Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
A few years back Jockey Slut – Dummy’s predecessor – ran a regular feature called Cover Up. It involved blindfolding artists and playing them tracks. It always looked like a whole lot of fun so we’ve brought it back in an updated format. Kicking off this new series are Kode9 and the Spaceape (pictured right, pulling the wool over no one’s eyes) who, 5 years after their debut ‘Memories Of The Future’, return this month with their second album ‘Black Sun’ on Kode9’s label Hyperdub. It’s an immense record: absorbing, stirring, urgent. Presented as a ‘sonic fiction’ from an imagined future, it’s a densely packed listen that by turn bristles and shudders with sounds, emotions and ideas that echo – sometimes unnervingly – with the real world. A few Wednesdays ago, I headed round to a Camberwell address to play the pair a few tracks that listening to the record had brought to mind for one reason or another, and to chat about the threads running between them and ‘Black Sun’. Here’s how they went down.
Spaceape: He’s a goddamn musical genius. I had loads of Prince stuff on tape. I remember he did this thing on TV – it was a birthday concert for his 30th I think. It was around the time of ‘Parade’, so he did all of his old stuff. He did this mixture of Controversy and Dance Music Sex Romance and it was just wowwww. It was Prince and the Revolution – Wendy and Lisa, Brown Mark, Bobby Z on drums, Jerome Benton, the whole band. The whole thing was just a massive party. He had this yellow suit on and it was like, that is a fucking performance. He had the crowd like this. And he did, as I said, this freestyle mix of this and DMSR and I had it in my head that that’s how this track went but listening back to this original, I’m like ahhh. So that’s what this track reminds me of: Prince during the good times.
He’s just fearless. I can’t imagine him ever having a doubt about anything. It feels like he just said and did whatever.
S: What was great about that period was that fact that he did so many things. If you think now – he was a young black man who recorded, produced, arranged…
K9: Wore high heels.
S: Wore high heels, played all the instruments, wore knickers, wore a raincoat, wore suspenders…I mean, come on.
K9: Yeah, that’s incredible actually: what he was doing with his dress sense. People still haven’t caught up with that as far as I’m concerned.
S: Unbelievable. And having this mixed race, mixed gender band. He was just way out there. Obviously you’ve got comparisons – Rick James was kind of a similar thing. He was the dirty version – even dirtier, seedier than Prince! But y’know, that period – ‘1999’, ‘Purple Rain’, even before then ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Parade’ – culminating with ‘Sign O’ The Times’. It was just the best thing ever. And it was prolific – he was making an album a year. An amazing album a year. You just wouldn’t get that now. You follow up ‘Purple Rain’ with ‘Around The World In A Day’ with ‘Parade’ with ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and it was all 84, 85, 86, 87. [Laughs] You just can’t do that; people just don’t do that. But they were all amazing albums. So that’s why I say, even now – Prince, goddamn musical genius. You just can’t diss the man. And what a performer.
And when you read the lyrics or listen closely to them, he was making big political statements and making them the biggest party song in the world.
S: Yeah, 1999. And obviously Sign O’ The Times.
Which was the cover you did, the first Kode9 and the Spaceape track.
S: Yeah. Because it’s a great song and it’s got a great melody, you could miss the lyrics, you could miss what he’s actually saying. An interviewer from Red Bull said our version really resonated with her and I said, when you speak the lyrics…
K9: …you really get them right in your face. There’s no melody. Just bang.
S: And then you get everything and you understand, wow. That was 1987, 20-odd years ago.
K9: I think the synths in Controversy are quite subtle but they’re there. They’re these little drone-y things in the chorus – rrrrgggg – and there’s a squelchy, farty one. I’ve always loved the synths in those kind of Prince tracks but it’s the first time I’ve heard the one in the chorus that’s kind of like 3 or 4 of our tracks on the album.
S: [makes synth sound] dddddrrrrrr
K9: Just these little melodic drones… [makes synth sound] uurrrrrrr.
S: Yeah, yep.
K9: Like slightly off-tune, slightly dissident. But that same kind of drone-y…I love that. Especially with his voice, the off-tune synth with his cool voice.
