Milan's mischievous crunk house tag team Crookers are primed to be the next dance music superstars. Prior to a momentous gig at London's top dance fest Get Loaded In The Park, in August, and a forthcoming debut album, DJmag collars the Italian pranksters to find out how they do things, Crookers style...
For time immemorial remixes have been the backbone of dance music. A great remix extends the life of a song, makes an average track into an evergreen club classic. Look at Armand Van Helden’s infamous relick of Tori Amos’s ‘Professional Widow’, Todd Terry’s version of Everything But The Girl’s ‘Missing’ or Timo Maas’s remix of ‘Doom’s Night’: all manage to effortlessly transcend the strictures of the original track, transform what’s already good into something completely fresh, even better — and a hell of a lot more popular — than the real thing.
The most recent example, of course, is Crookers’ remix of Kid Cudi’s ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’ — a UK No.2 hit that catapulted an underground duo of Milanese producers into the spotlight and managed to get house heads, junglists, rap fanatics and teeny boppers excited all at once. Eclipsing the original’s slow-paced melodic rap from Kanye West protégé Cudi, snatching only a small snippet of his infectious chorus, Crookers dropped an audio atom bomb, a sonic weapon that splintered its constituents and re-arranged them into an adrenaline pumping, instantly thrilling new mutant.
Precision-tooled house kicks rubbed roughly against ragged rave breakbeat drops; the bleeping melody and melancholic vox suddenly plunged into the mother of all pure aggressive bass wubs and growls; and all over the planet — not just in the UK — festivals and clubs alike erupted in volcanic outbreaks of boogieing and moshing. ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’ was a freshly minted classic but it almost never happened, the way Crookers tell it.
When DJmag meets the Italian dance dons Bot (Andrea Fratangelo) and Phra (Francesco Barbaglia), sitting in the comfortable, cool and DJ-friendly environs of London’s Hoxton Hotel on a hazy early summer evening, they reveal that it could just as easily have vanished without trace.
“To start with, it wasn’t even released on the 12”, it was a free download,” smiles Bot, his dark brown locks and more reserved demeanour contrasting sharply with those of taller companion Phra, whose shaven head, big mutton chops and lively, buzzy persona mark him as the more loquacious of the two.
“We did a remix ’cos we really loved the original song, and we sent a message to Kid Cudi on MySpace,” says the latter. “We asked for the parts. He said, ‘Ask [DJ and label owner)] A-Trak’. We got them and sent him the mix.”
Originally released on A-Trak’s small independent label Fool’s Gold at the end of 2007, Crookers’ remix of ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’ became a word-of-mouth hit, a slow burning corker which ignited via the interests of blogs and repeated spins from taste-making DJs like Diplo. After blowing up at Miami’s WMC, it was clear that the track was bigger than anyone could have predicted, least of all Crookers themselves.
“We didn’t play it for a while ’cos we weren’t sure about it, with the vocal and stuff. Then we noticed that people were going crazy to it,” remarks Phra.
Their mix was signed to dance hit-makers Data and catapulted to the No.2 spot, kept off by the risible Lady Ga Ga. Top spot or not, there was a new team in town, and the world began to sit up and take notice.
Like their music, Crookers are hyperactive, tangential, enthusiastically energetic and infectious. Despite having just got off a flight, Phra grins throughout our interview, as he shares anecdotes of the recording of the album. Bot, though a little less vocal, remains passionate, sounding off on their love for all kinds of music.
Their rise has been a gradual but inexorable one. Music freaks from an early age, both were born and raised in the vicinity of Milan (Bot in the city and Phra in the nearby village of Lago Magiorre). Phra began DJing at the age of 11, fixated by hip-hop, keen to master the turntable tricknology of his deck-bound heroes and as he grew older, he gravitated towards production. Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, his sparring partner was following a parallel path. Diving deep into dance music and magnetised by club culture, Bot dedicated himself to DJing at the age of 18. In the somewhat music-starved locales of fashion-centric Milan, it seems inevitable that these two dance deviants should meet.
Their paths converged in one of the city’s record shops. Bot was a deep house fanatic slowly gravitating towards rougher electro sounds and in a similar headspace to Phra, whose hip-hop fixation was giving way to an interest in more electronic club fare. They decided to combine minds and create music and from this initial meeting Crookers was born.
“We’ve known each other for four years, maybe four and a half,” recalls Phra. “We met in a record shop, Bot was working there. I was more of a hip-hop producer, then I got into dance music and tried to find different kinds of house to what was the popular kind of house in Italy, which was the deeper minimal stuff. I told him I wanted to hear this rougher kind of house, and he said, ‘I’ve got some shit for you.’”
