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Kraak & Smaak

An album-by-album journey

2016 Jun 15     
2 Bit Thugs

As the Dutch trio drop long-player #5, we look back over their 13-year career

Album number five is a summit few acts in electronic music reach even in the most lofty careers. Even fewer achieve such a collection in as short a space of time as 13 years. And even fewer again achieve it on a such a precision three-year cycle as Kraak & Smaak.

But this is just one characteristic that makes the Dutch trio truly unique. Their musical mission, from sweet sample-based funk to sweet song-based funk by way of deep house, disco and soul is another enduring characteristic. And it’s a tale that’s told succinctly on said fifth album, Juicy Fruit. Released this month, by the band’s own admission it’s their favourite album since their 2005 debut Boogie Angst. If you know their material,l you’ll instantly hear how it brings us back to their funk touchstones but does so via the silky-synth, vocal-led songwriting route they’ve taken during the three albums in between.

Strangely, the band didn’t think they had one album in them when they first started, let alone five! "A Kraak & Smaak album was never on the cards," shrugs Oscar de Jong, the principal songwriter and musician of the band. "Even our name was a joke to start off with. It means ‘neither here nor there’ because that described our ‘little bit of everything’ style at the time and still does now. The name was only supposed to be for a few 12”s. We actually had a whole list of names we thought were really cool. Names like Double Whammy."

Now, with five long-players under their belt, here’s the story of every Kraak & Smaak whammy so far...

Boogie Angst (Jalapeno, 2005)

 

The early noughties: breaks of all shades, shapes and sizes dominated dancefloors across Europe. In 2003, Jalapeno delivered a series of 12"s. Little was known about Kraak & Smaak at the time beside the fact that they had a weird name, were absurdly funky and knew their way around a killer sample with hooks and soundbites from the likes of Donny Hathaway, Indeep and… and animal noise CDs. Those noises on the breakdown of Keep On Searching? Pure freerange chickens.

"Yes we sampled chickens," admits Oscar matter-of-factly. "I don’t think many other dance acts have done this."

We can’t think of an act that’s pulled off such a sample in such a serious and funky way. But to focus purely on the fowl play (sorry) is doing Boogie Angst a disservice. For a debut album, it stretched from the gutsy party funk of One Of These Days (a glimpse into the vocal-led, songwriting shoes they were yet to fill) to the evocative, cinematic jazz breaks of 5-4. And it was huge across Europe... especially in their native land.

"There was a momentum," explains the band’s DJ Mark Kneppers. "Everywhere you went in Holland the album was all over the place. Every shop, every coffee shop, television shows, radio, it was sync’d everywhere. It was a moment. It was very special."

"It’s crazy how it came together," reminisces third member and FX wizard Wim Plug. "The singles got picked up immediately so we rode the buzz and went ‘Okay, let’s make an album!’ The timing felt right. We were at the start of a musical wave of jazz-funk breaks. We started a live band straight after the album, which was also very important to our development."

PLASTIC PEOPLE, ELECTRIC HUSTLE

Plastic People (Jalapeno, 2008)

 

Wim wasn’t wrong: Kraak & Smaak’s live presence was a huge influence on both their development sonically and profile-wise. As a full band they stood levels above the sea of break merchants proffering bog-standard edits and bootlegs. It also developed their taste for more song-based material that would work better in a concert context rather than a DJ set.

With one foot still kicking the dusty sample crates, the other shuffling in a poppier, synth-led shiny slipper, Plastic People captured their successful transition between dual worlds: underground and pop, tracks and songs. It also acknowledged the success of their debut album in the weight of analogue kit they could finally afford to buy.

"We had money to get more people involved, we had a better studio and more band members," says Wim. "It allowed us to explore our music more. Samples are cool, they set you up, but you’re constrained by what the sample gives you. You get that urge to write more."

The biggest hit of the album – Squeeze Me – showcased the band nailing both sides, as Ben Westbeech dusted dulcet gold over a fat Johnnie Taylor sample. It was the band’s biggest single so far, helping them score a five-week, full band tour of the US and even appearances on The Jimmy Kimmel Show.

"Squeeze Me broke the last barrier," says Oscar. "It really made that link from the funky sound of Boogie Angst to the more disco sound of Plastic People, helping us move into more electronic directions. The funk, lounge, breaks movement was getting a little tired, also, so it was the right time to be exploring beyond what we were initially known for. It was a real bridge album."

Amid the big changes, though, Plastic People also carried many of the band’s deeper signatures: the smoky cinematica of Man Of Constant Sorrow and Cornered were present, as was their exercise in hypnotic downbeat Detroit loopestry, Thinking Back.

"That wasn’t a big track at all but it’s a personal favourite," says Oscar. "We love Theo Parish, J Dilla, Madlib and all those dusty sounds. Thinking Back was an homage to that and another aspect of our musical influences."

Electric Hustle (2011, Jalapeno)

 

By the time their third album Electric Hustle landed in 2011, the band had even more influences to showcase. Not just a deeper dive into more electronic sounds, but proper house music with one of the genre’s most iconic voices: the late, great Romanthony.

Texan titan Romanthony - best known for voicing Daft Punk’s One More Time - wasn’t alone; the entire album is fronted by singers and collaborators, from old soul legends (Lee Fields) to new crooners (John Turrell) by way of Dutch writers Janne Schra and Lex Empress.

