The Knocks on NYC’s DJ Scene, Not Producing for Rihanna, and Their New EP

The Knocks photographed by Justin Bridges for BlackBook.
JPatt wears leather trainer jacket by Coach. B-Roc wears waxed nylon aviator jacket by Coach. Styled by Alyssa Shapiro.

Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner and James “JPatt” Patterson of The Knocks are overflowing with kinetic energy. Now the producers are making a name for themselves.

Sitting in an East Village townhouse cluttered with art, the guys are as excited to tell their story as we are to hear it. A decade or so of running the DJ scene in downtown New York nightlife, writing for the aforementioned powerhouse performers, and releasing a thread of singles and remixes that have made their Internet presence nothing short of pervasive, Ruttner and Patterson are anxious for the release of their forthcoming EP, So Classic.  We talked to the duo about their humble, sometimes frustrating beginnings, the pros and cons of playing music for New Yorkers, and why their new work finally feels right.

How did you two meet and start playing music together?

B-Roc: We were each producers in our own right, making mainly Hip Hop music at the time — like in high school and early college days. We met through a mutual friend actually when I went to the New School, because JPatt had a friend that went there. At that point, we were both kind of new to being in New York City a lot and kind of just played each other beats and sent stuff back and forth on the Internet, stuff like that, just to kind of see what we were working on. And then we both needed roommates, so we moved into an apartment together in the East Village, actually Avenue C. We were still doing our own thing in our own rooms and slowly started to kind of work on projects together. The stuff that we were making was really cool and ended up taking off a little bit.

So you guys could literally hear what the other was working on through the walls?

B-Roc: Yeah, that’s actually how we got the name The Knocks. Because we used to have like a shitty little apartment where the walls were paper-thin and we each had studio-sized speakers in our rooms. We’d each be making beats really loudly and the neighbors would knock on the walls and the ceilings, and we called them “the knocks.” I’d be like, “I got the knocks. I have to stop playing.” I’d turn my speakers off and I’d go into his room basically until he got the knocks.

What kind of work were the two of you doing at the time?

JPatt: I think we were both at the time writing a lot of stuff for other people. We were doing the whole kind of L.A. base producer thing where they’re all sort of aiming for the same Pop record. And it’s kind of unfulfilling work in that you’re not really making anything that’s real, like that comes from any sort of real place. So I feel like we’re both artists…we both love what we do before…I mean we both want to make money off of it obviously, but at least for me I like the fulfillment of the music we make and being appreciated. Like, it coming from somewhere where someone can appreciate what I do, because it is me. So we were kind of like, fuck that. It was kind of an accident, we were just joking around, like jokingly made this dancer called “Can’t Shake Your Love” in our production room of our studio, not even in the main room.

B-Roc: This is like 2008 or 2009. The EDM thing hadn’t really hit.

JPatt: We did that and we literally just threw it up online to some bloggers that we knew and got the most feedback or like the best response of anything we had done up until that point. So then we were like, “Maybe we’re onto something.”

theknocks_justinbridges_blackbook_2
The Knocks photographed by Justin Bridges for BlackBook

You guys have both been members of New York’s downtown music scene for a while. How has this affected your sound or style?

JPatt: We were both DJs, so we would go out and test stuff in the clubs, or see what people are reacting to so that when we get back into the studio, we could kind of just put that into our music and what we’re aiming for as far as  vibe, if we want to really get the crowd’s reaction. The New York scene is like the scene in my opinion, so it helps to be involved in it in that way.

Do you think it’s the scene for just music or for basically everything artistic?

JPatt: For music especially, because we do music, but really for everything. Like if you ask me, I feel like New York is the place to be but especially for the music, because there’s every kind of scene here and there are open format gigs where you have to play every kind of music in a three hour span, and a lot of DJs are House DJs or Hip Hop DJs, or ‘whatever’ DJs. You have to play to every kind of person while keeping the crowd unified. It’s a really unique skill set.

B-Roc: I think it comes through in our music. You can’t listen to our music and be like, “Oh, they’re a House duo,” or whatever. You can hear a lot of influence from Hip Hop and you can hear a lot of influence from old Soul, and Classic Rock even. That’s kind of what we aim for. It’s like, we don’t corner ourselves …even when I met him, he wasn’t even DJing yet. It was my day job. I was DJing five nights a week at like all those clubs, whether it was like 1Oak or Darby, all those crappy bottle places, and you have to be on your toes and be able to mix a U2 record into a Jay-Z song, and I think seeing reactions and when people react to different parts of it, like “Oh this part of this U2 song always goes off so big in the club, and then this part of that Daft Punk song…” so were always in the studio using that. We’re like, “Oh, this breakdown sounds like Fleetwood Mac versus this breakdown, which sounds like Frankie Knuckles.”

It must be a great tool to be able to so regularly gauge how a live audience is reacting to you music.

B-Roc: At the same time it can be dangerous though, because New York is such a bubble. But it’s almost like running with weights on because New York audiences are even harder in a sense where they’ll just sit there and stare and then you’ll go do the same thing in Boston and everyone will be like, “Woah!” and freak out because they don’t see it all the time. In New York, everyone’s like, “I could go see this show or I could go see this other guy here.” There’s so much shit going on.

