Quantized Fitness is new monthly hip-hop showcase being hosted by Qknox (aka Jerod Sarlo) and Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp, two artists who have contributed considerably to the local hip-hop scene over the last five years. In honor of this evening's inaugural edition of Quantized Fitness, Qknox will also be releasing a mixtape of his beats. We sat down with the pair and spoke with Qknox about his beatmaking efforts and living in New York, and he and Kalyn also talked about Quantized Fitness and what lies ahead for the new night.
Westword: You grew up learning classical music and jazz. Were you encouraged at all to make your own compositions or did you mostly play work written by other people?
Qknox: The method that I studied growing up was called The Pace Method. It really emphasized a lot of creative music. Part of what we had to do was write music even if you didn't really want to. I really dug that, and my teacher was very open about creating music. I had learned classical music, but if I wanted to play some boogie woogie songs, she was cool with that. I teach a lot of places where there are teachers that are very strict about: This is what you do, this is how you learn it, these are the songs that you play. There's not a lot of wiggle room in there. Stuff like Suzuki, especially, is very regimented.
Did you mostly play acoustic piano or was it across the board?
Q: I played strictly acoustic piano until I got into jazz band when I started playing electric piano. I didn't really get into synthesizers and MIDI stuff until I started producing. But when I was in eighth grade, a friend of mine had a Rhodes in his basement. The happenstance was that they were holding it for their church because nobody wanted it. I later took Hammond B3 classes at Berklee. A couple of friends of mine have clavinets. I love all those analog instruments. If I could afford them and could fit them into my apartment, I'd have all of them.
When did you start getting into production? Did begin when you were in high school?
Q: Yeah, my older brother is a DJ. Strictly vinyl, record player DJ. His name is Red C. He does a lot of hip-hop stuff. Since middle school, I've been a super record digger because I was a jazz head and lots of that stuff I couldn't find on CD. Back then, friends of mine and I would try to make beats by trying to put scratch break records on one side and a jazz record on the other side.
I had mixtapes where I would use two tape decks and master the pause and play button switch and you can loop the first ten seconds of some Brothers Johnson song. I like to sample, you know, especially some super weird ones. Recently, I've been sampling Russian prog rock from the '80s and 20th century classical/avant-garde stuff like George Russell. I've been sampling a lot of Brazilian music, too.
I'm a big cover person. That's always the first thing I notice. I've also been working with a lot of Italian movie soundtracks, like those of Ennio Morricone. I dig stuff like that because I love Steve Reich. Like the hypnotic quality of that music. Especially how with the synth stuff, where it's a ten minute song, and it takes eight minutes to get to that first sound that becomes the first waterfall.
All of that developed into making beats. That really got a big push when I moved to New York. In New York, like in Denver, every other person is a rapper. I would always go dig through records at Fat Beats or something, and there'd be people hustling their wares all the time. I made beats originally just because I liked to.
When I found out it was possible to put a drum beat to the theme from the Olympics. Why wouldn't I do that? I had my keyboard that I would use to sequence drums, and I would run it into Acid. I still use Acid occasionally, even though I've switched mostly over to Ableton now.
Everybody has their program they started out on and are super comfortable using. In 1999, there was no way you could envision having a show of your beats. You could play things live for sure, but it's not like it is now with Ableton and all the things you can do.
Kalyn Heffernan: I feel guilty now that I'm using it. Especially with that APC. It's just too easy. Somebody give me a tape deck, please! I'm losing everything. I just got that APC and I feel like I'm way more comfortable with it than with my 909, which I've had since I was sixteen. I've had it for two weeks, and I'm like, "This is not natural. This is not good."
Where did you live in New York, Jerod?
Q: Everywhere. You have to move every year if you don't own a spot because rent goes up like that. I lived in Bed Stuy on Bolton Street, which is a commercial street. We lived above a deli, and across the street was a bank. But if you walked three or four blocks either way to the brownstones, that was something you just didn't do.
It was me and three other friends that all went to jazz school. Four, blond-haired, blue-eyed, white kids walking around. For the first couple of months everybody thought we were cops. It was only when some friends caught me buying raps or something in the deli downstairs they realized we were just students.
