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theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Kode 9 | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Kode 9

theartsdesk Q&A: DJ Kode 9

The philosopher-king of UK bass muses on five years of Hyperdub

Glasgow-born, south London resident Steve Goodman – better known to discerning lovers of modern music as Kode 9 – has a unique and privileged position in relation to the ever-shifting UK dance music underground.  In the mid 90s he formed part of the slightly cultish Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) founded by Sadie Plant and Nick Land at the University of Warwick, where he gained a PhD in philosophy.

The CCRU cooked up a rich gumbo of postmodern theory, situationism, science fiction and HP Lovecraft, occultism, rave music (particularly jungle / drum & bass) and high-tech psychedelia, and also involved the writers Kodwo Eshun and Mark “K-Punk” Fisher.

As one of the first serious music bloggers, Goodman documented the millenial detours of the swinging, aspirational club sound of UK garage down darker alleyways and its eventual transformation into the spiky aggro of grime and the meditational sub-bass throb of dubstep.  His first release, and the first release of the Hyperdub label, was the extraordinary “Sine Of The Dub”: a radical reinterpretation of the apocalyptic visions of Prince's “Sign O The Times” reduced to little more than a gigantic pulsing bass tone and his now regular vocalist Spaceape (then known as Daddi G)'s slow and sinister patois ruminations.

Since then, Kode 9 has been held up as a figurehead for and populariser of dubstep and the more recent pirate radio sound of “UK funky”, but his work and that of the other artists that have gradually gravitated to Hyperdub has always remained outside of these genres.  In the sultry and spaced-out version of UK funky made by Cooly G and the mathematical intricacies of Ikonika, the funk-laden sleaze of young Bristolian Joker and the video game inspired “chip music” of Japanese producer Quarta 330 – and most famously in the melancholy, haunted dreamscapes of south London enigma Burial – Hyperdub artists take UK club music as a springboard to new and sometimes disquieting new territories.

Goodman has combined running the label with DJ gigs worldwide, live performance with Spaceape, his work as a lecturer in Music Culture at the University of East London, and academic writing: his first book, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, will be published by MIT Press in December.  We met earlier this month to discuss 5, the Hyperdub fifth anniversary compilation due for release next week, which features the label's best-known past releases plus new tracks by all the label's artists.

JOE MUGGS: You've spoken extensively in the past about Hyperdub as an autonomous entity that controls your actions rather than vice-versa.  How is that manifesting itself with the current flurry of releases?

STEVE GOODMAN: Well, the most extreme example thus far of it running me is the challenge that it's set in creating this compilation. The last compilation album I did was easy as it was just a matter of deciding what my favourite tracks I'd released was and putting them together – but the new one was difficult, because half of it is brand-new tracks, and of course everyone's busy, everyone's got their own shit going on.  Hopefully you're going to get everyone's best tracks but people are releasing other stuff elsewhere, it's not their sole focus.

Certain people take longer than others, obviously – I mastered it a couple of weeks ago but I only got the Burial track this Monday, and I wasn't even sure until then that I was going to have a new Burial track. I tried to keep the door open for him as long as possible, but he's not really been finishing much stuff for quite a while now. So it's been seriously challenging putting all this together.

Well, these are all very individualist artists, it must be like the proverbial herding cats.

That's a very good way of putting it. Cats are not herding creatures, and neither are Hyperdub artists – but that's the challenge that it sets for me, and obviously I rose to that masochistic challenge, and it's almost there. The artwork is done, the 12s [12” singles] are about ready to start coming out – there were going to be five of them but there are seven now, as the Ikonika and Darkstar ones have grown into releases in their own right and previews for their albums which are coming next year.

And yet, despite the individualism of these artists, the album sounds remarkably coherent.  Do you know what the connecting thread between these artists is?

I've been trying to work this out... It's only now, listening back, that I can start to think about how it is that these artists have all come to end up on the same discs. And listening back now, I've been quite struck by how not-random the array of artists are. I think maybe with a lot of the synthy stuff, the music is much more colourful than when we began, and it really is diverse, but put them all together as a compilation and turn it up loud... when you turn the volume up on something, things change.

