Asked about the ethos of his label a few years back, Kode9 replied that “I try to keep giving dubstep that which it has told itself it is not”.
You could argue that this is the essence of any healthy contribution to a scene: working to counteract fast-crystallising notions of genre, reminding people that there are still, and will always be, new ways of doing things. But in the case of Kode9 and Hyperdub, the impact of their approach has had far more expansive consequences.
Starting in late 2007, the label embarked on a series of releases that would elevate it from a relatively minor player in dubstep to master of its own strange destiny. Quarta 330’s marvellously gauche chiptune remix of ‘9 Samurai’ fired the starting gun, followed by singles from Ikonika, Darkstar, Zomby and of course Kode9 himself. Suddenly, after the greyscale deep-isms of most dubstep, melody was back on the agenda: soured, synthetic, radioactive melody, swaggering, garishly articulated synths that spoke in some foreign tongue, rhythms that stumbled and bounced their way to the edge of dysfunction, lingering there, locked in a perverse game of chicken with the dancing faithful.
FACT contributor and dubstep scholar Martin Clark aka Blackdown identified the label’s new sound as one strand of an emergent “theme” (“not a genre”) known as “wonky”. But whatever your terminology, it’s undeniable that the following couple of years saw Hyperdub’s output become emblematic of the exquisite growing pains of a scene in flux.
Even after wonky’s purple patch had subsided, the label was among the first to absorb the innovations of UK Funky and the influence of global house music, laying the path for much of what was to come (the loping syncopations of Kode’s 2009 single ‘Black Sun’, pre-empting ‘Hyph Mngo’ by some months, still seem to be a major influence on the majority of house-derived “post-dubstep” in 2012). The shockwaves of this moment of rupture are still felt now: in the minor celebrity status of artists like Zomby; in the continued favouring of light and colour over darkness in many quarters; in a lingering preoccupation with the melodic and harmonic in much new UK music.
The common ‘theme’ that ties together Hyperdub’s recent releases is present but diaphanous, dispersing if you probe it too forcefully.
Hyperdub, though, have moved on. If the label could ever adequately have been described as the home of wonky’s London chapter, or as a global ambassador for UK Funky, this is no longer the case. Recent long-players from Scratcha and Cooly G seem to suggest that the most interesting movements in Funky are towards its auteurish fringes, where the abstract demands of pop form supercede the concerns of the dancefloor. Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland (née Hype Williams) and Laurel Halo assault similar conventions from differently oblique angles and, along with singles from the likes of King Britt (under his Fhloston Paradigm alias), seem to outline a collective aesthetic far less tethered to any one geography or methodology.
Of course, Hyperdub have never done simply one thing, and you could argue that the imprint’s current animus has lain dormant since its inception; in Burial’s world-conquering albums, in King Midas Sound’s desolate dub-scapes, in Darkstar’s elegiac, broken North. And Kode9 has ensured that at least one foot stays firmly planted on the dancefloor – recent twelves from Walton, Ill Blu and Terror Danjah are as bracing as anything graced with that distinctive logo, and LV’s forthcoming album is dancefloor fire pretty much from start to finish. In music, as in life, nothing is ever simple, movements are never linear, and reality evades the words and ideas that try to pin it down.
Is it possible that, as before, Hyperdub’s shift in focus reflects some broader aesthetic transformation, one whose influence will still be felt in half a decade’s time?
And yet… in terms of where the excitement, the freshness, in Hyperdub’s recent output can be found, it seems to rest firmly in this new clutch of releases. You could argue that this is simply a dancefloor label following a time-honoured tradition, embracing the album format in a bid to step into the pop/home-listening market (cf. Warp). But taken as a group, these records appear to have a more unified, more challenging aesthetic behind them than that theory would suggest. They embody an important (and often overlooked) aspect of newness: a certain vagueness, an unwillingness to be slotted into pre-existing structures. The common “theme” (to borrow Blackdown’s term) that ties together these records is present but diaphanous, dispersing if you probe it too forcefully, as if biding its time while it accrues the mass it needs to take on concrete form.
By now we ought to trust Kode9’s credentials as augur of the new – so is it possible that, as before, Hyperdub’s shift in focus reflects some broader aesthetic transformation, one whose influence will still be felt in half a decade’s time? If so, then what might that transformation be? And what does it say about the state of the scene to which Hyperdub has previously been so closely tied?
Well, for a start, the concerns of these artists are far more diffuse than those who found a home on the label in 2007-09: the dancefloor is no longer the prime site of reception, and so its conventions become a peripheral concern, a resource to be mined rather than a set of rules to be obeyed (or broken). Instead, the far more abstract and variegated conventions of song form become this music’s ultimate bedrock.
Complimenting this, there’s a renewed interest in the voice as a vehicle of expression, deployed in ways that reject the professionalised, autotuned sheen of contemporary pop – be it in Cooly G’s home studio nocturnes, Inga Copeland’s dissembling soul or Laurel Halo’s abrasive melisma. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there’s a breaking down of stylistic and geographical boundaries. London is no longer the hub around which peripheral artists orbit at varying distances; instead, we’re presented with a kind of flattened-out meta-style where music rooted in the capital’s musical heritage merges with DIY scenes and maverick producers from other countries and continents on equal terms.
Music rooted in the capital’s musical heritage is merging with DIY scenes and maverick producers from other countries and continents on equal terms.
Lurking behind these releases (to my mind at least) is the sense that there is a certain lack of excitement about the ideas being thrown up by London’s dancefloors in 2012. Inquisitive listeners who previously found their kicks in the bleeding-edge innovations of the ‘floor are perhaps now looking elsewhere for a similar rush of disorientation – and settling on music better suited to home stereos and mp3 players. It’s far too early to make pronouncements one way or the other, but the question bears asking: is Hyperdub’s second renaissance symptomatic of some wider shift away from London’s dancefloors? And will that shift be fleeting or permanent?