Las Vegas Airport – August 15, 2015
We like to believe that we get better at things as we age, but getting better at facing death? In the ten years since my Mom passed I learned a few things about how to grieve and put them to good use when my father passed. I learned to face the loss, the death, and the finality, and embrace it, own it and make it your own. Stare at their pictures and listen to their recordings. Go to the places they inhabited and walk in their shoes, lay on their beaches, and swim in their waters. Smell their clothes and read their books. This is how we incorporate our lost loved ones into ourselves so that they can live on through us all. Imbibe every aspect of their being until all the tears are pushed through every pore of your body. When you have honored them by taking time out of your short, precious life to celebrate theirs, privately and publicly, you can smile knowing you did all you could to celebrate them.
I don’t mean to make this process sound simple. It’s incredibly difficult. Chinese Algebra difficult. This is self-flagellation on a level of pain, guilt and purposeful emotional torment that would make a Jewish mother and a Catholic priest yell “No Mas!”. But you know what? It’s worth it. It works. It helps. It’s like sawing off an infected limb to excise an infection or poisoning your body with intensive chemotherapy to defeat a cancer. The process of intensive grieving is excruciating in the moment but it does actually lead to better health. If you can stand the pain of facing your loss, you will come away stronger, and better. Which is why I am thinking constantly about my dearly departed friend Jon Horvath. I’m staring at our pictures. I’m listening to his music and watching videos and staring at flyers. I’m trying so hard to put this in context… And. It is incredibly painful right now.
Jon H passed on yesterday. Jon Horvath is gone. Jon Horvath has left this plane and is not going to call me on the phone again. EVER! FUCK! I can’t believe I’m even writing these sentences. A father and a mother and grandparents and uncles and family dogs and cats are all within the normal scope of the grief scale. But losing a brother or sister is not something we typically have to face until we are far further down the road. And if said brother was also a person of enormous talent, courage, passion and worldwide impact, your grief at their tragic loss is exacerbated into something collective, intercontinental, geometric, exponential.
Jon’s loss is like an explosion of collective grief that is rocking a massive international family of funk lovers, breakers, reggae heads, producers, party pushers, hippies, ravers, dancers and afficionados… a conscious Fort Knox Family that crisscrosses the continents. Brothers and sisters who may never have connected in any way except for this one man and the music he helped to create. During our frequent, long, and often exhausting conversations about the unfair nature of the industry we had both chosen to inhabit, we frequently stated our shared commitment to that funky family. “This industry don’t give a shit about us, so we funk people gotta look out for eachother.”
We do all look out for eachother. There’s Kraak & Smaak in Holland, and that one promoter in Thesalonika, and Eugene in Durango, and Eighteenth Street Lounge in DC, and Nickodemus and Shakey in New York, and the folks at Shambhala, and Homebreakin, and Hi Fi Club in Canada, and Fingerlickin and Ghettofunk in the UK and on and on. The few, the proud, the funky. We are ALL we got and we do look out for each other as best we can. But I think anyone in this huge community will agree that Jon was a central figure, maybe THE central figure.
His passion, his humor and his charisma helped to define and connect the entire scene. He was a rockstar with none of the trappings. A ravenous musical explorer and a fiercely self critical perfectionist at his craft. An abject stoner with more drive than any heavily caffeinated corporate drone. He was a person of true artistic and political bravery who had no hesitation of speaking truth to power even if it meant that the brunt of the consequences would fall most squarely on himself and those he loved. He was our Jerry Garcia. The central, charismatic driving force in a underground movement that seemed to be gamely struggling against the global grain of mainstream music.
Jon was a hero. In this incredibly cynical age, he was someone that had absolutely nothing to hide. He put his entire soul into the public sphere: his music, his humor, his love for alternative lifestyle, his vegetarianism, his love of weed and his outright distaste for the inherent conservatism of “Official DC”. He railed against the gentrification of his hometown and put his own energy into the preservation of musicians, producers, clubs, and communities that he cared about. He took responsibility for many a fellow musician, DJ, producer, or emcee who he felt had more talent than recognition. It wasn’t enough for him, or even for Fort Knox Five to succeed. He had to make sure that his whole family had a fighting chance to apply the lessons Fort Knox had learned and reap the benefits of the trail they broke.
