Ten years on, Hyperdub finds that it pays to be weird

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Most journalists hope to get a few decent quotes from an interview. Steve Goodman ended up getting a record label.

It was 2003 when the Glasgow-born DJ, producer and sometime music writer interviewed fellow bass enthusiast Kevin Martin for XLR8R magazine. The latter was promoting his latest album as The Bug, a blend of speaker-shredding dancehall and futuristic dub, but their conversation turned to a new strain of music that was starting to emerge from the clubs of South London. Goodman was already thoroughly immersed in the nascent dubstep scene at that point, and he spotted a kindred spirit in Martin. The latter returned the compliment: after hearing one of his interviewer’s productions, “Sine of the Dub”, he put him in touch with a distributor so he could release it. The catch: he’d have to start his own label first.

A decade on, Goodman’s Hyperdub imprint is in robust creative health. Once synonymous with dubstep, it has since broadened to encompass a far wider spectrum of music, while remaining staunchly devoted to the London bass underground. Today, its roster runs from Scratcha DVA’s kaleidoscopic grime and U.K. funky to Laurel Halo’s experimental electronica, DJ Rashad’s frenetic footwork and the dub detonations of King Midas Sound, which features one Kevin Martin on production duties. And then there’s Burial, the Mercury Music Prize-nominated producer whose aversion to publicity — he only revealed his real name after U.K. tabloid The Sun launched a campaign to unmask him — has merely served to heighten the mystique surrounding his intensely atmospheric tracks.

“I’ve been in a lucky position that, for the most part, the music’s been coming to me rather than me having to chase it,” says Goodman, who also uses Hyperdub as the main conduit for his own releases as Kode9.

“The more interesting producers have come to me: Laurel Halo came to me through a mutual friend, same with DJ Rashad. It’s almost like the more music we release, the bigger magnetism the label has for artists,” he says.

This weekend, Hyperdub kicks off its 10th anniversary celebrations with a tour of Japan, featuring appearances from Halo, Rashad, Ikonika and Kode9 himself. In Tokyo, they’re joined by a clutch of like-minded Japanese DJs and producers, including footwork proponent DJ Fulltono and Hyperdub alum Quarta330, whose chiptune remix of Kode9′s “9 Samurai” in 2007 remains one of the label’s quintessential releases.

Though he describes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “a bit of a psycho,” Goodman is far more complimentary of the Japanese clubbers he’s encountered during his own trips here in the past.

“Sometimes you get knowledgeable crowds — they know a lot about what you’re doing — but they’re not necessarily party crowds,” he says. “There’s a good combination in Japan: people who keep up with stuff, but also are very enthusiastic for a party.”

That’s true even in Osaka, where a citywide police crackdown on all-night dance parties has forced promoters to hold their events in the evening instead.

“People came really early, and raved like it was four in the morning,” he recalls of a recent visit. “It didn’t really make that much difference.”

Hyperdub’s latest Japan tour, its first in 18 months, offers a snapshot of the label’s current activities. Halo’s “Chance of Rain” and Rashad’s “Double Cup” popped up in numerous best-of lists for 2013, while Ikonika — one of the label’s longer-running stalwarts — drew solid reviews for her sophomore effort, “Aerotropolis,” last July. It’ll be the first time that Halo and Rashad have played here, and the latter is sure to be a big draw for Japan’s burgeoning crew of footwork enthusiasts.

Goodman had already been devoting hefty chunks of his DJ sets to the rapidfire rhythms of Chicago’s juke and footwork scene when he had the opportunity to sign one of its luminaries. The original impetus came from fellow label owner Mike Paradinas, whose Planet Mu imprint had single-handedly kickstarted global interest in this intensely local dance culture.

“Mike said to me, ‘Go on, release some of this stuff, because everyone thinks I’m crazy,’ ” says Goodman with a chuckle. After meeting him in London, Rashad and regular collaborator Spinn proposed doing a Hyperdub release; “and then a few months later, they sent me 40 tracks and I had to whittle them down.”

That kind of arrangement is common for Goodman. With a few exceptions — he mentions Halo and confrontational oddballs Hype Williams — Hyperdub acts will typically send their boss a cache of tracks and then entrust him to do the editing.

“Sometimes I’ll reject a pile of tunes, and then maybe steer them in another direction,” he says. “Often, artists are trying to second-guess my taste, and usually they’re wrong — because usually if they’re trying to second-guess my taste, they’re missing the point of why I like their music in the first place.”

Judging from the acclaim that consistently greets each new Hyperdub release, he’s been doing a pretty good job on the quality-control front. Yet Goodman admits that the financial returns aren’t always as rosy as he’d like.

Earlier this month, Britain’s Official Charts Company reported on a remarkable boom in vinyl records: sales of LPs in 2013 were double what they’d been in 2012, and had increased 270 percent compared to 2008, while 12-inch singles were up 60 percent from the previous year. But despite its decade-long commitment to the format, Hyperdub has been experiencing the opposite effect.

“Until about 2008, vinyl was selling so much better,” Goodman says. “[In] 2008-9, there was a real noticeable change in the 12 inches. We used to sell a minimum 1,500 of everything, now some stuff we’ll sell 300 or 400 or 500. . . . Apart from Burial, nothing’s doing crazy sales.”

And that’s not the only thing about the label’s fortunes that feels a little topsy-turvy. “What’s always interesting is, when we put out vinyl, the weirder it is, the better it will sell,” he says. “So Burial, Laurel Halo, Hype Williams, Darkstar, King Midas — that stuff sells well on vinyl, and the more dancefloor stuff actually doesn’t tend to sell that well. It’s quite a nice reversal of what people probably expect from a label like ours. It’s nice that we can support the local London arts, not having to sell that much, with the sales from the weirder stuff that we release.”

The Hyperdub 10 Japan Tour alights at Unit in Daikanyama, Tokyo, on Jan. 31; Club Mago in Nagoya on Feb. 1; Manier in Kanazawa on Feb. 2; and Conpass in Osaka on Feb. 3. Tickets are ¥3,800 in advance. For details, visit www.beatink.com.