For this episode of ONEOFTHE8 we got into a New York state of mind and tuned into the soulful vibes of Brooklyn based creative, modernist, scooterist and DJ, Mr Kurtis Powers. From the hubbub of The Big Apple, the mellow voice of our guest can be heard on The Face Radio, introducing tracks ‘From The Soul of Brooklyn’ that are heard all around the world. Like the man himself says ‘you don’t have to talk louder to get heard’. We guess you just have to make the right kind of noise.
As a guy with family roots that lie on the other side of the Atlantic, we began by asking Kurtis why he has chosen to live almost his entire life in the city he calls home. The answer seems to sum up the man and his outlook on life.
‘As far as why do I live in New York, I’d say why wouldn’t you.’
See Kurtis travelling through his city, and you may well see the vision of a fully paid up ‘Mod’ cruising coolly past on a beautifully restored Vespa. For many of us this may instantly conjure up flash backs to Quadraphenia, The Who and the Brighton seafront, but for Kurtis this is no obsession with the past. He is quick to describe his view of ‘modernism’ - or Mod Life - as one of constantly looking forwards, using 60’s design as an influence for what we can make going forward.
Paint any picture of Mod culture, past or present, and scooters will always be a feature. Our guests love of them is clear, as is his joy for the sense of freedom they bring. For Kurtis the Vespa is not just an efficient way of getting around town, it’s a statement and unlike being behind the doors of a car, it’s his way of staying connected with his surroundings. Vintage or modern, Kurtis and his friends at Brooklyn’s ‘Scooter Bottega’ feel the same, riding is part of what they love.
‘The style and the beauty of these things, they are a work of art. There’s something beautiful about giving them new life.’
Talk to our Mod about any stage of his life, and music has always been the major influence. In ’97 he even started a band himself called ‘Time Flies’, they toured and they recorded an album, and that album can still be heard on Spotify today if you go search.
As a teenager in the early 90’s, Kurtis got into the punk and hard core scene, becoming very much a part of that tribe and following the bands around. Through word of mouth, Kurtis and his friends would hear about who was playing, and find a way to track down where.
‘We would drive around and we would look for people that looked like us’
Sending letters, making contacts, doing interviews, the entrepreneurial Kurtis would create ‘cut and paste’ fanzines and sell them at gigs for $1 or $2 bucks a time. Little did he know back then, but this was to be his first foray into the world of design.
In ’02, when things with ‘Time Flies’ were coming to a close, Kurtis found himself working in a bank selling investments, and it almost goes without saying that it really wasn’t for him. Square peg, round hole and all that. It was making him so miserable that his wife sat him down one day and said ‘hey listen, we’ve saved some money, so why don’t you go back to school and do something you like to do.’
‘I’d loved designing record covers, and I’ll call them the crappy little fanzines that i’d done. But I had no idea that I could have some sort of career doing design.’
So once again music gave our hero a new direction, and after going back to school for design, he went on to work for ‘pretty much every big agency.’ But of course it wasn’t all as he’d dreamt it would be straight after school, and Kurtis quickly realised it wasn’t going to be all about designing ‘record covers and t-shirts’. If only!!
Now, as an older and wiser 41 year old, he looks back on how he became more resilient and accepted the fact that he had to move into other areas of design. It was this realisation that helped him focus on what he was doing, and why he was doing it. By starting with ‘why’ he has been able to change the direction of his career four or five times.
‘If ‘why’ defines everything about what you’re doing, as opposed to letting the ‘whats’ dictate what you do, it opens things up in a larger way.’
It was while working at one of those big agencies, Sapient Nitro, that Kurtis first heard about a coworker raising funds for his own radio station. From that moment the blue touch paper was lit, the next chapter was being written, and after two and half months of sending messages and getting out there, a station director finally saw - and liked - a Kurtis Powers DJ set.
‘I’d always wanted to do radio, because I do like sharing music. If you came round to my house, one of the first things I would do is put on this new record.’
Starting work on a small station meant being his own producer and having to learn that side of things, it even meant broadcasting from his own house. Then circumstances suddenly changed and within 24 hours Kurtis had set up his own station, getting the word out on social media and spending the next month and half reaching out to other DJ’s to co-broadcast on the station.
And so ‘The Face Radio’ was born, with its Massimo Vignelli inspired subway style graphics and its sounds ‘From The Soul Of Brooklyn’ the station now has 46 shows that include ‘The Rendezvous with Kurtis Powers’, and broadcasters from Australia, UK and Europe as well as the USA.
For Kurtis, there is something very personal about radio, its very intimate. People can be listening in their cars, in their homes, in bed, while they’re cooking dinner. He sees it like a relationship and really values that people give him their time. That’s why he always ‘keeps the vibes really good’, and sticks to his own mantra of ‘don’t harsh my mellow.’
‘There’s enough things in the world to feel horrible about, I look at it in the same way that the stoics say - you can’t control all the circumstances but you can control how you respond.’
Kurtis admits that radio has been one of the biggest points of growth in his life, making him look at people differently, and helping him develop a different sense of empathy. For him it’s all about ‘creating something that hopefully inspires or connects people in some way or another.’
It’s no surprise then, that when you ask Kurtis about the biggest influences on his life, after thinking for a second or two, he comes back with two huge names from the world of music, the constantly reinventing genius David Bowie, and one of the most influential soul artists of all time, Curtis Mayfield, who has been described as someone who ‘used love and encouragement, not anger, to say important things’. Kurtis has definitely taken a little something from both.
‘I’m sure his ‘why’ was to make and to share beautiful music.’
If you want to settle down with some good vibes from the soul of Brooklyn go to The Face Radio. To hear even more about Kurtis’s journey in music, design and modernism, the inspiration that David Bowie and Curtis Mayfield have been for him, and a dog called James Brown, don’t miss his episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.