Interview: Kode9

Kode9, it’s fair to say, is one of British dance music’s renaissance men. Few producers of Steve Goodman’s stature can also be credited with running a label as influential and consistently challenging as Hyperdub – which in the past year has been responsible for excellent releases from the likes of Laurel Halo, DJ Rashad and, of course, Burial. Fewer still can also lay claim to a successful academic career – Goodman’s book Sonic Warfare was published by MIT Press in 2009.

Lately, however, Goodman seems to be bringing the focus back to his own music-making. In recent weeks he has released a pair of stunning singles – Xingfu Lu on Hyperdub, and Uh on Rinse – which draw on his recent interest in Southern rap and footwork, pairing their distinctive rhythmic properties with the sickly synths and suffocating sub bass of his past work. These mean, spartan tracks are, Goodman says, designed to function as “connector DJ tools” in his increasingly wide-ranging sets. Fittingly, then, several of them appear in Goodman’s latest mix, Rinse:22: a quickfire barrage of cutting edge dance music from both sides of the pond, running the gamut of tempos from Theo Parrish up to DJ Rashad. In the wake of the mix, RBMA caught up with Goodman to discuss balancing academia and the music industry, taking an “Alex Ferguson” approach to DJing and the inexorable rise of the twerkatron.

I wondered about your, and the label’s, commitment to the concept of dread these days. Is it a sensation that you detect in, for example, footwork, or in other new music that is exciting you? Or is the concept not as relevant now as it was when you launched the label nine years ago?

If I took seriously what I read on forums and comments boxes on the internet, I would have committed suicide years ago, know what I mean?

It describes an aspect of what we do, but can’t account for everything, and I don't think it ever did. For example, there is an ominous undertow to Laurel Halo’s last album and the first Hype Williams single we did a while back, and in the next single we're doing with DJ Rashad called “I Don’t Give a Fuck.” Most, but not all of what we release, still has that bulldozing sub bass which was core to how we started. The concept of dread was one point of intersection between the label, my own productions and my writing, but not the only one. I’m not dogmatic about sonic concepts – if the actual sonics are going elsewhere, there is no point trying to shoehorn them into an ill-fitting idea.

Much is made in the press of your academic career. Do you think you’re treated differently as a musical figure because of your academic background?

Yeah, I've been caught in the middle of these two worlds – academia and the music industry. Some foolishly think there is some grand unifying master plan behind everything I do. And others think I'm some kind of mad scientist who can make your heart stop from 50 yards using a magic frequency whistle. So I stopped doing any interviews for a couple of years because I got bored of having to deal with these misconceptions.

How about specifically, with your book Sonic Warfare. I saw some pretty critical reviews on Amazon which seemed to come with a lot of baggage relating to you being a successful dance music figure. Did people, in general, approach the book on the terms that you had hoped?

I was always going to irritate some people with that book. Many who bought it, perhaps knowing me for my music, were probably disappointed that there were lots of words they didn't understand, or that they couldn't even find on google. Similarly from the academic world, I reckon some people can't tolerate the fact that it’s written in fragments, has too many fictional flashbacks, doesn't unfold with a linear argument, or just deal with one thing at a time, or all the things good rational academics are supposed to do. It is what it is. For me to write an easily accessible book with watered down concepts or a straight academic text with watered down style had no interest. I'm probably incapable of either anyway. For what it is, the book sold really well, and there has been some decent engagement with the ideas within academia, the art world and beyond. As with most musicians or writers, if I took seriously what I read on forums and comments boxes on the internet, I would have committed suicide years ago, know what I mean?

Your recent single Xingfu Lu draws extensively on footwork for inspiration. What’s your view on the responses to that scene by outsiders - i.e. predominantly white, non-Chicago-based Americans or Europeans. To what extent should producers be wary of issues around appropriation? Is that something you consider yourself?

Yeah, I've been DJing a bit of juke and footwork at the end of my sets for the last few years, or doing sets that mix my favourite old jungle tracks with more recent Chicago stuff. I don't really consider “Xingfu Lu” a footwork track, although the influence is clear. I made it to bridge the grime, dubstep and hip hop I’ve been playing around 140 BPM with the 160 stuff. I've been making a pile of stuff at 150 actually. “OK” off my Rinse 12-inch is 150 BPM as well – just connector DJ tools for myself really. “Kan” is at 80/160 BPM and ended up part footwork, part dancehall rhythm. I didn’t plan to do a footwork/dancehall fusion. It just started as a vibe and ended up how it ended up.

Regarding other non-Chicago producers: I’ve liked the way Addison Groove has incorporated it into his own sound and I was a big fan of the Philip D Kick jungle footwork stuff. I’ve heard some of the footwork compilations people have pulled together over the last couple of years and yeah, there is some cool stuff on some of them. Thinking back to how dubstep originated and spread and mutated around the planet, it was interesting to see how in some spots people would be attempting to re-create what was going on in London, and in others, where they had their own local sound, what was going on in London would percolate into their own scene differently.

