“We tried to make ‘festival weapons,’ so when we play them, it’s like throwing a million hatchets into the audience,” explains Jesse F. Keeler, one half of DJ/production duo MSTRKRFT, describing the songs from the upcoming album, Fist Of God (to be released 3/17 on Dim Mak/Downtown). “When we play our own records, they need to be big.” Indeed, when it came to following up their acclaimed debut, 2006’s The Looks, MSTRKRFT looked to their experience behind the decks, spinning everywhere from packed, sweaty clubs to major festivals like the World Electronic Music Festival and Bonnaroo. “When we made The Looks, we hadn’t started DJ-ing professionally,” says Al Puodziukas, the other half of MSTRKRFT better known as Al-P. “This record is more like what we’d play out in our sets.” “Making The Looks was a debauched time,” Jesse adds. “We’d go out and party every single night, then come to the studio at 1:00 pm. We’re still going out every night, but around the world, which is a very different experience. It may sound arrogant, but from our DJ experience we’ve developed ideas about what people should be listening to.” That’s demonstrated by Fist of God’s sonic evolution. Not only are the beats fatter than ever this time around, they also represent Al-P and Jesse’s mutation of today’s best urban music into MSTRKRFT’s distinctively brutal club grooves. Throughout Fist, slamming cameos from the likes of John Legend, N.O.R.E., Ghostface Killah, E-40, Freeway, and Isis of Thunderheist all get MSTRKRFTED. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to incorporate more of those sounds,” Jesse clarifies. “It’s just a reflection of where our heads are at.”
At first, however, the rappers needed a little convincing to fuck with these Canadian club dudes in suspiciously tight jeans. “E-40’s son [the pioneering hyphy producer Droop-E] is a fan of ours,” Jesse says. “Droop told him, ‘You should do this, Dad.’” The Bay Area mic legend came around, when he heard MSTRKRFT’s powerful beats: as E-40 spits on “Click Click”, “How many rappers you know can get on an up tempo 120, man, and still gas it?” MSTRKRFT’s embrace of urban sounds doesn’t seem so shocking, either, considering the group’s musical background. Al-P and Jesse started collaborating in 2004, when Al produced You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine, the first (and only) album from Jesse’s former band, the acclaimed Toronto noise-rock iconoclast duo Death From Above 1979, which went Gold in their native Canada. Before that, however, Al-P worked as a studio engineer. “I got into engineering through playing in punk bands, recording little EP’s on a half-inch eight track in my parent’s basement,” Al explains, “and then I found myself doing corporate hip-hop in New York. The way I’m involved now is completely different: hip-hop recontextualized for our own use has become exciting.”
Indeed, locking down Fist’s rapper cameos has provided its own share of thrills. To get N.O.R.E. for the first single, “Bounce,” the group had to go through a friend of a friend who had a connection with the Queens rap legend. “Welcome to the world of MSTRKRFT,” Jesse deadpans. “To record N.O.R.E., we went to Miami to this studio in a desolate part of the ‘hood; when we arrived, it was totally dark, and there were all these guys. But they were cool with us right away, and the track totally clicked with N.O.R.E. He’s talented as hell. We want to take our collaborators out of their element: N.O.R.E. got that, and the risk paid off—the track is massive, and now we’re good friends.” As for getting Ghostface’s verse for the gritty neo hip-house anthem “Word Up,” MSTRKRFT were inspired by The Pretty Toney Album – Ghostface got it right away. Meanwhile, John Legend’s astonishing performance on “Heartbreaker”—Fist’s unclassifiable, synth-pop-meets-Journey ballad co-written with Space Cowboy—came about after Legend proved impressed with MSTRKRFT’s remix of his single “Green Light.” “Other than his multimillion dollar voice, John just gave the track what it needed,” Jesse says. “No one else could’ve completed it like that. The fact that John has worked with producers like Kanye and will.i.am puts us in great company. I’m quite positive ‘Heartbreaker’ is not the end of MSTRKRFT’s relationship with John Legend.”
According to Jesse, Fist of God’s curveball nature was a natural progression: MSTRKRFT had no interest in exploring the trendy electro or New Wave nostalgia so prevalent on today’s dancefloors. “Neither of us listen to cool music,” Jesse claims. “We’re more interested in Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Hank Williams or Robert Johnson.” As such, Fist Of God proves not retro, but timeless. “We’ve never tried to make a ‘now’ record,” Jesse says. “We like our music to be confusing as to when it was made—so it sounds new and old at the same time.” To that end, Jesse and Al-P returned to dance music’s classic roots, evidenced by “Word Up”s transmogrified Chicago booty juke and the updated Paradise Garage proto-house of “Breakaway” featuring a soulful vocal from Jahmal, singer for Toronto band The Carps. In exploring primordial club styles, MSTRKRFT found a connection to the immediacy of their punk roots.