Label Watch: Hyperdub
We run the rule over some essential releases and artists on Kode9's label.
Emerging from a webzine of the same name, Hyperdub has grown into one of the UK’s most celebrated indie imprints of the 21st Century.
If the likes of Deep Medi and Tempa were synonymous with establishing dubstep in the public consciousness, then Hyperdub is the label which coaxed the sound to new heights. There is a weightiness to the music released by Kode9’s label, both in the sense of its great emotional heft and also the fact that many Hyperdub drops pack enough bass to collapse buildings.
While dubstep was the divining rod for Hyperdub in the years after its 2004 launch, the following decade has really seen the label spread its wings. Along with Planet Mu, Hyperdub can take the credit for bringing Chicago footwork into the British club consciousness. Grime and UK funky are a couple of other styles backed heavily by Hyperdub, and the imprint has also fronted film and video game soundtrack releases. The label has become increasingly globalised down the years too - where Hyperdub’s roster was once very London-centric, now it boasts links to South Africa, Japan, Kuwait and the United States. Let’s take a look at some of Hyperdub’s key players and releases.
Best artists on Hyperdub
There is something funny about the fact that Burial, who occupies a position in modern music similar to that of Aphex Twin in the 1990s, being so different to Richard D. James. Where James stood out for his confrontational aesthetic, Burial’s legacy is characterised by retreat. James plastered his delirious grin all over his album covers, but people still aren’t really sure who Burial is or what he looks like - he’s probably a chap called William Emmanuel Bevan, though even this is contested.
However, both are feted, mysterious figures, the sort of artists who cast long shadows over their scenes and against whom so many of their contemporaries are judged. Like James, Burial has made some peerless records - none more so than 2007’s ‘Untrue’, an album of greyscale dubstep/two-step/R & B amalgamations which still stands out for its mournful beauty. Burial hasn’t made a studio LP since, though a steady supply of EPs in the 2010s has seen him spin out his sound into both harder club tracks and etherised dark ambient, yet he remains a definitive figure.
Cooly G’s output for Hyperdub splits quite neatly down the line of full-length LPs and shorter releases. As a general rule, the singles and EPs that the Brixton producer has dropped on the label since 2009’s ‘Narst’/‘Love Dub’ have been club-focussed affairs, while 2012’s ‘Playin’ Me’ and 2014’s ‘Wait ‘Til Night’ feature more prominent vocals and songcraft. However, whether she’s upfront or behind the desk, Cooly G makes a sensuous, potent brand of electronic music, one which is defined more by its dub scientifics and bassweight principles than any particular genre adherence. UK funky, R & B, Chicago house and dubstep have all come to the fore in her music down the years, but her shapeshifting sound makes Cooly G an endlessly captivating artist.
Hyperdub in the 2000s was characterised by the wobbling low-ends of dubstep, but footwork arguably defined the label more in the first few years of the next decade. No artist embodied this Chicago style better than the late, great DJ Rashad. Rashad’s music built on the legacies of ghettotech and juke in an utterly thrilling way, slicing and dicing his rhythms at 160 bpm to create some of the most brilliant dance music of modern times. The whirlwind drum programming was designed to throw legs into a frenzy of movement, but records like ‘Double Cup’ (2013) softened up their beats with velvety jazz chords and glitching soul samples. Rashad passed away in 2014 - at the far, far too young age of 34 - but he left behind an absolutely cast-iron musical legacy.
Ikonika emerged in the late 2000s, a time when fellow up-and-comers like Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never were also putting luminous, cartoonish spins on pre-existing dance styles. Ikonika’s early work was notable for the way it supercharged the sounds of dubstep with chiptune and eight-/sixteen-bit influences, but a decade of top-draw records for Hyperdub since has demonstrated that the one born Sara Abdel-Hamid has staying power too. LPs like 2013’s ‘Aerotropolis’ and 2017’s ‘Distractions’ have finessed the combination of bright synth tones and body-blow low-ends to incorporate influences from house, machine-funk and the sort of future-forward boogie style propagated by labels like Night Slugs - a label Ikonika has also landed on in the past.
Jessy Lanza is Hyperdub’s popstar. While the label’s footwork and dubstep sounds do come into play in her work - check the absolutely glorious DJ Spinn/Taso collaboration ‘You Never Show Your Love’ on this count - Lanza largely operates in a vein of sparkling, 80s-indebted R & B and synth-pop. The trio of LPs which Lanza has made for Hyperdub at the time of writing - 2013’s ‘Pull My Hair Back’, 2016’s ‘Oh No’ and 2020’s ‘All The Time’ - have established her as one of the premier alt-pop artists of the age. Often operating in tandem with Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan, Lanza’s music shimmers with the halcyon glow of a summer sunset.
The bossman. Kode9, the fellow known to his mates as Steve Goodman Ph.D, spent the early Hyperdub years dividing his time between releasing records, lecturing at the University of East London and writing books about sonic warfare. Interesting guy!
