By Eric Blendermann
You may not have seen a license plate from Washington, DC, but for more than a decade the tags from the Nation’s Capital have been available with the slogan, “Taxation Without Representation,” as a complaint about the ongoing lack of a voting member of Congress to represent the city. No question, it sucks that DC’s citizens aren’t fully represented on Capitol Hill, but for the past 10 years they have been stalwartly represented on the streets by the Fort Knox Five, who have recently released 10 Years of Fort Knox Five to showcase their energetic, omnivorous funk.
“Representing” is among hip-hop’s most overused tropes, and yet that’s the best word to convey how much of the character of Washington, DC itself and its music scene is wrapped up in Fort Knox Five’s sound. Their funky breakbeats are interwoven with reggae, Latin, and Afrobeat flavors, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of a city full of embassies and ethnic neighborhoods. They also frequently incorporate the cascading percussion and call-and-response groove of go-go, DC’s homegrown hip-hop/jazz hybrid that was made famous by Trouble Funk, EU, and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers. To put it simply, Fort Knox Five sound like DC, and 10 Years is a block party ready to bust loose.
Judging from the people who showed up to their party, Fort Knox Five are good neighbors – the deep roster of guest vocalists on 10 Years is packed with strong voices from the local hip-hop and reggae scenes, several of whom have releases on FK5’s Fort Knox Recordings label. Then again, there are the interplanetary guests, like hip-hop icon Afrika Bambaataa and DC indie/punk auteur Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses) – Fort Knox Five might be homers, but they definitely get around, too!
About half the tracks in this collection were originally released on the group’s single studio album, Radio Free DC (2008), and they’re consistently hard-hitting and funky, with positive, conscious lyrics. On 10 Years, the tone is set right away with the album opener, “Insight,” in which “universal salutations of peace” are conveyed by hip-hop artist and educator Asheru (who’s most famous for the theme to The Boondocks on Adult Swim). The uplifting funk carries on with “Radio Free DC,” featuring vocals from Bambaataa and Zulu Nation member King Kamonzi, and especially with “Funk 4 Peace,” in which Mustafa Akbar (from Nappy Riddem) throws down go-go style over the album’s biggest beat.
10 Years also does a good job of highlighting the breadth of Fort Knox Five’s globetrotting styles, from the funky samba of “Stand Up” (originally included in the soundtrack to the film Stand Up Guys), to the Subcontinental workout “Bhangra Paanch” (vocals by DC bhangra DJ Beta-G), to the electro-dancehall of “Killa Soundboy” (vocals by Thievery Corporation collaborator Sleepy Wonder and See-I member Zeebo), and all the way back to the lover’s rock of “Not Gonna Take It” (vocals by Rootz, also of See-I). The best of these international flavors, though, comes through on “The Brazilian Hipster,” a deceptively light bit of jazzy-bossa-funk that really has it all – this is the track I first heard on Krafty Kuts’ mix CD for Circus & Chibuku that got me hooked on FK5 in the first place – I just couldn’t get enough of the way the Latin rhythms and the breakbeats and the horns and the organ all went together! It’s just perfect.
Whoops, maybe I should’ve mentioned that earlier – I’m a hardcore Fort Knox Five fan, as well as a DC native, and I’m glad to have FK5 representing my hometown. 10 Years of Fort Knox Five is a great collection that represents the group’s body of work very nicely, with one glaring exception – it doesn’t contain any of the dozens of top-shelf remixes they’ve done for other artists. When you’re done grooving to 10 Years, your next assignment is to seek out the many equally funky reworks FK5 has done for artists from Joe Bataan to A.Skillz &a Krafty Kuts to Nickodemus to Kraak & Smaak to Ursula 1000, and the list goes on and on. If you only get one, pick up their collaboration with Thunderball (another DC homie!) in remixing the classic “Ran Kan Kan” by Tito Puente – it’s the highlight of Explorations – Classic Picante Regrooved, and it may be the funkiest carnival anthem ever committed to wax.
Summer is just around the corner, so do yourself a favor and funk up your block party with 10 Years of Fort Knox Five. As the man says in “The Power of Five”: “All good things come in fives, baby.” Absolutely!