Hypderdub pioneer, Ikonika, shares the music that helped shaped her as an artist. [Words by Katie Thomas — previously published on Radar Radio]

In the decade since the release of her first single ‘Please’, Ikonika has cemented herself as a heavyweight on the underground music scene working with everyone from the likes of Bok Bok to Jammz to Jessy Lanza. With her roots in dubstep, her penchant for futuristic video game motifs, and her love for R&B and hip-hop (highlighted in her most recent Hyperdub album Distractions), Ikonika’s releases are as forward thinking as they are diverse. These days the Teklife and Night Slugs affiliate is in ever-more critical demand thanks to her refined ability to transform tracks into club-ready anthems. In between time in the studio — upping her work rate to “follow that producer route” — touring, and prepping for her set at the Radar third Birthday, I spoke with the West London producer about the physicality of bone-shaking bass, her love for The Neptunes and how to harness loneliness and turn it into a banger.

A track that defines your childhood:

Aaliyah — ‘Back & Forth’ (Jive/Blackground — 1994)

What else were you listening to growing up?

My Mum would always play the likes Bee Gees, Elvis, Marvin Gaye, lots of Motown. But I really looked up to my older sisters. They loved new U.S. music. The Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, Aaliyah, Keith Sweat, Boyz II Men, Brandy. R&B was the first thing that I really got into, I was only six or seven. My mum would always say to my sisters — who were a lot older than me — “Take your younger sister” and they’d be like, “Nah.” So I’d always hang out with them at house parties. R&B was my first love, my one true love really.

How did you progress from R&B to club music?

Radio, definitely. I wasn’t aware it was pirate radio at the time, just these weird dudes chatting with really fast music. I remember thinking “This is what they must play in a club,” it was loads of remixes of R&B tunes I loved. I used to sleep with radio on in the background, taping everything so I could listen back to it at school with one of those portable walkmen with a built-in speaker. Then radio got interactive, you could call in and get a shout-out, so I’d record entire shows just to play it back to my friends and be like “My name!”.

How did growing up in West London affect your interest in music?

We didn’t have any nightlife there, to be honest, but I went to uni in Kingston and we used to go to The Works for their student nights on Mondays and Wednesdays. It was always garage and R&B which I loved, but it all felt a bit try hard. Everyone rinsing their student loans on Moschino jeans, it was hard to keep up with that side of things. People like DJ Spoony and EZ would come through and often you’d get in for free, or for £3 or something. That was my first real clubbing experience — raving to garage, bashment and R&B. The Neptunes, Timbaland, Missy, it was that kind of vibe.

The last record you bought:

Giggs ft. Donae’o — ‘Linguo’ (Island Records/No BS Music, 2017)

What else have you been listening to recently?

I’m always listening to Popcaan. Recently, Kelela, AJ Tracey, Lil Uzi Vert, and I always go back to Amerie. I like listening to Partynextdoor. I’ve been being asked about video games again lately, so the Street Fighter OST is in my recently played. I tend to play stuff I listen to in the club too, because I actually listen to club music in my downtime.

Have you come across anyone recently that’s worth keeping an eye out for?

I’ve got an email address so that producers can send me tunes. There’s this guy called Architect. He’s just making edits for the time being but they’re always things I can play out. He’s done a reggaeton edit of a Clipse track that’s been popping off. The track comes in at 22:43 on my last Radar show.

A record that helps you to escape or heal:

Jeremih — Late Nights: The Album (Def Jam, 2015)

When this came out I was touring a lot and feeling quite melancholy. I found myself always reaching for this album, it helped me to relax when I was feeling fragile and put me in a weird dream-like state.

What do you find the most challenging aspect of touring?

Being alone. Sometimes you won’t chat to a human properly for an entire day. The loneliness is definitely a test. As I get older I’m getting more sensitive, I want my own things, nice food, you know. That said, I love playing shows, you have to remember you’re in such a privileged position. I can take those experiences and feelings of loneliness and come home and bang out tunes.

A record that inspired you to start producing:

N.O.R.E — ‘Superthug’ (Tommy Boy Records, 1998)

What was it about this that inspired you sonically?

I could have picked any Neptunes beat but I remember seeing this one late at night on MTV and being like, “What the hell is this tune?” ‘Lapdance’ too, the drums are sick. They sounded so tight — live but not that live — like emulating drums. All those bleeps too, they reminded me of early video games and those are the kind of sounds I’m attracted to. I bought as many Neptunes vinyl as I could. Any instrumentals from HMV, if they didn’t have a vinyl I’d get the CD. Sometimes I’d get a £9 single on import which, for the noughties, was crazy.

Who else has influenced you?

Timbaland and Rich Harrison — he’s Amerie’s producer and the one responsible for ‘One Thing’ and all those other bangers.

How would you define your sound to someone who has never heard your music?

I go through chapters and I experiment with different styles. Right now? Sci-fi, R&B dystopia. My shit is really melodic, sometimes it pulls on your heartstrings but still bangs in the club.

Did you find production was something that came naturally to you?

If it made me dance or nod my head, I was doing the right thing. I’m self-taught. I bought all those instrumentals because I wanted to study the beat, listen to the instrumentation and the arrangement. I tried to dissect simple club tracks to teach myself. You have to trust yourself to hear it, process it, recreate it. A lot of my early tunes were trying to replicate Neptunes and Timbaland beats, so that’s a good starting point. I think the equivalent these days would be kids trying to copy a Mustard beat or a Metro Boomin track.