About those records - Kode9’s output is crucial to the development of dubstep. The tracks he made with collaborators like Benny Ill and The Spaceape both serve as high watermarks for the dubstep sound and also helped push it on into its more experimental second phase. His solo output may have slowed down in the second half of the 2010s - he’s not released a great deal of music since his 2015 LP ‘Nothing’ - but Kode9’s is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in British music this century. If the Hyperdub roster wasn’t proof enough of his impeccable curatorial instincts, mixes such as 2018 Burial collaboration ‘Fabriclive 100’, the final release in the vaunted ‘Fabriclive’ series, should leave you in no doubt.
Laurel Halo’s work represents some of the label’s most quixotic output. Similar to Ikonika and Lee Gamble for the way they play around with pre-existing styles, the trio of LPs that Halo has released on Hyperdub to date are at once bracingly open yet also have an air of mystery about them which keeps one coming back for repeat listens. ‘Quarantine’, her 2012 Hyperdub debut, is a fine case in point - the way that this album acid-washes 80s synth-pop means that the Oneohtrix Point Never comparisons hold, but there’s also more kinetic ecstasy in Halo’s trilling harmonies and breathless electronics. A year later, Halo followed ‘Quarantine’ with ‘Chance Of Rain’, an album which wobbled back and forth between leftfield techno and full-on post-minimalist rhythm experiments, while 2017’s ‘Dust’ found something of a midpoint between its pair of predecessors.
Scratcha DVA operates somewhere between the immediate grooves of Hyperdub’s dancefloor-centric output and the more cryptic aesthetics of signees like Dean Blunt and Burial. Having made his name as a DJ (he hosted Hyperdub’s Rinse FM show for a while), Scratcha DVA’s studio output has become increasingly quixotic down the years. The styles he spins in his sets - grime, garage, UK funky and house to name a few - can all be parsed in his music, and some of his EPs for Hyperdub still orbit relatively close to the DJ booth. However, an LP like 2016’s ‘NOTU_URONLINEU’ made good on the futurist promise of the [Hi:Emotions] tag under which Scratcha DVA issued the album, cloaking his aesthetic in a gown of hyperreality to deliver a fascinating LP full of rupture and shine.
Terror Danjah has a lengthy association with Hyperdub, one which began in 2010 and continued well into the decade. His two LPs for the label, 2010’s ‘Undeniable’ and 2012’s ‘The Dark Crawler’, and the EPs which surrounded them are as fine a demonstration of the producer’s murky style of grime as anything in his extensive discography. Chiptune, garage and UK funky lurk in the back of these riddims, while a general air of slasher-flick ghoulishness gives Terror Danjah’s music a cool chintzy sheen. Riko Dan, D Double E, Champion and Trim are just a few of those who’ve collaborated with Terror Danjah on his Hyperdub drops.
Given that Hyperdub is still a relatively young label, it’s so, so saddening that there are two artists in this roundup who are no longer with us. Stephen Samuel Gordon aka The Spaceape passed away from cancer in October 2014 - just a few months after DJ Rashad’s death, no less. The dub poet left behind almost a decade of recorded work, the majority of which emerged via Hyperdub. Indeed, plenty of The Spaceape’s most vital releases were made in tandem with Kode9 - Gordon’s spoken word invocations helped focus the low-end theory of records like ‘Memories Of The Future’ (2006) and ‘Black Sun’ (2011) - and he also collaborated with Martyn, The Bug and The Specials’ Jerry Dammers during his lifetime. The Linton Kwesi Johnson comparisons which are frequently in the conversation around Gordon do neither artist a disservice.
Best albums on Hyperdub
Even though it didn’t come out under his usual artist name, there may be no album which encapsulates the Dean Blunt experience better than Babyfather’s ‘BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow’. Featuring guests spots from Arca and Mica Levi and sequenced to play like a radio broadcast - one complete with static crackle and the interjections of the mysterious Escrow - ‘BBF’ lurches between airless takes on old-school hip-hop, harsh walls of noise, uneasy loop tracks and pretty much everything in between. Released on April Fool’s Day 2016, ‘BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow’ exists in a space between cynicism and sincerity, bitterness and vitriol, nihilism and beauty - in short, in the Dean Blunt zone.
Well over a decade on from its 2007 release, it’s difficult to imagine a world without ‘Untrue’. The second studio LP from Burial is a gothic dubstep masterpiece, one which shifted the paradigm to such an extent that it is now a stitch in the fabric of electronic music history. The way ‘Untrue’ etherised club rhythms for sombre, reflective headphones listening; the splicing-together of sonic lineages (two-step, ambient, hauntological electronics, R & B) which would previously have gone to lengths to avoid one another; how its creator toyed with anonymity for so long, and spent the years after 'Untrue's release eschewing full-length statements for sporadic singles drops - for an album which hides itself away in the corner, ‘Untrue’ is one of the 21st Century music’s most dominant works.
