Africa Hitech: Traversing the UK Soundscape

source: Africa Hitech

Veterans of the UK scene before the term ‘UK bass’ was even a thing, Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek have lived through their individual careers going through multiple UK genres. They were there the very first time sound system culture boomed in Europe, and their own sonic proclivity leaned towards all the right dub-infused beats and offshoots of Chicago-Detroit sounds. As Africa Hitech, the duo coalesces into a conflagration of their influences – with some ethnic reverberations to their bass line (think the African rumba, hence the namesake) – and the latest in Chi-innovation; footwork and juke. Debut LP 93 Million Miles was expectedly a transcontinental collection of riddims, the sort that would inspire one to show off their footwork skills as opposed to IDM chin-stroking. Having spoken at RBMA Session last October in Kuala Lumpur, JUICE had the opportunity to have our own one-on-one session with Pritchard and Spacek – naturally being a magazine whose wavelength resonated with them, our discussion amounted to a lecture on misplaced genre loyalties, the phobia of new music, and America’s oft-forgotten contribution to dance.

You’re talking to us at RBMA Session, a mini edition of the real thing, coincidentally you guys met at Red Bull Music Academy?
Mark Pritchard People do say that, but it’s not entirely true (laughs). We have worked and played a lot at Red Bull events, and our first single was recorded at RBMA Toronto. ‘Glangslap’ was done during a Red Bull thing – quite a lot of the tracks that came out early on, especially the Africa Hitech songs, were made at Red Bull events.

Prior to that, you guys only worked together as guest features and collaborative one-offs?
M Yeah. The first time we worked together, Steve came down and did a track for one of my albums, which later came out on Sonar Kollektiv. Later, we ended up in Australia 8 or 9 years ago coincidentally – like 10 minutes from each other in Sydney – and from that moment, obviously it started happening more because we both moved to the other side of the world and just started making music together immediately.

Was there something about you and Spacek that had you gravitating towards each other musically?
Steve Spacek We are from the UK, we worked together before, and because we’re on the same tip anyway – we’re thousands of miles away in another country, it made sense for us to work together. We make the same music, it was a no brainer; easy.
M I heard Steve’s voice on the first Spacek single, ‘Eve’. I had it on a promo CD and that was the first time I heard him singing, it was amazing, not just his voice but I was into the whole [song]. When it came out, it wasn’t like anything else, it was ahead of its time. It had a different feel than a lot of UK soul music, the voice was also very distinct… quite a mysterious quality to it. That was my impression of it (laughs). We had mutual friends [at the time], so we met quite quickly because we were signed to our friend’s label, we met each other a couple times before we spoke.

You guys are vets of the UK scene, can you talk to us about the transformative period of the scene when the term ‘UK bass’ is being bandied about regularly. It’s such a vague genre name, what is it really?
M I don’t really like that term that much either, it kinda sums up what it’s about but at the same time there are a lot of different genres happening. Essentially, it got to a point when everybody felt like there was a line going through all the styles, like dubstep, garage, jungle, UK house – whatever it was, there was definitely a thread tying them all together. Bass is obviously there – the bass line, quite an obvious thing – the Jamaican influence, but also the fact that England has a lot of people from different places and they are doing their own thing. And that is why the UK has its own bass and rhythm sensibilities that are quite unique I suppose. It’s a combination of different things coming together; the UK loving house music, the UK loving Detroit techno, all that stuff was a melting point and the common thread was the sound system culture coming to the UK. All the styles have their twist and takes on it but essentially sound system culture informs all those sounds, you can pinpoint it.
S [Bass music] is an umbrella term putting them together because there are so many different genres, and subgenres as well, you know. In that sense, if there’s music you don’t really have a name for, you put it under UK bass.
M While we know what it is, it’s a weird [term], but it’s the one people are using at the moment. But I’m sure it will change again (laughs).

It’s sort of a name music journos would come up with but not the artistes themselves…
S In a way, it’s not that bad as Mark said, most of the music that comes from the UK, or has touched the UK scene, is based on the bass line due to the whole reggae and sound system culture, it’s really prevalent. Everywhere you’d go, the sound system is really big and you’d want to fill the bass like it would hit you in a club. UK garage, grime, jungle, or whatever, there’s always that heavy bass, always.

