Revolution9: An interview with Kode9 – Telekom Electronic Beats

Revolution9: An interview with Kode9

Words by Lisa Blanning

We untangle the history and many activities of the leading British DJ and producer and get his reflections on his label Hyperdub, one of the most consistently rewarding imprints in underground music. 

Photo by Georg Gatsas.

Kode9, aka Steve Goodman, is well-known as a producer, DJ, and the founder of leading electronic music label Hyperdub Records, but his talents and interests have seen his operations expand far beyond. Tracing his history from his youth outside of Glasgow to key rave introductions in Edinburgh and PhD studies with illustrious British philosopher Nick Land at Warwick University—where both were part of the now recognizably-seminal thoery/cyberpunk/pop culture cooperative Cybernetic Culture Research Unit—Goodman’s subsequent move to London only stoked his already deep engagement with British dance music.

In 2006, the year dubstep broke, Kode9 was at its forefront while Goodman also held down a full-time job as a lecturer in sonic culture at University of East London. In 2009 the “sonic research collective” of which he is a member, later to name themselves AUDiNT, had their first installation in Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, and the following year he published his first book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear—a theoretical text based on the politics of frequency. In 2011, a commission from Poland’s Unsound Festival resulted in Her Ghost, an ongoing collaborative reinterpretation—with video artists MFO and theorist/performer Ms. Haptic (Jessica Edwards)—of Chris Marker’s groundbreaking 1962 science fiction film La Jetée.

 

Tell me about the first proper party you went to.

I think the first proper thing would have been the first time i took ecstasy, 1992 I think, club called Chocolate City in Edinburgh. They were playing Herbie Hancock, Jbs, etc. I particularly remember the synth on Fred Wesley’s “Blow You Head”. Anyway, the next day I bought turntables. I had some vinyl, but properly started collecting after that night: funk, jazz, hip hop, house, and early hardcore like SL2 “On a Ragga Tip”. I also used to go a club called Pure in Edinburgh occasionally, which was my first exposure to extreme glow stick, hardcore nosebleed techno, and a big rave near Edinburgh called Rezerection.

What’s the significance of the “k”? Because Mark Fisher/K-Punk uses it as well and didn’t you guys choose these monikers at around the same time of the CCRU?

K—it was a melting pot of Ks. Josef K from Kafka, K from the german spelling of cybernetics, K from K-waves in Kondratieff theory in economics, Ko from the I Ching, etc etc. K was in the air.

What was the impact of the CCRU in your life?

Well, my early experience was seeing [noted writer, theorist, artist, and lecturer] Kodwo [Eshun] and Mark talk about dance music culture using the kind of theory I was into, but hadn’t yet bridged into using it in relation to music. so CCRU fused my interests in philosophy and jungle into one. That must have been around 1995.

What do you think it is about British dance music that lends itself to theory?

Intensity. Where the words you have available are unable to capture the intensity of experience you are undergoing, so you have to fabricate a new language, a new conceptual schema to catch up with the sonics. Of course most philosophy is not engaged in anything so interesting.

Intensity could be a word used to describe rave culture in general. Is this specific to British dance music, or a general rave thing?

There have been various moments of psychedelic theorizing in conjunction with music. i think mid-’90s UK was one of these theory/music singularities, just like the late ’60s was for the acid explosion.

Both of these seem to be tied to drugs?

Yeah, the conjunction of drugs, sonics, electronics, and concepts against the backdrop of socio-economic upheaval.

Is this something you feel you can tap into now or any time after experiencing it, or do you wait for it to come along?

Well, right now I’m trying not to theorize very much around music. I’m trying to empty out and focus on simply making tracks, because when the conjunction doesn’t work its quite destructive of music making. Zen and the art of making beats.

Before you were an artist, there was Hyperdub. Hyperdub was a party and a webzine before it was a label. Can you talk a little bit about those early days?

