When Steve Goodman started Hyperdub — "A web magazine to focus on Jamaican influence on electronic music in London," he says — he didn't figure it would become his life's work. But Goodman liked making music as much as theorizing about it, and in 2004 his label, also called Hyperdub, bowed with his first 12-inch: "Sine of the Dub," a plodding remake of Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" released under the name Kode9.
Slowing the tempo of U.K. garage and grime and focusing heavily on bass pressure, the music Goodman wrote about and made soon acquired a tag of its own: dubstep. "It was still garage, but there were definitely signs of something new," says Goodman over Skype from his London flat. "It managed to bridge the mainstream and underground."
Shortly after a Boiler Room tribute for friend and Hyperdub artist DJ Rashad — and just before the release of the first volume of the 10 Years of Hyperdub compilation series — Goodman spoke with Rolling Stone about the label's future, the case of brostep and how he reacted to his friend Rashad's death.
It seems Hyperdub is turning into something similar to Warp Records, starting on a fairly narrow path and expanding as its founders' tastes expand.
Yeah, I think that's fair. Obviously I see that in the indie-label sector: Ninja Tune, Warp, Domino, 4AD. They're all much bigger than us. I don't really aspire to do what any of these labels have done, mainly because I don't know what we aspire to. The Jamaican influence on electronic music in London is definitely a guiding influence of the label, but it certainly is not the only one. You certainly couldn't fit a lot of the releases we've done in the last five years into that bracket.
Dance labels tend to put out anniversary compilations every five years. Is there an onus on you to do this, or is it self-driven?
It's probably something inside me that told me we should be doing that. It's a good opportunity to figure out what the hell we've been doing for the last five years. That's why we're doing four compilations, as a forensic analysis, looking at how different stuff we released independently clusters together accidentally into little styles. The first one has a loose theme — basically, American and British. On the British side is dubstep and grime; on the American side it's footwork and hip-hop-style instrumentals.
The second compilation is all songs. I've always liked vocal tracks. That was my problem with dubstep — it was lacking quality vocal tracks. We put out a lot of good songs in the second compilation. That surprised me, because the label always had the reputation of being dark and moody, so that stuff goes under people's radar.
Which era are you thinking of?
Early dubstep, 2005: I was always as much a grime fan than I was a dubstep fan. Most people in dubstep don't like grime; most people in grime don't like dubstep. But I always had a mental image of what the best dubstep instrumentals would sound like with the best grime vocals. Around 2006 I did a radio show with Wiley and a lot of that happened. It was great to hear Wiley on the dubstep of that time. What actually happened is dubstep got vocals, but they were ultra-cheesy and pretty shit. I'm talking about when the EDM thing kicked off. Actually, either in the U.K. or America, what tended to happen is that the vocals dubstep got were pretty plasticky, crass pop vocals.
How did you first encounter Burial? Did he send you a demo?
Burial was a big fan of all the garage and proto-dubstep stuff featured on the Hyperdub website. Around 2001, he started sending me letters and CD-Rs with his music. Around 2004, I realized I was actually still listening to some of these CDs. This stuff definitely had some kind of shelf life. Burial was one of his names. He had some other potential artist names, that I will l not mention for the sake of his sanity.
When you put the records out, were you surprised how fiercely they are received?
We couldn't really tell with the first ones. We were doing 500 units and they were all selling out. It was business as usual. It was not until the album: We pressed 1,000, and that sold out, so when we started to get into the cycle of represses, there was obviously something going on. Obviously, I'd never run a label before. I'd not seen that process of pressing, selling out, repressing, trying to gauge how many to repress, being cautious, repressing a small amount, those selling out, repressing out again. It was after a few iterations of that cycle that you start to realize that something weird is going on.
Burial embodied dubstep for years until the harder stuff really started taking hold in the U.S.
Things have certainly fragmented, even in the States. [At a club night] right now you might have a guy doing trap, a guy doing footwork. I actually told my agent in U.S. in 2009, "I don't want to play on dubstep lineups anymore," basically because I have nothing to do what they are doing at all. By that time, dubstep lineups musically don't match what I was playing. By 2009, I was barely doing any dubstep. I was engineering a new place for myself.
Have you heard any U.S. brostep you've actually liked?
I don't know. I'm not dissing brostep, because I've listened to so little of it I don't know it that well to pinpoint it. It wasn't a sound that I wanted to find out more. In the same sense that when drum-and-bass made the same sonic moves in the late '90s, it just lost my interest — just cold and angry and techy. It's not that I dislike cold and angry and techy music, but in drum-and-bass it didn't have anything to do with what I liked about those genres to start with. By that point, I just moved off to find what I like elsewhere.
That said, when dance music gets big in the mainstream, the underground often gets so wound up that it retreats aesthetically. That seems like something you consciously guard against.
Yeah, I think that's right. When scenes cross over, they polarize. Both poles can be as bad as each other — they become mirrored images of each other. It becomes massively assessable and pop on one side, and then it starts to fetishize the old-school original sound on the other side. Certainly, I am not interested in either of those.
When did you first encounter Rashad?
Probably in 2010. I was actually quite late coming to it. It coincided with me beginning to fall out of love with what was going on with Britain. There wasn't much to fall in love with. I was trying to fall in love. U.K. funky was big in 2007 to 2010; then it started tailing off. I was still playing a bit of that, of old grime and dubstep. [Footwork] started to creep into my sets then. In the UK at the time it was a lot of post-dubstep stuff. None of it was too good as a DJ to play. It was just becoming tepid, lukewarm, mediocre — lacking balls. In 2012, I invited Rashad and Spinn over to London to play in a few parties I was doing. It wasn't until I met them face-to-face that I started considering releasing them.
How did you find out Rashad died?
I found out in the most horrible way possible. I was doing a gig in Switzerland. I was really fucked up. I go back to my hotel room about 5 a.m., and went on Twitter — how most people found out. I saw a post by Fact magazine that DJ Rashad has died, and I started doing the searches, like, "What the fuck is this?" in total disbelief. I was seeing some friends tweeting about it; then I just broke down. I was basically crying for two hours, and then I couldn't bear to be awake anymore. Luckily I had some weed. I was leaning out the window of my hotel balcony, smoking myself to sleep.
The next three days were a write-off. I was listening to his music for a few days, so for the Boiler Room thing I was actually very well prepared. I had been collecting all his music and listening to it on loop, which was definitely the best solution to the way I was feeling.