Do you feel like bass music has gotten too loud to the point that it’s lacking in subtlety now?
S Lacking in subtlety? The thing is if you listen on a mainstream level, yeah, but if you are in the UK and you know what’s what – it’s amazing. It’s multi-layered, you can’t even get to the bottom of it, it’s endless. But the sad thing is when people talk about dubstep, they’re not actually talking about dubstep, they’re talking about brostep! Like Skrillex and all. Real dubstep has nothing to do with any of that stuff, it’s just proper dub – and dub is reggae – but the youth they put their electronic, futuristic kinda vibe into the production, yet you can still hear the reggae. If you listen to Mala, Coki, and all those guys, it’s reggae music, but futuristic.

Sort of like trap, bastardised by the same people who ruined dubstep, we feel.
S Yeah! That happens with all music, it gets popular and somehow it’s bastardised.
M I suppose people would take the midrange energy of the sound, and that’s what – maybe – the masses can get their heads wrapped around. It happened to d’n’b, it went straight to 2-step; noisier basses and less subs, not as much jungle-kinda drum breaks, not as much sub b-lines. And it blew up more. Young people respond to that. On sh!t sound systems that stuff sound better, you can play more modern midrange-y tunes on a sh!t sound system and the energy would still come across. You play a better tune on a sh!t sound system, you’d be using half the tune, so that stuff doesn’t work as much. You can see why that happens. Purists get angry and it’s a difficult subject to get into, I’m always torn in that argument. What I like about the music is not there anymore, so I’m not interested [in discussing it].
S When [a genre] gets popular, all the really good stuff disappear, all the good attributes are gone. You might hear dubstep in a bar, but it’s never gonna be the real dubstep – the sound system isn’t as heavy, you won’t be able to hear it properly, it doesn’t make sense. It’s gonna sound like noise.

The origin of dance owes a lot to Chicago and Detroit, why is it that now the States don’t contribute as much to the genre?
S There are some heavy cuts from America, definitely, but once again, you don’t really hear about those cuts. Detroit doesn’t really get much props, you’d hear about IDM and that kind of stuff, but you don’t hear about Detroit and Chicago where a lot of that stuff started. We heard it in the UK and we loved it, it made sense to us – soulful dance music with good vibes. All of sudden, the Americans on a mainstream level have taken the whole dubstep and UK bass thing and extricated them of their roots, and the roots of it are from there originally, ironic really.
M I felt for quite a long time, if you take hip hop out of the equation, electronic music in America has had great house, always good house and techno coming out of America. I think the footwork stuff, which came from Chicago house, has been one of the most exciting sounds to have come out. I mean, it’s been developing for 15 years but within the last 10 years juke and footwork were happening, nobody has heard of it cause it was happening in a Chicago niche. But that music, I think, has definitely contributed a lot to underground dance music in the last 5 years. It’s influenced the UK people a lot; ‘Footcrab’ by Addison Groove wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for [juke] in some ways. He was into juke and he made his own version of its sound, which is great because he put his own take into it. Footwork in some ways helped d’n’b and jungle come back in a different way – really exciting stuff happening in UK that wouldn’t have happened without footwork. So I think the Chicago guys have brought some really fresh things back and got people thinking in the UK again. That’s the first time in a long while [the States contributed again], it has definitely happened before, in hip hop especially, lots of thing that have come out of America influenced the UK. But footwork and juke are the current big influences on the UK and Europe. I think you’re gonna start seeing more people paying attention to that and developing that sound. So yeah, all the Detroit, Chicago, New York guys are still doing their thing, making amazing music. There are probably other things happening in America that we don’t know about and won’t hear until 3 or 4 years later. I’m sure it’s going on, it’s ghetto music, the Chicago house genre came from places where people have something to say.

