Right now, when we talk about Britain having a huge amount of new and exciting music to export to the world, let’s be honest, we’re principally talking about grime. Great as that is, we’d do well to remember that there’s more to our little island than war dubs and wheel-ups. Right now the UK is right on the vanguard of exciting, progressive, mind-expanding electronica. One of the leaders (if not the leader) is GAIKA, a former club promoter with—incidentally—a history that intertwines with the very earliest iterations of grime.
Last year he released his astonishingly new sounding Machine mixtape, replete with eye-catching artwork and tracks that glided between industrial, hip-hop, techno, grime, bashment, R&B and IDM (with a few different bits in between). Now, just one year on, he’s releasing his new mixtape, Security, a thrilling voyage that—despite his increased profile—sees him sticking to his guns by collaborating with old friends and local heroes, without a single high-profile collaboration in sight. Our conversation veers through a large range of topics, only a few of which were my intended topics. And that’s rather a neat allegory for his music. You can prepare for whatever you like, but ultimately you’re not in control here; to coin the rather clichéd phrase, expect the unexpected. Or, in Gaika’s words: “I am whatever I say I am. I’m not what you say I am.”
You started life as a visual artist, didn’t you? Is that discipline something you’ve tried to bring into your music?
Yeah, totally. My music is discordant but familiar because I’ve worked out that my thing is making something that seems identifiable but it isn’t. It should be ugly, but it’s not. It’s that uncanny. In a way, it’s more disruptive to slide into this space that people would think isn’t going to work, but it does. And it works because you understand aesthetic and you understand space and how one colour relates to another and one sound relates to another, intrinsically as opposed to from the outside. That’s definitely something that’s come from the visual side of my work.
There are a lot of dichotomies in your music—industrial and organic sounds, the familiar and the unfamiliar—and a lot of these things are talked about in science fiction. How do you avoid retreading old ground to do something new with that?
I think it’s to do with masculinity. People who make “future” anything, it’s men “collecting” things. It’s this male expression of will. If I make anything futuristic it’s basically saying “I’m anticipating what’s going to happen next.” Whereas, I just try to avoid that by just taking that out of my mind. I simply say, “OK, these sounds work together now,” and just live in the moment. I don’t listen to much other music when I’m making records. When I’m not making music, I listen to a lot of music. It’s not a turn off when I see something described as “future”, but I don’t really listen to it. I just try to avoid retreading that whole thing by doing something totally and intrinsically new. I prefer to think “Wouldn’t it be interesting to change this frequency or adjust that?” Rather than thinking about trying to make it sound “future” or to reference sci-fi. It doesn’t reference anything. If you don’t reference anything, your music’s never going to sound like a version of anything else.
“Sometimes I think about sex, sometimes I think about politics, sometimes I think about eating, sometimes I think about hell. It’s all part of the same thing.”
You mentioned before about not listening to much music while you’re creating. What kind of music were you listening to in the gap between Machine and Security?
One thing that did change between the two mixtapes was that I started to think about anime films from the ’90s and their soundtracks. They’re just so sick! They got me thinking about things sonically in a different way. You know the film Akira? Well, I imagined that the bar in that film had a club underneath it and I started to think about what music they might play in that club. Then I just built it up from there and thought about what it all means together. The name itself, Security, is a play on club security within this hedonistic space where celebrate something every single weekend. We want to live in heaven forever because everyone’s afraid of dying. When I realised that, it was around the same time I revisited the movie and all of a sudden it all came together and dawned on me that it all fits together and it’s all about the same thing. The main character, Tetsuo, is super insecure in himself and looking for security from somebody else. Suddenly, he gets all these psychic powers but he’s still just a little boy who’s looking for security. It all fits together. So if you listen to the mixtape, the further it goes the weirder it gets. I wanted to play with this idea of security. It has some bangers but it’s weirder than Machine, definitely. It takes you on a journey. So things didn’t really change, I just thought about a slightly different part of philosophy. For the next one I want to do something completely different.
There was one quote about politicsed music becoming a middle-class fetish. Is there a way of creating that sort of music without that happening?
Well, what is political music? Anything can be political. My entire existence is political! And so is yours. I don’t think politics is divorced from the rest of us; it’s a dangerous thing to think that way. Music has power to prick emotion and change things or affect things. I make music that’s a reflection of who I am, and what I think. Sometimes I think about sex, sometimes I think about politics, sometimes I think about eating, sometimes I think about hell. It’s all part of the same thing. Maybe it just gives me the confidence to say what I want and not worry about whether it’s going to get played on radio. So I just say what I mean and sometimes that’s a commentary on the world, sometimes it’s not. Isn’t it more contrived to remove all of that? Then you’re thinking about your audience instead of your art. That’s the difference between being an artist and an entertainer.