As you said, you guys used to be a part of that base producer songwriting process. Contrarily, you’ve fully collaborated with and helped to develop certain artists, like Alex Winston. Can you expand on that?

B-Roc: That’s how we started and that’s what we wanted to do. Like, we had this kid who got signed to Columbia Records at one point and then Winston…she was making us work on music and we made her move to New York and started producing this other kind of stuff for her…But then The Knocks stuff got so busy, and you can’t really balance it all; you have to focus.

But now that our album’s done I can definitely see us going back and doing more of that, but also our album is very collaborative. Like even when it was just production stuff, we worked with a lot of other producers, and whether it’s guitar players, horn players, musicians…Phoebe [Ryan] is featured on our album. We worked with a lot of artists like that. Most of the features are not just guys that we call up and pay. It’s basically people that we know through the scene here and friends, which always ends up being the best songs. Like “Classic” was totally just a collab with a friend. That song “Comfortable,” which is one of our bigger songs, was just a collab with our friend from X Ambassadors. Because we always kind of feel like underdogs. We’ve never been put in the studio with anyone huge, or it’s rare that we get thrown in with massive guys, so we kind of try to create our own path.

How does this type of collaborative work compare to what you were doing before?

JPatt: I didn’t mean writing with other people is unfulfilling. I meant there is like a specific style. It’s like, “So-and-so, a huge artist, needs a record. They want it to sound like these other five records. Go.” And then they send that call sheet out to like a million different producers and everyone sends in what they think will work, and then they end up going with Dr. Luke. That’s the kind of production work we were trying to get away from.

B-Roc: They’d be like, “We need a song like Britney Spears meets Courtney Love meets the Ying Yang Twins,” and you’re like, “What are you talking about?” I mean yeah, it looks good on paper, but it’s not the way music works.

Do you ever feel that people within the industry are trying to force a certain image onto The Knocks, or classify you in an inorganic way?

JPatt: For a while we were on this other label, I won’t even name any names, but we were on a label for a sec that was a little like the nightmare stories that you hear about labels, where they’re like, “You know, we like what you do, but why don’t you try this other thing that isn’t anything like what you do, at all?” It was just a constant struggle trying to prove our points to them. It was just a bunch of older guys who had no connection to current pop culture and just like hear the radio on the way to work and are like, “Oh, this is what kids are listening to.” And that’s what they try to force you into. So we were there for a second but luckily we were able to get out of that with a clean break. So, yeah, it’s hard for us to be put into those sorts of boxes.

B-Roc: [And that’s because] we already kind of built it up. And I’m super hands-on with administrative things, like the artwork and direction of stuff like that. I think as long as you know what you want and you have something secure…like working with a label like Atlantic’s been amazing because they just want to amplify it. They saw us already as a packaged thing, like they saw what we were already doing, and were like, “Yeah, we love this. Let’s just make it even bigger.”

Then in terms of your real style and appearance, what are you guys into?

JPatt: I like vintage stuff. I like old stuff. LPM is one of my favorite stores to go to. And I like the ‘90s era vintage, graphic cartoon tees, and troop jackets, and stuff like that. Mostly dark colors.

B-Roc: I’m into vintage stuff also. I’m a little bit more into the rocker side of things, all the ‘90s grunge, and I grew up as a punk rocker in middle school. That was my whole thing, so it’s funny to now come back [to that]. I wish I had a lot of those old clothes I wore, but I got rid of all of them for like, my Rocawear suits in high school (laughs). I’m big on leather jackets, and I have a vintage Marilyn Manson tee that’s like my favorite shirt of all time.

Can you tell me about the new EP?

B-Roc: The EP is a taste of what we have to come with the album. It definitely is a new sound, but at the same time we feel like it’s finally the right sound. We feel like, you know, a lot of these bands nowadays with the Internet, like you put out a song and overnight it gets big and all of a sudden we’re playing these shows. And we we’re touring with only having like, four songs, and we had to play a lot of live remixes because we didn’t have enough material. I felt like these past five or whatever years that we’ve been on the road a lot and just running around, we haven’t had time to really sit down and develop our sound. We’d just kind of been running with whatever we were doing. And it just felt like over this time, slowly, we’ve been building, and like when we made “Classic” and a couple of these other new songs, everything seemed to kind of click in this way that was like, “Okay, now this is what we’ve been meant to make.”

JPatt: It’s a good showcase of everything that we’ve been through up until now, and everything we’ve learned, all of our influences, you can really hear them and it’s not like muddy in that it’s two-layered.

How does this work feel to you compared to what you used to produce?

JPatt: It doesn’t feel forced at all. Like even with the old label, by the end, we had reached sort of a weird compromise with them and then they folded, but even with the music that we made in lieu of that compromise, still to me felt a little bit forced, like we were trying to please someone else.

B-Roc: It feels right, and it feels good to have that. Because we definitely had a whole album done that was like cool and a good album but like I feel way better about this one. When we were with the last label, we scrapped a whole album and went and made a whole new record, and it was such a blessing in disguise because we’re super proud of this, and it just feels like something that no one’s ever done before.

Grooming by Ashley Rebecca

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