Hearing Steve “Kode9” Goodman talk about his two formative club experiences — one a hardcore techno party, the other a rare groove/funk affair — is surprising because he is hardly associated with either scene. “It’s the space between these two clubs,” he explains, “I started in that space and kinda stayed in that space.”
That’s Goodman in a nutshell. Whether the Scotsman is producing or DJ’g as Kode9 or lecturing and writing as Dr. Goodman or running the eclectic Hyperdub label as all of the above, he frequently works in liminal spaces. His music, both his interests and compositions, exist between genres like house and hip-hop; his 2006 debut album, Memories of the Future, is considered a seminal dubstep release mostly for moving past dubstep’s tropes. His academic work blends the creative with the scientific as he speaks of metaphors like “audio virology” as an idea “to be taken literally” and teaches courses on “sonic culture” at the University of East London. His critically-acclaimed label (the Mercury Prize-winning Burial is one of its most recognized artists) is often associated with dubstep, but the roster is far more eclectic. In the various beats and bass communities, Kode9 is an anomaly. He doesn’t champion one sound, let alone his own. Instead, amidst the sea of ideas and sounds he floats peacefully in the center taking it all in.
Kode9’s unconventional route has placed him in the rare position to both create and advocate for new forms of music. No surprise then that 2011 has barely started and his calendar is already filling up. Black Sun, his second album with vocalist/emcee Spaceape, is out on April 19. Hyperdub’s release schedule includes a Funky Steps record (“percussive house, very London-style”), a King Midas remix effort (tentative contributors include Flying Lotus, Ras G, Gang Gang Dance, Darkstar and Hype Williams) and a long-awaited solo album from Spacek’s Morgan Zarate (“a mixture of fucked-up hip-hop, grime, R&B, soul”). And he has a sound installation that will be featured at Art in General in New York in May. Prefix spoke with Kode9 in a literal, liminal space — a modest motel cafe in the heart of très chic South Williamsburg — about his upcoming album, his music process and, of course, drugs:
Tell me about your upbringing and your music background.
I grew up in Glasgow. No real background in music. My dad was into big band jazz. When I was there I was never into house and techno.
Was there a particular event that was your main entry point into music?
The first time I took ecstasy in Edinburgh. It was in this club called Chocolate City which was a ‘70s funk club. JB’s, James Brown, Herbie Hancock. That was like 1990 or something like that.
How did things unfurl? Did you start buying records, or going to more shows?
I had been obsessive about music before then. But that was what triggered the record-buying. As opposed to what I used to do which was go to the local music library and make tapes of all their LPs. I have a huge tape collection based on whatever I could learn from the library.
I was at school then and I had been deeply into late ‘60s acid rock, which came out of another era of drug experiences! [laughs] Then this thing happened in Manchester with the Happy Mondays, Charlatans. And that’s when I really started to get into dance music.
How did you make the transition from DJ’ing to making music?
It was just jungle. About ‘94 jungle took over my life. I played tapes on auto-rewind. I would put one on just before I go to sleep and it would just be playing all night, seeping into my subconscious. I suppose the more you sleep to jungle, the more it gets into your system. You just have to start playing with it, so I bought a sampler and a sequencer in about ‘95. Spent my first summer in London going to Metalheadz nights every Sunday and buying equipment. That’s when I started making music. That was one of the peak moments of my clubbing life.
Your new album is called Black Sun. Walk me through the album-making process.
It must have started four years ago. It’s just been constantly interrupted by other commitments: writing and running the label and work/teaching. Spaceape has been busy. He’s had his own distractions.
Also the music scene that we’re most associated with has changed so much over the last few years. Everything to do with dubstep is spreading… And certain strands of it… I wasn’t so interested in [it]. I suppose for two or three years I wasn’t finishing any music because I didn’t know what I liked anymore because [since] we had started [the album] the scene had gone in a different direction…
It all came together the last… seven or eight months. I just tried to concentrate for a change on one thing [laughs]. I think it helped once I finished the book [Sonic Warfare, published 2010]… I took a break from teaching, got someone to help me run the label…
Because you worked on the album for such a long period of time, did you have ideas from years ago that were dropped?
The way I tend to work is to start with the main melodic element or a sample. Certain tracks I have had 20 or 30 different basslines or drumbeats. Our live sets revolve around these core samples or elements, but there’s no fixed drum pattern or bass line. So that was shifting on a month-to-month basis.
So the live element was like a testing ground?
Yeah, the way we do the live shows: you get all these potential tracks revolving around a sample or a synth riff or something like that and you just throw it into the live set and try different vocals, different drums, different basslines. We’ll think the vocal will belong to one track and suddenly that vocal will migrate into another track completely. It’s random…
Do you have a process [for writing music]?
My process is I listen to as much music as possible. Usually something will jump out: a sample or a little melodic element I’m going to transpose and play myself — and that’s usually how my tracks start. Something will jump out from a piece of music.
Unless it’s a track like “Green Sun” or “Black Sun” and “Love is a Drug” — the three housier tracks on the album. They’ve all come from me sitting at a synth and playing around. It’s unusual for me to sit down with a blank canvas and just express myself! That’s not how I work at all. I’m not that kind of romantic [laughs].
Flying Lotus appears on the last track of the album “Kryon.” How did you first meet?
We met on a roof in Melbourne at the Red Bull Music Academy. He was a participant and I was a lecturer. Marcus, the label manager of Hyperdub, suggested I should meet him. This was 2006 or 2007. He played me some stuff off his laptop, played me some of his own music, some of Samiyam’s music and I was really kinda blown away by what they were doing with synths. It did affect me quite a lot, musically. It reminded me of this strand of music that I had kinda forgotten about. Some of it was in 4Hero, A Guy Called Gerald and the darker side of broken beat. Turn of the century, like Nubian Mindz, New Era… The darker, Detroit-influenced side of broken beat. You could hear the ‘70s Herbie Hancock type of synths.
Analog synths with jazz chords. That really seemed like something that was missing in the music I was around at that time, which was very monotone. It added some color…
We got together in London a year or so after that. He came to my studio and we made this synth riff which is basically the last part of “Kryon,” where it goes down into this weird, interlude zone where you have Spaceape speaking backwards. What comes after it is what we made. That became the grand finale of all of our live sets with Spaceape for 2 or 3 years. I made about 20 different versions with beats, none of which quite clicked. Really at the last minute I found a way of making a version I thought was interesting enough. It didn’t have any beats or really any rhythm to it… It’s quite an optimistic ending, as well. It’s quite a weird ending. Quite euphoric, in a strange way.