Kode9 Stared Into The Void And It Stared Back

Last year, the deaths of two friends left the Hyperdub boss lost. The only way forward was to dive into work.

November 04, 2015

2014 should have been a year of rejoicing for Kode9. Hyperdub, the record label he founded in 2004, was turning 10. A year-long series of shows spanning the globe and a four-part compilation celebrating the label’s wide-ranging vision—dubstep, house, techno, footwork, and ambient—were announced as celebrations. But then in late April things took a turn for the worst. Chicago's DJ Rashad, one of the most recognizable faces of the city's footwork sound, and a key Hyperdub artist, unexpectedly died at the age of 34 of an accidental drug overdose. Less than six months later, tragedy struck again. In October 2014, 44-year-old Stephen Samuel Gordon, known as the spaceape, passed away in London after a long battle with a rare form of cancer. A poet and MC, Gordon was Kode9’s core collaborator and the pair had been inseparable from each other’s music for the past decade. The deaths left Kode9 angry, and he retreated from the world.

A year on, Kode9—the alias of Glasgow-born, London-based producer Steve Goodman—is in New York on a short promotional tour for Nothing, his third album, but first as a solo artist (he released two with Gordon). We meet at his hotel on the Lower East Side. It’s the tail end of summer and he is wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt and shoes adorned with digital camouflage patterns, a visual motif he wears a lot. As we stand outside the hotel for a cigarette before retiring to the smoke-free courtyard, he puts on dark-tinted glasses—the same pair he wears in press photographs—as if he’s trying to blend into the background. Since the start of his artistic career, Goodman has tried to remain visually elusive. It’s not so much about mystery as a reluctance to create a reliable public image—he often covers his face in photos, for example. In person, however, he is anything but aloof: he listens attentively and speaks frankly.


This is the first time Goodman is talking to the press since Gordon’s passing. “When the cold wind of death decides to blow through your area, it tends to leave a trail of zeros,” he says of the past year, his Scottish roots still evident in his voice, lending it a melodic tone. He gathers his thoughts before continuing, “and they change your perspective on things. Make you realize what matters, what needs to be gotten rid of.” Another pause. “There's a bit of a reset.”


Until recently, Goodman’s career had been defined by a twin axis of music and academia—a combination that took root in the early ‘90s when Goodman “began to DJ rare groove, psychedelic jazz, and funk” while studying philosophy at university in Edinburgh, Scotland. Three years later he moved south to England for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Warwick. In this period, Goodman’s musical tastes evolved towards dance music; in particular, jungle, a frenetic rave-born sound featuring sped-up breakbeats, samples, and bass. “Hearing jungle was about hearing those tracks [I'd been DJing] in the samples,” he recalls today.


It was during Goodman’s time at Warwick that he first intertwined his two interests. He became involved with Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), a short-lived interdisciplinary project that had a long-lasting impact on his career. Inspired by a talk from cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun and the writings of English philosopher Nick Land, the latter of whom co-founded CCRU with Sadie Plant, Goodman came to see how the intensity of new musical forms like jungle required new language and concepts. In other words, music could spawn theory; it could be about thinking and not just listening. By mixing rave culture with elements of afrofuturism, postmodernism, and cybernetics, he began to fashion a potent personal philosophy. After completing his PhD, Goodman moved to London in 1997 and started his academic career as a teaching assistant before becoming a lecturer.

On September 3rd, 2000, Goodman sent an email titled “What Is Hyperdub?” to an online philosophical forum called Driftline. In it, he described Hyperdub as an “info virus [that] replicates in both humans and machines,” before citing its “most virulent mutations to date” as “hardcore, jungle and 2step garage.” Thus began a fictional narrative—the “Hyperdub virus,” a sonic form mutating over time—that drove the next decade of his life. The same year, Goodman founded an online magazine called Hyperdub as a repository of articles focused on emerging dance musics.

“Hyperdub started as the idea of a virus but the music wasn’t a virus when I was writing about it. And then the fiction became real.”—Kode9

By the early ‘00s, Goodman’s interest in jungle had waned as the genre had started to become formulaic. He turned his attention to U.K. garage and, specifically, its 2-step variation, including a darker strain that was being created in real-time across south London bedrooms and studios. Under the name Kode9, he began to DJ these intriguing productions on early internet and pirate radio stations and at FWD>>, a club-night-cum-scene-hub of U.K. garage experimentations.

In 2002, Goodman made the leap from DJ-ing and theorizing to making music with a recording credit on “Fat Larry’s Skank.” The 12" release, issued by London label Tempa, was a collaboration with Benny Ill and The Culprit, the former a member of music crew Horsepower Productions and one of the godfathers of the moodier version of 2-step bubbling up in the capital. That same year, local promotion company Ammunition nicknamed this sonic mutation “dubstep” for an XLR8R cover feature on Horsepower. In 2004, Kode9 appeared alongside fellow south London producers Loefah and Digital Mystikz—a trio who had recently formed the DMZ label and collective—on a compilation titled Grime 2 that was issued on Rephlex, a label co-founded by Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin).

