Get to know a DJ: Greg Dawson, Jr Flo of Keys N Krates
The first time I saw Keys N Krates, I was immediately captivated by the band's DJ, Jr Flo. Lacking adequate vocabulary and imagination, I settled on describing Dawson's contribution to the band as "obscenely skilled."
Regrettably, my vocabulary has yet to improve, and despite catching the band multiple times since, I still have trouble describing to my friends exactly what makes Flo and the rest of the band so engaging. So, when the opportunity came up to sit down and talk to Dawson, I jumped at the chance. Despite describing himself as "a simple dude," there's a lot to the Toronto via Markham DJ. Read on to find about Dawson's love of documentaries, his commendable drive to be a well-rounded person, and check out the mix he was kind enough to put together for us.
How did you get started deejaying?
I've probably wanted to be a DJ since I was 9 Years old, and finally got started when I was around 14. I was a fan of rap music from a really young age, and whenever I would watch a rap video — more so than anybody else in the video — I was always interested in what the DJ was doing. I think that naturally drew me to deejaying, and the whole romantic aspect of having two turntables and scratching.
And like any kid does when they want something, I started shovelling driveways for money and my parents helped me, too. I bought a pair of turntable and mixer from the guitar shop in Markville Mall — I'm from Markham — It was a really shitty guitar shop that it sold really shitty stuff, but I didn't know that at the time. I bought this really whack WB turntable with a mixer that didn't have a crossfader... I was oblivious, but soon after that I realized I needed a mixer with a crossfader and a more functional turntable, so I bought an SL 1200, and then I ended up buying a used mixer that actually had a crossfader.
Thankfully, my parents were cool with the whole thing, though they were definitely weirded out by it at the same time. At that point, no parent from the suburbs really understood deejaying. They were like, "What are you doing? What is the point of this? Why are you destroying the records?"
Before we get to your work with Keys N Krates, I understand you won a lot deejaying competitions before forming the band. Do you want to tell us about that?
When I started at fourteen, I spent the first couple of years buying records and noodling around, but by the time I was sixteen, I was really into the battle stuff. I had watched videos of guys like the X-Ecutioners and Invisibl Skratch Piklz performing, and guys like Roc Raida, DJ Qbert, and Mix Master Mike were my idols. From a Toronto perspective, I was listening to DJ X, DJ Mastermind on the mixshow tip, but looking up to dudes like Lil Jaz, D-Scratch and Grouch on the competitive side of things.
I started entering battles when I was sixteen, and one of the first ones I entered was put on by the Turnstyles crew — Lil Jaz, Grouch, and D-Scratch. That was a cool moment for me, because I was so young and placed well. I did the battle thing for a number of years and retired in 2002 after I won the World ITF Beat Juggling category, and the Canadian DMCs. Battling was an amazing experience, but I also was eager at that point to try other things.
Can you explain how you and Matisse (David Matisse, Keys N Krates's keyboardist) met, and how that meeting lead to the creation of Keys N Krates?
Matisse and I have a mutual friend named Abby who is our business partner in the band now. When I was first thinking about the concept of Keys N Krates, I was talking to Abby about it. He's a good schemer, and he also knows a lot of musicians; I didn't know a lot of other musicians at the time, I just knew other DJs. He said Matisse would be great to work with.
When Matisse and I met, we started bouncing ideas off each other, and then Matisse brought in Tune into the mix (that is, Adam Tune, the band's drummer). Matisse and Tune had been playing in funk bands together for years and the two of them went to school together for audio engineering. We started messing around and rehearsing, and we spent a good six months in a rehearsal room trying to figure out how to start to do what we wanted to do and how to even communicate to people what we were doing.
It seems like this was an idea that you had been working on for a long time? Where did the idea and desire for Keys N Krates originate from?
To be honest with you, the idea wasn't that well thought out. The early 2000s was the peak of my battling career — I was twenty-two when I stopped, and twenty-one when I had my big victories. From my perspective, I had done everything I wanted to do with battling: I wanted to start playing clubs, and, to be honest, I was tired of the whole nerd culture that surrounds battling. Since party rocking was the antithesis of battling, I decided to do that. I did it for three or four years in Toronto before I started to get really tired of just doing that on its own.
So, Keys N Krates was something where I could explore production, live performance, and rock a party at the same time. The idea was to form this remix band, which I didn't know what it was going to be sonically, I just knew that it was going to be something with musicians and me reinterpreting music live. It wasn't like I had a master plan, but as it started to evolve, I think we all started to see where we wanted it to go.
For the people that don't know much about Keys N Krates, can you in your own words describe the band's sound?
It's basically live electronic, hip hop, and remix music: Me on turntables, Matisse on keys, and Tune on drums. We create a remix right before your eyes. So, it's an instrumental party band that that samples references that you may or may not already know, and creates a fun kind of vibe. I think that's the best way to describe it.
Okay, and how would you say it's different from what a DJ does?