“It was the period of the dark electro stuff, like Tiefschwarz and Black Strobe,” interjects Bot. “We were into that and maybe this kind of revivalist acid house sound. We started speaking about these kind of records, but it was kind of hard because no-one else liked it at the time.”
Bot, a former graffiti writer who also loved classic rap, shared Phra’s sensibilities and in a reaction to the Milanese club scene at the time, they began to collaborate on their own kind of hip-hop indebted, electro-singed house invested with rugged, crunked-out dynamics built to incite rowdy rabble rousing.
“There is really nothing interesting to do in Milan,” rallies Phra. “It’s all shit music. Milan is a fashion city so people are not interested in music, and most of the clubs are that way. A club is suddenly cool if it’s Dolce & Gabbana inside. But we are really lucky, we can do what we want.”
With their crunked-up party manifesto in place and finished tracks at the ready, now all Crookers needed was a name and fittingly, it was one of their biggest inspirations who was the catalyst.
“It’s a nice story!” beams Bot. “Switch went to Italy to play for the first time, at a club where I used to play.”
“We were huge fans of Switch, and we took him a CD of our productions, and he was like, ‘Cool, cool, I like it, this, this and this. But you have to have a good name’. We were in a rush, we had to find one!” adds Phra. “We were originally called Dinosaurs. This new name came out of the English dictionary. At the time we were listening to a lot of Stones Throw hip-hop, things that were out of sync, not computer perfect. Something not straight, in other words. We looked in the dictionary and to ‘crook’ and the word Crookers didn’t exist or the artist name — it was perfect!”
The stage was set for their 2006 debut ‘End 2 End’ for P House (a tribute to the graffiti trend for end-to-end burners, or painting a train all along its side), and from there the Crookers name began to grow. An avalanche of remix offers came pouring in as clubbers and DJs became infected with their lethal strain of jump-up, acerbic electrofunk and soon Crookers had put their name to a litany of relicked, mutoid, radioactive versions of tracks by The Chemical Brothers, Brodinski, Armand Van Helden and Chromeo.
Emerging at the same time as like-minded schizophonic house-head/b-boys as Hervé and Sinden, and their US counterparts Diplo and A-Trak, it seemed Crookers were spearheading a movement of sorts that swooped and stole from all manner of musical inspirations, magpie style, to feather its sampladelic, musically referential nest.
Crucially, hip-hop was the genome from which these audio metamorphoses sprang, but ask Crookers whether they were doing something new with the form and they’re quick to point out that their particular shtick had been in existence long before they appeared.
“It’s the same kind of thing that Todd Terry did first, making house music with a hip-hop mood and attitude, sampling. Artists like Tyree Cooper, it’s nothing new actually,” shrugs Bot. “We try to make similar stuff to the music we like, DJ Sneak, Todd Terry, Switch. Basement Jaxx were a huge inspiration. They took elements from different types of music, transformed them into dance music, basically.”
But the music Crookers make inhabits its own world, and their co-opting of modern rap production elements — the rowdy synths, the roughneck chants, the chopped-up, syncopated, shuffled breaks — isn’t a one-way street. Now that the mainstream likes of Timbaland, Neptunes and Dr. Dre have increasingly ossified, US rappers are looking for new musical oxygen to revivify their dying art. Dance music, and Crookers in particular, appear to offer a third way and this is already being put into practice, with 4/4 drum kicks everywhere to be seen in American rap, and the likes of Will.i.am and his Black Eyed Peas mixing B More beats and clubbed up electro into their chart bound tracks.
With the popularity of ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’ spread far and wide in the US, Crookers recognise only too well that their particular brand of cross-pollination is currently hot property and the production offers from those eager for their Midas touch are already flooding in.
“That track has been huge in the States and a huge influence on the hip-hop world. It’s crazy, America loves us! The first time, we were like, ‘What, really?’” admits Phra. “It’s been good for getting us production attention.”
Indeed, though Bot and Phra remain tight-lipped about who’s been tapping them up for production, it transpires that the aforementioned Black Eyed Pea is just one of the artists to work with Crookers recently.
“We went in the studio with Will.i.am,” reveals Phra. “We spoke and he said he wanted to meet us. We met in London and did one track, but it’s not Black Eyed Peas, he’s doing another project. Probably he’s gonna release it soon.”
Bot add: “We have a lot of respect for him ’cos he was the first in America to big us up, telling the big guys there, ‘Crookers are cool’. He’s really into house and Boys Noize and stuff. But we’d love to make stuff for everyone! It’s too early to reveal who we’re working with now,” he grins conspiratorially. “It’s under wraps for now.”