Appropriation isn't just about robbery and victimhood, but it’s also about seduction, symbiosis and possession.

As a DJ you can obviously remain a genre purist and find a tunnel and continue to travel down it, representing your scene (in both its local and global dimensions) or, in the digital age, I see an increase of a kind of google-powered “ghetto chic” DJ style that just flits between one local scene to another, and the end result is an amorphous inconsistent blob where all the individuality of each of the local sounds is lost. So these are the two poles that I think most DJs are trying to navigate between these days, and it’s important to remember that both are simultaneously local and global. I think an Alex Ferguson approach is also possible, where if you carefully connect together the cutting edges of different sounds, it is possible to produce something which is unfeasibly sharp and lethal, that totally transcends mere eclecticism, and takes on a consistency of its own. Maybe I’m wrong and I should just retire gracefully, like Alex.

Going back to this issue of appropriation, as a label, we’re just fans trying to help artists spread their music, get the respect they deserve, and get paid in the process. Meeting guys like Rashad, Spinn and Traxman, or looking at the work Planet Mu have done over the last few years helping expose that sound in the UK, that seems like a shared concern.

It is important to remember, that no matter how local the origin of certain scenes like early hip hop, jungle or footwork, these are all synthetic (and therefore all latently global) musics based on looting and pillaging of any music from anywhere at any time in any way. Whitey has been looting black music for a long time, but it’s misleading to always reduce black music to the role of the victim, especially in the era of African American musical mega-capitalism. Processes of appropriation have continued to happen since the blues, but it’s now more complicated, more viral, more symbiotic so that just painting a local scene as a victim no longer tells the whole story. Remember, we live in an age in which, paralleling Detroit techno’s bastardisation of European synth pop in the ’80s, more recent hip hop and R&B have been radically infected by trance and euro-dance while at the same time skinny white guys in over sized vests and snapbacks behave like drones remotely piloted by some kind of hidden trap artificial intelligence – let’s call it the twerkatron.

The burden of political correctness can also be the ultimate vibe killer.

Appropriation isn't just about robbery and victimhood, but it’s also about seduction, symbiosis and possession. Underneath issues to do with ownership, cultural capital, recognition, remuneration, respect and theft, there are more viral affective processes to do with musical trance and possession (being taken over by an alien music which uses your body as a host to spread itself) and impersonal processes like the transcontinental digital trading in rhythmic codes. Appropriation is what it used to be, but the world is much more complicated now.

Yes, I definitely think producers should be aware of issues around appropriation, and how, for better or worse, processes of gentrification operate in music, not just in cities. That’s the value of education. In the same way that artists can be the foot soldiers of gentrification in cities (i.e. practically all the hipster hotspots such as Kreuzberg, Dalston, Shoreditch, Williamsburg, etc.), club music trendspotting DJs can end up doing the same in music. That's just the way it is. Just because you are aware of the dangers of gentrification, it doesn’t mean you want your local area to remain an impoverished, undeveloped hell hole. But ultimately, if you can do something fresh or original with the music, producing a true mutation, then I don’t think producers need concern themselves too much with guilt-mongering critical discourse, because for me, if the sound is right, then the politics are secondary. That is one of the key powers of music, to overload and short circuit people’s value systems and produce an intense encounter in which all other issues temporarily subside. It's great where the music resonates with what you might think politically, but it’s not necessary, because the burden of political correctness can also be the ultimate vibe killer.

There is arguably a wider trend in UK producers looking to the US for cues right now: for example, the Faze Miyake track in the Rinse mix could feasibly be by a US producer. Is there a danger that UK music’s identity could be subsumed into that of the US?

I really enjoy Faze Miyake’s music and couldn’t care less if he is from the UK or the US. I think there is a danger of forgetting how intrinsically intertwined UK and US electronic music culture has been over the last 20 or 30 years. When you remember this constant trade in musical ideas, then trying to over-inflate issues to do with national cultural identity or musical patriotism seems a bit clumsy. Anyway, the real issue of musical identities is much more on the local rather than national level. It is to do with streets, neighbourhoods, cities, regions and imaginary territories (a nation is just one type of imaginary territory – they have real effects, but are essentially just mass hallucinations) maybe, but surely no one wants cultural protectionism at the national level – except maybe France.

A few years ago, in the wake of dubstep, you described British dance music as being in a “holding pattern,” in preparation for the emergence of some new, more unified style. How would you diagnose the condition of things now? Do you think that state has lifted?

I don’t even mean this as a criticism, but I think the current dominance of house, in all its varieties, is exactly the sound of that “holding pattern” (like all the aircraft stacked up just circling around the city waiting to land – you get some great views of the city, but most of the time your head is in the clouds) and simultaneously it has provided a stronger direction and sense of unification because it is a kind of a “back to basics” thing, house being the basis for most club and dance music.

