“My life is busy!” Ikonika tells Mixmag when we connect over Zoom in December. Busy might just be underplaying it - the producer’s 2022 was nothing short of frenetic. But through all of the gigs, radio residencies, travels, and new releases, West London-hailing Sara Chen has found some peace in the slower pace of dance music. With a new palette for South African genres reaching into the depths of amapiano, gqom, Bacardi house, and the likes, Ikonika’s own sound is adapting to fit the shape of her current earworms giving these emergent genres a UK-tinge.
Ikonika has spent more than 15 years coming into her own since the release of her debut 12” ‘Please/Simulacrum’ on Hyperdub, a driving two-tracker lauded for its forward-thinking production in 2008. Kode9’s quintessential London label has remained a mainstay for the producer, whose early releases helped to pioneer the UK edge of dubstep — while recent outings on labels such as Night Slugs, and Don’t Be Afraid have taken her down different routes from the bass-oriented sound of her previous productions. As she moves with the musical shift of Hyperdub nearly two decades since its inception and begins to curate her own live show following the release of 2022’s ‘Bubble Up’ EP, Ikonika’s slowly mutating sound remains at the cutting edge.
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In 2019, the producer, DJ, and live artist took a well-earned break after becoming a mother. As COVID halted the lives of touring artists shortly after, Ikonika began reflecting on her journey and explore a new musical direction. Her latest residency slot on Balamii now sees her team up with friends and contemporaries including Scratcha DVA, Shy One, and Fiyahdred, while a busy touring schedule well and truly kicks back into action. “I’m still getting back into the swing of things post-maternity leave,” she explains. “But I’m happy things are back in motion!”
We caught up with the producer at the end of 2022 following the release of ‘Bubble Up’, her latest solo EP. Check out our Q&A below and listen to Ikonika’s club-ready mix.
You just brought out a new EP, ‘Bubble Up’, on Hyperdub. Was this record in the works for a while?
Yeah, I only really approached Hyperdub with it at the beginning of this year (2022), or maybe the end of last year (2021). I was sitting on the tracks for a while, especially the vocal ones because I was scared to release them and wasn’t completely convinced by my vocal talent. Most of the tracks were ready by the end of lockdown, and I was just doing tweaks and stuff. I started sneaking them into a couple of my sets and seeing how people would react to them to see if I was sure about releasing them.
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I know you don’t often sing on your tracks, why did you choose to add your vocals to this EP?
It was sort of a lockdown hobby, and also not being able to get vocalists in. But it was really by accident because I was just going to make chants initially, just little noises like 'yeah’ and 'hey’ and 'oh’ and stuff like that to build a better palette of my own sampled voice. A lot of people were downloading the same amapiano sample pack, and I wanted to be a little bit different. It kind of got out of hand, and I started saying stuff just for a laugh and then trying to sing and think, okay, this could work. I started playing them to a few of my music friends like Scratcha DVA and Shy One and Shannen SP, and they gave me the confidence to pursue it and that’s where we’re at.
I read that coming out as queer helped influence this next record - could you tell me about that?
I think in my private life, I’ve been very shy and anxious in talking about my actual personality or who I am. Just look at the younger DJs and producers coming through and not giving a shit, and just being confident or not standing up to bullshit. I feel like it’s a bit different for me coming out because my intention was more to be able to navigate in cis male spaces for instance and try to fit into house or techno or dubstep or whatever it is. So I think now is a pretty good time to be influenced by the younger generation and just be able to say, you know, I’m here. I’ve always been here.
You’ve turned your hand to amapiano a lot more recently. What is it about that genre that you enjoy?
I think the slowness and the patience of it. I know a lot of people in London don’t really get it, and I’ve heard a few comments - one of my favourites is 'just get on with it’. I guess it’s that London mentality that everything’s fast, but I love it. With age, maybe I’m enjoying things being a little slower and more melodic, and bringing back that feeling of bass that I remember feeling at venues like Plastic People, for instance. I often fall in and out of house music and techno, but then something surprises me, and recently that’s been amapiano and most music from South Africa, like gqom. It’s made me research a little bit more and listen to Kwaito and Bacardi house and stuff like that, and remembering people like Spoko’s music and Mujava, and relating to it because with that type of music, there's a lot of melody going on and hard beats, and this is something I’ve been interested in my whole career. That’s the kind of style I’m attracted to, where you can have hard club rhythms and drum patterns coupled with nice melodies - that’s always been my vibe. I can relate to that because I try to do that in my music.