There were some MCs I loved working with. It was so real in that neighborhood. You would schedule a session for the next day, and you wouldn't hear from them for a month and a half, and they'd come back and say how they were arrested. I couldn't get in touch with them because they didn't have a phone. But it felt like being more part of the community because if you had to actually, physically see somebody to talk to them.
There was this amazing antique store this old guy owned, and he had records I used to buy, and it was always three dollars. He wasn't trying to go through and price them. I lived there for a while and moved to Park Slope and then Upper Harlem on the outskirts of Sugar Hill. After that we moved to Washington Heights.
Did you play out there much?
Q: I did a lot more Afro-Cuban stuff and a lot of jazz stuff. I super miss doing the Afro-Cuban stuff. I was doing work as a music therapist, but I didn't have my music therapy degree, so I was a musical specialist. I worked with kids and adults with developmental disabilities. I did an after school program for blind kids and a rehabilitation program for adults. Part of the reason I moved back to Denver is I wanted to do more playing.
That seems counter-intuitive.
Q: The guy I was taking lessons with over there, Andy Milne, said, "New York is always going to be here, and it's always going to be doing New York things. What you need to do is build your sound. You just got this huge education. Take a second and play. Play as much as possible, and play with everybody you can.
Andy plays with M-Base. It's a system of music built more around the internalization of clave. They teach you the beat, and you repeat it, and you keep doing it until it's internalized; then they teach you another aspect of the beat. They don't teach you to count; they teach you the rhythm [in a less formal way].
Why did you come back to Denver instead of some other, bigger city with a lot of music going on?
Q: I was already plugged into the scene here. I already had gigs before moving back. And the cost of living. I made way more money in New York than I do here. Our two bedroom apartment that didn't even have a kitchen counter was fifteen hundred a month. I go back to New York to recharge and to take a lesson and see a bunch of shows, but it was so expensive.
Here I can fly to New York or L.A. if I want to. I can drive to Texas, and I can get to Chicago in a day. I encourage people who want to live in New York or L.A., I encourage people to do that. It was a good experience, but I never want to live there again. If I had a million dollars, maybe. But that journey to go there and live there is valuable.
I'm on time to rehearsals because when I was in New York, if I was late, you're fired. Say you get stuck on the subway and you call to say you'll be late, you will be told they already have someone. And if you have a rehearsal or a show and you didn't learn the music -- I witnessed the show at the Jazz Standard with one of my favorite drummers; after the first set they fired him and got another drummer that happened to be in the audience. It was so cutthroat out there.
When I moved out here cats are 45 minutes late to rehearsals. Or you'll get a CD two weeks ahead of the rehearsal and no one will have learned the songs. It's totally the depth chart here. I have a choice of five or six bass players I can call for a performance, but in New York there were fifty. But here, the person I could get wouldn't be as good as you. People take advantage of that because they know there's nobody behind them better. But I dig the fact that Denver is very community oriented and we help each other out and we look out for each other. It wasn't as much like that in New York. It's just different.
With whom did you hook up to play music when you moved back to Denver in 2007?
Q: I went to middle school and high school with Charlie Mertens, who plays with Impromptu, Big Wheel and a ton of other bands. He called me and hooked me up with Big Wheel, and I started playing with him and Damien. Then I started playing with Casey Sidwell, and through him I met Gyp Dahip. He is how I hooked up with a lot of the rappers in the scene like F.O.E., Whygee, Kalyn Heffernan, Turner and the major hip-hop groups.
You also worked with Lady Speech?
Q: Yes. I finished her album three or four months ago. She came to the house and did a bunch of poetry into a microphone. Then I took six or eight months to drop music behind it.
What attracted you to doing hip-hop beats specifically?
Q: I'm an '80s baby. I grew up with hip-hop. It was always around. I love all different kinds of music. There isn't really one or two people that lead me into hip-hop. I could name my five favorite producers, like Premier, Dre, Dilla, Mad Lib and Hi-Tek. I always liked the independence of hip-hop. With jazz, I played with trios and some solo stuff. And the hip-hop community reminded me of the jazz community -- the lifestyle aspect of it.