It’s not just those remixes that have been getting Crookers all the attention. Prolific to the point of saturation throughout 2008, the production pair dropped the tough, sulphuric, neon-smeared ‘E.P.istola’ four-tracker for Diplo’s Mad Decent, and signed to Southern Fried, delivering two uncompromising EPs of kinetic beats and mind-bending club-bound bombs.
‘Knobbers EP’ veered from the visceral, jump-up technicolour riffs and snapping house beats of the title track, to the relentless, Terminator basslines and Baile funk cheapo Casio keys of ‘Big Money Comin’, a deliberately dirty, trashy track built for scuzzy basements and muddy festival mash-downs. The ‘Mad Kidz EP’ upped the ante, with Kid Cudi returning the favour and guesting on ‘Embrace The Martian’, a suitably space-age galactic star quest, draped in Italo synth glissandos and Cudi promising that he won’t “turn the whole world to Cloverfield” (a reference to the recent alien invasion flick). ‘Sveglia’ reprised the neo hip-house components of ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’, but married ominous, tech trance-tinged mega chords to fat disco claps, creating another thunderous Crookers’ killer; and ‘Magic Bus’ was an E-addled, buzz of distorted, mud-caked vertiginous highs and swooping bass propelled sub-lows.
Both EPs demonstrated that the duo were not prepared to follow the same formulas, and their desire to shake the copyists off the scent, re-jig their crunked out template, strive for perfection, is an ethos they’ve applied to the forthcoming, eagerly-awaited debut album. Due in autumn on Southern Fried, DJmag was given a sneak preview of six tracks, which give a flavour of the diversity and ambition of the record. Featuring an array of guest vocalists, from singers to MCs, it’s set to be a true globetrotting epic.
“We’ve worked with everyone from Kelis to the most unknown New York singer,” said Bot. “In America we met a lot of interesting people, cool singers and MCs.”
A whole platoon of guest rappers have been enlisted to spit their unique styles over Crookers’ cuts, from ragga specialist Kardinal Offishall, to crunk master Twista, B-More nut-job Rye Rye to Kid Cudi, to name only a few.
“Who’s rapping again? We’ve got so many tracks!” enthuses Phra. “There’s nine finished tracks with raps on!”
One features the UK’s own Eski boy, Wiley, the grime veteran whose newfound love of electro recasts him as the perfect foil for the Milanese duo’s rambunctious rhythms. ‘Businessman’, a close cousin to Wiley’s own massive hit ‘Wearing My Rolex’, sees the MC flexing over Crookers’ ‘My Penny’ beat, a bass warping, speed garage-tinged beast, which previously featured on the ‘Knobbers EP’, taking what was a club wrecker into the next dimension.
“It’s huge!” says Phra. “We remixed his track ‘Summertime’ before, and so we got in touch with him. It was a beat we released on the ‘Knobbers EP’ and he liked it so much he wanted to rap on it.”
‘Businessman’ is destined to be another Crookers’ mega-hit, but a far more lascivious proposition is ‘Natural Born Hustler’ featuring Miami’s Pitbull, a tribute to the booty grindin’ sex-obsessed stylings of Miami bass and Dirty South crunk in equal measure. In the version that DJmag heard, massive, malevolent synths do battle with Pitbull’s rhymes, but according to Bot and Phra, it’s already morphed into a different animal, the version destined for the LP an evolved take.
“‘Natural Born Hustler’ is still changing. Now it’s the same attitude but with a different sound, like old jungle, the bass is less trancey, it reminds me of a jungle track really. We’re influenced by everything from drum & bass to dubstep now, there are a couple of tracks influenced by dubstep on the album,” imparts Phra.
Elsewhere, ‘Monsta Sound’ nabs a sample of Madness’s Suggs from the beginning of their classic ‘One Step Beyond’, a true boisterous blast, with the singer’s looped phrase “This is the heavy heavy monster sound!” looped ad-infinitum to delirious power, over crunching Kuduro house, carnival beats.
“I was a big fan of Madness and the original tune, it’s had me jumping like crazy! So we sampled a bit of the intro vocals, and we’re working on it again this week,” comments Phra.
Naturally, as accords with the Crookers’ mission statement, it’s not all bangers. ‘Couleurs, Couleurs’, featuring the tones of hip French singer Yelle, is a bittersweet, downtempo marching beat, packed with neat percussive effects, heart-swelling pianos and bit-crushed basslines, almost their take on cosmic disco. It’s a respite from the raw club flavours evident elsewhere, a breather with genuine emotional weight.
“We met Yelle at Pukkelpop and she wanted to collaborate. We sent her a kind of march beat and she liked one version so she did the track, and in the same way we sent her another beat, which she’s going to use for her album.”
