October 5, 2016

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Son Raw is in flight.

I’ve just asked producer Spokes about which failed state he’d like to visit and why. It’s part piss take, part psychological test—his latest EP, titled Flight, includes a track called “Failed State” but it’s a curiously uplifting piece of music—full of the rising arpeggios and pitch shifted vocals that have come to define both his sound and that of Coyote Records, the label he’s become a crucial part of. Note that I didn’t say “Grime” label: after a few years worth of comebacks, in fits and starts, the genre has officially achieved liftoff thanks to the success of longtime scene members like Skepta.

While instrumental labels like Coyote primed the ground for this resurgence, success has paradoxically pushed underground producers to explore more abstract avenues. The result is meditative music inspired by roughneck, functional tracks—if failed states are a heady topic of discussion, legendary scene figure Mr. Wong elicits an easier response qualifying him as an amazing producer even as we share a laugh over his MC bonafides.

It turns out MC culture was one of Spokes’ introductions to music. Raised off the classic New York hip hop of names like Biggie and Mobb Deep, he claims his musical evolution occurred through a series of “lightbulb moments.” Growing up south of London in Kent, a garage stronghold in his own words, grime was inescapable as a teenager. “I came in through more backpack stuff for hip hop and French hip hop oddly enough, despite not knowing the language, just through the beats—I took a vacation to France with my parents and hear it there. Plus, most of my friends were backpackers who weren’t into grime.”

This combination—rap and UK sounds—is reflected throughout his latest work. “Flight,” the EP’s title track combines an almost monastic take on sino-grime leads with stuttering hi-hats currently associated with Atlanta. When I ask about his current listening the net is cast even wider:

I love the new 21 Savage and Future track, it sounds like Metro Boomin making an E.M.M.A beat. Kiki Gyan’s 24 Hours In A Disco is a great re-release. 8 tracks all African disco, all bangers. The new Yamaneko stuff, the Mr Mitch track on the latest Boxed release. The new Russian Circles album—they’re like a post metal band. In terms of unreleased stuff, the next Letta project is… amazing, I hope he’ll get more attention off the back of that. Marks, who remixed a track on my EP, he’s been sending me these of distorted, grimy rap instrumentals, he does a lot with not a lot.

Its easy to see how this idea of taking very few sounds and combining them for maximum impact could connect with Spokes. His entire catalogue feels like an experiment in ringing out as much emotion and energy as possible from a combination of synthetic drums and grime’s trademark squarewaves, taking Wiley and Jammer’s functionalism as a starting point before launching into space. In fact, it’s a functionalism he flirted with while searching out the EP’s direction. Says, Spokes:

There wasn’t a game plan. I wrote a load of shit stuff after my first release and I got a bit directionless. I wanted to make bangers because when I DJed, my stuff wasn’t really working. I wanted something a lot of DJs would pull for and lost my way. Thomas [Frazer] from Coyote really zeroed in on Flight, which was the least focused thing I could have possibly made, and he told me to go for that; to stop sending him bangers and to make Spokes stuff. That became the basis for the EP. I kept writing music and figured it out from there.

When I ask about his choice of gear, that same sense of starkness, and that same desire to combine hip hop warmth to electronic cold, resounds:

I find I finish projects if I give myself limitations, like 1 or 2 synths. I build everything from scratch in stuff like Massive or Omnisphere—I like programs where I can get a bit lost in the options until it comes together. Those synths aren’t very “nice”; when people talk about “warmth” that’s not the ones they go to. I like to take those inherently cold programs and make them sound a bit less cold—the soundtoys plugins were great for that, I’ve worked in studios and those really came closest to injecting the warmth of hardware without actually being incredibly expensive kit. This EP was me exploring different sounds and tempos using the palette that I like. There were a lot of happy accidents. You write a lot and stumble on something a bit better than average, and then expand it from a demo.

Listening to Flight, you get a sense that the EP is a more personal statement than Spokes’ debut, but one still tightly connected to the kind of musical ideas propelled by the Boxed movement, even as he’s since left London for New York City. When I ask about a favorite moment at the already legendary club night, he demurs.

There was a Dark0 set that was practically all dub plates and an early one with no more than 50 people. Back when it was at Dance Tunnel there was a producer’s corner where beatmakers would hang out—Blackdown, Spooky, Slackk, Dark0 Visionist would hang out there. Zeroing in on one is impossible as they tend to become a blur. It’s a community environment, it was the one place where you could catch up with people in real life. It’s easy to follow via radio even if I’m in New York now. [Ed note: Slackk wrote in to mention that Boxed happened at Birthdays rather than Dance Tunnel]

Mirroring our first question on failed states and the US I had to end the interview by asking a no-win question: Brexit or Trump, what’s worse?

It’s an existential conundrum isn’t it? Britain has signed away its economic security and future and doesn’t know what it’s getting itself in for and it depends on world leaders. It’s an older generation fucking over a younger generation after taking advantage of all these freedoms they signed away. To be able to live in another country is a great freedom, and having that taken away by a bunch of older people with misplaced anger at the world…that’s a shame. But being in the US and seeing the rise of Trump is quite something. I’m inherently suspicious of a lot of government stuff and I believe people act in their own personal interest rather than the common good, but at the same time…the status quo and the people in government are trying to do right by people. Trump is an impossible wildcard. Saying Obama is the head of ISIS…that just makes the whole country look bad, doesn’t it?

When I mention he took that way too seriously:

“The answer should be Trump 10 times over. He’s everything I hate in the world. He’s the anti-christ.”

We may all be living in failed states soon.