Jon K: Fuck Your Heroes

Stubbornly refusing to accept a watered-down music culture and wielding an uncompromising taste, Jon K is the kind of DJ who puts your faith back in the craft, and gets you dancing in the process. In this rare interview, Joseph Francis links up with a true beacon of integrity in the art of playing other people’s tunes.

There are DJs who select, letting each track breathe, and there are DJs who blend, stirring songs into a stew. But there will always be those who don’t quite fit the mould — those lone rangers who play by their own rules. And Jon K is one such elusive character.

“If anyone’s like, ‘what are you about?’ that will tell you all you need to know,” says Jon K, full name Jon Kraus, passing me a book pasted with Fuck You Heroes in block capitals across its front. It’s a photobook by photographer Glen E. Friedman who, from 1976 to 1991, documented the crossover between punk and hip-hop’s counterculture energy in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC. “It’s all about people who’ve got something to push back against,” he explains. “ I think, if you look at what’s going on at the moment, there’s a lot of shit and we need to push back.” Fittingly, the thought of me taking a photo of him in his South London studio where we’re sitting makes him physically recoil — “Oo, DJ with records!” he laughs. But as much as it might pain him to hear, Kraus is a bit of a hero for me because of his integrity and skill. His mixes undulate through a variety of music that stands out both due to the bold contrast between each track and its rebellious spirit.

Kraus moved to South London during the pandemic to be with his partner and fellow DJ, Elle Andrews. For most of his adult life, the Leicester-born DJ was based in his adopted hometown of Manchester, working as both a shop assistant at Fat City Records in the city’s Northern Quarter and a freelance graphic designer, creating artwork for record sleeves. DJing as a profession only became an option following the success of his FACT mix in 2013. “Back then it felt like those mixes were used as calling cards for bookings,” Kraus says. “It was almost like you had to do a FACT mix because it would be beneficial for your career. So there was this fork in the road where I thought, ‘do I play the game and make this a book-me-to play-your-club mix, or do I do me?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t have to think about that too much. I’ll just do me,’” he shrugs.

It’s a timeless mix from start to finish. And in the opening 20 minutes alone, it moves from experimental electronics to tribal drumming to 00s hip-hop to IDM to dub. But there are a few moments where you really get an idea of how much the music means to Kraus. Licks of guitar twangs announce the start of Brian Eno and Snatch’s art rock tune ‘R.A.F’. It stands for Red Army Faction (not Royal Air Force), and the track features excerpts of the left-wing revolutionary group’s ransom message to the German police, ordering the release of fellow RAF members from prison. He later closes out his mix with the equally confrontational ‘Dem A Sus (in the Moss)’ by Harlem Spirit, a one-drop reggae tune that rallies those living in Manchester’s Moss Side to kick back against the discriminatory Sus laws of the 1980s that led to widespread police brutality against black communities in the UK. The mix is a case of show not tell at its best. On the surface, the songs either blend well together or simply sound good, but if you choose to look deeper, you’ll find a thread of defiance weaving through them.

“I couldn’t give a shit about mixing. I know it’s enjoyable when someone does it well, but it’s all about flavour,” explains Kraus. “The number one thing for me is if you just get the sense that the person has good ears, and you trust their taste — that is the best feeling as a punter.” These were priorities nurtured at Eyes Down, a club night that took place across Manchester between 2000 and 2008 at venues like Dry Bar, Roadhouse and Band on the Wall, and which Kraus started with Optical Funk duo Jack Croal and Gawain Forster, and friends Christian Wood and Kelvin Brown, inimitably hosted by legendary Manc-rooted MC DRS. The night was renowned as much for its visuals as it was its attitude towards playing music, and even caught the attention of other unapologetic selectors outside of Manchester like Abdul Forsyth, who later gave Eyes Down a monthly residency at his legendary London nightclub Plastic People.

Kraus plucks out a flyer for an old Eyes Down night amongst a heap of immaculately kept posters. It sits in monochrome contrast to the others around it made for the club night Hoya:Hoya, run by Jonny Dub and Ryan Hunn (aka Illum Sphere) at the Roadhouse in Manchester between 2008 and 2015. Following the end of Eyes Down, Kraus became a resident DJ for Hoya:Hoya, injecting it with colour both as a selector and a graphic designer.

Designed by Kraus himself, each Hoya:Hoya poster was centred around a different song lyric to show off the range of genres you could expect to hear at one of their parties. “It’s a saturday night sha-papap-papap / We call you up like wat’up? Wat’up?” reads one poster, based on a track by South African electro-rap duo Dirty Paraffin. It’s a lighthearted peek into Johannesburg’s nightlife and offers a different narrative to the violence so often portrayed by the media. “I buzz off the stuff that’s commenting on real life,” says Kraus, “That’s one of the things that’s fascinated me about hip-hop and about a lot of Jamaican music – it’s so direct. An obvious reference that comes to mind is how Chuck D likened hip-hop to the black CNN. Music has always been a way for people that don’t have a platform to make their voices heard.”