Like so much of Fatima Al Qadiri’s work, the Kuwaiti musician’s 2014 debut LP ‘Asiatisch’ is an album which examines Western stereotypes about the rest of the world. However, whereas Al Qadiri made her name in the first years of the decade by reframing troubled, often brutal U.S.-led narratives around the Middle East, ‘Asiatisch’ looks to China. The resulting record is an uncanny affair, one which hovers pointedly in the air. Like so much of Al Qadiri’s work, ‘Asiatisch’ is perplexing, challenging and beguiling all at once.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will clock that Kevin Martin has another entry on this list as a key player in The Bug - testament to both the quality of his output and also the sway he holds in soundsystem circles. King Midas Sound, the project Martin operates with vocalists Roger Robinson and Kiki Hitomi, maintains the skull-shaking sonics of The Bug but etherises it to create a ruminative, dubwise sound somewhere between Iration Steppas and Massive Attack. ‘Waiting For You’, the band’s 2009 debut LP, is as fine a bassweight meditation as you’ll find.
On her debut LP ‘For You And I’, Londoner Loraine James turns personal discovery, queer experience and a voracious love of music into an album that is both strange and welcoming. Certain parts of the record recall the curious, introspective art-pop made by Tirzah; at other points the ultra-shiny electronics have something of Lanark Artefax about them; then there are the raps of collaborator Le3 bLACK, whose bars are wedded to clipping.-esque scuzz on ‘London Ting // Dark As F**k’ and a pensive, Galcher Lustwerk-adjacent shuffle on ‘My Future’. All of which is to say that ‘For You And I’ is an unusual listen, one which delights in its idiosyncrasies while also offering camaraderie with the listener.
LV’s 2012 LP ‘Sebenza’ brings together the skippy house, garage and bass sounds of the trio’s London home with a variety of South African dance and hip-hop modes. The result is an album of driving club tracks which have both a slightly serrated edge and also a pleasingly erratic feel to their beats and flows. With proceedings orchestrated by Spoek Mathambo, Kwaito duo Ruffest and above all the wry bars of Dirty Paraffin’s Okmalumkoolkat, ‘Sebenza’ remains fresh even as its tenth birthday begins to hove into view.
Nazar’s 2020 LP ‘Guerilla’ may well turn out to be Hyperdub’s first classic album of this still-young decade. In a manner which isn’t dissimilar to Kode9 and Fatima Al Qadiri, this Angolan artist uses his music to process the effects of military violence on the individual and society at large - in his case, the Angolan civil war in which Nazar’s father fought as a general. These difficult experiences serve to darken Nazar’s lurching Kuduro rhythms, monstering the music with half-heard vocal snippets and chaotic drumming. The result is a bracing evolution of the sound popularised by labels like Lisbon’s Príncipe.
Nowadays Hyperdub stans sounds and artists from around the globe, but back in 2008 Samiyam’s 2008 EP ‘Return’ was notable for being one of the label’s first releases to look beyond the M25. ‘Return’ shares some DNA with the label’s London cohort - its tinny synths dovetail with what Ikonika was up to around the same time - but the slouching hip-hop drums draw from the LA beat scene that Samiyam was heavily involved in at the time. Sloppy and laid-back yet also strangely hypnotic, ‘Return’ paved the way both for Hyperdub to expand its sonic horizons and for Samiyam to turn out subsequent records for imprints like Brainfeeder, Stones Throw and All City.
The Bug’s ‘Skeng’ is a rare track, one whose spellbinding qualities mean it still holds a rare power over ravers almost fifteen years on from its emergence. ‘Skeng’s quaking riddim nods to several soundsystem lineages which had been in the ascendancy in the years prior to its 2007 release - grime, dubstep, digi-dub, dancehall - yet this is a joint which seems to exist in its own realm entirely, one of menace and shadow. Above the bass MCs Killa P and Flowdan eschew the quicksilver bars of their grime tunes for flows which are all the more daunting for their cold calculation - when the track strips back and Flowdan chants “evil”, you really feel like he could be about to summon demons. All these years later, there’s still nothing quite like ‘Skeng’.
Hyperdub’s compilations are frequently as vital as its single-artist releases, either taking the pulse of a certain scene or shining light on a style which recontextualises the label’s catalogue as a whole. 2017’s ‘Diggin’ In The Carts’, which was born from the documentary series of the same name, is a fascinating collection that brings together crucial pieces of early Japanese video game music. Featuring synth explorations from the likes of the Konami Kukeiha Club, ‘Diggin’ In The Carts’ joins the dots between the videogame boom and later movements like sinogrime, the Orientalist grime offshoot for which Kode9’s 2005 mix remains the key text.
(‘Diggin’ In The Carts’ isn’t the only videogame-centred Hyperdub release - in 2019 the label collaborated with Sega to produce a special-edition Mega Drive console, one which came with eleven exclusive tracks to boot).
Released in the wake of DJ Rashad’s death, the 2015 ‘Next Life’ compilation acted as both a testament to the scene he had helped build and also a demonstration of the strength in depth of both his Teklife crew and the Chi-town sound at large. With a bumper tracklisting including joints from DJ Spinn, RP Boo, Traxman and DJ Earl, ‘Next Life’ demonstrates the unique capacity that footwork has to deliver incredibly inventive music while still packing club heat. Sci-fi synthscapes, featherweight soul and chiptune flexes all roll out atop 160-bpm drums, while the jungle influence which was creeping into footwork around the same time can be felt keenly on a couple of jams.