KUNQ took shape on this dance floor, some five or six years ago. "Those parties brought out all the cool, cute people," said Micah Domingo, a Brooklyn-based rapper and founding member of the collective. "All the different kind of queers who think outside of the gay and lesbian vibe. It was like a breath of fresh air."
The eclectic, irreverent music policy united all of the influences that would later inspire the name KUNQ: queer, punk, cunt, crunk. It was the only place in the Greater Boston Area where you would hear GIRL UNIT, Nina Simone, Nguzunguzu and Beenie Man in one night. It also carved out space for a new kind of queer club music, one no longer tethered to the twin pillars of disco and house.
One by one, KUNQ's founding members began moving to New York or San Francisco. First it was Micah, then Rizzla (Brian Friedberg), then Battyjack (D'hana Perry) and, finally, False Witness (Marco Gomez). Those in New York beelined straight for Venus X's GHE20GOTH1K parties, which were like a spiritual cousin to what they had built in Boston—except ten times the size and a lot more intense. "The community that Venus fostered was really inspiring to us," said Rizzla, who became one of the party's regular DJs.
That warehouse basement is where they met SHYBOI (Yulan Grant), a video artist and DJ who'd been watching KUNQ from afar. "I was always a fan of D'hana's work, especially with Loose"—Perry's film project, which follows transgendered folks through their transition process. "I was like, 'Yo, this is dope. Can I come hang out? Can we, like, talk about art and music and stuff?'
Then came the young guns: Kilbourne (Ashe Kilbourne), FXWRK (Coral Foxworth)—both students at Wesleyan College at the time—and Stud1nt (Izzy Ocampo), who hit it off with Rizzla when she booked him to come play at her school. "I was a huge fan," she said, though fandom quickly turned into friendship. All eight of these current members were in New York last September, and we sat down for a nearly three-hour interview at Battyjack's apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
If you were to map the energy level at a KUNQ party on a line chart, the results would be more of an insane sawtooth than a subtle slope. "My DJ sets are completely about my mood. They're frantic," SHYBOI said. "You're hearing everything I went through that day." As a collective, their sound draws club music connections between places like Santo Domingo, New Jersey, Kingston and Atlanta. The usual suspects (New York, London) are represented too, though neither is treated as a center to these other peripheries.
Depending on who's playing, you're likely to hear dancehall, happy hardcore, variations of African house and probably a lot of Fetty Wap, plus a smattering of KUNQ edits that thread all of those sounds together. It's unclear how or why it all makes sense, though a few themes emerge repeatedly: attitude, aggression and high drama.
The crew is a node in an emerging movement that is both post-regional and deeply localized at the same time. They've departed from "bass music," though their sound is influenced by UK crews like Night Slugs. I guess you could call it "global bass," but that sounds like something a PhD student invented for a dissertation. The term "hybrid club music" has been suggested in the music media, since it conveys the idea of drawing from many traditions rather than working within a self-referencing framework. KUNQ has mostly avoided sticking a name to it.
"As people seek to find new names to commodify this music, it erases the whole complexity of it," Kilbourne said. "And now, everyone can do hybrid club music."
"It's the least offensive term for what we're doing," said Rizzla, whose Iron Cages EP dropped in September on Kingdom's Fade To Mind label. "All of our productions mix elements from different music and dance cultures. Anyone can see that," he continued. "If you have diverse taste then you'll end up with a diverse DJ set. And if you're playing in a scene that isn't genre-specific, you can kind of do what you want, which then becomes its own sound."
This crew's DJ sets are not focused, fine-tuned experiences meant to keep listeners on track for an extended session. If anything, the relationship between KUNQ DJs and their audience borders on the adversarial. "I hear a lot of people are focused on what the audience wants," said Stud1nt, a 23-year-old Queens native. "But I'm here to do what I wanna do, and if you don't like it then go the fuck home."
"Remember the ad for that Zak Efron movie?" Kilbourne joked, referring to We Are Your Friends, the box office flop about a Los Angeles DJ's journey to the top of the EDM scene. "He's like, 'I start them out at 125 beats per minute, and then I start bringing them up song by song.' That's how they actually do it!" She held up her hands in disbelief and the room filled with laughter. It's hard for her to imagine only budging two or three BPM in an entire set.
The dynamic between two or three KUNQ DJs going back-to-back is even more confrontational. "It sounds more like we're in a battle. Like we're two samurais fighting," False Witness said. If you think he's being poetic, consider the fact that they try to slip each other up with increasingly difficult selections.
"It's like, 'Oh you're gonna play that?'" Shyboi said. "'How dare you, motherfucker. Well I'm gonna play a gospel track. What are you gonna do after that?'"