Despite its title, Grime 2 was in effect a proto-dubstep compilation; the name had been coined, but the sound was still emerging. Kode9's contributions deployed a bare-bones template that became his sonic trademark: stripped-down beats, oppressive bass, and sample-based melodies. Looking back on it today, Goodman describes his early work in terms of frequencies: “highs and lows, with not much in the middle.” The track titles on Grime 2—“Swarm,” “Dislokated”—echoed the CCRU’s lexicon. 2004 was also the year Goodman turned Hyperdub into a label, encouraged by Kevin Martin, the recording artist known as The Bug. The very first release was a 10” by Kode9 + Daddi Gee—the latter an early alias of Gordon before he became the spaceape. A cover of Prince titled “Sine Of The Dub,” it marked the beginning of their decade-long creative partnership. The two had met in 2000, introduced via Gordon’s wife, and had shared an apartment while Hyperdub was in its pre-label gestation period.

While dubstep exploded in the U.K. and beyond via radio and club nights in the mid-2000s, Goodman juggled his day job—teaching Music Culture at the University of East London—with his growing notoriety as a producer, DJ, and label head. As the ‘00s drew to a close, dubstep got generic just as jungle had before it and Goodman distanced himself from the word, if not entirely from the sound. In 2009, his early academic interests, personal philosophy, and writings culminated in a book titled Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Three years later, having grown tired of juggling two worlds, Goodman finally exited academia to concentrate on music.

While he’s not usually one to look back on things, today Goodman is in a reflective mood. “Hyperdub started as the idea of a virus but the music wasn't a virus when I was writing about it as [such],” he admits. “[The sound that became dubstep] hadn’t started spreading virally, but it had the potential. And then the fiction became real.” This looping dynamic between fiction and reality became an accidental guiding principle for Goodman; he’d let abstract concepts excuse real-world artistic decisions. "The virus tells me what to do and I shirk all responsibility for it," he told The Wire in 2006. This curious dynamic propelled him forward. "You’re in the fiction, the fiction is real, it starts to produce real things, real events—and so on," he says by way of explanation. "New characters, new conceptual sonic elements. It’s like the twilight zone I’ve been in for the last twenty years."

It’s this mindset that led to his two albums with Gordon: 2006's Memories Of The Future and 2011's Black Sun, both presented as works of “sonic fiction.” In the years that followed, Goodman continued to record with the aim of writing a third album, but progress evaded him. Then, on New Year’s Eve 2014, as a terrible year came to an end, he started work on the music that would become Nothing. “Fuck this, I'm not going out tonight, I'm gonna start working,” he recalls. “I scrapped [everything already recorded] apart from one track and started again.” Most of the album was written in January 2015 in a concentrated burst unlike any he'd experienced before. Speaking to The FADER in what would be his final interview last year, Gordon had joked that his workflow with Goodman was "slow." Grief sharpened his focus and Nothing came fast.

“When the cold wind of death decides to blow through your area, it tends to leave a trail of zeros.”—Kode9

At its core, electronic dance music is about function over form. It is music designed to make your body move. As such, cohesive albums have always been difficult propositions. What sets apart the artistic statements from the dancefloor fodder is a concept: an invisible glue that binds the music and helps to shape it into something more—even if it’s only understood by its creator. “I can make tracks, but to finish an album I need a concept of some sort,” Goodman explains. That’s how it worked with Gordon: conversations led to concepts, and in turn to music. Alone, Goodman went the opposite way. “I wasn’t in the mood for [concepts] at all, so I was like fuck it, nothing.” The darkness that had enveloped Goodman’s year provided motivation and fuel. “So much shit was pissing me off,” he says. “Rashad and spaceape dying. The election, particularly the way the whole Scottish thing was being handled.” (Scotland had come close to independence from England in the recent U.K. general election.) But sometimes the concept is that there is no concept. “It’s called Nothing, that’s the concept,” he repeats in a tone betraying some of the frustration that powered his creativity. “All I need is a word to help me finish it. And 'nothing' was that word. I just wanted to make tracks, not overthink it. So it started as an excuse, an anti-concept, to not have to constrain what I was doing."

Despite his initial reluctance to engage with a concept, Goodman delved into nothing looking for the glue he knew he’d need to complete the album. A book on the history of zero in mathematics provided revealing insights into the impact the number’s introduction had on western society. Then he turned to science and the voids and vacuums of quantum theory, which, actually, aren’t empty. All of sudden, nothing became something.