Just from the name itself, you can tell Africa Hitech’s got that whole rumba rhythm going on, incorporating sounds from the continent into dub music. Is that the focus for now or are we gonna see an expansion of even more ethnic influences?
S We’ve always done that, really. You know when people hear something first, straight away they’d identify the artiste with that music, but then if you check back, there’s a whole history of something else. There were things that made them arrive to that particular place in their career. Mark and I, if you look back at our history, we’ve covered other genres as well. With Africa Hitech, as long as the bass lines are heavy and you can get a really good vibe in a club, we’re always gonna go in some kind of direction, but we never really know until we start making it. Like when we started the Africa Hitech album, we only sort of know about footwork, but we weren’t that deep in it, not much. All of sudden halfway through we heard of it through Mike Paradinas and it all made sense; by the end of the album we had footwork on it. The main thing with that is we’re quite open if something new comes along that is relevant to what we are doing, we’d incorporate those vibes. We try not to limit ourselves. A lot of people dig themselves into a hole with their music, “I make this kind of music.” Then when someone asks, would you do that? They’d go, “Oh no, because I’m doing this!” But we just love music, if we feel like going to a certain direction, then we’re gonna go to that direction.
M Whatever we feel like making, we’d just make it and try to put our own take on it. Sometimes it’s timing-wise, sometimes we’d just do whatever we want. It worked quite well with footwork even though when we started playing it in our sets, it still wasn’t going down that well in Europe. But as more and more people started playing it and the Chicago people coming over and playing it, people love it now.

It’s been a while since Africa Hitech’s full-length LP. Are you guys working on something right now or you haven’t been quite as inspired by a new sound as you were with footwork?
S We’re working on stuff. Mark is working on his personal project, I’m working on mine as well. We’re just taking a break from Africa Hitech just because studio-wise, we got so much other stuff that we do anyway, y’know. Like I haven’t done a solo album since 2004, so it’s overdue for me. It’s kind of like being free with your music – being able to go off and do things when you feel like doing them, and not feel like, “Oh, we have to do that.” Otherwise it’s not fun anymore. [Africa Hitech] is something we love and a main project, but to love something and do it properly, you gotta take time out. We want to do our own solo things, so we can’t do Africa Hitech [at the moment] because it takes a lot [out of us], y’know. Also, with us, if we have any genre, music, or project that we’re approaching, we give it our 100%. That being the case, when we’re entering our solo projects, we can never give Africa Hitech its true justice.

