Blinding Lights of Fiction: Kode9 & Space Ape


As far as I can see, science fiction has lost that sense of the new, because its vision has materialised around us. We take it for granted. The future envisaged by science fiction is now our past, and the result is it’s probably come to a natural end. That doesn’t mean that one can’t continue writing it: one just has to move into a different terrain. – JG at Ballardian

Ballard’s comment could easily be applied to any number of points in the post-house / dub / hiphop / jungle musical field, where cycles of invention and stagnation repeat themselves every few years. Futures come and go. Rock turned inward and gave up on the future decades ago. Hip hop and house more recently, then jungle. Scenes can begin with flash of brilliance, or they can coalesce over time, only recognising themselves in hindsight. But soon enough they look over their shoulders, slow down, contemplate, and fold back on themselves. They spatialise – set their borders, build hierarchies, and draw up their littanies – replacing premonitions of the future with the mundane job of managing what is (‘what is is good and always was’). These cycles produce their own heroes (DJs, producers) who usually rise and fall along with them (or begin long, lucrative careers playing or making the same records for years on end). A small few manage to step outside those cycles and tap into deeper strata that cut across genres and eras. Richard H Kirk is one of the best examples. A Guy Called Gerald and Steve Gurley are two more. And DJ/producer/professor kode9 (Steve Goodman) could turn out to be another.

One of dubstep’s most central figures, kode9 has been inventing the music in realtime since its inception. His millenial flirtation with ‘death garage‘* led to a series of Tempa releases beginning in 2002, and since 2004 he has run Hyperdub, one of the scene’s most respected labels. As a DJ, he’s held residencies at Forward» and on radio, beginning in 2002 with Groovetech online and, most recently, on London’s Rinse FM. Meanwhile, as a writer, he’s published articles in Mute, Fact and XLR8R, as well as in a number of books and academic journals.

And yet, kode9 is something of an alien operating in dubstep. You wouldn’t call him the embodiment of the scene, the way you would a Skream or a Loefah – people whose tracks define dubstep from week-to-week. Instead, he seems to pass through and occupy, embedded but still apart. This is why his viral metaphors really are apt, but not as they’re usually repeated. It’s not dubstep that’s that the virus. Dubstep is the host, for now. The virus is hyperdub – not the label (‘H’) or Steve – but something bigger than any given musical moment. It’s the substrate. Speaking with Synaptic from in January, he describes hyperdub as

…a word that describes the side of jungle drum and bass, UK garage, dubstep and grime that I’ve been interested in for the last 10-15 years. In a way I prefer the word hyperdub to dubstep because it includes aspects of jungle, drum and bass, UK garage and dubstep and will evolve into something else—dubstep is not the end of the line… More than being interested in the specific scenes, I’m interested in how that sound evolves and mutates in different genres.

It’s mutation as an ideal at a time when dubstep is spreading widely but also closing in on itself. In the months since dubstep burst into popculture consciousness, kode9 hasn’t been shy about expressing his thoughts on the changes it has been undergoing – its absorption of certain dead end dnb tendencies and the entrenchment of halfstep orthodoxy in many quarters. Talking to Derek Walmsley of The Wire this past summer, nine notes that in dubstep, “the bass has intensified to compensate for the sparseness of the rhythm, and often tracks rely on the bass to drive them along. The scene however has to contend with the danger of bass monotony.”

“Bass fundamentalism” is the term he uses in his recent Fact interview with k-punk. It’s not difficult to imagine a dim future for the music (imagine k-holes set to straight, metallic halftime sonics) if more of its newer producers don’t expand their horizons. Part of kode9’s program is to lively up the dance. Along with Mala, he’s led the way in bringing tracks with bounce back to the floor. He’s also been maintaining links with the vocal-led grime scene and, with Space Ape’s help, he’s been pushing the cause of vocal dubstep:

…that’s what Dubstep has got to do, it’s got to get good vocals on top of these sort of beats. The beats work OK on their own, but I don’t think it’s got a particularly interesting future if it’s just an instrumental music.

Memories of the Future

Memories is a vocal affair, guided from start to finish by Space Ape. As a whole, the album is suffused with uncommon textures, distant echoes, and undulating sinewave basslines. Sweet-toned melodicas reappear throughout the album, harmonising with like minded synthetic tones. ‘Glass‘ is the subtly drarmatic opener. Something bellowed – maybe an accordion – draws grainy breaths amid tape delay flutters, a lackadaisical snare thump, and a barely-there rhythm of shuffled hi-hat and bell. Neuron-tweaking synthetic flutes play in the upper registers and, for one floating moment, a ghostly-sweet female vocal drifts in from the corners before dissipating into Space Ape’s gravel-voiced narrative.

