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Four Hours of Funk

DJs Exclaime and Fleg bring breaks to the people via one of Baltimore’s most successful parties

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

Four Hours of Funk at the Windup Space

Four Hours of Funk

Windup Space Dec. 16.

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Your first clue is window fog. From the sidewalk on North Avenue on a cold night, the Windup Space just looks like heat. The few folks smoking outside don’t even look particularly cold, though a bit flushed perhaps. Inside, the art space/bar/occasional club is full and in motion wall-to-wall. There are people at the bar, of course, but here it feels more like an afterthought, a spot to take a break. Imagine the opposite of that usual—or at least frequent—dance-night scene of people clustered around a bar, hanging on to its periphery like that bar’s a lifeboat and the dance floor is an icy sea. And it’s not even midnight in a city where actual dancing—like, many people, strangers even, together in a space moving—might not occur until not long before last call or after-hours.

Graham Hatke and Stephen Fleg, aka DJs Exclaime and Fleg, the night’s founders and resident DJs, would probably be the last people to cop to Four Hours of Funk’s breakaway success. It’s uncomfortable even using the term “promoters” here: two kinda shy twentysomething (or so) white-guy record obsessives with a night each month where they mix records for four hours. Funk records, specifically, or records within that broad category. Promoters by default, less by design. Fleg has roots as a dancer, Hatke as a DJ. Basically, they made the sort of night they wanted to be at, and it turns out a whole lot of people were looking for the same thing.

“It started with records,” Fleg, a breakdance teacher by day who could just as easily pass for a typical grad student, says over coffee on a December afternoon. “It all goes back to records.” He means that literally: Hatke and Fleg happened to be at the same record fair in late spring 2009 in Washington, D.C., waiting in line at an ATM. They made record-fair small talk: What are you looking for? “’Boogie disco? Oh, me too,’” Fleg remembers. “’Breaks and that kind of stuff? Me too.’ [It was] a very brief encounter, but we exchanged information.”

Less than a month later, Hatke booked the first Four Hours of Funk party at the Windup Space, scheduled for June 2009. “He just called me up randomly one night,” Fleg remembers. “’Oh hey, it’s Graham from Baltimore.’” (Fleg was living in Columbia at the time.) “I’d done some [DJ] gigs within, like, the b-boy [and] breaking community, and I’d also been breaking since about ’99 or 2000. I called up a bunch of friends and was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be spinning a bunch of breaks and funk, you should come.’ The first party was probably about 10 or 15 people, but my goal was met—get everybody dancing.”

Hatke’s own idea for the party seems rather more specific. It traces back to a defunct Federal Hill club/oasis called Sky Lounge. “I used to go there on Wednesday and Thursday nights for hip-hop and funk.,” he says. “It was where a lot of the breakers and different dancers wwould come out during the week. And Thursday night was Karizma’s residency.

“It was pretty much the only legit outlet of that kind of music in Baltimore,” he continues, “not just the music but for people that actually understood it. That was gone and, at the time, it was frustrating—the whole focus [in Baltimore parties] was hipster. Hipster, hipster, hipster. All the promoters, all they cared about was catering to hipsters—and a lot of them didn’t even know what was what with that territory, but it was just like the hot thing. I just came to a certain point where I was like, I know this guy at the Windup Space and maybe I could do something like [Sky Lounge] again.”

The pair give a lot of credit to Windup proprietor Russell de Ocampo for giving the party time to grow and ripen. “If we did this at another venue it probably wouldn’t have lasted,” Hatke says. “Most people lose their club nights, especially now, because the owners don’t give them a chance to build a following. Traditionally speaking, that can take a year or more. Some of the best parties that are known worldwide, in New York or wherever, some of those parties took at least a year to get a strong following.”

Both Fleg and Hatke take great pains to also give credit where credit’s due to Landis Expandis and DJ Napspace’s by-now long-running funk/breaking party Dig, which has been taking over Joe Squared every Tuesday night since 2007. “If it wasn’t for them there wouldn’t have been any crossover,” Hatke says, “as far as a weekly or monthly party that was like that. It was always cool—it was always the place to go on a Tuesday night.”

Funk and breaks music sit in a sort of in-between place in Baltimore. Fleg and Hatke hunt pretty much constantly for new funk records—new as in recent, not just new-to-you—a lot fitting into the “future funk” sort of style that Dam-Funk is currently owning, but that’s maybe not the same sort of thing as more trendspotty dance nights and certainly in another universe from your average rock-club indie dance night. And, naturally, a whole lot of the music you might find is heyday dance kind of stuff, but still something different (though hardly apart) from Baltimore’s house- and club-music roots. Imagine an island with bridges and causeways shooting out in every imaginable direction and that’s funk/breaks in Baltimore.

A quick lesson in breaks would go something like this: It’s the part of the song where you just freak out. You can’t help it. You’re dancin’ and dancin’ and everything in the song drops out except the rhythm—it’s just percussion. You lose it in whatever way you’re dance-capable of. Hence, breakdancing. And if you’re hanging around Dig or Four Hours of Funk, it might even be a little intimidating, like accidentally driving your Civic off North Avenue and onto a racetrack.

But what is a racetrack other than a really awesome road built to spec for driving fast? Indeed, Four Hours of Funk has only built up and up from those initial 15 or so breakers; two and a half years later it looks like a whole lot of everyone on the dance floor—from MICA to Hopkins to Carver High—something so very elusive in a city as split up as Baltimore.

“Breaking started from parties of regular people,” Fleg says. It goes back to DJ Kool Herc, considered the artist responsible for making hip-hop from funk music and, in the very early ’70s, giving birth to breaks. “What he realized was that people went especially crazy during the breaks in a song,” he says. “There’s a hard to describe, innate quality of a certain rhythm—drums that catch somehow. They make us move. They do something to us. Even on top of a melody, it’s still going to do that. But if you take [the melody] out at the right time—in these songs they always do it about three quarters in, they get you used to it first because it’s for regular people, for everyone.

“[The DJ] builds that energy,” Fleg continues, “and then the break hits and some of these guys are like, It’s time to go off. It’s time to get down on the ground. And everyone else hopefully dances harder. They might not go to the ground, but [they dance] with that same sort of energy.”

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