Africa Hitech interview: “There should be no rules.”

27.05.11 Words by: Charlie Jones

Influences are a funny thing. Especially when you ask artists to divulge theirs. Answers range from the defiant “I’m just trying to sound like me,” whilst others are brilliantly honest, like Koreless, for example, who admitted in our interview with him back in November last year, that when he started out he was just “making Burial rip-offs.” Be it the dusty cassettes from family car journeys, the music you first stepped out to or the records your Saturday job brought you – we each have our own musical canon. Sonic building blocks that, consciously and subconsciously, map our musical taste.

When I met with Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek, aka Africa Hitech, we had two agendas. One was to talk about Steve’s once-upon-a-time collaborator, the legendary J Dilla – “his sound was soulful as well as techy: it was futuristic” – and the other was to get them to make us an inspiration playlist behind their latest release on Warp, 93 Million Miles (listen below) – an album that traverses double that distance and more in sounds, styles and influences. Having grown up during the UK’s love affair with jungle and D&B, they’re now based in Australia and witnessed the arrival of grime and dubstep from overseas. Meeting when both were guest speakers at the Red Bull Music Academy, their musical lineage is long and alive: Pritchard has worked under many a moniker, including Harmonic 313, Harmonic 30, Global Underground and Jedi Knights with Tom Middleton; Spacek was produced and remixed by J Dilla, and was in the electronic trio Spacek with brother-in-arms Morgan Spacek, now known as Morgan Zarate.

Africa Hitech – 93 Million Miles by Warp Records

Their previous EP on Warp, ‘Hitecherous’, marked out their territory as craftsman who could maneuver within any genre. Be it Detroit tech acid (How Does It Make You Feel), an IDM take on grime (Boingy or Lash Out) or poles-apart, lovers rock (Too Late), their soul-infused digitalism was earmarked. About 6 months ago the internet went batshit crazy for Out In The Streets, a juke infected rewiring of Ini Kamoze’s World-A-Music. An epitome of what they do best, it effortlessly marries the laidback swing of reggae with the high energy of footwork. We got together to talk about the crunked-up aspects of the album (download Glangslap above), its softer side too, technology and musical heritage. As we chatted the playlist went out the window but before we said goodbye, I named a genre and they plucked out the first song that came to their heads. These songs have been interspersed through-out and should not be taken as direct influences. But the threads all feed in.

Listen to Africa Hitech’s song selection uninterrupted here.

Africa Hitech as a name feels like a manifesto in itself. Do you have a manifesto? And if so what is it?

[Long awkward pause]

Erm….?

SS: No, it’s a good question.

MP: Yeah, I just have to think about it.

Good! I want to make you think! Don’t want to ask too many of the same old questions.

SS: We’ve been asked that question quite a lot.

Oh shit.

SS: But you still have to answer it because not everybody knows. The main thing behind that title for me and Mark was trying to demonstrate a link between that music that we love and Africa, essentially. That lineage of the drum, going all the way through to blues, all the way through to the whole soul thing, and then all the way through the last 30 years, the whole Jamaican and West Indian culture and its integration into the UK vibe. All these different threads of music, just traced back to Africa. The title is mainly about that. When you trace our music back, that’s where it goes.

So when King Jammy took reggae digital to create dancehall with Under Mi Sleng Teng, are you guys flip-reversing it? Taking digital music back to its roots?

