Jon K on Equiknoxx, his DJ style and his La Cheetah residency

In the wake of a breakout year, Manchester stalwart Jon K brings his wide-ranging tastes to La Cheetah in Glasgow for the first night of a four-part residency

Feature by Michael Lawson | 21 Feb 2018

After spending the best part of three decades doing his thing under the radar, 2017 was something of a landmark year for Jon Kraus, better known by the truncated moniker Jon K. His set alongside Joy Orbison at last summer’s edition of Dekmantel in Amsterdam was widely celebrated as one of the best of the festival, and just as the dust began to settle, his equally lauded edition of the Resident Advisor podcast went live. The combination of the two saw an almost instantaneous surge in popularity from international audiences and promoters alike.  

“It feels like since then I’ve had a bit more freedom when I play,” he explains. “I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily changed much, but there have been times in the past few months where I’ve done stuff that would’ve been tricky to do before. I might’ve done it anyway, but it’s certainly felt easier.”

A Jon K set is likely to go higher and wider than most – taking in everything from post-punk oddities to hip-hop instrumentals, contemporary esoterica to dub and dancehall flavours – so communicating these wide-ranging tastes with coherence is often his biggest challenge. “I think it’s very easy in today’s DJ/producer climate to say ‘right, this is the lane I’m in’", he tells us, "and I can totally understand why people do it – but for me it doesn’t feel right." Instead, Kraus takes the approach of adapting his sound to fit the occasion at hand.

“One of the things I enjoy most is adapting to different parties, and I’ll often speak to the promoters to get a better feel for the night,” he explains. “I think people can be surprised by that but it’s always seemed like a normal thing to me. If you ask the people who’re putting on the party what they’re trying to do, what they tell you – and in a lot of cases what they don’t tell you – can give you a starting point as to what to bring to that gig.”

He concedes that this desire to modify his sound from one set to the next and combine vastly different types of music makes him a less marketable proposition as a DJ; but reining it in to fit the mould has never been an option worth entertaining.

Nevertheless, for a DJ as experienced and respected as Jon K, portraying the aforementioned post-Dekmantel and RA podcast hype as a breakthrough moment seems somewhat inaccurate. Active in the Manchester scene since the mid-90s, he is perhaps best known locally for his affiliation with Hoya:Hoya – a party brand with a similar musical policy to that of Kraus.

“With the Hoya parties we struck a really good balance of playing a wide variety of stuff while also ensuring it all made sense and wasn’t a mess,” he recalls. “There was a conscious effort to join the dots, and some of the standout nights were amazing.”

Hoya’s parties came to an abrupt halt after the untimely closure of The Roadhouse in 2015, and it was around this time that Kraus turned his hand to curation – if somewhat unintentionally. His deep appreciation of all facets of sound system culture led to him stumbling upon a relatively unknown Jamaican entity known simply as Equiknoxx.

“For me, sound system culture – and dancehall in particular – has been a massive source of inspiration for what I do, and hearing some of the ways in which those guys were approaching it, it was like ‘fuck me this is insane!’” he enthuses. “I included three Equiknoxx tunes in one of my mixes and my mate Sean [Canty, one half of Demdike Stare] was on the phone a few days later like ‘fucking hell I was listening to your mix, there was a track on there that proper spanked me ‘ead, what is it?’

“So I played five or six songs to Sean and we both agreed that if someone did a compilation of this stuff, a properly curated vinyl compilation, it could be amazing. And literally as we’re talking, we both had an ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking moment?’ and that was that.”

The pair soon reached out to the collective, and would go on to curate a full-length LP from their vast catalogue of work, released via Canty’s DDS record label. Entitled Bird Sound Power, the resulting compilation was hailed as a modern masterpiece: recontextualising contemporary dancehall and breaking ground with what would later be coined as digi-dancehall.

Fast-forward a year and a half and Equiknoxx have already released their second LP on DDS, while Kraus is gearing up for a four-part residency north of the border at Glasgow’s La Cheetah. He talks eagerly about his return to the club, having previously played there as recently as October with Joy Orbison.

“That was one of my favourite gigs of 2017. Sometimes you play in a club and you’re getting your head pecked half an hour in with the ‘is it gonna be like this all night?’ type of thing and other times it feels completely effortless and you can develop your set in a really healthy way. La Cheetah last time around was definitely the latter.”

Trilogy Tapes label head Will Bankhead has been invited into the booth for the first chapter of the residency, and Kraus believes they both see things through a similar musical lens. “The way Will runs his label is the way all labels should be run in my opinion. With some labels it can be a case of style over substance, but with Will there’s a deep-rooted flavour in what he does – and that flavour permeates.”

Looking to the future, Kraus is optimistic that his rapidly-widening fanbase can help him develop further as a DJ, but is also conscious enough to guard against complacency: “One thing that’s always confused me is when you see certain DJs with a bit of weight behind them, who’ve built up a degree of trust, and end up watering down their sets and playing it safe.

“The main thing I’m excited about is getting out to different places and doing what I do. The more stuff there is in circulation that represents what I do as a DJ, the more confidence I have to express myself fully.”

Trip Noise with Jon K & Will Bankhead, La Cheetah Club, Glasgow, 24 Feb, 11pm, £10