Lyrically there are a couple of moments in Controversy that resonate with the album too. Some people want to die so they can be free makes me think of Anger is an energy / Suicide a remedy from your track The Cure.
K9: We just spotted one actually…in the stripped back bit at the end.
S: [sings] I wish there was no black or white / I wish there were no rules.
For Am I.
K9: That’s not intentional.
S: That’s not intentional but me and Prince, we’re like blood. [Laughs]
K9: He’s in your blood. [Laughs]
CUBIC ZIRCONIA NIGHT OR DAY
S: Who’s that? Her voice sounded like Kelis at the beginning but then I thought it sounded like a UK singer.
K9: Yeah, I’ve got no idea who that was.
That’s Cubic Zirconia with Bilal on the track Night Or Day. This is on an EP coming out in the summer.
K9: Ah yes, on LuckyMe?
Yes. What did you think?
K9: It kind of reminded me of a 90s dance-pop thing. Song-based dance music. I think Herbert did some vocal tracks – that kind of vibe: house drums, house pattern but with that kind of female vocal. It’s hard to place in time and style.
S: I liked the vocal – that’s the thing I picked out: the male and female vocals.
K9: Yes, it reminded me a little of Love Is A Drug with the female vocal at the front and the male vocal just backing it up.
There’s a really raw energy, a raw sexual energy to the track.
K9: Vocally it’s quite raw; it’s quite loose. They’ve not just learned the lyrics and are doing the lyrics. It’s quite loose – like she says, they’re doing it how they feel. Feel it. That’s what it sounds like.
Yes, it’s very instinctive. I think that’s why I wanted to play it, because there’s also something very instinctive about your album. That thing that you can’t hear, you can just feel it.
K9: I think that’s what we were talking about earlier, wasn’t it. There’s a different energy to this album than to our first one. It’s because quite early on in the process we were rehearsing live sets and started recording the embryos of all the tracks that are on the album. What we noticed was this live energy that was so far away from the first album, which was just like sleepwalking. And you know, that energy is us dancing while we’re rehearsing, us getting into it while we’re rehearsing – and you can hear that more on this album than most of our other stuff where it’s more vocally catatonic; musically, rhythmically catatonic. I don’t know why but we just wanted to get away from that. And also, the way the vocals are done – like on that [Cubic Zirconia] track – there’s much more multi-tracked vocals with male and female, or him doing 4 or 5 different vocals on top of each other, coming from different places. It’s another energy thing, a vocal energy of having lots of voices rubbing off each other.
A few listens into ‘Black Sun’ I was starting to see Spaceape’s voice as a preacher or prophet – or the protagonist anyway – and Cha Cha’s voice as everyman/everywoman, and the music was like society. There’s a track where Cha Cha is distractedly humming…
K9: Black Smoke.
it’s kind of spooky – there’s this unconscious, instinctive ‘fuck, there’s all this going on’ and then there’s this…
K9: Humming in the shower.
Yes! Humankind just like ‘da da derrr’…
K9: [to Spaceape] It’s weird because your lyrics are fucking intense in that track and she’s just humming away in the background [laughs].
S: [laughs] Yeah, I know.
K9: It’s funny because most people wouldn’t notice it; it’s quite low in the mix.
S: When Steve went to China…
K9: Cha Cha’s from Shanghai.
S: We’d finished the tracks and earmarked a few that could do with her vocal. But one of the tracks that I was absolutely like, yeah, she can’t really do anything on that, was Black Smoke. It is what it is. But when he came back with it we were like, wow that does work.
K9: When we were in the studio, she was humming and singing and chatting and trying all sorts of different things. She probably just did it accidentally and I heard it and said just do that, do more of that. It just immediately… that was the ear-worm. I heard it and that was it. That’s never really happened to me before because we’ve never really recorded as a 3 before.
It must be really exciting when stuff like that happens.
K9: It’s like cooking, really. I’ve never cooked with a Spaceape and a Cha Cha in the same pot. You didn’t know how that was going to taste together but it works.
S: Yeah, especially hearing Love Is A Drug because she’s made that track. I’m sitting underneath her but vocally it’s her. It turns it into this really sexy, sultry but slightly dangerous track. I really like female voices when English isn’t their first language. There’s something…
K9: I wonder why that is…his wife is not English.