MP: A little bit, but also on the album we wanted to put a few things in there that are organic as well. The Hitech part is taking that kind of original essence, but trying to make sure it’s always moving forward. You know, not just making music that sounds like 60s, 70s funk, or Africa music or whatever. Trying to take that, and the idea behind it, and giving it a modern twist, and then basically you can do anything. That’s what’s been happening in the UK now for the last 20 or 30 years with the dance music scene here. Taking elements from Jamaican soundsystem reggae, dancehall music and then adding anything – techno, house, hip hop, any type of music from the around the world – and putting it together and that’s where all these new forms of music occur; jungle, D&B, funky, grime, dubstep and whatever is coming in the future. That’s what we want to hear when we go to clubs. There’s a bassline sensibility. There’s a drum sensibility. A lot of the music that comes from the UK is not straight, it always has some kind of swing. There’ll be syncopation in the drums, the snare drum won’t land where you expect it. Most house, well most house music made in Europe, can often be quite straight, quantised. It’s the traditional house beat that came out in the mid-to-late 80s; you listen to people like Mr Fingers, it’s a 4/4 beat but it was different. The way he laid the beats out, there wasn’t always a clap where people normally put claps and there’s syncopation there, an expected kind of flow, and the way that the bassline lands, that’s the kind of thing we look for in dance music. We don’t look at things as genre specific, to me it’s all the same. We can play all that kinda music in our sets and it feels like it’s from the same family of music to us.

“A lot of the music that comes from the UK is not straight, it always has some kind of swing.” Mark Pritchard, Africa Hitech

SS: And another important thing is that a lot of people forget that when you’re listening to 70s soul for instance, at that time, that music was hi-tech. They were using the latest equipment at the time and they were coming up with styles; they were taking blues and and mixing it up with folk or whatever and coming up with this music, and a lot of people listen to that music now and don’t realise how forward thinking it was for its time. And to a great degree that’s why that music is so infectious to us. These guys were taking certain elements and making music out of thin air and, essentially, that’s what we try to do. That’s the kind of main backbone of it. But it’s like, right, we’re here now, we have all this access to all this new, amazing technology and the old technology and we can make this amazing music.

You mention this new technology, I know you’ve been using an iPhone to make some of your music for this album. Can you talk me through some of the various methods you’ve been using?

SS: Ah man, well essentially everything revolves around Logic and then we use all these elements around it, like you said, an iPhone. And also, another really good programme called E64 by Basicore – it’s a desktop, standalone version of a Commodore 64 from back in the day, so you see it on the screen, it’s beige, quite analogue looking and you’ve got three sounds and some drums and a little Space Invaders machine on the side that you can use for effects. A lot of the tunes were done with that.

Which tunes from 93 Million Miles in particular?

SS: 3 Million Miles, Cyclic Sun

MP: Yeah, 93 Million Miles was iPhone and Glangslap and I Luv were that C-Basicore 64. It’s a free programme that anyone can download. But also using some old bits too. I’ve got quite a few old synths and an old mixing desk too, so it’s about bringing in some of the old vibes too, having fun with what we do. It’s good, I think, to not just use the same gear all the time, because you fall into patterns. You open Logic, and open a certain plug-in, and you put a certain beat in, and anything to break up that routine is always a good thing.

“You can talk all you want about the techniques but at the end of the day, does the track move you?” Steve Spacek, Africa Hitech

SS: And not getting caught up in the old digital and analogue war too. Sometimes you talk to people and they’re like, “I’d never use that, I just use pure analogue gear….” but at the end of the day it’s just about the music you make, not the equipment you use. You can talk all you want about the techniques but at the end of the day, does the track move you? People are quite romantic about vinyl – rightly so because it’s an amazing medium – but what about the music that’s on that vinyl? People slag off MP3s but if it wasn’t for MP3s people wouldn’t hear our music. It helps to keep moving music on; it should always just come back to the music.

When you say music should move you, are you looking for a gut reaction? Or do you want somebody’s mind to tune in and get them thinking?

SS: However. There should be no rules. Some people latch onto the bassline, some people are looking for lyrics, some people like the way something is mixed. Some people are moved by music and they don’t even know why, they couldn’t put it into words if they tried and I quite like that, in a funny sort of way. Because then it’s just kind of other worldly, you’re just feeling it inside you, it doesn’t really matter how.

“Some people latch onto the bassline, some people are looking for lyrics, some people like the way something is mixed.” Steve Spacek, Africa Hitech

Because there’s two very different vibes on this album. There’s this really hyped-up, raw, thuggy, grimey, music that you feel right in your gut. Even the names suggest that, like Glangslap and Do U Wanna Fight, but then sitting here you seem like such nice chaps. Are you harbouring secret inner thugs?

