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Constant innovation: Why Hyperdub is in a realm of its own

The London label's 15th anniversary was an era-defining celebration

  • Words: Michael Lawson | Photography: Asia Ella
  • 17 December 2019

Fifteen years is a long time in dance music. Back in 2004, when Hyperdub was first finding its feet, dubstep ruled the airwaves. The label’s early output – from founder Kode9, late poet and MC The Spaceape and a mysterious artist known only as Burial – helped push this already forward-facing genre into bold, exciting new directions. A deluge of era-defining records and reinventions later, Hyperdub is just as influential today.

“Hyperdub’s constantly evolving and that’s why it is what it is,” says Shannen SP, the label’s A&R and co-founder of its monthly Ø parties. “That’s why people have stayed engaged with it for so long.”

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Starting out as a webzine at the turn of the century, a combination of cutting-edge sounds and critical contemporary theory has characterised Hyperdub’s output ever since. On one hand it’s put out boundary-pushing music, from Burial to the late DJ Rashad, Klein to Laurel Halo via The Bug and Babyfather. On the other, it’s embodied author Simon Reynolds’ idea of the ‘hardcore continuum’ and popularised the concept of hauntology (“a pining for a future which never arrived”) with the help of late social theorist Mark Fisher.

Tonight the label is celebrating its 15th anniversary with an eight-hour showcase at cavernous Shoreditch venue Village Underground, the sprawling line-up made up entirely of members of the extended Hyperdub family. When details of the event were first revealed, the sight of a yet-to-be-announced guest described as a ‘South London legend and old friend of the label’ led to many predicting an ultra-rare appearance from the elusive Burial – something those involved with the imprint were quick to downplay.

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“It was never going to be Burial,” Shannen SP says dismissively. “That whole thing is getting a bit boring now, and deflects from the other amazing artists that are playing.” In fact, the mystery guest turns out to be dubstep pioneer Mala, pencilled in for a prime-time back-to-back slot with Kode9, whose appearance was embargoed until after a conflicting London show was out of the way.

With things kicking off at the uncharacteristically early time of 10:PM, those artists on first find themselves performing to a half-empty room – an unfortunate side-effect of having a roster as vast as Hyperdub’s. Cooly G, Okzharp and Loraine James (whose thought-provoking live set features a number of tracks from debut album ‘For You And I’) don’t seem too bothered though that it’s only during Nazar’s session of apocalyptic, rough kuduro that the floor begins to fill.

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“You lot look like you’re waiting for a bus!” Kode9 exclaims, taking to the mic ahead of Lee Gamble’s hour of trap, techno and all things in between. This call to arms injects some energy into the now swelling floor. On cue, the club fills with punters of various ethnicities and age groups – a room almost as diverse as the music on offer and a refreshing departure from the increasingly typical house and techno circuit.

Cloaked behind a mesh of strobe lights, Kode9 and Mala open with Burial’s ‘South London Boroughs’ before descending into a slew of earth-shuddering dubstep wobbles. There are some interesting surprises – the menacing drill of 67’s ‘Jump Out Gang’ and Krept & Konan’s remix of road rap favourite ‘Robbery’, for instance – but unsurprisingly it’s the Hyperdub classics that evoke the biggest reaction. Flowdan’s mutated grime banger ‘Ambush’ leads to an insatiable bout of skanking before The Bug & Warrior Queen’s ‘Poison Dart’ is given the pull-up treatment as Mala finds his groove.

At this stage the venue seems to be in a realm all of its own, and completely detached from the tourist-laden Shoreditch side streets surrounding it. “This is the front line of Kode9’s cultural war,” suggests Edinburgh grime protégé Proc Fiskal, ahead of his own set later in the night.

Footwork innovator DJ Spinn takes the reins and immediately ups the tempo. The DJ Rashad disciple works tracks from Roy Ayers, Thundercat and even Breach into his deep web of hypnotic, 160BPM workouts, coaxing a frenetic reaction out of the crowd in the process. He regularly takes to the mic to pay tribute to Rashad and to remind revellers that “it’s a muthafuckin’ party y’all” as the atmosphere reaches boiling point.

Proc Fiskal shifts things back to distinctly UK sounds while losing none of Spinn’s intensity, delivering a full-frontal assault that blurs the lines between breakneck jungle and early grime, piano-driven rave and bouncy happy hardcore. A frantic yet largely coherent set, he includes a flurry of tracks from his recent ‘Shleekit Doss’ EP before ascending to the giddy heights of Scott Brown’s ‘Now Is The Time’.With the crowd dwindling moving into the final hour, the night’s closing act Scratchclart & Lady Lykez would be forgiven for winding things down. Instead they go for the jugular, with Scratcha stitching together sparse, ominous global club sounds that allow his hard-spitting MC to take control of the floor.

“Come forward! I said come forward! I wanna see you touch the railings and shit!” Lady Lykez demands. Maintaining this uncompromising attitude for the duration, she somehow manages to orchestrate a mosh pit to the sounds of the duo’s ‘Drmatic’, ensuring a suitably frenzied finale to a night of bewilderingly diverse music.

It’s difficult to think of another collective that could unite so many seemingly disparate sounds under one banner. Hyperdub’s 15th anniversary is further proof that the dancefloor can be about far more than escapism.

Michael Lawson is a freelance writer, check out his Clippings

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