Operational Bass

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

There’s an uneasy moment following my interview with Kode9 and the Spaceape when I realise I’ve left my dictaphone running on the mixing desk of the former’s south London studio. I return to his front door to find him standing there grinning, said apparatus in hand. “I think you might have a minute or so of us talking about what a twat you are,” he says as he passes it to me. We both laugh.

Yet as I find myself transcribing the end of the recording the following afternoon – as the last couple of questions turn into a conversation about who embarrassed themselves at the Brits the previous evening, and I hear the three of us rise from our seats and wander downstairs, leaving behind an eerily empty room – a tightness clutches at my chest. What if I am forced to listen to a distant kitchen conversation about what a twat I am?

Mercifully, it was indeed a joke (Spaceape: What are you up to this afternoon? Kode9: I need to get something to eat, I’m starving. Oh look, he’s left his CLICK). But my fears weren’t exactly unfounded. Kode9, real name Steve Goodman, isn’t known for his tolerance of lazy journalists. The track Black Sun was reputedly inspired by a moment of rage in which he set fire to a copy of white van Britain’s favourite tabloid during the height of their 2008 Burial witch hunt; more recently, a subeditor friend at the Sunday Times received an angry email from the producer after suggesting he invented dubstep in a standfirst.

All of which is understandable given Goodman’s own close relationship with the written word. A lecturer in music theory at the University of East London, he recently completed a book on aggressive applications of audio (Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect And The Ecology Of Fear); more pertinently, Hyperdub was itself once a blog documenting the scattered seeds of UK bass culture – from garage and the tail end of DnB to the first black flowerings of dubstep.

“Hyperdub was initially focused on the reggae and dancehall side of garage: artists like El-B, Zed Bias, Horsepower Productions, Pay As U Go. Later we began featuring grime artists like Dizzee and Wiley, and people involved with proto-dubstep. We were posting unedited transcripts of long interviews, offering readers more detail than they’d ever find in magazines. I think that had a big impact in spreading stuff overseas as well as across the country.”

Around the same time, Goodman began sharing a Kennington flat with Steven Gordon, then a video artist making abstract, afrofuturist shorts that would later influence the visual and non-linear nature of his lyrics as the Spaceape. Gordon would often tune into his flatmate’s shows on Rinse FM, or catch him DJ at venues across the capital, but their musical collaborations were limited to lengthy conversations about classic albums in Steve’s bedroom studio. Until one lazy Sunday in 2004, when the pair decided to record something for fun.

Hyperdub honcho Kode9 is known for seeing red

“There was no plan behind it,” says Goodman. “I told him to grab one of his favourite records and just read the lyrics off the sleeve, and he came back with Prince’s Sign O’ The Times. I manipulated his voice a bit, threw down a bassline with enough space to layer a few effects on top. It was one of the quickest and easiest tracks we ever made, but it was an experiment, and there was no intention to release it. Not long after, I went to interview the Bug for XLR8R, and I gave him a CD with some bits and pieces I’d been working on. He really liked Sine Of The Dub, and suggested we start our own label and put it out ourselves. So all of this started with him, really.”

The sound the pair had hit upon was undeniably unique: a brutal futurism bolted together with minimal beats and sewn up with the sinister drawl of the Spaceape, a sort of patois-spitting Charon leading deceased souls across molten rivers of bass. Not that it was easy for Gordon to invoke this new persona in public during those early months, and never less so than at their first live pairing – a launch at the End for the second Rephlex Grime compilation in 2004.

“I was still very self-conscious at that point,” says Gordon, whose real voice is soft and affable, a million miles from the murmurings of the Spaceape. “There was already a scene happening, and there were MCs there that I knew of, and I felt uneasy stepping into that arena with my own thing, which was still only half-formed at that point. In the end, I did the show sitting under the decks where nobody could see me, with my voice coming out through the system. It’s funny to look back on, but now I understand the route I was taking.”