"Lex especially is a great songwriter and I learnt a lot from our time," says Oscar. "There’s a big difference between inviting a big singer down to the studio and feeling that pressure to do your thing on that one day, and working with someone who you can sit with for weeks and really develop something. So we really found a groove and a workflow and I felt we’d really polished our skills during this album. That said, Romanthony really did deliver something magic…. Let's Go Back’ is a classic, right?"

The verified hit of the album, Let’s Go Back (coupled with the muscle of a Solomun remix) became a runaway Ibiza anthem in summer 2011. Lee Fields also added serious soul gravitas, yearning gutsily over the band’s neo-Shaft struts and electro boogie hustles.

All of which added to the clear message of the album: they were far from the sample-flinging funkateers who’d emerged just under a decade before. They were now a polished band who dealt a fine line in songs, but could still conjure up a killer dancefloor shaker (see the album’s sole instrumental, the perennial cosmic groove of My Synths Are The Bomb).

CHROME WAVES, JUICY FRUIT

Chrome Waves (Jalapeno, 2013)

 

And the bombs continued. Delivered a year ahead of their usual three-year cycle, Chrome Waves captured not only a chapter of the band’s journey but the much wider electronic picture: the ubiquitous sound of the all-new repurposed idea of deep house.

"House music was becoming more diverse and developing into pop music, with acts like Disclosure reminding people that song-based house tracks can really work for dancefloors," says Wim. "Which is what we’d been doing ourselves. At the same time, we were also ready to make clubbier stuff. We’re not house producers per se, we’ve always been on the leftfield, funkier side, but this was our take on it."

A pretty reverent and widescreen take, too. See, for instance, the spacious Stee Downes-fronted How We Gonna Stop The Time, which provided Renaissance-level emotional uplift, the Reel People-style soulful keys of Just Wanna Be Loved and the album’s heavyweighter The Future Is Yours, a piano-primed classic house homage shuddering with echoes of Sterling Void that featured their old squeeze Ben Westbeech, who himself was enjoying the year of his career so far as Breach.

Aside from house, the band continued to exercise their deeper, funkier signature: Janne Schra’s introspective vocals and the loose drums and guitar of Love Inflation buzzed with 2020 Soundsystem-style live fusion while Good For The City shone with squidgy disco synth magic and became a national radio hit.

Location is worthy of note here, too... as well as deep house’s dominance, 2013 was the year the Dutch’s longstanding big room governance became official as the absolute EDM takeover with young pretenders Garrix, Heldens and Hardwell backing up the OG testament of Tiesto and van Burren. Unwittingly, K&S countered their nation’s hype-riddled electronic lingua franca with a deeper, more restrained take on 4/4 dancefloor music.

"Well, kinda," laughs Mark. "Those guys tour the rest of the world much more than here, so we’re actually in the eye of the EDM storm."

Juicy Fruit (Jalapeno, 2015)

 

The band found themselves in the eye of their own storm after Chrome Waves. A personal development storm: during the last three years they’ve set up their own label Boogie Angst, launched their own management company to support new local talent (also called Boogie Angst), have their own radio show (Keep On Searching) and are now all family guys.

Older, wiser and more confident in their skills and execution, during these industry expansions Juicy Fruit was created. A mature retrospective of their roots, done brashly it could have teetered daringly on the brink of cheap nostalgia. Instead it’s a well-thought full circle trip that takes us right back to groove ground zero and rebuilds the band’s signature with everything they’ve learnt in between.

"Chrome Waves was the most electronic and clubby album we’ve done so we took a step back," says Wim. "We got back into samples and warm organic instrumentation."

"And when we did that, we found ourselves so much more comfortable working in the boogie and the groove, inspiration flowed a lot freer," agrees Oscar. "We finally found our sound but with more skills and more potential. The first album was limited to the skills we had and the samples we had. I didn’t know how to properly record or write songs like we do now. So Juicy Fruit is next level Boogie Angst."

Level up: deeper and more organic than the last three albums with the same helpings of soul, funk, disco, hip-hop and cinematic instrumentals, it does indeed carry a similar air as their debut album. But does so with real original music and the same heavy presence and variety of singers.

"We really wanted to focus on new names rather than ones we were already comfortable with," says Wim. "We browsed through Soundcloud, followed the links and every once in a while struck gold. Like Alxndr London and Eric Biddines."

Those two particular examples provide highlights, too. Biddines waxes poetical with an air of young Snoop or Andre 3000, while London dusts the lush soft-focus brushed drum jazz of Hands Of Time with a delicate delivery that belies his newcomer status. Elsewhere on the album there’s fresh new talent in the form of Meeka Kates (who they’ve since signed to their label), while kudos-caked talent in the form of Stones Throw’s Mayer Hawthorne features on the first hit from the LP, I Don’t Know Why. Most importantly, though, it’s the air of consistency that the band have been searching for since their first adventure into album land…

"We always thought Boogie Angst was our most coherent album until this one," says Mark. "They’re not the best tracks we ever made but as an album it just works. Every other album has had quality tracks but possibly not gelled quite so well as a whole piece. This new one is a new contender. Let’s see what happens in the next three years!"

Words: Dave Jenkins

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Tags: Kraak & Smaak, house, funk, disco, breakbeat