As the dance duo the Knocks, James “Mr. JPatt” Patterson and Ben “B-Roc” Ruttner have been bringing their mobile party to sold-out venues around the world. Finally, listeners at home can get in on the action: Their debut full-length, 55, is a multi-headed celebration that gathers singers from all over the musical map and lets them take star turns over group’s feisty, banging beats.
New York’s sweaty, unbridled late-night vibe runs throughout 55 thanks to the pair’s keen ear for catchy hooks and the album’s genre-spanning vocalists — Fetty Wap, Carly Rae Jepsen, Walk the Moon, X Ambassadors, Wyclef Jean and pop hitmaker and onetime downtown denizen Justin Tranter. Their new video, naturally titled “New York City,” features Harlem’s own Cam’ron. Rolling Stone spoke with the Knocks, holed up in a New York studio.
There’s a New York feel to the record — from Cam’ron to Justin Tranter to up-and-comer Phoebe Ryan.
Ruttner: People are always asking us if  is a concept record. It’s not, but it represents New York and the style of DJing called “open format” — a DJ would play a Strokes song into a Kanye song into a demo, whatever, just flipping genres. New York started this whole party-rock DJing thing, and for us, [the album] represents that. That’s the world we come from — we started in New York with me DJing five nights a week at all these bottle-service clubs. I kind of hated it, but it was a way to make money. We look at [the album] as a night out in New York. It has rap songs; it has dance records. It’s kind of all over the place, which is New York.
What’s the collaborative process like? Do you have vocalists in mind for beats, or do artists come to you?
Patterson: It’s different every time. Sometimes we’ll have stuff made; sometimes we’ll be in a session with someone and they’ll have an idea we’ll work off; sometimes we’ll send tracks out; sometimes people come to us to write. … Before we started doing our own stuff, we were pop writers, so we had experience going in and working with people we didn’t know well. For this album we worked with people we did know, which made the process easier.
What was the most surprising collaboration?
Ruttner: The Cam’ron track was originally just going to be an instrumental intro with a sample of Don Henley’s “New York Minute” — but Henley wouldn’t go for it. So we made a million versions of a minute-long New York City-themed opener. And then we were like, “Oh, this would be so dope with Cam’ron,” almost as a joke. We’re huge Cam’ron fans, and he’s obviously a legend. We didn’t think it was going to happen, and we told our label. Next thing you know, they’re like, “Oh, he’s down! He’s going to do it.” We freaked out. We didn’t think that would happen.
Patterson: And Fetty Wap on “Classic.”
Ruttner: That was another one where we were joking with the label — “Oh, let’s get Fetty Wap on this!” Shout out to Atlantic for actually coming through. Our A&R Gina Tucci, is old school — she’s been around, she knows her shit. She’s like a real-deal A&R, which is nice, because she actually works with us. A lot of A&Rs these days don’t have that mentality anymore.
Do you write on the road at all?
Patterson: We… pretend to try. [Laughs.]
Ruttner: I bought a whole case of all this portable music gear—
Patterson: I bought a brand-new laptop.
Ruttner: But then you’re on the bus and you just end up sleeping all day, and eating.
Patterson: Shows take up so much energy; performing at a high level every night takes it out of you, and you just want to rest.
Ruttner: Being on the road is really inspiring in that when you get back, you have so many ideas and you’re thirsty to get into the studio. So it’s a nice break to be gone and not be in the studio, especially right after finishing an album that we busted our asses on.
Patterson: I kept a tour journal so I could remember inspiring moments.
What would you say was the biggest challenge you experienced while making the album?
Ruttner: We’d been through another label [now-defunct Interscope subsidiary A&M/Octone] before, and we kind of had a whole other album. We were in this weird place — “Do we put [the album] independently? What do we do?” — and then we made “Classic,” and that gave us a lightbulb moment where we figured out our sound. That was when we went back into the studio and made a bunch of new songs. The hardest part for me, at least, was deciding when it was done. You want to keep making stuff, and it’s like… the Carly Rae song [“Love Me Like That”] almost didn’t make it because we were down to the wire, and we, like, begged the label to let us squeeze it on. Which was a good choice.
What are you working on now?
Ruttner: We’re actually remixing some of the songs on our album that aren’t so dance-y and making dance versions of them. … When we DJ, we play a lot more house-y, deep-disco kind of stuff, and we always want to make versions of our songs that we can spin… [The process] is definitely a little more precious. Not that we don’t put a lot of other work into the other ones, but we’ll be a little more picky.
We definitely made a conscious decision to make this album less of a dance record and more of a pop record. The album I mentioned earlier was definitely way more dance-y and more of a DJ-leaning album; and then we were like, “Fuck it. There’s so much dance music out there in the world.” The dance-music bubble right now is so overwhelming. We just wanted to make stuff that felt like our older stuff, like “Dance With a DJ” — more poppy.
So, the “dance bubble” is a real thing?
Ruttner: One thing I’ve noticed about dance music lately is that there’s not much fun. I guess there’s trap—
Patterson: And tropical house.
Ruttner: But even tropical house stuff, the lyrics are always so serious, with ethereal things about “reaching this moment,” this very on-molly kind of thing.
Patterson: It’s serious but uplifting.
Ruttner: We come from listening to a lot of funk and disco. You listen to those disco songs, and they’re all about partying. The stuff that got me into dance music was like Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” — sample-based, hip-hop-leaning, fun. I feel like that’s missing right now in dance music — there’s a lot of house music and stuff that’s cool and sexy, which is great. But we’re trying to put the funk back into it.
Patterson: Also, the Internet. It’s so easy for people to access music, so there’s a genre that’s cool for, like, a month, and then people get over it and move on. And it becomes, like, “Remember when house was big last week?”
Nostalgia for 24 hours ago.
So what’s next for you?
Ruttner: We’re playing Governor’s Ball, Bonnaroo, a lot of college gigs. Then we’re doing the fall tour. Other than that, we’re producing the new Wyclef record, so we’re in the studio with him a lot. That’s almost done.
Patterson: We’ve got some side projects going.
Ruttner: Remixing our own shit. [Laughs.] It’s nice to be in New York for a bit. We’ve been working on this album for arguably a year, so it’s nice to not have that in the back of our head. It’s like giving birth or something. It’s weird. We were joking last night, [because] we’ve literally announced, like, five release dates for this album.
Patterson: Or more.
Ruttner: “Oh, I bet you the Atlantic building burns down tonight.” It’s surreal that it’s actually happening — it’s exciting, and it feels really good. And sooner or later, we’ll probably have to start thinking about the next one.