These days DJs and producers tend to make doomsaying statements about the quality of music currently. Have you guys had that sort of instances when you feel like everything is shit now?
S I don’t really get down like that. At times, a lot of people get caught up with old music, and rightfully so, because at the time when a lot of old music came out, they were pioneering and progressive. Also, luckily back then, a lot of that music were allowed to be mainstream. That’s why so many people when you talk about music with them, they are like, “Oh, it’s not like the old days.” But see, the reason why music was so amazing back in the old days was because when those people were making it, it was high tech, cutting edge, and new. They were going into an unknown world. We feel like we’re here today with access to all that equipment plus the new stuff that we use now, it’s all about moving forward. It’s about right now. If I take aspects of the old, that’s fine too, but it makes no difference, I just wanna make music. I don’t care if it’s old or new, it’s as simple as either if I’m feeling it or not.
M As a producer or musician, the point when you think all new music is rubbish is when you’ve probably lost it. It’s dangerous. I had periods when I’m not hearing as much new music that I like, and that can happen over the period of 6 months. There can be lots of stuff that I like and then won’t be any for a few months, I’d be struggling to find songs that would excite me. Then all of a sudden, I’d get loads of mad music again. You can always dig back to old music, I had periods when I’d go back to certain eras. I’m generally just doing it because I love all music – you can listen to African music and make some mad techno, you take from something and make something else. That’s how music progresses. I had phases where I play old music DJ set-wise, even old jungle that’s 20 years old, but at the same time I feel like I want to balance it. If I’m just playing all old music, it won’t feel right to me, I want to play old and new music, or just new music. I don’t want to play just old music because what excited me as a DJ when I just started was hearing new music and going, “I want to play that new track.” But I can understand, it’s your age and generation as well, I can understand why young kids hear disco and go, “F*ck, this is amazing, I want to play disco,” because they’ve never heard it before! To them it’s new and mad – and it is amazing music. I understand why that happens, but from where we’re at, for me, I want to hear and play new music. In the last 10 years, it has been especially strong. I definitely had my periods when I go back to disco, soul, and jazz. It’s very healthy as a producer to do that for certain. The danger is when you get very into a style, and you try to make that style like it was made then. I feel like what’s the point then? At best you might make something that’s kind of just as good, but you also got to remember that when disco was made, there were big studios, amazing recording engineers and players, basically all they did was just play and come the amazing arrangements and great songwriting. To try and make a disco tune as a young kid who’s got a laptop, and make it like an old disco tune, most of the time it doesn’t quite hit the mark even if you try to recreate [the old sound], it’s gonna be really hard to recreate that. You could if you wanted to, but it’s not easy. They had 10 people involved, and those 10 people probably had been playing for 20 years and have built their craft. To come along with a laptop and try to make a disco tune…
S Back in the day it all worked because there was a function to that, that was what they wanted to do and those were the players and the technologies they had around them. I feel like it’s about embracing as much as you can, in the grand scheme of things, we’re not here for long, y’now. There are so many people I know who are not interested in new music and I feel like wow, man, they’re missing out on so much. And those people purport to be music lovers – well, if you are a music lover, you gotta open yourself up to all that other stuff! It’s amazing, it’s like you’re missing out on half your vision. Half’s your vision gone, mate.
M There’s always good music. Maybe you need to search a little bit, but it’s so easy to search for them now with the internet. There’s always mad sh!t going on. This goes in phases, sometimes there’s more, sometimes there’s less, sometimes the scene has a good run, gets lost for a bit, and comes back strong. I never liked writing off scenes; I don’t like hearing people say dubstep is dead. Even that annoys me. The idea of dubstep as a genre is infinite, you can do anything with it. It was harder for me to find good dubstep for a long time, but there are still good ones, and I still want to look for them.
S I question what people are really thinking when they say dubstep is dead. Are you really thinking about what you’re saying? Did you really love that music in the first place or were you just there because it was a scene and it was fashionable? If you really loved it, then it’s never dead. It’s always gonna be there even if no one ever makes another dubstep tune again, there are still thousands of other amazing dubstep tunes that were made. Timeless, incredible music. People are quick to dismiss things sometimes.

Could it possibly be due to how segregated the scene is? People would identify with a certain genre and put down others.
S Not as much nowadays. I think a lot of that has got to do with the fact that it has become fashionable again in music to be eclectic. Maybe 10 years ago everyone was talking about that, but they really weren’t. It was a questionable claim back then. But now a lot people want to listen to a lot of different things in one night – if I listen to a DJ set, as much as I love house, I don’t want to listen to house all night long, I want to hear good house mixed with some disco or funk, whatever, y’now. The more varied it is, the better. It’s more exciting. DJs who can go different places has real skills, not many people can do it… actually it’s not that not many people can do it, they probably could but they’re too inhibited by their scene, peers, or whatever it is that’s politically correct to play.
M More monetary issues. If you are a DJ, you get money from DJing and that’s all you do, I can understand why you have to be a bit more careful [with what you play]. But essentially, in the long run if you are not thinking about that, at some point you’re gonna be in trouble. If you’re not looking to anywhere else, then your career is going to go up and down, that’s when you get the real fake switches; one minute someone was going for that, then suddenly jumped to another. They are the ones who are out just for good money, they want a certain prestige – get chicks, be famous or something (laughs).
S People who hastily jump want to be known for being there in the early days sometimes. Who cares man? If you just love music, just get on with it, doesn’t matter, man. All that other stuff gets in the way. If you love music, you make it however it comes.
M If you are thinking too much, questioning yourself or questioning whether it’s the right thing to do, then you’re not free to let the music come out naturally. You can tell when people are true to themselves, their music has a sound to it. And you can tell when people are not being true to themselves, you can hear it.

Africa Hitech spoke at RBMA Session, and spun at the afterparty, last year on Friday 4 October ’13 at Marquee Lounge.