S: [Laughs] I like it when they sing – there are certain pronunciations that are slightly wrong but that’s what’s good about it. That bit where she says: And yet this love is going to tighten round your neck. In my head, that would flow and—yet but she goes andyet. She completely changes the lilt of it but it works.
K9: It’s funny cos that track was exactly the same as the Black Smoke one, where she did this thing and me and Gaz, her boyfriend, heard it and it just clicked. It’s the bit that’s repeated – this love is – suddenly she sounded like a late 80s vocal house diva.
Which brings us onto…
CE CE ROGERS SOMEDAY
K9: I know it but who…?
That was Ce Ce Rogers and Marshall Jefferson with Someday.
K9 and S: Ahh Ce Ce Rogers.
K9: It’s got that preachy gospel vibe, hasn’t it?
K9: Great melody, great track.
It’s the synth keys that made me think of Love Is A Drug.
K9: That’s the period of house I had in mind, probably after I made it. I was like – oh shit, that’s a bit like that. It was Cha Cha’s voice that triggered that idea. The way she sang on that track was like a late 80s Chicago house track.
S: [sings] Sweet harmony…
Weirdly, I got into this song from being a kid and loving Baby D Let Me Be Your Fantasy, which kind of ripped off Lucid Sweet Harmony …
S: See that’s the one I thought it was…Lucid…
…which sampled Someday by Ce Ce Rogers.
S: But then you had that Finally as well…
K9: Isn’t that Ce Ce Peniston?
S: Which is that as well… [sings] dhung dhung dhung da dhung da dhung
K9: That was one of the dominant riffs in house. [puts on voice] “You will rush now…”
S: The best one is Gabriel by Roy Davis Jr. That’s just the best.
K9: [From the next room as he looks for the vinyl] But that’s a later thing, I think.
S: It is, isn’t it. But for ages I didn’t know what it was. I’d hear it and be like – that track is fucking amazing. Up until recently – I think I was here and I said to Steve, what’s that track that goes… and I did the rhythm and he goes that’s Roy Davis Jr.
I want to know if I know it now.
S: You will, it’s just a classic.
K9: It’s a different species I think– more garage, more organic sounding.
S: Sublime, that track.
K9: It’s also Chicago. Roy Davis Jr, 1996.
S: 1996, wow.
With house music, there’s obviously this escapist thing but it’s also future thinking, imagining this really hopeful future. Which is why I don’t completely agree with some of the readings of your album, about it being a really dystopian image that you’re painting because I don’t think it is. There are obviously big warnings in there but I don’t think it’s ‘we’re all going to hell…’
S: It’s not like that at all.
K9: It’s a very obviously – apart from Love Is A Drug – a very different vibe to these two pieces of music. And people don’t usually associate our stuff with Chicago house for obvious reasons: it doesn’t sound like Chicago house apart from that one track. [To Spaceape] But y’know, there are resonances with that first one in the vocal with you but you probably want to distinguish what you do from that very preachy stuff.
S: It’s not so much whether the album is hopeful or it’s not, it’s more like this is a picture of a time and place when something has happened and life has altered somewhat. Lots of things are familiar but things are slightly warped; there are a few jagged edges in there that don’t ring familiar with what we’re used to seeing. It’s not a fearful thing in the ideas that we’re conjuring up: people exist and are functioning but just in a different way to how we do now. Love is different, the wars and battles are slightly different but these things still exist. It’s not to say everything’s gone to shit.
K9: It does have a rougher – musically and vocally – British edge to it than either of those 2 we just played because it’s come from a different musical world to where house and garage came from. Even the house stuff on the album is filtered through London.
S: Yeah, we live in London.
K9: But there are a range of emotions on the album that I think we are at pains to point out because it’s easy for people to focus on the dark dsytopian side of things, it’s almost like a knee-jerk reaction to what we do. They hear his voice and hear some of the music, and automatically revert to a science fiction, dystopian world, in the future, blah blah blah.
I agree, there are a lot of layers and it’s very easy to hear the first one first and ignore the other ones but the society we’re living in now is so sped up and condensed that all these emotions are happening at the same time. You can feel in 3 or 4 minutes extreme despair and extreme happiness. There are so many things colliding: technology, the environment, the impact of capitalism, of consumerism – all these big events happening. You can feel all those layers if you’re listening closely.