Hyperdub started as a web mag in 2001 in Brixton. I wanted to collect together my favorite writers such as Simon Reynolds, Kodwo, and Mark alongside coverage of late UK garage as grime and dubstep were starting to wriggle out of the carcass. We also did some nights at the Bug Bar in Brixton with Darren [Cunningham aka Actress] and Gavin [Weale, co-founder of Werk], and had Benny Ill from Horsepower play at one of them. This was in 2001, before [seminal UK dubstep/grime club night] FWD>> started. We called the night Hyperdub 130 because I was playing garage, broken beat, and early dubstep, Darren was playing techno and house, and Gavin was playing electro, breaks—so really the only thing that held it together was a rough tempo. We also did a night at the ICA called “Speed Tribes” where Darren performed live, and Mark, Kodwo, etc, gave talks, and we showed [Black Audio Film Collective’s essay-film on Afro-futurism] The Last Angel of History.

Weren’t you a resident at FWD>> in the early days?

Yeah, I played some of the early ones. There was around 12 of us on rotation.

You also used to have a regular slot on [former pirate, now licensed London-based radio station] Rinse, which is now operated by the same posse as FWD>>. You’ve DJ’d and had artists like Wiley on the mic.

I was on Rinse from 2003-2008 hosting the FWD>> show. At that early point FWD>>/Ammunition were separate entities—they only became the one entity later on, I think.

I guess your earliest known tracks were on the Rephlex Grime 2 compilation?

Well, I had a release on Tempa with Benny Ill and the Culprit around 2002/3, and then the first Hyperdub release in 2004. the Rephlex Grime compilation came after that. Before all that, CCRU had a label called Katasonix that did one release in 1999—I had a track on that, so did Mark.

Who still has that??

Don’t know—I still have a copy of the record somewhere. It think 90% of them are under someone’s bed somewhere.

Collector’s item.

That’s one way of putting it.

Kevin Martin [The Bug/King Midas Sound] once told me that he had urged you to start Hyperdub to put your own tracks.

It’s Kevin’s fault I started the label. I went to interview him for XLR8R in 2002, I think, and gave him a CD with “Sine of the Dub” on it. He linked me with a distributor and suggested I start a label to put it out.

At what point did DJing become as big of a concern, something more than a hobby, as big as your academic career?

Well, I’ve been DJing for over 20 years, but maybe only seriously since around 2003 when I was only playing brand new, unreleased dubplates of a scene that was still congealing. And then a couple of years later, when we actually started getting bookings, etc. It’s been a gradual increase, really.

I was really impressed by your life a few years back. It seemed like you were juggling three full-time jobs: teaching/lecturing, DJing, and running the label.

I found it slowly became unmanageable juggling all of these things, and doing them to a standard that didn’t constantly feel like you could be doing everything much better. Teaching got the chop last year—it was becoming a bit of a rut, teaching the same thing every year.

Has working on your own music taken the place of teaching?

Thats the intention. It’s been good the last few months. I remembered how to finish tracks again, but I’d been away from it for a couple of years, so I kind of had to go through the same process as back in the mid ’90s when I started dabbling with sampling, etc. I had to teach myself from scratch again. The hardest thing is learning how to disconnect from communication devices from long enough to create something instead of RT’ing. Twitter is full of producers just twiddling their thumbs in between presets

I’ve seen you DJ literally dozens of times. You’re one of the few DJs worth seeing that often because you keep it fresh. What does that kind of drive as a DJ mean for your work as a producer? And how will you know if you’ve mastered the art of producing to the same level you’ve mastered DJing?

Thank you, that’s very kind. Well, I’ve never really played much of my own music. DJing like this sets the bar very high as a producer, and my own productions rarely fit into my sets for various reasons. I’m rarely happy with the technical side of my production, in terms of playing it in a club. Some of the things you have to do to make your tracks really bang in a club are also some of the things that make tracks outside of that context dry to listen to—like isolating every sound, avoiding too much clashing of frequencies, etc. I’ve got a lot to learn on the technical side of things. I will know I’m there when I’m happy to do a DJ set of all my own productions. I’m a long way off that. It may never happen, but it’s about the thrill of the quest.

In his own words, Kode9 on key Hyperdub tracks and artists.