"Good luck coming back from 85 beats per minute, bitch," Rizzla joked.
KUNQ's style runs counter to the patient party logic you might encounter at a place like Berghain, which is open for more than a day, with a headliner playing at, say, 4 PM. "It's kinda scary, like, the party never ends at those places," Shyboi said. "And that's just self-hate, right? I mean, Berghain is so popular because people are like, 'I hate myself so much that I'm gonna keep doing this until I die.' The doof doof doof is the sound of you marching towards your funeral."
"I do think a lot of gay clubs operate on that notion," Micah said. "It's like, how can you just hit each others' hard bodies together all night and not get tired of it?"
Their wild DJ sets have gotten the group into trouble. "We've been kicked out of clubs for playing Total Freedom tracks," False Witness said. Two years ago he was invited to DJ with Joey LaBeija, a close friend of KUNQ, at the well-heeled nightclub Up & Down in Lower Manhattan. "It was a mix of our slew of friends and bottle service Beckys in tight dresses and Louboutins," LaBeija told Complex. "The owners and management of the club were antagonizing me while I was working, saying that the music was 'too hard.'"
"Some random white owner came over and said, 'Stop playing this Halloween music!'" False Witness said. Management threatened to swap them out for the in-house DJ if they didn't soften up the soundtrack. "I began to purposefully play the hardest and most obscure music I had on my USBs, just to be a dick," LaBeija explained in the same interview.
Meanwhile, many of the people who had come to see them couldn't even get past the door man. "They were literally holding people at the door who didn't fit the profile of, like, rich, white successful bankers and brokers and hedge fund managers. Some of the promoters and the hosts couldn't even get into the club."
They cut the music. Drinks were thrown. An incensed promoter made a short speech and led the disgruntled audience out of the club while they chanted, "Racists!" Racists!"
"I cursed out ten fucking people. I was livid," SHYBOI said. "I'm a very polite person, and once you show disrespect, not only to me, but to people who are literally trying to further your bullshit capitalist goals—fuck you."
Not all of the tracks you'll hear at a KUNQ party hold up to institutional standards for audio quality. Much of their source material is taken from severely compressed YouTube videos and radio rips. Many of the tracks themselves were excavated from sketchy file-sharing websites or bootleg mix CDs, uploaded or burned by users who aren't concerned by the difference between a 196kbps MP3 and a .WAV file.
SHYBOI, who grew up between Jamaica and New York City, tends to mix this season's dancehall and soca hits with selections of futuristic club music. Obviously you won't find much of that material on Beatport as a high quality file. "I'll be walking around Jamaica Avenue having a roti, and I'll stop by the record stores and grab a couple of mixtapes," she said. "Those aren't high quality. The levels are terrible. But it's like, what mega club am I gonna play this music at?"
On two occasions Rizzla was booked to play the Williamsburg nightclub Output, where DJs are expected to play high-fidelity tracks. "The manager came over and said, 'I hope those are .WAV files in there.' I was like,"—he laughed nervously—"You got it!"
"I'd just bring them into iTunes and press 'Convert to .WAV,'" Kilbourne joked.
But those engineering standards run both ways. If these lossy, damaged tracks make no sense at a place like Output, then big-room sonics are equally out of place in the shabby intimate venues KUNQ are used to. "These super high-quality produced tracks that are being played on .WAV files have a certain environmental impact on a soundsystem like a Funktion-One" Rizzla said. "If you took them into the environments where some of our best gigs have ever been, they would be meaningless."
The bit-rate matters less when audio is only one part of a multi-faceted experience. KUNQ parties are interactive—full of acrobatic dancing and audience participation. Rizzla compared this to the sometimes more solitary, inside-your-head vibe of the average house or techno dance floor. "They're not there to do something together over music or with music," he said. "Even just the pleasure of hearing people scream over a scratchy vocal track when they recognize it—there's something sonic that happens there. You can hear their voices yelling over your bad MP3 and it makes that bad MP3 more powerful."
"The deteriorated quality of it makes it more special," Battyjack said.
Rizzla, who's taking classes in Music Technology at New York University, explained that lossy compression affects some sounds more than others. "A bad MP3 cuts out the low-end," he said. "So that's what you lose on a big soundsystem. It won't thump like the other tracks. And sure, the bass is awesome, but sometimes the most important thing for us is what's happening in the mids and highs."
Many of the most deteriorated club tracks are also some of KUNQ's most dangerous. Early vogue and ballroom cuts—from before the music entered a legitimate global economy of club music—are a perfect example. "Before MikeQ started his Qween Beat label, it was just little rips from here and there that were then ripped and re-ripped and re-ripped," Rizzla explained. "They still had so much power even though they were stripped of all their transients, and it's the same thing with dancehall. It doesn't matter if those beats are in high fidelity. It evokes a memory of what you're supposed to do to it."