If you don’t believe that he was brilliant, driven, and artistically courageous then consider this for a moment. Jon Horvath brought the FUNK to that den of abject mainstream musical capitalism known as Las Vegas? It still seems amazing to me now, five years after their Eye Candy run ended, that Jon managed to create an incredible scene of funky music right in the belly of the beast, the heart of the Mandalay Bay. Despite turning this casino center bar into the soul of the Las Vegas music scene, he faced constant pressure from casino managers who wanted to shut him down and send the dancers back to the tables. They begged him, cajoled him, and threatened him, to change the music to something more Top 40. He resisted every entreaty and instead pointed to the two-year contract and the strict creative control it had given him and his compatriots.
They used that control, and the healthy budget they had wisely negotiated, to bring the people THEY loved to a place that might never have seen their likes if left up to the suits.. Brilliant, underappreciated underground artists like Mat the Alien, Vinyl Ritchie, Killa Kella, A.Skillz, the Smalltown DJs would never have been given such treatment in Las Vegas. This former DC auto mechanic brought the Godfather of Universal Hip Hop Culture, DJ Afrika Bambaataa to the heart of Babylon itself to thumb his nose at this world of neon nonsense and breakdance all over it. Jon looked the suits in the eye, ran the club his way, and pointed to the fact that he had also produced record profits. Five years after the end of their run, on the night Jon H passed away I visited EyeCandy. The bar was dead. Literally empty of all life and closed with a whimper at 1am from lack of business. In my mind, I imagined Jon staring down at the place holding his old laptop with that sticker that said simply “Fuckuall”.
But I don’t think he was a man of spite. Just a man of his word. Jon Horvath was honest in the most profound, and in the most mundane and frivolous ways. If he said he was going to show up for a set, he would be there come hell or high water. He once rode his bike through a hellish dust storm on the deep Playa to find the Janky Barge and deliver a relatively pointless set for about 50 people… because he had promised me he would. Last year at Burning Man he asked me to come wake him up for his Janky Barge funk night set. Dutifully I entered his RV at 3:30 AM to find him fast asleep. When he noticed I was there he jumped out of bed, put on his shoes and grabbed his gear. He made a commitment and he was going to stick to it. If you were one of the few, the proud, the funky human beings, there was no length to which Jon H would not go to support you.
But it would be incorrect to say that he didn’t have his detractors, or at least those who simply didn’t give his project the credit it deserved. One music publication in particular deeply distressed him. He was incredulous that other artists similar to Fort Knox (who in our shared opinion couldn’t carry a bucket of their warm spit), got more ink, or better agency support or more viral exposure on the interwebs. He actually cared what people thought of him and the project he helped to build. He took his losses and his setbacks hard and we had dozens of long conversations where we would strategize, and reconfigure, and reassure each-other. Does the band need a manager? Who? An agent? Which one? Did they need to be a BAND? Or a DJ tour? With visuals or without? Does the world need to go through every other terrible musical idea before coming inevitably back to the one we both loved most, the funk?
But he never once considered changing Fort Knox Five’s music to make the band more popular. When dubstep made funky breaks and nufunk an afterthought, FK5 didn’t just put out a bunch of grime tracks (as so many of their peers did). Nor did they follow the hordes into pop EDM or Trap or Moombah or any of the various subtrends that have flown through the musical ether. Fort Knox Five made Fort Knox Five music. Unique, distinctive, funky as hell and even though it was produced, it sounding all the way live. Jon was incredulous that the world didn’t seem to realize what an incredible musical product they were missing. He was indeed deeply concerned with the criminal under appreciation of his project. And while he was frustrated at passive or active disregard of Fort Knox Five’s naysayers, never once did he admit a willingness to change to satisfy their tastes. Rather Jon was dedicated to proving that an independent label/band/project could succeed against even these odds. They would be resolute. They would be dedicated. And they would be patient if necessary.