Cooly G – “Narst”

It’s such a hard question because we’ve released so much stuff now. My head is in a spin just thinking about it. Cooly G’s “Narst” and Scratcha’s “Natty” are two amazing tracks that bring back good memories of when funky was exciting. Except Cooly was never a UK funky artist, really. Her tracks weren’t that important to the scene as such, but maybe like a lot of Hyperdub artists she was on the periphery doing her own thing—dark yet soulful. Her stuff is generally much more minimal than most of the funky that was floating around; really tracky, yet slinky. Both myself and Marcus [Scott, Hyperdub’s label manager] had heard some of her stuff on MySpace, and we reached out to her on the strength of the tunes she had on her page. I think I just had a screw face when I heard “Narst” for the first time [laughs]; I think that’s the appropriate response.

The Bug, featuring Killa P & Flowdan – “Skeng” (originally released as a 12″ on Hyperdub)

He’s a free spirit, Kevin Martin. After the initial push he provided, I was just really happy to release him and Warrior Queen on the label. I don’t think the “Money Honey” release was their best work by a long way, but at that moment it fused grime and dub techno with a dancehall flavor, and that was where our heads were at in 2004/5. We would share a lot of tracks we were both making and I enjoyed what he had been doing with his Rephlex releases at that time. Enjoy isn’t really the right word, actually. I respected their intensity. I remember at the launch party for the first Rephlex Grime compilation at The End where his sadistic obsession with mid-range frequencies actually made me collapse in the club. I got carried out by the bouncer and came to in the gutter. That was a personal highlight, obviously. “Skeng” is probably the track I’ve had the most fun playing over the years—I had an amazing trip to Japan with Kevin that led to my “Skeng” remix where we went around getting taxi drivers, school girls, and pretty much everyone we came across to say “skeng” into our voice recorders. You can hear that in the intro to my remix.

Darkstar – “Need You”

The first Darkstar release was pretty emotional. “Need You” just fused my obsession with synthetic speech and vocoders with garage, 8bit sounds and a sad song. It came in a run of tracks that started with the computer game sampling I did on “Find My Way” and ran through Quarta 330, Ikonika, Zomby, and that generation of artist releases from 2006 to 2008. But Darkstar had their own path they wanted to follow, and while “Need You” and “Aidy’s Girl” are amazing tracks, it’s probably good they didn’t rinse that sound—because if they did, we wouldn’t be looking back so fondly on those tunes.

Burial – “South London Boroughs”

Burial used to send me letters with drawings and CDRs of tunes from back in 2002. There was quite a few CDRs, actually—I noticed in 2004 that I was still listening to some of them, and was playing “South London Boroughs” in my sets, and was listening to “Broken Homes” a lot. And I got the idea that the label should not just be for my own stuff. He was a fan of the website and the stuff like El-B that we were featuring. The writing was like a magnet, or to use a Burial-esque image, it was a searchlight into the darkness that picked him up. We sent out the troops to capture him, interrogated him, and then locked him up.

His music has a weird, intoxicating, obsessive effect on his fans and some writers—there was one Belgian journalist who really, really took offence to the Hyperdub robot woman who used to grace our promos. We’d sent him the Burial album, and he was so disgusted that we’d drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa that he refused to review it. We get a lot of abuse generally for not providing 24/7 access to Burial’s hard drive.

Hype Williams – “Bad Mind”

Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol II, what a fuckin’ record—thats the kind of record that makes me happy. Like, if you don’t like that record, you can just fuck off [laughs]. The Hype Williams and Laurel Halo stuff were less surprising for me than for most people, I suppose. For me, I was just reconnecting with where the label started, which wasn’t really a dance music label in any conventional sense. The timbre of both the Laurel Halo and Hype Wiiliams albums fits quite comfortably into our back catalog. Hyperdub is not a group of friends that decided to start a label. It’s not a clique like that. It’s the other way around really whereby the label has forced a lot of artists from very different music backgrounds together, and helped them find connections and musical friends they didn’t know they had.~

 

Kode9’s new single Xingfu Lu is out now via Hyperdub. His new Rinse mix CD is out on May 20th. This summer, AUDiNT publish their book Dead Record Office—which charts the history of the weaponization of sonic hauntology from World War II to the present day and catalogues their 2011 installation in New York—through Art in General Press.