Well first off, we're playing all our own stuff; for example, we might use a familiar sample, but it's our own remix of it. It's also more of a performance and jam than a DJ set. Unlike a DJ, we can't just play someone else's track, because we have to build everything from scratch. All the arrangements are ours, even though it has a ton of samples. Even from a visual perspective, it's not like the band is just one guy standing behind a laptop, it's a band with live energy.
I've read in past interviews that you consider your work with Keys N Krates as more compositional than improvisational. Can you explain how you and the band put together a remix and then an eventual mix tape?
Well, it's different every time. I'll come with an idea, and if Matisse and Tune think it's interesting, we'll mess around with it; by mess around with it, I mean we'll try different drum grooves under it, different drum sounds, different synth textures. We approach it from a production angle: You find sounds, snippets, references you like, and then you try to build upon to make a song. Often, it starts with a sample, but sometimes we now start a song with a drum groove Tune brings, or a crazy synth lick Matisse brings.
Almost 39 Minutes was a mix tape which was a live capture of us doing our live show. We recorded our existing show at the time onto analog tape, and that was almost thirty-nine minutes. It's the same with Live Remixing 101, which was also a recording of our live set at the time. Blackout was actually an EP that started out as production. We made that music in the studio, and so when you hear it live, that's our live interpretation of the music we made in the studio.
That was the beginning of what we are now as a band, which is producers that create music in the studio and then play a live set afterwards. It's interesting, because some stuff now starts in the rehearsal room, some stuff starts in the studio, and we're always translating it from one context to another. So, we'll come up with an idea, and then try to play some version or some interpretation of it live, and that becomes something that we put out.
Did you ever expect the band to become this successful?
I'm not going to lie to you and say, "We were just messing around and having fun; we definitely wanted this to go somewhere. There was the idea of forming a unique live experience that could rock festivals like Osheaga. And that's happened, so we are really happy about that.
Any funny stories from touring with Keys?
We were at Shambhala, and we were hanging out at something called the "Labyrinth Stage." The festival has this Burning Man vibe. We were at the stage, and I can't remember who was playing, but this dude wearing a full out wizard cloak with some kind of a burning rod walks up to the DJ on stage and literally stands over him. The security has this look on his face that says, "Is this part of the show? I don't know what's going on."
The DJ, on the other hand, looks puzzled. The wizard puts his rod over the DJ's head and then puts it back as if he's blessing him or something, and then he just turns around and walks off the stage. He walks right pass us and into the woods, with zero expression on his face. After that, I never saw him again. I think that was one of the weirdest things I've ever seen.
Did you manage to get a picture of him?
No, I wish I did. There was another point where we were up really late at night after catching somebody's set. We were hanging out in the VIP area, and there were some weird characters with us there. I asked this person across the coach from me where she was from and she said, "I'm from Calgary, that's my seventh dimension, but Shambhala is my twelfth dimension, and who wouldn't want to be in there twelfth dimension."
Any funny stories from touring with Keys? And on that note, how about you tell us a bit about Greg the person?
I'm a pretty simple dude. You know, family is super important to me. I like good food, and I like to be active. Going for a run and staying relatively healthy is a bit tough while doing music, being on the road, and touring. The whole music thing is jarring, because you're are constantly working. I like to chill, and just hang out with my girlfriend, go for a walk, watch documentaries, and somewhat keep up with what's going on with the world.
What was the last documentary you watched?
What was the last documentary I watched (slight pause)? I can't remember what it was called, but it was a documentary on the university system in the States. It was basically shitting on the whole post-secondary education system in the States, and how student loans in dig you into this hole of debt. It was pretty interesting, because I had gone to school in the States for a bit.
Going forward, what's next for Jr Flo?
I've started working on something on the side with someone else, but I don't want to get too into it, because I'd rather talk about it once we're ready to release something. Keys N Krates is still a main focus, however: We're working on an EP that's going to be released this fall and have a ton more tour dates coming up. I'm also continuing to do fun DJ gigs on the side.
Personally, I think music takes up so much of my time, and I'm constantly consumed by music every second of the day, that I feel like less of a well-rounded individual than I maybe want to be. So, more and more I'm trying to make an effort to be more well-rounded, and just even do a lot of the things that I used to do when I was younger -- like playing more sports and keeping in touch with the world. I'm starting to play squash in the fall.
On the band side of things, that means that when we're on the road, I'll try to and make an attempt to get the band to climb up a mountain if we're in a mountain town, or just go see some tourist stuff. It's super easy to go and play a gig, go to some after party, and then get on your flight without having made the effort to go out and take stuff in.
Anything to add?
I usually deejay in Toronto few times a month (when touring allows for it). Right now, I play at the F-Stop monthly and the Drake Underground. I basically do these when I can, so come hear me play tunes some time, and look out for all the Keys N Krates stuff (tour dates, releases, rehearsal videos) coming this fall.
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Photos by Dylan Leeder