You hear a whole other part of the music, you hear the bass – and when you hear this huge iceberg of sound that is underwater so to speak, it balances out everything.  I've always said – and some people go with this and some people don't, and in a way it's a bit of a nothing to say this – but there is a sub-bass foundation that holds all of this together.  It's not that I like all music with sub-bass, but if you're forcing me to try and pin down what connects everything then objectively that's what it's all got.

But it's not just the sonics – there are musical similarities too...

Yes, there are certain tonal things in common. Listening back, I realised I certainly have an affinity for a sad song and a sad melody. There really aren't any happy tracks. The track by Joker is maybe a bit more chirpy or perky, but really when you play it loud it loses some of that because it's quite full on, the tone colour of it is quite intensely luminous...

There's a fine line between perky and demented...

Exactly. It's chirpily demented.

It seems to me there's also an influence of soul music running through a lot of the tracks too.

That's the melancholy. That aspect would be Hyperdub's hyper-soul.  The kind of “jilted robot” thing.  It's not soul in the organic sense, in the rootsy way – I mean maybe King Midas Sound has a bit of that rootsiness, but at the same time there's something quite disturbing about it. It's very sad music, there's something just a bit wrong with it, an alien element. So yeah, there's some kind of hyper-soul in the sound.  But the label started very minimal, and it's kind of fleshed itself out, built itself a body; it started as the core of a skeleton and it's got fleshed out, it's starting to take on more colourful clothing, more colourful appearance.

Well, your own earliest tracks couldn't have been more skeletal – they're just a bass pulse and a voice – but now the tracks are beginning to feel like songs.

Yep, that's what Ikonika and Darkstar and King Midas Sound are all about, and obviously those are the artists who we're doing albums with. Even Zomby: there are songs in Zomby's stuff, and the LV stuff is song-based too.  Joker's going that way too – he just needs to meet the right lyricist and he'll be the full thing.  But that's the way it's going, the sound grows, it fleshes out into more conventional musical forms.  It didn't start out so melodic, but it's found its own way of relating to melody, whether it be the melancholy side of things, or the more kind of smeared melodies like [Kode 9's own] “Black Sun”, or Samiyam, whose sound is really melodic but smudged or smeared and just slightly off-tune.

And do you feel your own music as Kode 9 and the wider sound of Hyperdub as part of one and the same enterprise?

Well, I don't control what the others make, and I wouldn't try to second-guess what they're going to make.  And I'm inspired by all the music I hear, not just the artists I release, so I just do my own thing – and no, they're not the same thing, what I do and what the label is: I do try and detach myself from the label a bit, or not detach myself but acknowledge that it thinks in a different way to how I think. There's some overlap, sure – it makes me make decisions for it – but I make different decisions for the label than I do for myself musically. But that's because when you're a collective, a collective is more than the superimposition of someone's world view on top of a load of other people's.

The label is influenced by the artists it ends up signing, and that is greater than what I want to do musically myself, whether that's in the realm of making tunes, DJing or whatever. I don't always play that much Hyperdub stuff in my DJ sets – I'm doing so more now, partly because there's more of it, but mainly because there's more stuff that's more upbeat now, which really wasn't always the case.  It's really been a bit of a diversion getting into DJing while I was running the label – some DJs do run labels and release the music they want to play, and their DJ sets become predominantly to promote the label, but my DJ sets have never really been there to promote the label, they're there to promote the kind of music I would like to hear a DJ play, which is not necessarily the same as what I release.

As a DJ, you have played dubstep, you've increasingly played funky, I've heard you play older synth-funk and even jazz fusion stuff, but you seem to almost try to deconstruct these sounds – would it be fair to say you have an ambivalent relationship to genre?

I've become more and more intolerant of the submission that comes with playing a genre – you have to submit some of your taste to that genre when you play it.  But some of my favourite music is in dubstep, some is in funky, some in wonky hip-hop, some in synth-led music... I'm not anti-genre, obviously the label has started to be a hub between genres – although I don't really want it to be that, I'd like it to just do its own thing... but that's an ongoing question of whether something that takes all these ingredients from everywhere is creating something new and not just “a bit of this and a bit of that”, whether that can happen: open question really, and I guess that's the big question of how successful the label is.

