Black Sun Rising: Ten Years of Hyperdub – Pitchfork

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Since 2004, London’s Hyperdub has proven to be a durable bedrock at the center of an implausibly fast-moving electronic landscape. Label head Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, talks about where the imprint has been and where it hopes to go next.
Few labels—electronic or otherwise—can claim to have stamped as indelible an imprint as Hyperdub over the course of the past decade. To remain ahead of the pack in a scene that prides itself on rapid mutation is no small feat, and while others have sometimes surged ahead, the London imprint has been able to boast an unparalleled consistency at the nexus of forward-thinking dancefloor culture, tying together strands of contemporary club music in unexpected ways.
After launching with a single by head honcho Steve Goodman—aka Kode9—in April 2004, the label gained international notice thanks to the dubstep symphonies of William Bevan, better know as Burial. To say Burial’s shadow looms large over the label’s history may be unfair—he’s far from the only artist on their books to mean something to someone—but the producer’s capacity to make people lose their fucking shit is unrivalled. Shrouded in even more mystique than the exalted shutaways of ‘90s IDM, it seems everyone has forged their own personal relationship with this most reluctant of posterboys; mine came at 16, finding solace in the swirling detritus and snatched vocal fragments on long journeys back to the suburbs. And while his 2007 album Untrue is perhaps Hyperdub’s single greatest achievement to date, no label can stay relevant for a decade based on the talents of just one artist.
As covered in Larry Fitzmaurice’s review of Hyperdub 10.1—the first instalment of four 10th anniversary collections to come this year—the label has excelled in various bass-first UK styles in addition to dubstep, including grime, garage, and funky, oftentimes mixing them up to form something fresh. Indeed, the label’s defining release of last year, DJ Rashad‘s Double Cup, proved to be a pinnacle of Chicago footwork, showing just how far Hyperdub has come from its dank London roots. When I spoke to Rashad last year, his entire demeanour oozed joy at having nestled snugly within the Hyperdub family; following the producer’s passing in April, re-listening to those same contented words (“I don’t see myself going nowhere else!”) serves as a grim suckerpunch, but nevertheless Rashad’s quick assimilation into the fold speaks volumes about Hyperdub in the present day.
Flush with new talent and exploring a wider palate than ever before—icily detached R&B and gunfinger-oiling jungle-juke hybrids making strangely harmonious bedfellows—Hyperdub is currently careening through a purple patch. Goodman seems comfortable, too. Some of his more esoteric proclivities remain, but having called time on his academic career for fear of being overstretched, any hint of his formerly offish persona has evaporated.
I sat down at his place in South London on a drizzly winter morning to discuss the label’s first 10 years in operation: filling in the blanks and mulling over the wider shifts. Boxed in by rows of maneki-nekos, racks of analog hardware, and stacks of lovingly crafted HYP10 chocolates from a Japanese mini-tour, Goodman struck a confident and excitable tone, intermittently rapping away at a color-coded Logic keyboard as ideas for fresh Kode9 material came to mind. With Goodman less interested in taking stock than couching out all manner of future plans, our conversation ran and ran while his defined vision sliced clean through the clutter.
Pitchfork: One wide change the label has undergone over the past 10 years is from under- to overground—not necessarily in terms of popularity, but a shift from dark environments and sonic dread to sleek vistas and a sometimes retrofuturist aesthetic.
SG: The change started to happen around 2006, when I started to feel suffocated by how suffocating our music was. It wasn’t a big change in me, because I’d always liked a wide range of stuff, but it was about trying to nurture the label in a direction that would gel with more of my musical tastes, and not just one of them. It started to get bleepier, then brighter and more colourful around when Darkstar and Ikonika found their way. Gradually, it’s become open, encompassing more than just claustrophobia and dystopian landscapes. Maybe now it’s seeing the dystopian in these hi-res environments? That’s what is fucked up about today, and for me that is a compliment: What appears to be a dystopian wasteland is also, from the other side of the mirror, a pristine software world.
Pitchfork: Is your audience more receptive to what would have been deemed “experimental” before? Does that remove an element of challenge?
SG: Certain releases I know will polarize people—really interesting, downright odd stuff should polarize people. It’s an important part of doing something different. [Laurel Halo‘s] Quarantine was one of those, but I loved the singing on that album, so why people gave it a negative reaction is beyond me. Rival Dealer—well, Burial does what he wants, and I’ve given up interfering with that; he understands his audience better than I do.
The releases that I’ve felt have been massively underrated have been rooted in grime and funky. Everything from Scratcha and Terror Danjah to single-only stuff from Funkystepz, Ill Blu, and Walton doesn’t get nearly enough love as it should. It’s partly because of a younger audience that don’t necessarily buy music, and for some reason it just doesn’t seem to grab journalists in the same way that, say, Hype Williams, Laurel Halo, and Jessy Lanza do.
Pitchfork: A dominant female presence has emerged as well, especially with the new artists who have come into the fold in the past few years.
SG: It’s never been a conscious decision: we approached Cooly; Ikonika, Fatima [Al Qadiri], and Laurel approached us; Jessy co-produced an album with [Junior Boys’] Jeremy Greenspan, who is an old friend of mine, and I immediately latched onto her material. And it makes sense, because Laurel and Jessy have that similarly unnatural, cold melancholy about them. Fatima’s stuff is a bit of a departure for the label, but even then not so much—I did a mix back in 2005 around Chinese-influenced grime, and Asiatisch is about 75% sino-grime, so it follows on naturally.
If anything, there’s still not enough women in Hyperdub. It is changing, and there are more female producers getting signed, but there is still a huge underrepresentation. I sign them because the music’s amazing. And the more women we release, the more send their music.
Pitchfork: It’s always struck me as somewhat ironic that just as 2009’s Five Years of Hyperdub cemented the label’s status as a defined entity outside the UK, it entered a transitional phase. What’s your reflection on that period?
SG: At that point, there wasn’t any style that was grabbing me a lot. Funky was dying down, or being assimilated into other dubstep-type releases. House wasn’t yet dominant in the way it is now. I only properly got into footwork around 2011, but only as a fan. But in the last three years, we’ve released more albums, seen more artists coming through, and hammered home the fact that we’re all over the map and not just a dubstep label.
Pitchfork: There’s been a shift with your own productions as well—what is it about the qualities of fast, 160bpm tracks and certain blown-wide-open U.S. hip-hop that appeals to you?
SG: Primarily the speed of the rhythm, as well as the anything-goes attitude to sampling. For me, the most interesting beats that I’ve been hearing in the last handful of years have been older footwork and juke, and Southern hip-hop. Snare rolls in triplets, triplets in the kick drums, triplets in the hi-hats. That’s it for me: triplets. [laughs]
Pitchfork: How do you consider Hyperdub’s impact on wider culture?
SG: I definitely think Burial has had a big effect on aspects of popular music—in terms of people imitating him, but also being more open to stuff that’s dark, melancholy, and, most importantly, overtly emotional. He’s definitely carved his own little space that people have flooded into. I’d hope we’ve opened the landscape a bit and made it easier for certain connections between styles that may not have linked otherwise—having Laurel Halo and DJ Spinn, or Dean Blunt and Scratcha, on the same line-up is a cool thing. It is an achievement.
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