K9: I mean, we don’t consciously try and put that it. I think lyrically it’s more personal but the way it ends up is more global. But it’s a fiction; it’s a global fiction. We’re not writing about the world as is it, we’re writing about something quite personal but creating a whole science fiction world out of that. That’s the world the album exists in. If it resonates with stuff that’s going on in the world now, which it does unfortunately a little too intensely right now – because that fictional world happens after a radioactive event and so on – all you can hope to do is do that in a way that doesn’t trivialise the actual event.
But do you think because music is the most instinctive, emotional, lucid kind of art and is quite tuned into the world at large, while these tracks are not prophetic in any way they have picked up on stuff…?
K9: I think the minute you tune into something that’s not just about going out on a Saturday night or having a good time or romance in a superficial way, the minute you plug into the dark side then shit is going to happen. When you plug into the unconscious of the planet like that – in the unconscious of the planet everything is happening at the same time, all the shitty stuff and all the best stuff – it’s not surprising that you get these coincidences. [To Spaceape] And like you said earlier, the way you write is quite open, it’s not like Someday where it’s got a social message, it’s vague and it’s fuzzy…
S; Cos that’s the way I see it…
K9: And when you write like that it leaves some room for the world and the listener to put themselves in it and join the dots.
S: Y’know, that’s got it’s good and bad sides. It’s good because people can tune in and are like, what’s going on, is it about that? Or people tune in and go, what the fuck is he talking about? You know what I mean.
K9: Yeah, it’s a brick wall because a lot of people don’t want to do the work of, not of interpretation, but of putting themselves in the music. A lot of people just want it up in their face – oh, dance; oh, relationship…
S: I’m reading this book called The Road Less Travelled and the first line goes: ‘Life is difficult.’ That’s the first line of the book, life is difficult, and you go from there. Y’know, I’ve got no qualms at all about listening to someone go, get up and dance and shake your booty. Cool man, in the right mood I’m on that straight away but what moves me to write about something at the moment is something that’s going to kind of challenge me, on a perceptual level. Sometimes life does feel completely unreal; you’re walking around and think to yourself, shit man…is this? It’s almost like reality catches up with something you’re experiencing later on, y’know? It’s like, what was it that I just lived? Was it all real? But it didn’t feel like this. And you’re telling me this is more real than that? I don’t know.
I think you definitely pick up on that on the album. In the music, and also the lyrics – like, Are we being deceived? That level of distrust. Okay, moving on…
S: It’s Japan. I love this track.
K9: Is it Ghosts?
K9: It’s amazing.
So I played that track…actually what do you think?
K9: No, go on.
OK, I played that because resonates with Hole In The Sky – so minimal, no drums and that landscape/soundscape thing. When I looked it up today and discovered it got to number 5 in the charts.
K9: Shit has changed. When was that…1980?
K9: You listen to that and you listen to most of the things that have been in the top 40 in the last 20 years and you ask yourself, which comes from the future?
K9: It doesn’t need answering. Ironically, that and Hole In The Sky are probably made on the same synth – [points to a keyboard] that Yamaha, the DX7, which has a really 80s digital synth sound, really clean. Although totally different sounds in the two tracks. It’s kind of scary how that can be number 5 and we’ve had to put up with the shit we’ve had to put up with.
S: It is an amazing track. I have it on my iPod and every now and then I listen to it. Sonically and vocally, just beautiful. And the lyrics are fantastic. Funnily enough, on Tricky’s album ‘Maxinquaye’ he quotes that track. There’s a bit where he says ‘ Just when I thought I was winning / just when I thought I could not be stopped. ’ It’s on the track Aftermath on the album. Have a listen. I was of a certain age at that time, so I remember when it came out but I wasn’t into that sort of music then.
K9: Yeah, I only came to that track through Goldie – cos of his track Ghosts, which is based on that track. Like reggae, I only came to reggae through jungle. Only came to Japan and David Sylvian through jungle. And that’s what was cool about jungle; it had every music riveted into it. So if you’re into that speed of the drums and the bassline then who knows what’s going to get through on your way in and where that’s going to take you in your music taste. So through discovering that track through Goldie, I spent the last year listening to the David Sylvian/Sakamoto Bamboo Houses track and Yellow Magic Orchestra and 80s Sakamoto and 80s Hosono, so it’s kind of weird how that happens [laughs].