Peking Spring is Kraus’ own platform. It’s a show he hosts for two hours every month on the independent radio station NTS. The name came to Kraus from a song by early 80s punk band Mission of Burma, and it refers to a brief period in Chinese history where the government allowed more freedom of expression in the arts. Kraus’ radio slot has recently moved to the first Tuesday of every month and he relishes it, since he’s no longer catering to a Friday night audience dressing up for the weekend. Back in August, for example, he paid tribute to an old friend Dan Dwayre (aka Black Lodge), who passed away recently. After briefly outlining Dwayre’s career, Kraus played an untitled track from Dwayre’s A Horse With No Name release that features a boy speaking about his time in a Borstal (the old juvenile detention centres.) “[Dan] took this edgy field recording from an interview and then flipped it on its head with these weird drum fills,” explains Kraus. “It gives you an idea of how many different directions he was looking in. He was a very unique character and someone who didn’t make it easy for himself – but that was all part of the charm with Dan.”

The same could be said for Kraus. There’s no way to market him since no one can really pin him down to a particular style. I find it hard enough pinning him down to one question as he has several anecdotes to hand for each. “I know that what I do isn’t necessarily an easy sell for an agent or a manager. It’s not something where you can put a nice little bow on it and say this is what you get,” he admits. “I’m quite stubborn like that.”

But this attitude is also refreshing. Thanks to the internet, underground culture is a thing of the past. Now, if you want to appear ‘underground’, all you have to do is check a few music sites, buy the right tee and strike a pose. “Your average teenager, just from being on social media, understands the idea of brand making,” begins Kraus. “There are so many times when you’ll meet people who are, for all intents and purposes, a recording artist or a DJ or whatever. They’ve got their Instagram account, their X amount of followers, they’ve got everything except the fucking tunes.”

Stepping out into the world and connecting with people face to face is how Kraus has always done it. He recounts a story of a trip to Chicago some years back where he and a digging partner were warned about looking for records on the Southside. Luckily, the advice wasn’t heeded and he ended up having, “some of the best experiences, got some of the best records and met some of the safest people,” he says. And at Fat City Records, Kraus loved introducing shy customers to new music and bucking the trend of a snobby record shop assistant who thinks they know it all. “It felt like the best job in the world when someone was there with five or ten records that they couldn’t wait to put on their stereo at home, and you could see that the experience turned out to be a lot more fun than they expected. Back then a lot of record shop people had shitty attitudes, so it felt good to push back against that!” he smiles.

Record shopping is a passion he also shares with his partner, Andrews. They met at Dekmantel Selectors in 2018 and “from the gun it was record chat, record chat, record chat,” he says. Buoyed by their shared love of vinyl, the two eventually started MAL — a label which Kraus states was named in response to the intense period of global malaise in mid 2020. Their latest record, Wehikuł, is by Justyna Banaszczyk (aka FOQL) who is a grassroots activist based in Poland, where she started the country’s first community radio station, Radio Kapitał. “In Poland, art is always at the very bottom of the pecking order – especially independent art,”  FOQL told SHAPE platform. “It’s not considered to be anything important or anything that builds and keeps alive bonds between people.” Building meaningful relationships and connecting with people through music has defined Kraus and Andrews’ approach, so releasing records by those who share that belief is a common thread through the label’s output.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the support Kraus gives musicians is his long standing relationship with Jamaican dancehall collective Equiknoxx. Kraus first heard of them when Mark Ernestus played their song ‘I Really Want to Write on her Purple Wall’ at the Soup Kitchen in 2013. Ernestus steered Kraus in the direction of one of the group’s members, Gavin ‘Gavsborg’ Blair, and after some messaging over Soundcloud, Kraus soon had a handful of Equiknoxx tunes which he played in this mix. They caught the ear of Demdike Stare’s Sean Canty who then messaged Kraus to start collaborating on a potential record. Fast forward to 2016 and the group’s seminal album Bird Sound Power was released via Demdike Stare’s DDS label, with Kraus compiling all the tracks and doing the artwork for it. “We didn’t want to tell them the damage this was going to do because you don’t want to get people’s hopes up,” he says. “But I remember thinking, ‘people are going to do backflips over this!’”  And sure enough, that’s what happened as Equiknoxx’s Twitter became inundated with love on the week of the album’s release.

Now, six years later, Kraus continues to show his support for the collective, DJing for Equiknoxx’s Gavsborg and Shanique Marie at a number of their live shows around the UK – one being at fabric where he played a four-hour set alongside T Dunn. Despite a hesitant and bemused audience, Shanique Marie eventually won everyone over with her stage presence, coaxing the club into various back and forth chants. With the crowd then loosened up, Dunn and Kraus were free to zoom into a heady mix of sound system-inspired music scattered with some techno and breakbeat hybrids like Mortimer Dubaton’s ‘Need For Speed’ – a personal favourite from his raucous Club Night Club set.

“‘You’re forgetting though, Jon. No one gives a fuck what’s coming through the speakers these days,’” Kraus says, recounting what someone once told him at an after-party. It’s a sweeping statement, but sadly there’s a grain of truth to it. Numbers of social media followers now matter more than the skill of selecting tunes and interpreting the vibe of a dancefloor. So, essentially, the more followers you have, the more gigs you get. That night at fabric proved, however, that even if DJs like Kraus don’t draw the same-sized crowds as someone like Peggy Gou, you can still go your own way if you stick with the people and the music that matters to you. 

Photos of an artist and his Guinness courtesy of Elle Andrews

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