And it was in these moments of frustration and insecurity that, at times, his worst side would come out. Jon could be a bit of a prick sometimes…before Pamela came along anyway. He could let his mind for strategy turn him somewhat calculating. He could let his acid wit turn hurtful to others, almost like a mean big brother, picking out a specific target, especially when stoned or drunk. But then Pamela came along and he changed for the better in so many ways. She was a woman of immense grace, beauty, humor and overwhelming love for him. A true love that was so apparent to all who knew them that it was almost a storybook embarrassment. People are not supposed to find their true match in this day and age and yet somehow they did. And they shared that love with all of us with very little hesitation or self consciousness. Pamela changed him deeply. Permanently. He lost weight, lost his angst, laughed easier and banished many of the insecurities that made him seem calculating or mean spirited. By seeing in him the best person he could be, Pamela helped Jon to become that person.
Her loss was sudden, tragic, and savagely public due to the nature of their lives in the spotlight. And though he was so deeply hurt, he again showed incredible courage. He not only chose to go on living (a serious concern for many of us who loved him) but chose not to go into hiding. He wore his grief on his sleeve, celebrated her memory, and used the music and community they had shared to work through his pain. He threw himself back into production, into touring, into the Fort Knox label and band and family. And through music he healed himself and in the process he helped heal all of us as well.
The Fort Knox Five went into the studio in late 2014 and recorded Pressurize the Cabin. It is a masterpiece. Who the hell makes funk albums anymore anyway? Let alone albums that are this well constructed, engineered, and seemingly effortless. It’s not a bunch of derivative samples and basslines over a snare drum like so much else of what is called “funk” these days. It wasn’t “funk-y”. It was FUNK. Bonafided, saturated, edumocated and live instrumentated as any thing in Dr. John’s arsenal. It incorporated their entire family of musicians, singers, and emcees, but at its core, it epitomized Jon, Steve, Rob and Sid’s eclectic and international take on the FUNK.
They had also finally found an effective and dedicated and attentive agent in Frank Green, who was laying the groundwork for a publicity-propelled tour. And more importantly, it seemed that the Fort Knox Five album would be coming out at the right time. The music world is finally coming around to the funk. The hip hop, breakbeat, dub disco sound that Fort Knox Five helped to pioneer more than a decade ago is everywhere now. The spiritual children of Jon Horvath, (artists like Gramatik, Griz, Gigamesh, Psychemagik etc) are helping to introduce these eclectic sounds to a generation of people who probably had never even heard of Fort Knox Five.
These were the topics during the last of our frequent extended phone calls about six weeks ago, right before he and Steve were to begin their Canadian tour. He called to thank me for the glowing review I gave the album and we were discussing how to help them capitalize with a San Francisco show in the fall. He asked me to play at his annual Thursday Funk Town getdown during the upcoming Burning Man. I don’t think I could recall hearing him sounding so energized since before his wife passed away. He was jazzed on the album and full of enthusiasm for the project and its prospects in this improved industry landscape. He was looking forward to going back to Western Canada for Bass Coast and Shambhala. He would celebrate the start of a more hopeful chapter among the community that, more than anywhere else in the world, embraced their sound. We didn’t go as deep as we normally would. I usually didn’t bring up Pamela anymore, as it seemed he had finally truly moved on to some extent. It was more a talk about how to help the band, and their extended family like QDup, All Good Funk Alliance, Rex Riddim etc. It was a happy and humorous talk by two old war veterans about a brighter future for everyone and everything they cared about.
It was a beautiful conversation and today I wish it had gone so very differently. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, they gave her a year to live. She lived for two years and I spoke with her on the phone, or by voicemail every single day. I knew my father was not in the best of health so I did my damnedest to find time to speak with him and see him as often as possible. When he passed I had no regrets at all because I had made it my business to discuss everything of importance that we could possibly discuss. But with Jon I am so fucking blindsided. I wish I had spoken with him twenty more times and made more time for him when they were in town for Sea of Dreams and Breakfast of Champions. Young people in their prime are not supposed to die at the height of their powers. I feel fucking cheated, and I DO have regrets this time. I rationally understand that this is natural. It is part of the process. But it fucking sucks.