Kode9 — Ok

I seem to remember you saying that, as dubstep grew in popularity, it had the positive effect of forcing clubs in the UK and elsewhere to invest in decent soundsystems. To my mind, following on from dubstep, we’ve had the reverse – a general decline in the quality of sound. Would you agree? If so, what effect do you think this has on how a scene might function?

Compared with what it was like playing out around 2005 (with the exception of the old Plastic People system or DMZ at Mass, neither of which exists in that form anymore), the systems I've played on since early dubstep have improved massively. This might just be because I'm playing in better venues etc. but I honestly feel the early growth of dubstep helped improve a lot of club systems in the bottom end.

For me, the decline of quality of sound is a different issue. The recent growth of warehouse parties has had a questionable effect on raving with good sound, because, while I'm sure people can come up with exceptions, warehouse parties generally have terrible sound because these are reverby spaces not designed for sound. Usually, warehouse parties and outdoor festivals definitely weigh heavily against sonic subtlety. That’s not new though. Maybe brostep with its midrange overload has encouraged over compression and is part of the general loudness war – but at the same time it’s these very reasons that made it successful in large contexts, and why house and techno (the centrality of the 4/4 kick drum) also translate well in less than ideal listening/dancing conditions. Low resolution mp3s aren't helping either, but you can't blame dubstep for that.

In my experience, in a rave context, I think something like footwork, which is often more rhythmically dislocated, and often quite empty in the mid-range can be more vulnerable to really bad sound systems. Just like early dubstep was, and all sub bass driven styles. All these issues pre-dispose DJs towards certain sounds in certain contexts, so sound systems can have a kind of normalising (not in a technical sense) effect whereby DJs, like migrating birds, flock towards the lowest common denominator of what they know will translate through the system.

Early on you seemed interested in tempo as the binding agent of dance music – with your Hyperdub 130 events for example. But in recent years you’ve often talked about drawing connections between types of music beyond tempo, as with the “funky worm” synth sound. Do you think tempo is no longer a useful way to group dance music? Are things too dispersed now? And if so, what does that mean for the experience of the music in a club?

Tempo is still pretty central to dance music, although digital technology has made tempo manipulation much easier, opening the door to much wider shifts within one set. Obviously we are not just talking about sets that aren't beat mixed which have always had a greater degree of freedom tempo wise, but in their disjointedness, can't ever produce the same kind of plateau of intensity that a beat matched set produces. They are different beasts really. Anyway, the challenge of my current DJ sets is to try to maintain that plateau while stretching it across a wide range of tempos.

Tempo in dance music is quite a misleading concept.

I’ve always been fascinated by how fixated DJs and dance music genres get over specific tempos, some more religiously than others. And how, sometimes this fixation, or tunnel vision, or tempo worship is often a source of their strength and identity. Hip hop for example has a pretty broad remit tempo wise, whereas house and techno have narrower ranges and sounds like dubstep (140 BPM) or footwork (160) are very, very, very specific. So when I started Hyperdub in 2000 as a web magazine, I was thinking in terms of the way dance music is organised by tempo, the way that there is often a key tempo, a centre of gravity at the heart of many scenes. Tempo in dance music is quite a misleading concept because really it just measures metre and doesn’t tell you anything about speed or rhythm. In a sense, I consider speed to mean something different from tempo. Speed is to do with the rhythmic density of the music, in all its polyrhythmic complexity. So to think about the speed of a track forces you to set the metre in relation to its half and double time rhythms. A track at 130 BPM can feel faster than a track at 140 BPM if the space between the dominant beats is more densely populated by rhythmic detail.

Anyway, I called these scenes “speed tribes” (named after amphetamine-fuelled Japanese motorbike gangs) that worship speed gods, where the god was a speed, a number, or more accurately an algorithm which carries a mathematical set of instructions of how rhythms and frequencies, its vibe should be organised. And it is these abstract, numerical gods (or demons) and the way they activate within a specific concrete geographical, physical context, dictating the ways people worship them (repetitive bodily movement in dance) which are what carry the essential differences between different styles.

It’s not a new idea, but in this model the DJ has this kind of shamanistic role, a circuit bender, mediating between an abstract and a physical realm. But at the same time I’ve been interested in the evolutionary life cycle of genres, and how at various stages in these cycles, in terms of vibe, there can be much more in common between different tribes, than within the one you thought you belonged to. The funky worm is one of those audio viruses that just wriggles its way across genres and styles, making its home in your tribe, laying its eggs, trading code with your tribe’s core algorithm and then just moving on. One minute you’re dancing happily, next minute you’re a swarming mess.  

By Angus Finlayson on June 13, 2013

On a different note