- This essential retrospective highlights the livewire New York band's killer blend of disco, funk, new wave, jazz and Afrobeat.
- New York's early '80s underground left an indelible mark on dance music culture. The potent brew of punk rock's DIY, band-centred ethic and disco's dance floor nous had a second wave in the early '00s thanks to labels like DFA and The Rapture's evergreen "House Of Jealous Lovers," but in more recent times you could still hear that same unapologetically messy, irrepressibly funky cocktail in groups like Golden Teacher. Producers like Maurice Fulton, The Maghreban and Powder sport a little of that same renegade magic in their music, where tumbling live drums and dirty plucked bass fill the rhythm section with an energy unproducible by tightly sequenced machines.
The initial extremities of New York's no wave scene in the late '70s (spearheaded by Glenn Branca, Arto Lindsay, Lydia Lunch's Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, and more) collided with disco influences as the '80s kicked in. Producers like August Darnell (AKA Kid Creole) helped steer the label ZE Records towards more catchy, danceable material without losing the wild-eyed edge of the East Village scene they'd emerged from. Most of the era's great acts made the most of these dual qualities—the raw funk stomp of ESG, the angular jazz contortions of James White, and the livewire, party-starting energy of Liquid Liquid and Konk.
Founded by saxophonist Dana Vlcek and trumpeter Shannon Dawson, Konk consisted of low-key players who criss-crossed other notable bands—Sonic Youth, Gray (Jean-Michel Basquiat's band), Plus Instruments. Their sound was raucous and many-layered from the outset, all blaring brass, whirlwind percussion, vocal chants and expressive bass playing with Afrobeat and Latin influences rubbing up against American funk and new wave. As Tim Lawrence said of the group, in Life And Death On The New York Dancefloor 1980-1983, "Whether opening for Kurtis Blow at the 930 Club or for Eddie Palmieri at the Mudd Club, Konk's musicians burst into life when they could throw themselves into a rough-at-the-edges, good-time, global-funk jam."
The band's catalogue is a bit messy—repeat releases of the big hits, collections of club-friendly tracks, other scattered EPs and one album (1983's Yo!). They've received due credit in the past through the compilations Disco Not Disco on Strut and New York Noise on Soul Jazz. The latter label also gathered some of the band's most danceable material for The Sound Of Konk (Tales Of The New York Underground 1981-88) in 2004. Now reissue label Futurismo have sifted through the band's archive to pull together this more comprehensive retrospective, lavishly packaged and pressed on three discs.
The Magic Force Of Konk 1981-1988 demonstrates the band's range, though that might have been a symptom of how quickly methods of production were shifting. You can hear the difference between the raw, jangly funk of Yo!'s "Soka Loka Moki" and the fat, synth-embellished pump of "Love Attack" released three years later. The compilation includes the original 7-inch versions of "Soka Loka Moki," originally released in 1981, which swirl in a muddy, dubbed-out style that adds a wonderfully psychedelic edge to the music. The differences from the original are subtle, but those heavy reverb sends and lack of studio sheen are enough to inspire excitement.
Away from the bangers Konk are best known for, the compilation also offers space for the group's more tripped-out ideas. "Cool Out Gar (Third Stone From The Sun)" is a nod to Jimi Hendrix that soaks the band's summery groove in delay, particularly Scott Gillis' guitar. Meanwhile, some live recordings from CBGB in 1981 reinforce the raw post-punk direction the band were coming from on their path to the party. It's raucous and jammed out but surprisingly sharp, and the recording comes across well. Even in their infancy, Konk could incite a feverish atmosphere with their instinct for groove and sense of adventure.
But really, the best of Konk is in their evergreen floor fillers, which fused limber musicianship with the hefty production advancements powering New York's groundbreaking dance floors. From the anthemic chant of "Machine" to devastating DJ tool drum workout "Alien Jam," Konk were a band who adapted to the dawn of the digital age and made it work to their advantage, unlike some of their peers. As Lawrence also said of the group in his book, "The scene that fed the city's DJs with danceable music recorded by bands entered a period of relative decline, with Konk the only line-up to exit  in better shape than it had begun it."
It's telling that the band so explicitly embraced DJ culture. The Magic Force Of Konk 1981-1988 has a whole disc of bonus beats and acapella cuts from the original singles, where they explicitly invited DJs to get creative with their tracks. There are also two excellent mixes ("Skull Whip" and "What U Want Dub") of a Konk highpoint, "Your Life." Though their sound was unkempt, Konk were less self-consciously cool than many of their contemporaries. That helped them stick around long enough to ride some of the bigger waves that swept through their city's club culture in the '80s. In their riotous blast of horns, drums and party-minded hooks, Konk, like few others, charted the evolution of New York dance music through some of its most revolutionary years.
01. Konk Party (7 Inch)
02. Baby Dee
03. Soka Loka Moki
05. Your Life (7 Inch)
07. Cool Out Gar (Third Stone From The Sun)
08. Suave Y Caliente
09. Love Attack
11. Alien Jam
12. Soka Loka Moki (7 Inch Part I)
13. Soka Loka Moki (7 Inch Part II)
14. Tonton Macoute (Live At CBGB 81)
15. Alamo (Live At CBGB 81)
16. High On The Hill (Live At CBGB 81)
17. Fela (Live At CBGB 81)
18. Frog Talk (Live Broadcast To Paris)
19. Konk Party (Uptown Breakdown)
20. Konk Party (Master Cylinder Jam)
21. Konk Party (Bonus Beats)
22. Your Life (12 Inch)
23. Your Life (Skull Whip)
24. Your Life (What U Want dub)