Sonically, ‘Glass’ brings to mind another future-past – the last half of the 1990s when dance music tools were repurposed for texture-mapping the splitting strands of the post-rave fallout. I’m not thinking of any single artist or album parallel. Some Mille Plateaux, tomlab, and BOC come to mind, but they’re mostly different in all but the ways their grain tingled the nerves. Certainly, there’s a conceptual link to A Guy Called Gerald’s Black Secret Technology, though the two represent almost opposite poles on a rhythmic continuum. And you’d also have to consider the more recent influence of Hyperdub’s Junior Boys kin. But the one that I keep coming back to, unlikely as it might be, is a piece from Mogwai’s 1998 remix album: the ‘Fear Satan‘ mix which David Gordon Green used to such unsettling effect over the long sunrise scene in his film All the Real Girls. Very different pieces of music, though they share a number of common features – breathy wind instruments, non-present female vocals, short guitar plucks, and a thin haze of muted ecstasy. But the real similarity is in the affects these features combine to generate. An hour of ‘Glass’ repeating in my headphones, sun in my eyes, on a morning train ride to Montreal, had me in the same netherspace I visited with a codeine (wisdom teeth), strong coffee, and ‘Fear Satan’ on the store system during a few early shifts at HMV after university.

As a lead track ‘Glass’ couldn’t be a more overt statement of departure. Its organisation of sound is a pointed break from the bottom+top spectral template of dubstep. So much of the emotive energy in Memories emanates from the frequencies in-between – those registers that carry the human voice and which are so adept at evoking the tactile and transmitting memory. Rhythmically and vocally too, the album breaks genre parametres and forces the listener to question expectations around form and heritage. If you want a dubstep album proper, you’d be better off with Benga or Skream. But if you’re interested in a collection of possibilities engendered by dubstep, then Memories will please. “Twist the lines [out of all recognition]” is the Space Ape refrain first spoken in ‘Backward‘ and enacted throughout the album.

Maybe the most scrutinised and expectation-saddled feature of the project is the role played by Space Ape. His involvement marks the first sustained dubstep-related project to foreground and prioritise vocals and, as previous releases have already demonstrated, he does it in a style that is at once familiar-sounding (links have been made to Linton Kwesi-Johnson and other dread-infused voices) and almost foreign within dubstep’s wider family tree. He’s been pigeon-holed at times, but Space Ape represents ‘dread’ in more general sense – dread times not dread locks.

He’s already appeared on several singles and the Dubstep Allstars 3 mix CD but, sustained over fourteen of Memories‘ sixteen tracks, his role in the larger Hyperdub project becomes more evident. Beginning with ‘Glass,’ Space Ape takes on the role of the narrator-protagonist in Memories’ extended experiment in sonic fiction. There has been a lot of discussion about how to read Space Ape and how he might relate to certain branches of cultural theory. In a sense that seems to me to be missing the point. He may draw on theory, but it’s more a matter of poaching its affects (as Massumi would say) for experimental or fictional purposes – grabbing bits, and using or misusing them in ways that let them keep their character, but in unintended new combinations. It’s a concept that kode9 was quite enthusiastic about when we spoke before his Toronto show last June. And it’s often what the most socially poignant science (or speculative) fiction does. Thus the Space Ape line: “through science we find alliance to endure reality, creating blinding lights of fiction of what tomorrow may bring.”

Space Ape really is the anchor of the album. The grain of his measured baritone is the common thread running from beginning to end. I’ve read that a lot of work went into the vocals and that care is obvious upon listening. His voice sits naturally in the mix, adding aural dimensions and modulating the rhythms without ever overpowering the rest of the music. The opening tracks are structured so that the intensity of his delivery steadily increases, beginning with the contemplative tone of ‘Glass,’ increasing in ‘Victims,’ and peaking, briefly, in ‘Backward.’ ‘Victims‘ opens in a holding pattern, pauses, then sets into a halting forward step. Space Ape’s vocals reverberate around the space while echoing horn and melodica add a tone of fading joy. Hallucinating senses, individually, insiduously, or in any combination… sensory language leaves us with no habit fi lying, we are hostile aliens, immune from dying. ‘Portal‘ bears the mark of nine’s grime affections, but filtered through the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and shades of Westerns. Who the Ras is the sum of their parts, who should tell of this becoming Hell? To think is the link between life and death. Enter this body of sound and escape the mesh. ‘Correction‘ is austere. Welling metallic textures open the track before it drops into stilted, rolling bass that recalls the muted weight of Pole and Burial Mix. This time, Space Ape is surrounded, caught in a phone booth, whispering into the receiver. Right now, I’m only here to administer the correction. ‘Bodies’ oozes sinewave lines to congas and shakers. Bodies regain from core to core, connecting up the future through a parallel door.