If ‘Couleur Couleur’ has a hint of Santigold or MIA’s slick production sheen, that’s down to the sonic manipulations of their producer Dave Taylor — aka Switch — who co-produces the track and lends his considerable ears and studio skills throughout the recording of the album.
“Dave is helping us to finish the album. We’ve asked him to keep an eye on it and to finalise things. We needed a third pair of eyes! We are too into it, we needed an outside opinion, some clear ears of someone we respect a lot who can help without just saying, ‘It’s cool, it’s cool’. Now we’ve got like 30 tracks, we’re gonna get it down to less than 15, I think,” reveals Phra.
It seems fitting that they’ve enlisted Switch to oversee the final production of the as-yet-untitled opus. Just as Taylor has been gravitating more towards infectious melodies and songs, Crookers, too, aren’t content to just make bangers anymore. They want their album to be something you can listen to over and over, go back to, rather than just be a collection of club tools.
“The album is pretty much all different,” concurs Bot. “We didn’t want to do a dance tracks album, we wanted to do a mix of styles, something you can listen to in the car or whatever. Because unless you do an album like Daft Punk’s ‘Homework’ or something like that, it doesn’t make sense. If you want to do dance tracks you can do singles or EPs, but an album is something special. We both always wanted to do something diverse.”
“Sometimes with people who are aficionados of us, they don’t like the changes,” admits Phra. “Maybe there are some people who love us just doing [Chemical Brothers] ‘Salmon Dance’ remixes 30 times over, but we always try to find something new. When it’s too rave, it’s too much. Everyone is getting crazy, crazy, crazy. It’s better now to go back and to do simple things.”
Crookers are in higher demand than ever for their club trashing re-rubs, with everyone from U2 to Britney Spears getting the Milanese mash-down treatment of late, though they admit that some are more creatively fulfilling than others.
“There are some people that we remix because we like them,” confesses Phra. “Then sometimes we are asked to do something similar to another remix we’ve done. But we have more fun remixing people who aren’t so big. You can do what you want and sometimes it comes out really new and fresh. Otherwise, you feel like a machine, using the same drums, the same style. After a month you’re fucked up.
“We did this Fever Ray remix and compared to the Britney remix, it’s the maddest stuff ever. The Britney one was a club banger for everyone. The Fever Ray remix is a club banger for five people!” he chuckles.
On Sunday 30th August, Crookers touch down at London’s Clapham Common for one of the capital’s finest dance festivals, Get Loaded In The Park. The Italian tag-team hit the decks on Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak stage and elsewhere at the festival they’ll be joined by some of the freshest and most diverse talent across the many shades of dance music, including Carl Craig (with Innerzone Orchestra), Röyksopp, Orbital, Laurent Garnier, Felix Da Housecat, Roni Size, Skream, Benga and tons more.
To say that Bot and Phra are stoked is something of an understatement.
“Yeah! We’re definitely looking forward to it, we’ve never been to Get Loaded In The Park before, is it crazy?” Phra raves. “London crowds are wild, people are really receptive.”
“We’re going to be doing a DJ set, we still need to work out a good way to take it live,” adds Bot. “Sometimes with a live show it can be boring, with no energy, but I think with our DJ sets we’ve found the best way that works for us. DJing is a lot of fun and more versatile, I can play the tune I just downloaded, I can burn it and play it right there. Playing live, you can’t do that.”
Crookers acknowledge that a festival set requires a different attitude to their club rocking mentality, and they’re readying their biggest speaker-busting bass slayers to earthquake South London into submission.
“Festival and club sets are different. In the club we try to do more deep stuff,” explains Bot. “In the festival, it works for us to do super short blasts of tunes, one after the other, so we concentrate the set, make it more intense — a blast!”
Suffice to say, it’s only just begun for Crookers. With explosive festival gigs planned, a debut album set to make them a household name and the world at their feet, the plan from here on out is to keep growing, keep changing and keep rocking dancefloors, eternally.
“We want to keep finding new sounds, to evolve and to make people dance!” grins Bot.
His partner in crime adds: “We want to find some new people to produce, see what happens with the album, and enjoy!”
Crookers play Get Loaded In The Park, on Sunday 30th August, at London’s Clapham Common. Tickets are £35, available from ticketmaster.co.uk. Further info on getloadedinthepark.com. Crookers’ debut album (as yet untitled) follows this autumn on Southern Fried.
Three influences on the Crookers’ sound
Atlanta-based producer/rapper famed for pioneering the ‘crunk’ sound — a noisy, heavily electronic hip-hop derivative, with big rave-riddled riffs.
Aka Dave Taylor, a house producer famed for his rap and dancehall/house music collisions and tracks with MIA and Santigold.
Brixton’s original mash-up merchants, whose genre-straddling tracks have made them one of the most successful and enduring dance acts ever.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.