MP: Haha!

SS: Hee hee. Yeah, we all have an inner thug somewhere in there. When we’re in the studio though we’re just vibing and for instance, that track Do You Want To Fight, that vibe just fitted that track, it just had to be done. And that style of vocal, that’s not usually my thing, but I like to be thrown out my comfort zone and that’s why I like working with Mark and it was like, I’ve got a voice, let’s try something new. We are always just travelling through and we end up with these tracks and they just sound the way they do.

MP: I really like aggressive music, that’s what I liked about hearing D&B. I like music that makes you feel like you’re getting knocked out. That’s what i like about going to see Dilinger play, the track would come in and it would feel like somebody has hit you with a sledgehammer. There’s that same kind of aggression in grime music. I like that kind of energy, when I go to a club I want to hear that. That kind of energy that comes from the UK. I want to be surprised and shocked and blown away and torn apart.

“I like music that makes you feel like you’re getting knocked out.” Mark Pritchard, Africa Hitech

Yeah, I put on your album and this thing happened to me. Like I said, you don’t seem like thugs and I don’t feel like a thug, but out of nowhere I felt my shoulder square up and I stood a few inches taller, but then around Our Luv things take a different turn and I felt myself relax. Where does that come from?

MP: Well, that balance comes from the fact we like different music, we like…

SS: …all the beautiful music too.

MP: Yeah.

SS: It’s about balance; where there is this really dark rhythm section but it cradles some really beautiful music of chord progressions, quiet angelic, quiet dreamy. That juxtaposition, I’ve always loved that. If you listen to, off the top of my head, Bobby Konder’s The Poem, when you hear the drum and the bass, you have that mad drum coming in, but when you hear what he’s talking, that mad poem coming in on top and that whole chord progression and structure of the music that shouldn’t work together but then you hear these two opposites come together and it sounds tight. I really love that in music.

“It’s about balance; where there is this really dark rhythm section but it cradles some really beautiful music of chord progressions.” Steve Spacek, Africa Hitech

MP: Even a bit like that Game Over track by Dabrye which had Phat Kat and Dilla on it. A lot of people like the instrument and find the vocal too much. Its contents is too ghetto, well grimey. But I love it as an instrumental but also love it as a vocal track, because the grimey vibe brings extra intensity to the beautifulness. The track has this kind of groove and then this chord comes in and it’s this amazing suspense chord that’s actually really beautiful but with them over the top it just kind of enhances that vibe more.

SS: It’s crazy, like Mobb Deep, same thing again: absolutely amazing music, take the vocal away and you can just go off in a dream, but what they are talking about is a really hard-knock life, so ghetto. They’re deep in it lyrically, going to some really dark places and those two things work together big time.

Talking about vocals, I have a bone to pick with you. As somebody who gets sent a lot of promos CDs with idents, whether it’s little voice whispering Nightslugs or a robot saying Hyperdub, those little stamps let me know that this is just a promo and not for public consumption. Well, when I first heard the title track 93 Million Miles that’s what I thought the lady robot voice was. Now, was that intentional or were you just having a little laugh?

MP: Hahaha no, is that really what you thought?

Yeah! Because it was the first thing you hear, and it’s the name of the album, I expected it to run through the whole album!

MP: No, no, on that track we felt like it need some vocal content but not really a song or either of us singing, so we used the Mac voice and spent days and days processing it and trying to make it sing. So that first time it comes in it’s really straight and by the end of it tracks she’s singing, hopefully.

Yeah, it took me until the end of the song to realise that. Ah…Well that’s good to know, I thought you playing a trick on me!

MP: Ha ha, no.

But as well as you tricking me, you taught me something – that we are indeed 93 million miles from the sun. What’s the connection with the sun? Is there one?

SS: 93 million miles…well, it was a combination of when we were making that track, we didn’t want sung vocals, if you like, on that track and we wanted to have this theme and Mark has this science book that he uses for vibes…

Nice.