Goodman’s research served as—he makes a sprinkling motion with his hands—“cosmic dust you put on top.” On rumbling opener “Zero Point Energy” and the grime-meets-footwork “Holo,” Goodman evokes the invisible energy of quantum science by panning samples that seem to ping and sizzle across audio channels. Reflecting the emotions and moods that spurred it, the music on Nothing veers between optimistic and somber. It remains sparse throughout, grounded in low end, and yet still somewhat hollow in its mid-range. “On one level, I’ve never escaped that sound I was doing in the early 2000s,” he admits. “It's skeletal.”

Goodman also came to another realization: he’d never got the glue that holds an album together quite right before. The balance between the concept and the sound—or rather, between the mind and the body of the album—was always a little off. “The aim of [my book] Sonic Warfare is to say [that] a lot of people don’t go past the idea of sound as narrative, sound as a text,” Goodman explains, his voice and body animated by a subtle energy. “They don’t get to vibration, the glue that holds together sonic fictions.” Writing Nothing in isolation led to a “more honest” process. “I see now that you have to really take these two things together: mind and body,” he continues. “It’s what I argued in the book but I always placed more emphasis on the body. So I really think something happened with the way I made this album.”

Draw a broad arc of Goodman's musical interests over the past 20 years—from jungle to 2-step, dubstep and grime, then woozy hip-hop beats through to footwork—and you’ll see a loop. It occurs at the level of tempo, with jungle and footwork (the sounds that bookend his love affair with dance music to date) sharing a 160 beats per minute framework. Throughout Nothing, the music pulls from dubstep, grime, and footwork, yet its tempo belongs to none. Instead the album operates at 150 bpm, which is both a bridge between the musical worlds he has inhabited—dubstep/grime at 140, footwork/jungle at 160—and a raised middle-finger to the formulaic approach that has plagued them. “I can't make other people's music,” Goodman tells me, a tinge of irritation in his voice. “I can't [make what people] see as a genre. Even if I want to, it never comes out like that."

After 20 years, is the lesson that genre doesn't matter? “No, [things] just go round in circles,” Goodman replies in a deadpan manner. “The beats change slightly, crowds change.” He pauses. “My affiliation is to crews as opposed to genres. I feel a close affiliation to DMZ and Teklife, as opposed to dubstep and footwork.” DJ Taye, a young Chicago artist attached to the Teklife crew that the late Rashad and his collaborator DJ Spinn founded, affirms that, calling Hyperdub “absolutely family, no doubt about it.” Speaking over email, he recalls being blown away by how Goodman weaved footwork and other music together: “[The connection with Hyperdub] is really important to us. There’s a crossover and a push to exceed boundaries.”

On the cover of Nothing is a giant circle with a line passing through it. The shape evokes both a slashed zero and the “empty set,” a mathematical character that denotes absence. The artwork was created by German-born, London-based artist Lawrence Lek—except it’s not just an artwork, it’s a virtual building that he and Goodman conceived of together. Over email, Lek describes it as “a luxury automated hotel built in London in 2085 for a society where human labour is no longer required.” The Notel has everything a human could need, taking our current fascination for convenience services like Uber and Amazon to logical conclusions. But it’s been evacuated for reasons unknown.

If the music on Nothing is about the emptiness Goodman felt at the end of 2014, then the Notel is about the ideas the music led him to. The audio/visual live show the pair are building is still in its early stages but Lek says he is designing the Notel “like an architect, except it will only exist as a virtual space I can explore and control live. Each of the spaces relates to sounds or tracks from the album. Steve is building up his live performance to reflect the architecture.”

Lek and Goodman unveiled the first peek into the Notel in late October with a video for Nothing album track “Third Ear Transmission,” a short skit that features previously unused lyrics from Gordon, brought back from the ether for one last collaboration. In the video, the camera brings us into the Notel’s lobby where a holographic spaceape floats above an orange pool as drones fly by, like birds in the wild. Gordon’s voice booms across a bed of quantum sonic excitations, intoning at one point: shadows haunting shadows, there are elements of me. “I would like to make vocal music but I didn’t feel I could,” Goodman admits in a somber tone. “This is my first solo album and I didn’t feel it was appropriate, apart from that track. It is a transition album.”

After twenty years in a twilight zone of his own making, Goodman has become adept at feeding the fiction that guides his reality. As the spaceape put it in the prophetic lyrics to “Glass” on their 2006 debut, Goodman creates blinding lights of fiction as his only clarity. With our conversation drawing to a close, he tells me he “got all the way to the bottom” after the experiences of last year. I suggest he stepped through a black hole, went through nothing, and came out the other end. “I did, I really did,” he smiles. By pouring his creativity into the void that death forced into his life, Goodman made something out of nothing: not just an album, but a way forward.

Hyperdub will release Kode9's debut solo album, Nothing, on November 13th (pre-order it here).
Kode9 Stared Into The Void And It Stared Back