Not that it took long for the Spaceape to find his feet; soon not even the DJ booth could contain him, and he was demanding a wireless mic so that he could wander into the crowd and unspool ever more twisted reels of imagery amid circles of fascinated ravers. As the pair’s live shows gathered momentum, so their Kennington studio experiments developed a narrative thread, and by the time their debut LP Memories Of The Future dropped in 2006 on the still embryonic Hyperdub, Kode9 and the Spaceape had cemented their status as one the UK’s most interesting acts.

Part of their allure lay in a refusal to fit into any one musical pigeonhole: even in the steadily fragmenting world of UK bass culture, Kode9 and the Spaceape were sonic wanderers making music without genre. On one level this was a result of their drawing on so many musical influences: Goodman was himself influenced by everything from the psychedelic rock he listened to growing up in Glasgow (and to which he dropped his first pill in Edinburgh), to the Madchester movement, the late-90s Metalheadz nights and the grime and dubstep he was DJing on Rinse. Gordon, for his part, was channelling everything from the soundsystem reggae he’d been exposed to by his older brother, to Parliament, Prince and the rare groove he and his friends would queue to hear Giles Peterson drop at Dingwalls on Sundays (while Goodman, a short cab ride across town, was getting ready to brock out to Goldie and friends at the Hoxton Blue Note).

On another level, the pair’s statelessness seems a direct result of Goodman’s cynicism for the cyclical nature of specific dance music movements, and a desire to create something self-defining and unfettered by fashion.

“We’re old enough to have seen several of these scenes go through their hype cycles and get to the point where they’re just not making new sounds anymore. And you only have to go round that cycle a couple of times to realise that your infatuation with a certain sound drifts at a certain point. As much as new scenes appear to come through with original sounds, they tend to evolve in much the same way: part of the scene will get harder and darker; part will access the mainstream through appealing to a more indie audience. So I think we’ve become less invested in the idea of specific scenes as time has gone on.”

The Spaceape: "a sort of patois-spitting Charon leading deceased souls across molten rivers of bass"

We’re speaking in Goodman’s second-floor studio amid banks of analogue synths, shelves stacked with vinyl and teetering piles of Hyperdub test presses. In one corner a mic stand looms over a small chair clearly beloved of Kode9’s impossibly furry cat; through the window a group of Camberwell arts students stand smoking and drinking away the bright February afternoon, their increasingly high pitched babble leading Goodman to half-jokingly suggest assembling an arsenal of water balloons. Reverentially tacked to the wall above the monitor is a poster for Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a sample from which opens the pair’s second LP, Black Sun, a more uptempo affair than Memories Of The Future, although one still shot through with despair.

“One of the things we wanted to do from the beginning was make it less bleak than the first album; make it more upbeat, more rhythmic, both in the vocal delivery and the tunes themselves. But I don’t think we can make music that your average person would find upbeat. Whatever we do has always got a ‘weight of the world’ feel to it.”

And while as stubbornly difficult to pigeonhole as its predecessor – from ethereal dub soliloquy Promises to the sonic brutality of Bullet Against Bone and the swimming head house of Love Is The Drug – it is, at least, a record that sits perfectly on Hyperdub. In the five years since its foundation the label has brought credibility and cohesion to the fringes of UK bass music, and currently stands as a bastion of hope for those disillusioned by dubstep’s decline into lobotomised jump-up and discredited chart fodder – a subject Goodman refuses to be drawn on, though he does note that one good thing dubstep has done for the world is “make people realise how shit their sound systems are”.

Instead, he chooses to focus on the positive things happening in UK electronic music, of which he says there are many. The sight of so many former grime artists tarted up and paraded like peacocks across the stage of the previous evening’s Brit Awards may not have been to everyone’s tastes, but Goodman recognises grime and dubstep breaking into the mainstream as a largely positive force, and one that could lead to a musical future that is anything but bleak.

“They’ve ram-raided the music industry and now they’re changing it from the inside, and that’s got to be a good thing. I try not to pay too much attention to the negative stuff, as there’s a lot of interesting music out there. In a world where an artist as unusual as James Blake can become a major seller, anything is possible.”