SS: … you know, in terms of lyrics and stuff and it has some general scientific facts in there, like the distance from the sun to the earth. When I was young at school, I had this teacher called Mr Lavington. Now I know he was a really good teacher because he taught me some figures that I always remember, and I remembered the distance from the sun, how long it took for the sun to reach the earth, and how fast light travels and Mark had the book so we combined all of that…. it just made sense.

Has this book inspired you in the past too?

MP: Yeah, quite a few tracks, when I’m struggling with tracks names. It’s got mainly definitions of words in science and planetary things. It’s a Penguin Book of Science which I originally brought for the cover, which I then lost and then found another in a charity shop, exactly the same but with a different cover so I brought it again. But I always find those things a a great source of inspiration. I’ve found a few things in there, like the Harmonic 30 name came from a sci-fi book…

Mark, you’ve reinvented yourself and your style under so many different names, and you mentioned earlier this disregard for genres when you play your sets because, at the end of the day, music is music and it’s all from the same family. And this breaking down of genres and boundaries means people no longer have to align themselves with one style and this feels even more relevant recently because over the last year or so, dubstep became this kind of dirty word and people begun to deny or outgrow the label. As artists who make music that touches upon so many varied genres, do you find it frustrating when people try to label your music?

“As music becomes more and more popular, it breaks off and just becomes just this one style, one sound.” Mark Pritchard, Africa Hitech

MP: When people do it I don’t really mind. In the last five years I’ve seen music change a little bit, more people are playing eclectic sets, because all DJs like all different kind of music. I see why people do play certain styles and it makes sense. If you make a certain style then you want to play that style, because people expect it from you. When I started DJing in 1990, most DJs would play different music. Even in D&B, when we used to watch DJs play it was all different kinds of D&B in the set. But as music becomes more and more popular, it breaks off and just becomes just this one style, one sound. Ultimate I’d like to hear all those different genres in a set, but it has to be done well and cleverly or those eclectic sets become weird.

When eclectic become erratic…

MP: Yeah. It needs flow.

So who do you like to go see play?

MP: We don’t really go out so much. I see people when I play with them. On a dubstep vibe I like Mala and Coki, although Mala will always starts his sets with something totally not dubstep – but then still play a good cross section of that music.

They were some of the first to shy away from the labelling. Because they were there at the very beginning, it means they outgrew it before a lot of other people did.

MP: Yeah and I think the label ‘dubstep’ has affected people like them which is a shame. You know, even a few years back I’d play a Mala track in a club and people would come up to me and say “play some dubstep” and it would baffle me, I’d be like this is a Digital Mystikzs tune man, you don’t get more dubstep than this!

SS: It’s almost like people forget the funk. Because when you’re talking about hype dubstep, people like Coki, when he’s dealing with those LFOs, he makes this bad basslines but one thing he isn’t forgetting about is the dub, the reggae and the funk; that soul in that music. I think that when a genre really kicks off, when it explodes, that’s the first bit to be left behind. With house too, the funk and soul of it on a mainstream level is all gone and all you’re left with is a 4/4. What’s beautiful is the funk and the soul of it, the feeling you know? Like what Mark was saying before, it’s the spaces in-between the hits or the bass and the drum, the whole juxtaposition between that rhythm section and that music. A lot of people forget that and everything is landing at the same time and then there’s no swing, no soul, no space – it’s just this wall of sound. That is a part of dubstep, but that’s not the only part, there’s this whole other side that’s warmer and more soulful and it’s spiritual as well.

“What’s beautiful is the funk and the soul of it, the feeling you know?” Steve Spacek, Africa Hitech

If there is one thing that I wish for, it’s that people would have the energy to educate themselves beyond their initial point of introduction to a certain sound.

SS: Yeah, before they talk.

MP: It’s not really their fault of course, people come along to things at different times, they’re younger or whatever and it takes them a while to discover and know. But when they do look back, there’s this rich history awaiting them.

If you’d like to hear more from Africa Hitech’s musical canon, check out their guest show on Rinse now.

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