Everybody kind of builds off the other one. Those two worlds interacted well together. The standards that Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell played were from the popular musicals at that time. So it was a logical connection for us to play hip-hop songs because that's what was happening in our time.
When we do jazz gigs now, to do a J. Dilla beat is a standard. Or a Mad Lib beat. As a jazz head you would recognize samples in a hip-hop song. Production and live music have really melded in these last five years. Players like Robert Glasper do a lot of improvisation with the production. The line was there, and it got super blurry as technology developed.
How did you two meet?
KH: I had just started Wheelchair Sports Camp when he moved back. I wasn't really connected with the scene, and I'd always been an outsider. I had always been into hip-hop but never really knew the scene locally. The more I did gigs, the more Wheelchair Sports Camp became its own thing. I'd heard this record by Ace called Ronan, and it was produced by the Girl Grabbers. I'm so picky and cynical about everything, but I heard that Ace stuff, and thought it was so fresh. This was from Denver? You've got to be kidding me.
So I got a hold of Ace and said, "Man, those beats and your flow..." He said, "Yeah, it's Qknox and Gyp Dahip." So I finally reached out to Qknox because I was so impressed. He said, "Yeah, come over." He lifted me out of my chair, and we went in his house and he ended up giving me ten beats I'm still sitting on. It was crazy because he had so much. I'm a producer, too, but I never sit on that many beats. I picked ten to fifteen beats, and we decided to do a project.
I don't think I realized at the time how much Gyp was part of a lot of this. So we decided to do a Girl Grabbers project that we played live once. I think Qknox is the most polished diamond in this community. He's so prolific, and he does so much. I don't know how he has time to eat or shit. He's always doing something new and playing with other bands and teaching. He's a mentor who has been in the community longer than me. Now that we have this monthly at Unit E, it has solidified our relationship and building each other's communities.
Q: Our circles coincide on the outer edges, so it's nice to bring those folks together.
So you're planning on doing this Quantized Fitness event at Unit E every month?
KH: I've been close with Gregg [Ziemba] every since we graduated from college, which is where we met. After he got busted, I contacted him regarding [what we could do about that situation]. A week later he said, "We're still going to keep it going. I want you to do a hip-hop monthly." So I called Jerod and asked, "Do you want to help me? At least I want you to play it." He said, "Yeah, why don't we just do it together?"
I'm more the cynic between the two of us and get frustrated with the scene. If you play on Broadway or even Santa Fe, it's hard to do real hip-hop without only playing it for hipsters. We did an experiment with having the real hip-hop community into a certain club, and it failed us.
I didn't want to give up, but I wanted to get around that. We have this indie scene we kind of have to pay attention to. But I'm trying to bring that together with the hip-hop scene. It's taken me so long to really feel comfortable in this scene and say we have amazing-ness. So if we could start promoting that to people who don't yet know that. I think we want to create this exclusive event, that, no matter what, we're going to be booking dope acts.
There's Low End Theory that's a weekly or monthly in L.A. that started as resident DJs like Daddy Kev and Gaslamp Killer. Now they're taking over. It's a Wednesday night in the 'hood, and now there's a line around the block. That was kind of my idea for it. Building up Unit E, building up our local community, and now keeping it so it can't become like Low End Theory. We're going to arrange it so each event can be completely different. But hopefully we're going to have this little community that always knows that every third Saturday, that's where you have to be.
But that's hard now because there's so much hip-hop. Like last night I knew there were three great DJs playing: Gyp Dahip's party, Damien was playing at Local 46, Candy Camaro was also on the North Side. Do you limit the shows or create better shows? I think we're in a place where we just have to keep doing better.
Qknox, with Kalyn Heffernan and Joshua Trinidad, Kid Hum and Quiz, Friday, December 28, Unit E (for time and other details please contact Jerod Sarlo or Kalyn Heffernan at firstname.lastname@example.org).
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