But yes, I've become more and more intolerant of, say, dubstep as a self-enclosed genre.  I felt a bit of music from here is closer in spirit to a bit of music from here and to another piece from here – and in a way, that's my genre.  I don't really have a word for it, but that's the terrain I'm happy occupying as a DJ and which maybe the label is increasingly happy to occupy.  I know “wonky” is an attempt to do that, to triangulate between these diverse areas of shifting terrain – the reason I don't really use it [the term] is that it starts to over-determine the music, to pre-determine what the music has to sound like, whereas all the producers I know who are involved with that, it doesn't capture what they're doing, it just tries to put a ring-fence around it.

The currency those words have, their shelf-life really depends on whether they resonate with the producers they refer to.  But everything is shifting so much right now, that “wonky”, “future garage”, all these terms don't quite fit – the music is changing so the labels just aren't quite sticking: they become transitory attempts to get your hands around what's moving, and moving quite fast, actually, in quite an exciting way.

And what do you think is the driving force behind this current pace of change?

You can fiddle around on top of musical structures as much as you want – and I'm referring here to what people are calling “wonky” and “future garage” – but where real collective rhythmic innovation in the last 15, 20 years, whatever, comes from for me is from the pirate radio of London.  So you can smudge synths on top, you can fuck up the beat a little bit, you can IDM the beat a little bit [this refers to “intelligent dance music” - a branch of 90s electronica that lost touch with the dancefloor in its pursuit of ever-more intricate structures], you can fuck things up, but where the real grassroots collective movement comes from – that's collective innovation, and not just people fucking things about – seems to be through pirate radio culture in London, and right now that's coming through funky.

I mean rhythmically: not so much tonally, there's not so much that's interesting going on in the actual sounds you get in funky, nothing interesting at all.  Garage, two-step had far more that was interesting when it came to sound design than funky has yet got, but percussively it's where it's happening.  Much more exciting than someone splattering hip-hop up or glitching dubstep up, know what I mean?  So for me that's where the collective innovation is coming from rather than the specifically formal innovation, which is what people do more parasitically off of a musical movement once it's established.

So what's next for you, and for Hyperdub?

I've just taken six months off from my job teaching.  Partly to promote my book which is coming out, and because I deserve six months off after dealing with that fucker.  Partly to stop DJing for a while, because I've been doing a lot 'til now – and mainly to make music.  To work with someone to help run the label, the key thing for me is to back out of the day-to-day running of the label and concentrate on the aesthetics of it, because it's not good enough, it needs a lot of work.  It's important for me to keep feeling that.

This is all immediate future stuff: we've got albums coming out and I want them presented as well as possible.  More long term, I want to declare independence from reality.  I've been reading all this stuff about micro-nations and it fascinates me.  Before the label, we did a little Hyperdub night back in 2001 in Brixton and we printed money as the flyers – and these things fascinate me, the creation of a fictional autonomous reality.  It's the reason people take drugs, not just for the narcotic effect, but for the transformation, the alternate reality that comes through material objects, through clothes and artifacts, that begins to change your way of life.

That would be an interesting way for the label to develop, and the label is pushing me to research all this stuff at the moment. There's a lot on the internet about things like that, spiritual nations that are really just an area of the internet, Seeland, where they've declared an island nation, people who've named a star and declared it sovereign territory... And a lot of this started back at the CCRU, we were building a mythology from the bottom up, starting with numerology and building a mythology around that.  We went so far, then it lay dormant, but it's had a resurgence recently with certain books that have come out, so you never know where these things are going.  Long-term, I think this is an interesting way of taking a label, though, more than just “ooh, let's do some T-shirts, let's do some club nights”.  That's not really what I'm about – sure, we might do it, but I'm interested in more.

Get uniforms! Start an army!

Yeah, well, with my book being called Sonic Warfare, I do have a concern about how people will interpret that – taking it too literally, or not literally enough... the wrong people taking it too literally, and so on.  You can't tell how when you put these things into the world, how people will take it.  It's all accidental – sometimes you don't like the way that someone's run off with your context, or the way someone plays your track in their own DJ set – it's the reason we say no to putting tracks on certain compilations, because we don't like the context.  Fuck knows...

 

Comments

nice read...thanx

big up! nice read.

Always a nice reading when Kode 9 gives an interview, but this one is very good indeed! Let's wait patiently for the hyperdub albums early in 2010, shall we?

Happy Brithday Hyperdub,..All the best. Hope there's many more to come!!,

Always interesting Cheers

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