Sometimes the only way of moving forwards is by looking back. In electronic music the 1980s continue to be a primary source of inspiration for DJs and producers. Such a fecund decade, its multitude of innovations are a rich goldmine that's yet to be exhausted. Many of the blueprints for dance today were set. Styles, technology, culture. Electro, hip-hop, house. While rinsing that '80s vibe is a cynical exploit for some, for others it represents a fresh method. Especially when the artist in question has a unique vantage point or a freaky imagination. Ikonika has both.
It's been three years since Ikonika, aka Sara Abdel-Hamid's last long-player for Hyperdub, 'Contact Love Want Have' and the topography of club culture has changed immeasurably. Back in 2008, the Hounslow, London producer emerged as one of the most promising new acts on a roster of Hyperdub artists brimming with originality and icy cool. Her first two singles, 'Millie' and 'Please' arrived bathed in bright, pitch-bent eerie synths, neon phantasms hovering over grime claps and digi-dub bass, marauding oddball keys and clouds of sonic atmospherica. The album, with the menacing dust devils of 'Sahara Michael' and the submerged undulating garage of 'Fish', was even more far out, adding the simulated emotion and sonic weirdness of computer game soundtracks and neon electro to a sound that was unmistakably hers and impossible to imitate.
Though she was never really a dubstep artist, Sara materialised in its milieu, a brief span of time in which a set of producers appeared who were free to experiment with tempos, time signatures and beats, combining styles freely without restriction. In 2013 many have moved away from broken beats and dubstep's hard-to-pin-down identity. Things have become more conservative in dance, with most cleaving to the club-friendly 4/4 kicks of house and techno. But taking influences from the past doesn't mean dumbing down for Ikonika. For her and a handful of others, it's a new interpretation of history, a classic narrative arranged in a pattern unheard of before. And on her new record 'Aerotropolis', it feels like something genuinely new.
“The whole album is this kind of fantasy of me going into a time machine and, without being too contrived, it's just a kind of exploration for me as a producer, and I feel very happy that I went there!” grins Sara, as we catch her on the phone in the run-up to the album's release. For her, 'Aerotropolis' is a way of interpreting the beats she'd become increasingly fascinated by as her DJ sets became more 4/4-focused. “I guess I became more orientated towards house and techno tracks in my sets and for that reason it kind of trickled into my production over time,” she admits. “Freestyle house really kind of works for me, because the melodies were always there, the singing was amazing and the drums are really hard and really rigid at times, really complex at times, and I really have that attraction to those brass synths and those really coarse cowbells. There's just something about them!” she says.
ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Indeed, it's safe to say that a lot of heads will be surprised by 'Aerotropolis'. Taking the ideas of the wicked 'PR812 (Tech House Is Boring Mix)' — released on her own Hum + Buzz label last year — to their natural conclusion, Sara's new muse is electronic funk, from Latin freestyle to early house, the boogie disco of labels West End and Prelude to the body-popping of Newcleus. Her dazzling synths and eccentric vision are intact, but now, there's a new accessibility, irresistibly danceable and infectious. It's Ikonika but wrought in a new image. 'Eternal Mode' is all 808 cowbells, a deadly electro bassline that sounds as if it's beamed direct from the Danceteria, clamped to a funked-up house rhythm track and a synth that soars through the skies as an impossibly lithe digital dragon; 'Mr Cake' is for the breakers, uplifting Freeez funk, Rocker's Revenge era 3000.
It's the addition of Sara's sparkling synth sprites and jolly micro melodies that mean this could only be made now, and that reinterpretation of the old school with her unique approach was the very foundation of Ikonika's battle-plan for the record. Never having experienced disco or more importantly acid house rave culture first time around, her perceptions of it, she says, are shaped by her hearing the records of the time, and by the stories of her older sisters and mum.
“[It was] kind of trying to revisit something I know nothing about because I wasn't born at that time, and I just had my sister's stories, and occasionally my mum would tell hers, and it just became something that is quite magical to me.”
Ikonika's part of a generation of artists whose formative dance experiences were within dubstep. They're making the most interesting new mutations of house now. Revisiting the past with a dispassionate detachment, they're able to shape it to their own ends and add their own sonic signatures. But it's not just the sound of house music that holds an allure. For Sara, it's also the ways of working, the merging of human and machine. Working with analogue hardware rather than purely within the computer has allowed her to invest more of herself in the music, keeping in the slight imperfections rather than having everything pristine but soulless.
“It was kind of a lesson in machines and hardware and really trying to be physical with the music rather than just staring at a screen and doing a few clicks,” Sara claims. “It really makes a difference, like even the twist of a knob you can hear through the audio and I really like that, and grains, I think [DJ/producer and Night Slugs co-owner] Bok Bok said recently he likes grains between sounds and that kind of makes your sound more human. We're all using machines and electronics but allowing mistakes and not letting everything be so perfect all the time... you know, you want to hear that warmth and connection with the music.”