Falling through musical wormholes.
K9: Yeah, exactly. Well, that’s what you always want to do with sampling – provide a little trapdoor for people to fall through and come out in a completely different dimension or world or different time in history.
What I love about that track too is the energy that you get from so little, the tension there. I’ve danced to it – Actress plays that out.
K9: It is so emotional.
S: We’ve done that stripped down, no bass, y’know that kind of emptiness but full with Sine Of The Dub and Ghost Town. It wasn’t conscious – ‘ooo, like Japan’ – but the similarities are clearly there even through it’s a different area. And also as to why we’d like a track like that, y’know. Hole In The Sky is like that.
K9: It’s not spoken word…but everything’s stripped down to voice and effects.
S: And his voice is beautiful, really just beautiful. It’s amazing cos they made that track but yet they were a pop band. And they were on the cover of Smash Hits! I remember he was voted the most beautiful man in the world. They were a pop band and that was a pop song!
K9: I don’t know the chronology of it but Japanese synth music was a big influence on Japan the band. And when you listen to Stock, Aitken and Waterman, which at the peak of the 80s was the ultimate in package, it sounds like Japanese synth pop. So the influence of Japanese music on British pop music in the 80s is fucking huge. And maybe it’s to do with the synthesizer technology coming from Yamaha and Roland and all these other companies but it’s kinda weird. Cos it’s like the guitar got ousted a little bit, thank fuck.
GEORGE CLINTON ATOMIC DOG
S: Damn funky. There’s loads of stuff going on in that track. All those voices going [puts on cartoon voice and makes indecipherable sound].
K9: That’s what’s so amazing about George Clinton – just this host of characters that come out of him. That chorus of voices – different sizes, different ages, different species.
That’s what resonates with your album to a certain extent – that fictional landscape, the characters and the textures.
K9: I’d love to do something more like that to be honest…
S: Oh god, yeah.
K9: …where the characters are more alien and there are so many of them. Where there’s a swarm of characters that zoom in and disappear immediately. Little cute things, those high pitched ones.
S: Those are the ones I love.
K9: Like in Aqua Boogie … Is that the name?
S: Who is it by?
S: Oh yeah, Parliament.
K9: [puts on high pitched voice to sing] I can’t swim, I never could swim.
K9: [still singing] Never learned to swim. [Drops down an octave] I don’t want to swim.
S: I can’t remember what it’s called…
K9: [back to the high pitched voice] I don’t wanna get wet! I don’t wanna get wet!
S: I know which one you mean now but I can’t remember the name.
K9: It’s Aqua something…Aqua Boogie? [Looks it up on laptop] It’s Aqua Boogie (Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloo).
S: That’s the one!
K9: It’s such an acid thing, such a psychedelic thing of chipmunks and goblins. They’ve got funky goblins in Parliament. It’s not like some Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings type goblin. It’s like a little funky goblin.
S: Yeah, these are goblins that wear nappies.
K9: They wear nappies, they come out of spacecrafts and [plays track again]. So yeah, whenever he did punk political stuff, it wasn’t in that realist, preachy way – it was always in this bizarre, cosmic, space-opera of creatures, dogs, the nuclear age, the atomic age being part of this cosmic drama. It wasn’t like The Clash, pub-rock, get down there in Brixton or whatever.
S: None the less, his shit was real man.
K9: It was more real because it was like that.
S: Yeah, he’s like a character beyond… I met him once! I was in a club in London. It was a long, long time ago. I saw him from a distance and I was like, fuck that’s George Clinton. He was kind of over there doing his stuff so I turned around and started talking for ages to someone. And then I turned back round and he was there! Just waiting for someone, just stood right there!
K9: How old were you?
S: I must’ve been 18. I was like…fuck…whoah. So I just went [leans forward and holds out hand] “Pleased to meet you, man.” That’s all I said. He just went [mimes fly handshaking]. I was like, that was George Clinton. Fuck! I dined out on that for a long time.
