Rating: 8.5 / Format: 2xCD / Label: Hyperdub
In its five years of existence, fans of Kode 9’s Hyperdub label have subsisted mostly on a trickle of 10 and 12-inch singles. The exceptions are not insignificant – Kode 9’s full-length set with Spaceape, Burial’s two albums, and now the imprint’s first compilation, 5 – but it’s part of Hyperdub’s character that in material terms, it could be any other label in the post-rave jungle of bedroom-industry production. More than longevity – though sticking out even half a decade can’t have been free from difficulty – 5 stands as recognition of what can be achieved according to this humble model.
There is something particularly special about a catalogue with a distinct aura that emerges, piecemeal but cohesively, a few minutes’ worth of black wax at a time. Another recent example is Digital Mystikz and Loefah’s DMZ label; an older one is Warp Records’ early output of Northern ‘bleep’ (considering Warp, by its fifth birthday, had already moved on to release over 20 albums, it’s briefly tempting to wonder where Hyperdub would be now given the same economic climate for music). The retrospective component of 5, a two-CD package, does a perfectly good job of illuminating the thematic strands that make Hyperdub’s identity so recognisable. Prominent among these is an apparent fascination with the synthetic and the virtual: electronically generated sound by default tends to give the impression of situation in an unreal space, but rather than glossing over this, producers such as Burial intensify its boxed-in, disorientating effect; meanwhile Zomby or Samiyam’s lurid sonic is what results from stripping away the tonal shaping that allows synthesisers to approximate anything in the natural acoustic world.
As much of a no-brainer as this introduction is for anyone who needs it, the really exciting part of 5 is contained on the other disc. It presents enough new material, from established Hyperdub artists and more loosely associated figures, to practically accelerate a whole year’s release schedule into one event. Some has been awaited with the fervency familiarly attached to dubstep’s slowly perculating body of unreleased favourites; this includes Darkstar’s ‘Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer’, a charming bit of melodic, disintegrated garage oddly redolent of the one-time intersection between IDM and twee pop. Justifiably in the same category but on UK funky’s experimental fringe (or ‘funkstep’ if you’re inclined to give an American magazine’s recent branding attempt any encouragement at all) is the dry-bones house of Cooly G’s ‘Weekend Fly’, which is fairly audacious in its minimalism, but all the easier to swallow honeyed with her vocals. A previously unheard contribution from Zomby is at least as good as these tracks: his tendency towards stylistic focus is occasionally misinterpreted as laziness, but here he confirms some of the extent of his range, touching on diaphanous Chicago house (in the vein of Virgo Four) and making excursions into his Aphex Twin-like facility for melody.
Not everything on 5 is overwhelming – Flying Lotus’s track for instance is little more than a sketch, and the appeal of the mysterious Black Chow isn’t clear-cut – but there’s enough to make the collection a very generous act of curation. As well as Martyn and Joker, further high points come from The Bug and Roger Robinson’s King Midas Sound project, with its contradictory combination of warmth with frosty poise, and Ikonika, who hits on a wobbly arabesque mode pleasingly derived more from Prince of Persia than anything else.
As the name half-suggests, Hyperdub’s artists tend to push a notch or two past conventional aims, something evident on Kode 9 and Spaceape’s inaugural ‘Sine of the Dub’, which takes the process of dub as subtraction just about as far as it goes. If this invites a comparison with another label from the past, Germany’s Force Inc., the difference is at the same time obvious. That imprint, conceived with some hubris along the lines of a mirror reflecting back dance music’s ideas in more radical form, eventually suffocated under its own cleverness, becoming inessential and overly prolific. It’s almost impossible to imagine the same happening to Hyperdub, which gives such unassuming, rooted context to its own ambitions. Hopefully 5 doesn’t mark a turning point, if anything, so much as a resolution to do more of the same.