A track that’s had a great reaction in recent sets:

Hitmakerchinx — ‘Like Me’ (Night Slugs, 2017)

I don’t know too much about the Flex Dance Music (FDM) scene but I really like the sound. There’s something emotional about the sample choices on the Shades & Monsters: FDM Classics record and a lot of them are from R&B tracks I grew up with, like Ginuwine. I like the feeling of recognising a sample and understanding how it’s changed. It’s similar to what I like about footwork and what the Teklife guys do — stripping everything back with a really loud bass, some banging drums and a sample.

Who are your favourite artists to see play live?

I always like Kode9, his set at Field Day was really good. He’s always up to date and very inspiring and I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss. Even back in the day he brought that colour to dubstep. Girl Unit is good all the time. Sometimes it frustrates me how good he is, manipulating a crowd in such a nonchalant way. I’ll be overthinking everything and his selection just comes so naturally, I’d like to be more like that sometimes.

How do you prepare for your own sets?

Now I have so many tunes at different BPMs I have to think about it more. I change my mind all the time. Sometimes I prepare beforehand, other times I show up and read the crowd. I’m playing a lot of 100bpm stuff at the moment so I can play a lot of music I fell in love with as a teenager and bring it back 20 years later. I was brought into this bass music 130bpm thing, trying to play technical sets, but for now I’m just having fun. I want to play party tunes all the time. Like yeah, I’ll play a dub, but I’ll mix it in with a Timbaland instrumental you haven’t heard for 12 years. I like playing UK funky too. When Scratcha and I play it’s mostly funky, but in a techno way — we keep it bubbling over instead of playing loads of stuff that explodes.

What do you think makes the perfect b2b?

It’s so good with Scratcha because I can be a bit naughty. I’ll try and distract him, we’re a bit too comfortable with each other. But it means I am completely myself with him and he gives me confidence. If I’m over thinking a selection he’ll just be like “Play it!” That’s the point of Avamix: it’s like, don’t worry about anything.

A record that encapsulates the spirit of Hyperdub:

Burial — South London Boroughs (Hyperdub, 2006)

In 2004/ 2005 I was going to FWD>> at Plastic People and DMZ at Mass. London felt dark and gloomy all the time. For me, all early Hyperdub was like pathetic fallacy for grey London: everything sounded murky and like constant, dripping rain. Their early releases were pretty weird, I remember thinking ‘This is banging and all, but how do I play this in the club?’ When ‘South London Boroughs’ came out it was this garage nostalgia — after garage disappeared, Burial brought it back all dark. There’s something about the harsh fuzz that tickles my ear. I really like it.

A track to save a waning dancefloor:

Cardi B — ‘Bodak Yellow’ (Uniiqu3 Bootleg, 2017)

I mean I could have picked the OG but Uniiqu3’s remix is really manic and so pronounced that you just gotta reach for it and turn the club all messy.

What parties have you played that had the best energy?

Definitely Cakeshop in Seoul. I’ve played there twice and everybody wants to rave, to let their hair down. London is cool but nobody gets too excited, everyone holds it in place. We need to take a leaf out of their book and let our hair down more, it’s really, really fun. I think there are too many parties here and we’re too spoilt to the point we never have an event that’s really ‘an event’, you know?

What’s your favourite venue to play in London?

Definitely Corsica Studios, I love it when it’s really dark and smoky and the systems are great. Room 2 especially now they’ve switched the booth around. I don’t like to see people, I want an energy like Plastic People.

And elsewhere?

New York is always good, but they need to work on their systems. People are pretty open minded though and they’ve got good energy. More parties are moving away from Manhattan, Lower East and Williamsburg now to Bushwick. Hopefully the venues will get better — more warehouse spaces.

A record you wish you’d signed:

iLovemakonnen — ‘Love’ feat. Rae Sremmurd (Warner Bros, 2017)

It’s nice to see Mike Will produce a track like this, it reminds me of Paramore, Blink 182, pop punk stuff. It’s that pop sensibility, the chorus with the kind of rock thing. I find it really interesting. I was in a metal band in secondary school and it was such an important part of my life, that, hardcore and plating the drums. I could have been getting up to all sorts but I was so passionate about being in this band. At the same time, I was this R&B and garage kid. It was hard to combine those two worlds.

A track by an artist you’d like to work with:

Popcaan — She Want Hood (21st Hapilos, 2012)

I love Popcaan’s Insta stories, and Spice’s. I find them fucking hilarious. I wish I was hanging out with them. I would be their bag holders — any job to hang out with them and catch a joke. But yeah, he’s an incredible artist, his voice is so good. I love the riddims he picks. I’m getting back into dancehall and that’s a great thing — stuff like that and Tory Lanez, I’m really into that sound at the moment.

Are there any collaborations you’d like to see happen?

I’m hunting down vocalists to try something on my beats. I’d like to work with more UK-based artists like AJ Tracey. It would be cool to work with Jammz again, he’s so humble and hardworking. Working on my album he wasn’t scared of the beat and he showed a fragile side of himself. More often than not you’ll have a female R&B singer on a grime beat so it was cool to do things the other way round with a grime artist on an R&B track. I’m grateful he did that for me. I want to get in the studio more with Bok Bok and Sweyn too.

Katie Thomas — @katietweets26 & portfolio

Ikonika

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