West London artist on Hyperdub, new album 'Distractions', and the South African sound of gqom...

Ikonika is a genial, welcoming host, but as we chat in her flat, deep in the west of London, in the shadow of Heathrow, it’s clear that her approach to her craft is both serious, and highly conceptualised.

It’s befitting of a producer who has been signed to a label as innovative and relentlessly avant-garde as Hyperdub for nearly a decade now. “That’s the best thing about Hyperdub,” she tells me, “they just release such interesting music – it’s not about pushing things forward, it’s about pushing things in all directions.”

The development of her sound from 2013’s Aerotropolis reflects both a personal journey, and the changes she observed in the environment around her. “'Distractions' was really an eye-opener for me. 'Aerotropolis' was escapism, and 'Distractions' just hit me straight in the face – it’s ground level.”

And it was from the ground up that she and animator Mungo constructed the world the album exists within, depicted in the video for ‘Lossy’ – a futurist re-imagining of her hometown. “I knew that I wanted to create this world that was based on where the A4 turns into the M4. You go over this flyover and there are a lot of things going on there at the moment – the buildings are starting to rise. Car dealerships like Audi, Volkswagen and Mercedes are building upwards.”

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It’s not about pushing things forward, it’s about pushing things in all directions...

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The most striking aspect of the video, I say, is the total absence of humans. “It’s this idea that you can build all these things, all these luxurious things for humans, but there just ain’t any humans left. This world is supposed to be, you know, far away into the future.”

It’s resonance with the present, though, is undeniable. The video stands in stark contrast to 2013’s Mr Cake, and in many ways it is a dark vision of a gentrified, sanitised London. “When I go to Radar I usually catch the 243 from Waterloo to Clerkenwell, and I always sit on the top deck. You go over the bridge, over the river and see all these cranes, all these properties that aren’t really built for us. It’s stopping someone like me living close to my mates, and close to where the music hub is. So all these things trickle into the music and into the visuals.”

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That’s not to say her music is purely plaintive – anyone who’s had the pleasure of seeing her play out will know she’s a DJ guaranteed to get a party started. In fact, it’s the interplay between the gloomier sounds inherited from early grime and dubstep, combined with an unyielding focus on music that “will just make you fuckin’ move” that make her performances so captivating, and her own productions so intriguing.

“I’m very comfortable describing myself as a hybrid, and this is why I get annoyed when people say ‘dubstep producer Ikonika’. I’m not just a dubstep producer. If anything I’m so far away from that – that movement was 10 years ago and I’ll always say it, for me it aged really badly. It’s not like something like grime or funky, where I’ll still play those things in my sets. Dubstep I’ll play maybe, if I’m feeling that vibe, two tunes. I loved it, I really loved that genre – my vinyl collection is more dubstep than anything else – but I really have a problem with being described as dubstep.”

One style that features prominently in her current arsenal is gqom, a sound that emerged from the townships of South Africa to become a major force in London clubland of late. “It was this feeling that really reminded me of grime, but it was house tempo, and it was really sparse, with this really nasty drone.”

It’s that drone, I suggest, that gives the music an almost apocalyptic feel. “Yeah, totally, and I think with us being in London we can relate to that a lot. It got me loving house again, ‘cause I haven’t really loved house since funky. A lot of the tunes are really distorted, and really bass heavy.”

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Holding myself back and trying to take the humble route but now… I’m a bit hungry.

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“When I was in South Africa I was hanging with DJ Lag and seeing how he’d make beats. He would chuck three or four kicks straight into Fruity Loops, and I was like ‘Rah OK, cool, this is how you get it! Layering those elements, that thump, and then just doing what you want with it. Whether you wanna go 4x4 or have it really stripped back. It’s an interesting sound for me and I’m really happy it’s going places. It plays a big part in my sets.”

Recent sets have included her album launch at Corsica Studios, a club she says remains one of her favourites in London, as part of Hyperdub’s experimental series of showcases entitled Ø. “It’s such an interesting concept, where it’s not just about partying on a Wednesday – you can come and watch a film or see an exhibition. Seeing Dillinja just the other week, and how loud it was, me and Scratch were like ‘Rah, it’s just like Plastic People’ – the physicality of that bass. I’ve missed that and I’d almost forgot what it felt like.”

“I thought I was just used to it and I’d adapted to it, but I hadn’t. That was what drew me in originally – all my tunes have to have weight. That’s what dubstep taught me, it just has to bang in a club. It’s what Plastic People was: listening to tunes in a club, loud, and really feeling it in your chest and in your throat. I thought I forgot about that and I was reminded how good it was.”

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For me it’s a bond with these machines.

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So has she had thoughts on the direction of her next record? “Shit, no!” she says, laughing. “I think I’ve been playing this slow-burning game for a while, and being a bit scared to be a sell out. Holding myself back and trying to take the humble route but now… I’m a bit hungry. I’m borderline starving! I know it’s hard to say but I think it’s good to have ambition and it’s good to have big goals. I’d like to have more vocalists and I’d like to make more of a pop album, but on my terms – my sound, just a bigger reach.”

Whatever she does, it will undoubtedly be on her own terms. Her deeply personal relationship with her equipment, and the idiosyncrasy that brings to her music, is one of the things that has kept her at the forefront of UK music for so long. “Each synth I use is a totally different character; they have to be treated a certain way. Some are broken, and only I know how to fix them and wake them up. For me it’s a bond with these machines. I’ll keep working til I can’t any more – til my ears are gone.”

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'Distractions' is out now.

Words: Alex McFadyen

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