“It was just an amazing time. A time of experiencing things with no preconceptions, with a real innocence.”
Steve White, the singer and producer known as Steve Spacek, is reminiscing about his early years in 1980s south-east London. A child of the 1960s, White grew up in the borough of Lewisham as the capital found itself in the grip of a counter-culture revolution. Punks, dreads, soul fans and skinheads were coming together in spaces across London united by a love of music. Unknowingly, they embodied London’s often-touted cultural melting pot at a time when the impact of post-colonialism on race relations in England was barely understood.
Flim-Flam, a local club situated on a hill on the corner of Clifton Rise and New Cross Road, was the focal point of a foundational experience for White at the time. “You’d go in through an entrance on the hill. It was a Victorian type place, and after making your way through a corridor you’d hit this big dancefloor. They had a Bose system and these DJs would play all types of music. Things got subverted and taken out of context. I would just soak up the vibe. It showed a side of south-east London that made sense once you hit a certain age.”
In the 1990s, the building that hosted Flim-Flam changed ownership and became The Venue, a key location for that decade’s Britpop and indie rock scenes. For White and his generation though, it remains a place where everything was possible and from which he drew inspiration for his latest album, Modern Streets.
Released this week on Ninja Tune under the moniker Beat Spacek, Modern Streets is White’s first full-length solo since 2007’s Black Pocket. Much like his frequent collaborator Mark Pritchard, alongside whom he records under the Africa Hitech moniker, White has a history of accumulating aliases: Spacek (with Morgan Zarate and Ed Cavill); Black Pocket; Space Invadaz (with Katalyst). The one thing that never changes is the music.
White first came to prominence in the early 2000s as part of Spacek, a British trio with a retro-futuristic take on the soul template which slotted neatly into a scene that developed in the aftermath of the global rise of neo-soul. Throughout the years, White’s music has remained grounded in soul and sound system aesthetics, with a dash of futurism and hip-hop. Like D’Angelo and his peers, White was never preoccupied with genre; rather, he concerned himself with timelessness: “The basic premise [of my music] is the juxtaposition of the darker side of UK dance music, the drums and bass, the palette and aesthetics, with the beautifulness of melody and chord progression. To me that’s such an expansive sound, you can go so many places with it.”
Another foundational moment in White’s childhood helps explain his musical approach. On the first day of summer school in the late 1970s, White walked into the hall to find himself confronted with a giant sound system: “They were playing Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. That’s the first song I remember hearing on a system. It had a big effect on me.”
The combination of the song’s “menacing kick drum and bass” with uplifting melodies and Summer’s “beautiful voice” left an indelible mark on him. Amid London’s musical melting pot, somewhere between the sound systems he later worked on as a youth and the soul music that permeated his household, the artist known as Steve Spacek was born.
White’s first foray into the music industry came about in 1989 after a chance encounter with a neighbour by the name of Stex. A soul singer, Stex invited White to work with him on production. Up to this point, White had mainly been experimenting with nascent in-built recording and sequencing technology found in cheap Japanese home keyboards, the sort that were flooding households in Europe and the US at the time.
The pair signed to Some Bizarre, a record label run by Stevo Pearce, who had made a name for himself in the early 1980s by releasing music from then unknown acts like Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and The The. With England emerging from the new wave and New Romantic movements, White found himself thrown into big studios. Their first single was a synth-pop ballad with undertones of dance music called ‘Still Feel The Rain’. Crafted with input from Soft Cell’s Dave Ball, it proved a moderately popular hit upon release in 1990, and was followed by an album a couple of years later.
In 1993, White felt the need to move on and seek new musical pastures. “I had a publishing deal with Warner Chapel, so I cashed in and decided to get my own set-up,” he says. Music production technology was becoming leaner, which made the possibility of a home studio both easier and cheaper. White bought an Atari ST computer with the Cubase sequencing software and an Akai S950 sampler, the same set-up that was fuelling England’s dance music revolution at the time.
“I remember getting the Akai and thinking it looked like a piece of hospital equipment,” he recalls with a laugh. “The notes on the computer screen looked like spaghetti to me at the time. I wasn’t into the details, I just wanted to play the music.” Unable to make much sense of the machines or the software, he got a helping hand from his younger brother Darren, who had just moved in with him. “He was always good with computers, but he wasn’t really doing music then. He worked out how to use the sampler and we went from there. He got a musical vibe from it and I got my technical vibe. That’s how we started.”