The use of analogue equipment also signifies a break with previous ways of working for Sara, a way of developing her sound rather than becoming stuck in a loop of using the same methods.
“These things are more accessible now, through eBay and also communication through the internet, like swapping bits of hardware. To me, it's all just learning and I wanna learn everything! I don't want to be stuck in the old ways. I was getting a bit too comfortable with banging out tunes in an hour and not feeling very satisfied by it, like using the same palette over again, I really exhausted that old palette, and it's just about trying to start again and press the reset button and do it that way, from the bottom I guess.”
The biggest surprise of 'Aerotropolis' is its first single 'Beach Mode (Keep it Simple)'. A lush Balearic house cut with zephyrs of lush electronics breezing through its electro bassline, it's also a catchy song, with the mellifluous vocals of new Hyperdub signing Jessy Lanza making it the poppiest thing Ikonika's ever made. It's also something that Sara's rightly immensely proud of, a tricky challenge that's paid dividends.
“I'd given [Hyperdub boss] Kode9 a demo album, and he was listening through it and he said, 'I really wanna hear some vocals on here, just to see what happens and I've got Jessy, who's gonna release on Hyperdub, and maybe she'll be into it'. So he let me hear a few tracks from her and I fell in love with her vocals. They're so kind of innocent, they remind me of Aaliyah as well, just this really soft, sensitive voice, you can tell there's some hurt there.
“I sent her the track, the dub version of the single, and she wrote this amazing hook and Jeremy [Greenspan of the Junior Boys who writes with Jessy] wrote this amazing simple synth with some chords underneath. When I first took it into the studio I was planning on just putting the vocal on top of the original, but that didn't work... I just took the vocals, changed everything to how I wanted it, without synths or anything, then started picking out bits and just wrapping the song around the vocal, and making sure the vocal was the most important part, so it worked out really well.”
Ikonika admits that the tune is far closer to pop than anything she's done before, but is careful to point out that she sees a big difference between music that's accessible and music that's contrived to sell units.
“There's nothing at all wrong with pop music if you do it with the right intentions,” Sara believes. “It's something which is very close to my heart because it was the first music I ever heard, so there's always that kind of weird nostalgia stuff going on. There are two different things to me, there's music that is popular and then there's pop music. Early pop is what I love, I love Jellybean productions, old Janet Jackson and Madonna productions, and I think for most people they're acceptable things to like.”
A thread that connects all of Ikonika's music is its vivid imagination. There's been a panoramic scope to her production from the beginning, which became especially lurid on 'Contact Love Want Have' and that seems to have become ever more evocative with her new material. Science fiction and video games are clear inspirations, the latter something which filters in through her use of 8-bit bleeps and track titles like, from the new record, 'Eternal Mode' and, from the first album, 'Yoshimitsu' (a character from arcade martial arts fighters Tekken/Soul Calibur). But it's a sense of the futuristic, which many dance producers aim towards but fall far short of, that she's especially good at capturing. 'Aerotropolis', from its palette of wide angle sonics and visions of cloud cities, to its trippy cover art by regular Hyperdub artist Optigram, would be a great soundtrack to a more cerebral sci-fi flick. Unlike most, Ikonika's future visions tend to the positive. She can't help an inherent chirpiness from seeping into most of her work. Does she view the coming years optimistically?
“I think [the future will] be quite colourful,” she confides. “Even if I try to be really sad, there's always that euphoric feeling which really wants to creep in, on tracks like 'Completion', it's like, you're in this tangle, but there's all these alternations in the track and with the way the synths are automated it really feels like that tangle is not so bad.”
For the first time, Ikonika reckons she's really able to get down exactly what's in her head, something she's been working toward since she started producing.
“I feel like I'm really getting alright at conveying my feelings through production. I think that's the ultimate goal for most producers. Sometimes it doesn't go right, and you can get very frustrated, but when it does go right it's a very unique experience, and all those tracks on the album it's like, 'wow, cool, I can't believe this is coming out!'”
After the release of the album, thoughts are on the prospect of a live tour, complete with melon-twisting visuals. There's also her label Hum + Buzz to think about which she co-runs with sometime studio collaborator and partner Optimum. Three new releases are scheduled soon, coming after tunes from cool Aussie producer Dro Carey, Ikonika herself and Optimum, while there are plans for the label bosses to work together again in the near future.
As far as what Ikonika is doing herself, she's already full steam ahead with new material — and don't expect it to sound familiar.
“In the last three or four tracks I've done after this album, they are getting a little bit... spacey and I really want to just explore this aspect as much as possible, to the point where the system shuts down, and try and capture that breakage and debris — I'm really into that vision at the moment. And I'm really into distortions and I love songs that are devastating so I'm trying to explore that a little more. I really just want to dismantle it and see how far I can take it. We've got loads of tunes left over from the album that couldn't fit, so maybe one or two EPs... I'm also working with another vocalist at the moment. That's kind of space R&B and it's working out really well.”