If you trace back the career of the Fort Knox Five, you’ll also discover the evolution of the musical style commonly known as electro funk. At the beginning of the group’s journey almost 15 years ago, they found their way from Washington DC to British Columbia, Canada and Shambhala Music Festival, and they’ve made this place their home ever since. More recently, after trips around the world and twists, turns, arrivals, and departures worthy of a book, Fort Knox Five began performing with fellow DC DJ and longtime friend Qdup. This August 9-12, the duo will funk Shambhala together for the fifth year in a row. They’re two of 20 artists on this year’s lineup labeled as “Shambhala Favorites” in recognition of their deep ties to the festival. Fort Knox Five is one of the only artists in that grouping, however, whose history is nearly as old and storied as the event itself.
Fort Knox Five formed in Washington DC’s humming rave scene in 2003. Founding members Sid Barcelona, Jon Horvath, Rob Myers and Steve Raskin found their way to that scene from different starting points, from indie and art house to hardcore hip-hop. They coalesced around an eclectic sound which could only have formed at that moment in time around the turn of the millennium. It was a sound composed of funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, and breaks sequenced and programmed through electronic techniques. They seamlessly combined live instrumentation with electronic break beats, like so many acts who would follow. The group’s influences were deep and broad, but they took many cues from another eclectic DC act, Thievery Corporation, whose live performances featured Myers on the guitar and sitar. Like Thievery Corp, Fort Knox Five would found its own label. They called it Fort Knox Recordings and described it as a means to “break down all the artificial barriers established by the ‘System’ that keeps all ‘Good’ music down.”
“The ‘System’ is really the old music system in which you would have to compete and sell out your ideas to even be noticed,” according to Steve Raskin, the only member of Fort Knox Five still performing consistently. “To get around that, we started our own label to be a home for our scene in DC and like-minded funky artists.” The group was never overtly political, but they were always subtly separatist. “In the same way, Shambhala is that kind of home for like-minded artists,” Steve continues, “and it exists outside the ‘System’ of Live Nation and other corporate festivals and venues.” It’s not hard to see why Fort Knox Five has performed at Shambhala every year but one since 2005. But among other electronic acts on the lineup, let alone other Shambhala Favorites, few have moved through the '“System” as much as Fort Knox Five. Just two years after forming, Gwen Stefani tapped the group to open on her nationwide tour in 2005. They played arenas across the country with the Black Eyed Peas and Stefani, who encouraged the group to lean into their eclectic, do-our-own-thing sound.
Still, they’ve consistently positioned themselves outside of the mainstream and without pandering they’ve consistently distinguished themselves as innovators, even to those high places. In a DC record store in the mid-2000s Jon H slipped Afrika Bambaataa a handful of tunes, including a CD. Bam “never listened to CDs” according to a jeering onlooker, but the hip-hop pioneer apparently popped the disc into his car’s deck after he left the store. He called up Jon H and asked Fort Knox Five to produce his next album, describing their sound as “the next “Planet Rock””. Since then, they’ve performed across Europe, Australia and Asia and even held a residency at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas (that one year they didn’t play Shambhala). But if you ask Steve Raskin, and we did, one place has got the rest beat; the Fractal Forest at Shambhala.
“Of all the shows I’ve played in the last two decades I have never been to a comparable location. The Fractal Forest is special. It's a combination of the space - a 360-degree experience in an old growth clearing - the insanely crystal clear sound, an amazing crowd, and that BASS! For funky bass music there literally is no place better in the world. And as an artist, there is no greater feeling than performing there.” Fort Knox Five has performed at the festival’s other stages. There’s a neat video of them rocking the Pagoda with hard breaks in 2009. In 2015 when Qdup (“cued up”) first joined Steve, they played at the Living Room. But for the electro funk pioneers it all goes back to Fractal, which will host Fort Knox Five once again this year.