K9: I did have a cosmic experience seeing them live once. It was the classic cheesy festival, psychedelic experience. I mean, everyone’s off their faces, it’s pouring with rain and it’s all dark clouds. They’ve gone freestyle, jamming away. Jamming away, jamming away and it’s really chaotic musically. And then suddenly someone does something in the band – the synths, a keyboard or something – and adds a little touch of light into the music. And then everybody changes what they’re doing and at exactly that moment the sun came out [laughs]. Suddenly the clouds opened up and I was like, George, you’re god. George, I will clean your nappies [laughs].
S: [laughs] I saw them in Brixton a long time ago. They were playing with Primal Scream. Primal Scream played for an hour. They played for four hours.
K9: Fucking hell.
S: They’re notorious for that.
K9: Cos when they went off on this jam, I thought it may never end.
S: Four hours. They went on at, I don’t know, midnight and came off at half 4. Know what I mean? I was listening to them and I’d go out and come back and they’d still be like [makes funk guitar/synth sounds]. Still going at it.
The energy, man!
S: The drugs, man!
K9: It’s those rare moments when black music culture converges with acid. It doesn’t happen too often actually. Obviously Hendrix, Funkadelic, Parliament. You can kind of hear it some weird, tripped out R&B stuff like Sa-Ra and so on. But there’s a bit more cocaine in that sound. Again, the Brainfeeder stuff has got that intense psychedelic dimension to it but that’s like highly potent weed and DMT. It’s rare but always special when acid and black music converge.
Do you think Earth Wind & Fire…?
K9: It looks like they’re on acid [laughs] but musically it’s almost too orchestrated and polished, too clean.
S: I think there was a period in time when there were about 90-odd members of Earth Wind & Fire. Not all on stage at the same time.
K9: I don’t know what Sun-Ra’s relationship to acid was.
S: I think he was from another planet [laughs].
K9: I don’t know what his relationship to drugs were at all, but it’s more real for him. He is from another planet. He didn’t need to be fuel-injected with psychedelics; he was just living that.
S: Yeah, absolutely.
K9: It’s almost like Funkadelic and Parliament are Sun-Ra plus acid. And Earth Wind & Fire are Parliament minus the acid but plus disco.
S: Groups like Slave were also on the drug tip.
K9: A lot of that 80s boogie stuff – you can hear it in the synths but not in much else because the production is very clean. The lyrics are really smooth – it’s not tripped out like George Clinton’s stuff.
S: All that late 70s funk stuff – that was kind of my thing. Because reggae was the staple diet for me growing up and I got sick of listening to it, y’know what I mean? My mum, my brother, my sisters…reggae reggae reggae. I just got bored. I needed an escape. So I started listening to soul music. A friend of mine, Everton, got me into Slave…I know George Clinton, Parliament, Funkadelic from Ev. He used to have their albums and I’d be “what the fuck is this? That is a mad cover!” [Laughs] I never thought there would be a period in time when that was a bit cheesy because actually, everyone’s jumping on it now.
K9: Why did you play that, just out of interest?
It’s body music and…
K9: But it’s body-head music, cos it’s so tripped out and it’s so head-expanding and danceable…
Yes, definitely. Having read a lot of interviews I really like the way you talk about music, that the body and the head are not exclusive. I think dancing is very important but is sometimes undervalued.
K9: That’s another thing about British culture that’s weird. I mean some people do realise the importance of the last 20 years of rave culture, how important that has been culturally. It’s the most interesting thing to happen to this country in how long? Especially compared to Britpop, which is so backward and fucked. But it’s so easy to take it for granted…’let’s go out at the weekend and get wasted’. But it’s a very important, powerful social ritual.
It’s a transcendence thing – physically and mentally. You’re stepping outside domestic, daily routine and you’re using your body in a different way. Yeah, I agree that it’s the most interesting thing that happened to Britain because before that for however many years, Britain acted in a very proper way – and this was Britain acting the most improperly it could.
K9: The [previous] mode of rebellion was through a rock and roll channel. Even after punk killed rock and roll, people are still turning that corpse over, digging up the old fucker. Lay that guitar to rest.
S: Jimmy burnt it for a reason.