So do you think the connection between your music and politics has been overstated?
I don’t think so. It comes down to box-ticking, doesn’t it? It’s like you’re the “angry black guy” just because you have something to say. Then they put you in that box. There have been interviews where they’ve edited, paraphrased what I’ve said, but it’s cool. I mean, it stimulates debate and then that leads to lots of different stuff. I’m not worried about it. What I don’t want to do is tell people how to live their lives. I don’t want to tell people they shouldn’t listen to gangsta rap or do this or do that. That’s never my intention. A lot of “worthy” music switches me off. I don’t think I’ve put in that box. It’s not that thing. Don’t get me wrong there are double negatives like when you celebrate violence and wealth together in a really one dimensional way. Maybe that does have an effect, but lets look at the larger, macro picture of things. It’s an expression not a cause. I don’t think some critic who sits outside that space is in a good position to start talking about the moral or political merits of something that has already changed the world. It just sounds bitter.
“Anything can be political. My entire existence is political! And so is yours. I don’t think politics is divorced from the rest of us; it’s a dangerous thing to think that way.”
More and more people are doing the unsigned, independent thing like Stormzy and Skepta. Is that the new model?
Stormzy and Skepta, they’re sick. They’ve got their thing but my area is different to that. I guess we come from a similar place, geographically and musically. My long term aim is to be in a situation where I can patronise art. Independence is the model for me, but for other people they’re not going to be out there doing videos, doing all these different things. They just want to make tunes and they’re comfortable doing that. I want to help people that want to do that but aren’t necessarily going to make one-size-fits-all music. Being independent from majors? Yes, 100%. But having an imprint of my own and signing other artists? That’s something I want to do. Working with independents? That’s something I will do. It’s interesting to connect with people and combine the power. So there’s space for everything except signing away your life for not very much money to some idiot from west London who has no clue what day it is. It’s more that’s dead than anything else, if you see what I mean. At the end of the day, Boy Better Know is a record company. So when we say “they’re unsigned”, that’s not unsigned. Skepta’s got a record company. That’s the future.
What collaborations can we expect on Security?
There’s a couple. I wanted to work with people who have a real story, people I’ve met on my missions in the last year or so. A lot of them I actually knew before all that. I wanted to work with people who represent a corner of their world; I want people to say something authentic. I want people who aren’t in magazines or members’ clubs. So we’ve had Serocee, who’s a friend of mine; I’ve got Miss Red, who I wanted so I’d have these two different interpretations of dancehall outside of Jamaica. We’ve got Trigga from Manchester, just because he’s a real guy; Fallacy, who I look up to, he’s like a mentor to me; we’ve got Mista Silva who’s like a brother to me and he’s the prince of Afrobeats and I LOVE Afrobeats and he’s the real deal. And then there’s a tune with my mate Pete, who’s a geezer who writes poems and used to be a DJ making psytrance; there’s one with Bipolar Sunshine who I worked with before, he’s a good friend of mine.
With all of these things, though, my manager never sent any emails to anyone. If you’re someone I know and I think you’re sick, let’s make music together. When you have these really contrived thing which has got managers and agents and labels putting these things together, you’ve missed the point. It’s not an artistic thing. And I LOVE working with people. Everyone I’ve met and worked with on the tape, I’ve known for years. I keep coming back to that Drake song, “No New Friends”. It’s true though! You’re supposed to work with all these people and go on all these journeys in this bubble, but I’ve retreated into where I am and rejected all that. The core of what I’m doing is working here with these guys. Now, I’m not afraid to stand at the front. I’m not afraid to take things in the direction I want to go instead of living in someone else’s dreams.
So I guess the usual question of dream collaborations is redundant, then?
I’m open to all sorts of collaborations but I’m not going to go out and try too hard to make those happen. They have to happen organically. I mean, my dream collaboration is not something I could ever conceivably see happening. That’s Prince. How the hell am I going to make that happen? [Laughs] In a way, it’s good to let your heroes keep being your heroes. Meet them, work with them, but I think it’s too weird. You wouldn’t want to say what you want to say and they’d be thinking you’re some superfan. It hasn’t happened but I don’t think I’d want it to. My dream collaboration is best left at that. If I think something’s sick, I’ll message them direct and be upfront instead of worrying about ego or whatever. And if you message me I’ll message you. The last thing I want to do is to let this get to me; I’m not going to start changing my morals and start airing people. I’m not too cool to hit people up. Just come in and let’s do it.