There’s a sense of poetic justice (not to mention alliteration) when Fort Knox Five plays the Fractal Forest. “The funk is strong at Shambhala and the Fractal Forest is at its heart. [Stage Manager] Rich e Rich has been cultivating all the top funky performers from around the world since the beginning of the stage. At its core, most of the music played there has its roots in funk,” Steve says. “For some reason all the funky music has been evolving and getting cultivated in the woods and hills of the left coast. The scene that we helped start in DC has created a thriving one here that continues to grow, and in return inspires us as well.”
Like Fort Knox Five, Jason Brown aka Qdup held down the DC scene for many years, functioning as a resident DJ about town and the host of a funk night that moved between U Street Music Hall, Tropicalia and other venues for four years. His feelings on the funk mirror Steve’s. “It seems to me that a large part of the Fractal Forest’s allure and what sets it apart is the music curation that’s been going on for 20+ years now. Its reputation has grown through electronic music in Canada and beyond. It’s the stuff that legend is made of if you love funky dance music. The talent booked…they are the DJs DJ’s.” Why is funk-based, big-break electronic music so popular at Shambhala? It’s the most common denominator among the Shambhala Favorites and the anchoring sound at the festival’s oldest continuously-running stage. “I’ve wondered that about how well the funk is received at Shambhala and Western Canada in general,” says Jason. “I think perhaps it’s something they put (or don’t put) in the water!”
But how did these DC old heads link up on stage at Shambhala? “For years,” says Steve, “Jon Horvath and I had been traveling the world as a DJ duo playing our four deck set. In 2015 right after playing at Basscoast, Jon fell ill and was hospitalized and even in the most difficult of emotional times, there was no way we were not going to perform at the Fractal Forest. We needed to be there to feel the love and strength from our Shambhala family to get through that hard time.” So Jason, who plays with the same funky breakbeat flair and who cut his teeth in the same DC clubs and warehouses as the Fort Knox Five, was naturally chosen to step up.
In more ways than one, their collaborative sets bring things full circle. “I met Steve & Jon in the late 90’s when I was a teenager,” Jason says. “We all basically learned to DJ together and were in a DJ crew before Fort Knox was a thing. Steve also gifted me the first Mac that I used and was a mentor to me as a music producer. Sitting in the back of the room on some of Steve’s early Thunderball recording sessions was my first real experience of music production and helped launch me into production.” The four-person Fort Knox Five always fancied that their fifth spot was reserved for whomever they were collaborating with at the time, be that Bambaataa, a series of drummers and percussionists, or MCs Mustafa Akbar and Asheru. The performances with Qdup are part of this legacy of collaboration.
Their four-deck set is a technical wonder. “We’re doing live mash-ups essentially and playing versions of songs that in some cases will never be played again,” says Jason. “It can be challenging at times as we’re often playing off the cuff with no sync and there’s the extra acapellas and effects going on. To do it effectively, you need the right partner.” It’s not too far off from some of Fort Knox Five’s original live configurations, when they would jam as much musical material as possible into sets featuring drums, guitar, bass, vocals, sitar and more all sequenced live by Jon H and Sid Barcelona. Improvisation and true performance is one of the common threads from then to now. “There’s a sort of unspoken communication. We just get where the other is going and it makes magic when it’s done right.” Today, the sounds differ but the style remains the same.
Besides the group’s pioneering sound, what distinguishes Fort Knox Five is their sheer longevity. This comes in large part from an unwillingness to compromise their authenticity. Take it from Jon H speaking backstage during a 2011 show in the United Kingdom. “The music scene goes from being really underground, then the commercial scene becomes completely different to where they’re one and the same. When that happens, it’s time to re-find the underground.”
Moving with the times, staying tuned into the underground, and perhaps absorbing vibrations from other Shambhala Favorites like Slynk, Stickybuds and JPOD, Fort Knox Five and Qdup integrate a healthy dose of synth bass and well-designed sound into their performances these days. And so again their history can be seen as parallel to the story of Shambhala itself. “The vibe that I experienced so many years ago is still there,” Steve says of the festival. “People come and go, and then come back, but at its core it is the same magical place - with the best music on earth.”