A few weeks ago, after Jon went into a coma and much was still uncertain, I spent a night with Jon’s roommate and label mate, Jason Brown aka Q’Dup at Gathering of the Vibes in Connecticut. Jason had agreed to the impossible task of preparing to fill Jon’s shoes in the upcoming tour. He was getting ready to accompany Steve Raskin to Shambhala and keep the Fort Knox Five music flowing even as Jon H’s life faded away. He was going there for Steve and for the band, and for Jon even though to do so was unbelievably hard for him. If they had canceled, everyone would have understood. But Steve and Jason knew that they needed to go and play. For themselves. For their family of fans and friends. When describing his music’s healing powers, George Clinton once said, “the funk can not only move, it can REMOVE, ya dig?”
And Fort Knox Five had a commitment to fulfill. If Jon H. was about anything, it was about following through on his commitments at whatever cost. Losing Pamela didn’t stop him, and losing HIM wouldn’t stop them. I am still floored at the amount of courage it took for both Steve and Jason to go and play those sets in Western Canada, at the Fractal Forest of Shambhala of all places. When you consider that some artists cancel whole tours because of a sore throat, the bravery these two men showed is downright inspirational.
Will it inspire Fort Knox Five carry on? I sure as hell hope so. I believe Jon would have wanted them to. It was a decade long project and a business that he helped build, but certainly not by himself. Steve, Rob, and Sid are partners and there’s a family of other people devoted to the project. If the people he left behind choose to honor his legacy by carrying on then they will do so beautifully. And if they chose to set it to rest and turn the page, then they will have left behind an incredible musical legacy. There is no rush either. They deserve time to grieve and rest and recuperate. Whatever they do, we all love them dearly as human beings of the highest order and we will be there to support them to the glorious end.
But make no mistake, the aftershocks of Jon Horvath’s loss in this musical community of ours are immeasurable. Even if most of the mainstream world didn’t pay anywhere near enough attention to his talent and his output, his loss to us, the funky people, is DEVASTATING. He is lost to us right at the time when he was about to, (in my view) finally see the fruits of Fort Knox Five’s decade of toil rewarded. It’s five-ways-fucking-tragic. He was the central, charismatic figure in the world of the new funk. He was the single individual who connected the Western Canada midtempo scene with the UK breakbeat scene with the West Coast bass scene and the Mid Atlantic outernational scene and the Dutch and Brazilian disco scenes and the German post-reggae movement. He was the lynchpin. Not Fort Knox Five. Jon.
His personality, his effortless style, and of course that incredible, beautiful, cartoonishly magnificent head of hair, elevated him above the ranks of the mere producers and DJs. Jon was a proper ROCKSTAR. He was our community’s Jerry Garcia. The band may play on, and the musical legacy is set in glorious gorgeous delicious vinyl. But things will never, ever be the same without him. A hundred producers and acts and bands will come along, but there will only be one Jon H. He was a star and he burned out far too quickly.
So I will do what I always do to face this incredible global and personal tragedy head on. Last night at Brooklyn Bowl in Vegas, I played 45 minutes of their music. Today I gathered every photo I could find of the many incredible times that we shared. I took it upon myself (do I have that right? Who fucking cares right?)… to organize a gathering a San Francisco of the people who loved him (Tuesday night at 7 at the Hayes Valley temple). I began the process of planning a musical tribute in the Fall as well. And I spent hours in Vegas airport, and now, late at night alone in my apartment writing this incredibly long letter to him. I’m going to face my grief, and imbibe it, shower in it and let it wash over me and through me. I’m going to dwell on my brother from another mother until I have cried every fucking tear I have to give. Its what he deserves. I made a commitment to him. We funky people are all we got.
My ancestors have a prayer that we say for our loved ones when they pass. We say it for 11 months to do much of what I have been describing. The Mourner’s Kaddish makes you face the memory of the dearly departed on a daily basis and then, eleven months later, lets you move on. When I said my first Kaddish for Jon H today one line really stuck out for me.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all the of our people; and say, Amen.
For the man who taught us all how to FUNK FOR PEACE I say….
Funk at Peace Jon H.