Caught in the splintering explosion of UK hardcore into jungle and breakbeat, and with the perfect technology at hand, the brothers set up a short-lived outfit called The Sewer Monsters. A few underground white label releases followed. “We used to call our music dub house, like house but with more of a reggae feel to it. Nothing much came of it but it was early days still,” he says. “Ultimately that led me to Spacek.” Darren, meanwhile, would go on to forge his own musical path as drum & bass pioneer dBridge.
As becomes clear throughout our conversation, White has always been fascinated and influenced by the convergence of man and machine as expressed through the evolution of studio and recording techniques from the 1970s onwards. Drum machines, samplers and synthesizers coupled with traditional approaches to songwriting rooted in the rhythm and blues tradition. “Music that’s honest and raw, up-to-date yet futuristic. That’s what it is. It’s what I try to do when I make music. And here we are now, we have access to all the old gear and the modern gear. You can fuse them effortlessly, to make whatever it is you want to.”
It’s this philosophy that underpins Modern Streets, alongside White’s memories of London in the 1980s. The album was created largely using mobile music production apps on iPhone and iPad, a situation born of necessity as he often travels. From there it was finished in a more traditional, though still largely home-based, studio setting. From dancehall to new wave, high life to beats, the music on Modern Streets is a roadmap of White’s career and tastes.
Much is made today, often pointlessly, of how people make music. Yet what’s interesting about White’s focus on using apps is that it led him back to a situation that has given us so much classic music over the years: limitation breeds innovation. Many of the apps are powerful emulations of hardware or software that retain a degree of constraint, for example in how many tracks can be run at once. It’s within these emulated borders that White found inspiration to meld the old and the new.
“It’s about capturing a snapshot of the original idea. And most of the album is the first take of each track,” he explains. Apps helped White realise how often the first idea is the best, something that he first touched upon with Mark Pritchard on the Africa Hitech project. “After putting down the initial ideas, we’d go to the studio and refine them. We’d end up with a better version sonically but the emotion and feeling weren’t the same.” White further pursued this idea on Modern Streets, letting the first take become the main draft not just for the music but also the vocals.
During the Spacek era in the 2000s, White’s singing style was characterised by an approach that’s been used by the likes of D’Angelo to great success. Rather than lyrics being clearly intelligible, vocals were more focused on the quality of the voice and the feeling it can carry. He admits that, for him, “musicality” has always trumped the finished product, be it a song or a set of lyrics.
On the new album that ethos is still there. ‘I Wanna Know’ requires a few listens before you start to make out the lyrics’ ambiguous tale of “how things are represented today.” The pulsing riddim hits you first, swiftly followed by vocals that feel just as powerful. At the same time Modern Streets also features some of White’s clearest and most timely vocals to date.
“It’s not a political album, it’s subtle, but if I’m honest it’s the first project where I’ve felt like I needed to say something. In the past I was reflecting more on personal situations, this is the first time where I put how I felt about the world into lyrics.” On ‘Back To School’ he addresses the youth, urging them not to turn out a fool, while ‘There Is A Love’ ponders the split between the haves and the have-nots. Considering White’s love and respect for D’Angelo, it seems fitting that Modern Streets is coming out a month after the American singer returned with his own subtly political new album. No one can deny that something is in the air.
In a 2005 lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy, White discussed how his experiences of both the mainstream and underground left him with the belief that the industry and music are like “oil and water.” Now, halfway through the third decade of his career, he still holds onto that idea while acknowledging he is blessed to be able to do what he does, often alongside younger talent.
“I’m fortunate to still go out and rub shoulders with the youth,” he says. “The industry is all about the youth. So to be here still, on the same bills, same festivals as some of the new talent, I feel blessed.”
The beginning of 2015 marked the end of an era in London’s club nightlife. Plastic People, the legendary venue that had become a physical point of reference for true music fans in the capital, finally closed its doors on January 1. White had been a regular at the club since its beginnings on Oxford Street, before it moved to Shoreditch. In the 1990s, alongside Morgan Zarate and Jay Scarlett, he ran a regular night there called Isticks. Like many others, White had a relationship with Plastic People that ran to the core of his music.
“In our early days, we’d be mixing in the studio and in our minds we were imagining how it would sound in Plastic People. For the Spacek stuff, that was the reference for us,” he says. London may have lost its most iconic venue, but Plastic People will live on in the music of White and all those who were touched by its owner’s dedication to sound and feeling: “To this day, I still sometimes think, ‘what would it sound like if I played it in Plastic People?’”