Curious‘ (forthcoming on a 10″ plate backed by ‘Portal’) is another major highlight amongst the new tracks. Anyone who’s downloaded nine’s June 15 FWD» podcast will be familiar with the instrumental. A sweet melodica inhales and exhales, harmonising with grainy synthetics, while the slowly detuning sine bassline vacillates like a fever between soothing warmth and a sinking shiver. It opens in halftime, briefly suspended, before winding itself into a pulsing skank, with strains of 2step stumbling through the pitched-down hi-hats. But what makes the track properly sublime is the vocal interplay between a sedate Space Ape and the tremulous Ms.Haptic. (Ms.Haptic! What a perfect name for a voice you can practically feel shimmering across your skin.) My only complaint is that we don’t hear more of her in the rest of the album.

Sine of the Dub’s serotonin-depleted catatonia became a new degree-zero of the hardcore continuum… Catasonic. (k-punk)

‘Bass weight’ is one of those nine-derived concepts that pervades dubstep forum chatter and the scene’s sonic mythologies. Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of weight to describe the application of gravitational pressure to a directional flow, the arresting of speed and the redirection of energy. The catatonic individual is the embodiment of that weight, outwardly stock-still, but brimming with potential to spring FWD along any number of possible trajectories. ‘Sign of the Dub‘ was Hyperdub’s first release (becoming an 40 pound object of eBay konsumterror before the re-press) and the first indication that Hyperdub would be a project in applying weight to dubstep itself (if one could see through the paradox of first stripping the form to its lowest possible sonic and rhythmic thresholds). It was also our first introduction to Space Ape (and the Prince inside his head) and an approach to MCing that has few immediate parallels. In a portion of the musical sphere where MC typically means hype man (think GQ, Skibadee, Supplier, Crazy D…) or boaster/merker (pick a grime MC) Space Ape looks just a little like Chuck D in 1987. Just a little, but the parallel is there: a radical sage who can live in a riddim and rock the party. Adding to the this resemblance, I’m sure (along with their cover of ‘Terrordome‘ on HYP002), is nine’s sometimes use of Bomb Squad-like left/right panning of Space Ape’s EQ-sharpened vocals to dramatic effect.

‘Sign’ (now ‘Sine’) remains one of the pair’s most striking efforts, and although it was their earliest, it sits well in the flow of Memories. So do the other previous releases – ‘Backward,’ ‘Kingstown,’ and ‘9 Samurai‘ – neither overshadowing nor overshadowed by the newer material. Somewhere on the internet people have asked whether it was wise to include tracks dating back to 2004 on the album. But imagine if Wiley had included even a few of his groundbreaking early singles on that doomed debut album. Kode9 doesn’t make that mistake. Memories is (almost) the Hyperdub corpus to date, and it’s all the more significant as a result.

As individual pieces I’d always managed to reconcile the label’s singles with dubstep as a whole. But now, with this 16-track collection, it’s difficult not to see Hyperdub as a project unto itself, imbricated with dubstep but by no means bound by it. The link to Gerald’s Black Secret Technology might be an accurate one. Both albums are efforts in remapping the textures, rhythms and enunciative capabilities of rhythmachines beginning to cannibalise themselves, but neither gives in to fantasies of ‘Logical Progression.’ Both are Adventures in Sonic Fiction. On BST, Gerald remixed jungle through a series of potential presents and futures. With Memories, kode9 programs a set of speculative rhythmscapes for Space Ape, as narrator-protagonist, to traverse and report back on. It takes a change in listening habit to see the album in this way, but once the move is made, it all falls into place.

One for the ages. Pre-order Memories of the Future at Boomkat.


* But as Mr. Boomnoise asks, ‘who the hell is Bobby Diablo?’

6 Responses to “Blinding Lights of Fiction: Kode9 & Space Ape”

  1. Fullz Says:

    heavy review
    space ape is ill
    Kode 9 is merkin dubstep differently

  2. Martin Clark Says:

    really comprehensive review bro. glad someone else is still blogging properly about dubstep!

  3. paul Says:

    hey thanks a lot martin. nice one on the pitchfork album round up as well 😉

  4. michael Says:

    congratulations on the review. some thoughts – since you mention Deleuze & Guattari, i wonder if they might have a bit of an issue with the idea of the “hyperdub”. don’t we risk essentialising or idealising “dub” when we describe it as something not actually manifested in localised and genre-fied forms. Neither artist or music exists “apart” from specific reference points (one of which seems to be, in this case, modernism) and the desire to purify music of “mundane” realities can often lead to obscurantism and irrelevance. Isn’t the best science fiction neither prophecy or nostalgia but that which deals with “what actually is” (since there is nothing else)? Look forward to hearing the album.