KUNQ's philosophy brings to light the differing cultural ideas about the importance of high-fidelity audio. It also has a lot to do with the accessibility of top-shelf audio options. "That culture of technicality—it's another gate that keeps people out," Stud1nt said. "It belongs to a really particular unaware position of people's accessibility to things like private torrent sharing sites that are guarded by so much technical knowledge. It's the same thing with vinyl. The distinction is coded in a way that's racialized and classist. And it's stupid."
"It's almost like the policy of 'don't wear sneakers in the club,'" Battyjack said. Basically, these audio standards cut young, broke musicians out of the scene.
With no credence given to vinyl or audiophile fetish, KUNQ is free to acquire tracks from informal sources: Facebook groups for amateur producers, file-sharing sites loaded with malware, pirate radio stations broadcasting from Brooklyn's Latin and Caribbean neighborhoods. And when one DJ does dig up a banger, they don't share it with anyone else.
"We do not swap tracks," Rizzla said. "And that's historically untraditional for DJs, because that's what DJ crews used to come together around—sharing a record pool. So it's not like you book one of us and you're gonna hear the same set. They're totally different by design."
"We're all secretive about what we dig," Battyjack said.
Put another way, they avoid collapsing their differences into a homogenous whole. The same goes for their collaborative recordings. "I think a lot of the framework for peers collaborating is to, like, make a new band, or become some kind of combined Power Rangers thing," Kilbourne said. But listen to her EP with FXWRK, Bang / I Can't Escape, and you can hear both producers working their wheelhouses independently. Kilbourne, a New Jersey native, reps hard for the East Coast's regional party sounds—Jersey, Philly and Baltimore club. FXWRK's style is more about spellbinding melodies and thick, luxurious textures. Both personalities emerge intact, though transformed in subtle ways.
Internally, the group has avoided ties that might restrict individuals' freedom of movement. "It's loose," SHYBOI said, in the sense that there are no union dues to be paid and no expectations for an hourly commitment. "There's no feeling like, 'I have to hang out with you,' and if we don't hang out we're not friends," False Witness said. "If we ever tried to enforce that on each other we would stop being friends."
Their loose affiliation means they can rise above the sectarian drama that dogs New York nightlife. "Even in just a tiny section of the queer scene, there's a remarkable amount of infighting," Rizzla said. "But we all play different parties across different allegiances, and not carry that affiliatory baggage with us. That's kind of what draws us together, like, 'Wow, affiliation without hierarchy or responsibility? Cool.'"
They're all deeply political people, spending a lot of time thinking and talking and organizing against injustice and inequality. Battyjack and Micah work together at Callen-Lorde, a community health center in the West Village that provides resources and treatment to queer and trans folks. But they're also realistic about the political limits of what club music can achieve, and suspicious of those who see partying as activism.
"You can not dismantle white supremacy in the club," SHYBOI said. Last year a student promoter invited her to DJ at a New England college. "They wrote my biography for me," she said. "And it was like, 'Here's SHYBOI. She's dismantling white supremacy in the club with, like, these types of beats.' If it was that easy do you think white supremacy would still be around? All I have to do is show up to one club and play for an hour and a half, and the entire paradigm would be destroyed? I know we're socially conscious, and these are nice buzzwords, but it's a fucking lie."
"People act like going to the club and listening to this music—even listening to us—is gonna change things," Micah added. "They don't actually get the message that they need to do something else."
Music journalist Michelle Lhooq touched on this idea in a tongue-in-cheek tweet about the state of electronic music in 2016: "House and techno are so basic," she joked. "I'm into queer political commentary club traxxx." It was a jab at those producers and promoters who think that what they sample or how they market their party constitutes a form of activism. It's a kind of false consciousness, Stud1nt said: "Club music has become so fetishized that people think just putting 'queer space' or 'safe space' on something is enough," she said. "They're fake woke."
KUNQ is defined by a total unwillingness to compromise. They're not interested in expanding their audience; they're not recruiting new members; they don't jump at press opportunities (they turned down multiple interviews while waiting four months for this piece to come out). This means they don't have to jeopardize their politics or artistic integrity in exchange for recognition.
"It doesn't matter if it comes with money or some kind of social capital," Battyjack said. "If it's not in line with what we want, if we don't feel good about doing it, we're not gonna do it. I can trust that more than any kind of pay check."
If the wider world won't accept them, they're more than happy to make it work with what they've got. "That's where the Boston thing comes full circle," Rizzla added. " We'll never get access to these great venues on a Friday night and be able to fill them full of intelligent people. So let's just take a Tuesday and make it really good."