Amapiano is a fairly new genre - how have you seen it grow since you started playing it out?
I like all types of it, like the melodic romantic sunrise-sunset type amapiano and also the Kwaito-influenced tracks, the ones where there’s rapping over the top, the techno tracks. There’s just so much variety there within that format, and seeing how it’s mutated to these Bacardi house sounds. It’s blown up and is worldwide now, and a lot of the DJs and producers are superstars, so I think it might be interesting listening to the next generation of amapiano from the younger kids. I’m more interested in the rougher and more raw sounds, so I think with the superstars making this nice polished amapiano sound, there's always going to be another underground sound, so I’m curious to see that level come up and the type of producers that will come out of this next generation. But also with UK amapiano, we’ve got a tendency to make things harder and faster. People like Tribal Brothers, Razzler Man & LR Groove, and JLSXND7RS - he’s really a grime producer, but he recently started making UK amapiano - European 305 who go for the slicker style that reminds me of UK garage’s champagne era. I just want to see where the people from UK can take it, including myself, and how much of this influence can run. It’s got me making a tonne of tunes, and it’s made me start singing. So, I’m very happy about that!
You’ve been signed to Hyperdub since starting out in production. How have you seen the landscape of that label change over the years?
They started out as more of a dubstep label, although I guess it doesn’t sound like what you would think traditional dubstep sounded like back then. There were tunes by Burial that were still categorised as dubstep, even though you listen to him now and he’s his own sub-genre of garage. But I think that’s what a lot of people who would release tunes on Hyperdub tried to do, they brought a lot of colour to things but also coloured outside the lines. I’ve always seen it as a very colourful, futuristic label where things tend to cross over. It has its pop and R&B moments with people like Jessy Lanza, and also helped bring footwork to Europe through artists like DJ Rashad. Now, with artists like Lorraine James, they just continue to bring out interesting new music. It feels like home to me now.
I know you’ve got a residency on Balamii, too. What’s your process like in curating shows? Do you do it on the fly or do you plan ahead?
I tend to plan a little, but not too much because I want the mixes to be off the cuff. I don’t chat too much on that show - it’s two hours of straight mixing. Whether you can call it club I don’t know, I just like to go a little deeper than the stuff I would usually play in the club. There’s a lot of amapiano and explorations within that genre, and stuff that I find myself interested in - I’m really enjoying it. It started during lockdown when I hadn't done radio for a while. I think the Balamii shows are more of an insight into what I listen to and the stuff that I like to mix at home because you don’t want club music blaring all the time.
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The last LP we saw from you was in 2018 - as you slowly start to get back into production, could we could see a longer project or full-length record in the works?
I’m not really sure, I think I want to go back to the format of singles and EPs. But saying that, I’m gonna have a collection of music coming out next year with a vocalist which is kind of an album, it’s a new collab with 45DiBoss called 'Supernova' on Night Slugs. But generally, for myself, I don't know. I’m wondering what audiences are like these days and people’s attention spans on streaming platforms, and how much people can digest. I think I’m gonna try the format of bringing out singles, and bringing out tracks one by one as an experiment because it’s still new to me. Considering that when I started my career, it was just vinyl or releasing albums on CDs, I want to explore digital formats a little more, and I think if I did release an Ikonika LP, it would happen because I would have stacked up a lot of tunes and the relationship between the tracks were there and they have a narrative of some sort. Then, quite possibly, but there’s no intention to make an album just yet!
What’s next for you?
I'm just trying to do this live show - singing in front of people which I’m a little bit nervous about. The first time I did was back in September at Panorama Bar, so that gave me a bit of confidence. There are a few festivals I’ll be playing at, presenting my ‘Bubble Up’ live set, and DJing where I can. And more singing, I guess!
Can you tell us about your In Session mix?
It’s what I ideally like to do in the club. Starting off at a slower BPM and working my way up. It mainly starts with amapiano and UK amapiano and gets into more familiar club sounds - there’s also some Bacardi, cruise beat, gqom and some forthcoming Night Slugs bits.
'Supernova', an eight-track project between Ikonika and 45DiBoss, is out now. Check it out here
Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Editorial Assistant, follow her on Twitter
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