of that I feel it can still dominate the masses. However, the great thing about satellite radio is that it has a wider reach – it’s not tied to specific regions so listeners can tune into the same show wherever they are. The internet of course plays a big part in reaching out to House Music lovers worldwide. It’s therefore great to be one of the exclusive residents on the Traxsource.com radio show as the show is syndicated via numerous FM, digital, satellite and internet stations around the globe.
Here in the US we air via XM Radio – Channel 80 and Cyberjamz.com. Airing via different channels and outlets abroad allows us to spread the House sound to faraway areas. We can reach people otherwise not be able to tune in.
Who were some of your early influences? I’ve seen you mention Tony Humphries and Larry Levan in previous interviews.
Both of those guys are legends. They definitely ignited the fire in me for wanting to become a professional DJ. Larry Levan in particular has been a major influence to me and many jocks out there today. He is arguably the first true superstar DJ. Seeing and hearing him work the system with that custom crafted RLA cross-over was truly an experience. His versatility in the music he played that shaped the era, and his mixing and programming skills always excited the crowd. So if you hear my sets, it’s that feeling and excitement I experienced at the Garage that I am trying to create on my floors.
What was the first gig that you were paid for?
The first gig I got paid for in real $$ was in Boston, at a legendary underground club called “The Loft”. It was in the mid-’80s and a great start for my career. This place was awesome – it was a members-only club with a wicked Richard Long sound system and crossover.
Did you consider your experience as a young DJ as an “apprenticeship” to your mentors? (and do you think that technology has taken some of the “poetry” out of DJing?)
Absolutely… from my brother, to the legends I mentioned before. Their ability to move the crowd with just two turntables was phenomenal. For me personally, 12” vinyl is something I will always embrace. At the same time, I am a tech head so I love using new gadgets in my studio and for DJing. I use Ableton Live at the moment and just got Serato so I think it’s wise to go with the flow in this business and be happy, because without this new technology we would still be carrying those heavy record boxes that sometimes didn’t show up at baggage claim…
You moved from NYC to Miami in 1992. Why?
Particularly in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, guns and drugs were making life pretty dangerous so I decided to get away from it all for a while and moved to Miami. I’ve been here since.
Tell me about the Cleptomaniacs, your production/remix moniker with Brian Tappert of Soulfuric Records and Traxsource fame.
When I moved to Miami as a hungry young DJ (and somewhat producer), I was looking for a place to buy vinyl and came across a specialist store in Ft Lauderdale. The person hustling the most in the store was Brian and we got talking. In the beginning I rented his studio and at one stage he stopped charging me and we began working together.
The first projects we worked on (but not as Cleptomaniacs) came out on Bassline Records, AM:PM and Strictly Rhythm. We started working under the Cleptomaniacs moniker in the late ’90s when we were doing a lot of sample tracks together.
I’d say we clicked at a very early stage. We both come from the New York/New Jersey area so we grew up with similar sounds. We produced under the Clepto moniker and traveled the world for a couple of years but other projects and Brian’s dedication to launching and running Traxsource have kept us from being in the studio. Saying that, we’re planning some new Cleptomaniacs projects for the future, so watch this space!
“All I Do” is such a beautiful song and I really think it did justice to the Stevie Wonder original. It was done again a couple of years ago by Jay-J and Julius Paap, and is still getting played and showing up on compilations. What is it about this song that first attracted you and has made it so enduring?
Thanks for the compliment! Stevie Wonder’s original was huge when I was growing up and as time went on I always wanted to use the track in my sets as a more upbeat version of the original. Prior to the WMC in 2000, I pitched the idea to Brian for us to lay some drums over Stevie’s original version and speed up the tempo. A couple of days before the conference started, we locked ourselves into the studio, came up with our interpretation of the track and the rest is history.
I think the part of our mix that really stands out and gets people hooked is the breakdown, which we decided to have right at the beginning of the track. Stevie’s lyrics just hit the nail on the head and the track as a whole is just full of feel-good vibes, which I guess have made it such a timeless classic.
We wrote about your Trax for My Head EP back in March. Since then I noticed it crossed over and that a lot of Hip-Hop DJs as well as House Music purists love this. Were you surprised to see it embraced by such a diverse audience?
Really!? That’s great to hear! The bottom line is, I try to make beats that rock the crowd and get people moving. I believe this is something music lovers from different scenes appreciate and can relate to, which I guess makes my sound unique and interesting for non-Househeads as well as members of our scene. House Music is about bringing people together and having a good time, so if my music does that, I know I am doing something right.
You had a two year summer residency at Cielo in New York. My friends that know the NYC scene rave about Cielo. How was the experience and what sets the place apart from other spots?
I agree – it’s my favorite club to play at in the world. It’s a venue that is dedicated to the purist Househeads in the scene and it’s at the heart of the exciting Meat Packing District. From an artist’s perspective, the DJ booth is very DJ friendly and the club has the wicked Funktion One sound system. Since my residencies, I’ve been performing there frequently during the summer seasons. For me personally, it’s a great place to DJ at as I can play a whole range of styles that I dig, from Club Classics and Classic House to the most upfront tunes, from soulful House to techy cuts to tougher big-room joints.
In production, where do you find your inspiration? What’s the most important part of a new track for you?
Production-wise for me it’s the drums. It’s the first thing I make in a track and I base the rest on that. I don’t like straight-forward drums. I am more into drums with a nice swing. Inspiration-wise, I cannot point out one particular thing. I think it primarily comes from the love of what I do for a living.
What producers are you feeling right now?
Louie Vega for his inspirational music that only Louie can make. Dennis Ferrer for his amazing versatility and his ability to always make moving tracks for the floor. Dave Lee/Joey Negro for his ability to flip the script with his productions and for being an artist who’s been in the game for a very long time, but who is at the same time totally on the pulse of today’s sound. Axwell for his mad production skills that he uses to make big-room House tunes, which always rock the floor but never lose their touch of soul. He’s the poster boy for the new kids on the block.
Tell me about Reversoulmusic. Is it strictly for your own releases or will you be signing other artists as well?
I launched Reversoulmusic in November 2006, primarily as an outlet for my work but I have signed and will sign artists when I feel the release is right. At this stage, I am about making and releasing upbeat, upfront House Music for the floors but I am open to slipping in other sounds from time to time. I’ve had three releases so far that were really well-received and I am excited about the future of the label. Reversoulmusic is available digitally exclusively on Traxsource.com and we also press a certain amount of 12s of each release for the vinyl heads out there. The imprint is administered by Soulfuric Recordings, so I am in good hands. For further info check out traxsource.com/reversoulmusic.
What plans do you have for the next year?
My main priority will be my productions, in particular building my label Reversoulmusic. As mentioned earlier, I will focus on a combination of my own stuff and releases and remixes from other artists. I’ll of course continue DJing at venues across the US and abroad. Plus, I am in talks with a couple of labels about remix projects for later this year or early next year, so watch this space!