Steve Spacek will be presenting his Modern Streets album as part of an upcoming Boiler Room session with Preacha and Ben Fester. Head over to the session page to find out more information.
Steve White is a tireless adventurer. Over more than twenty years of output, the South Londoner has maintained a relentless endeavour to create the most forward-facing music.
From the legendary foundations laid with the band Spacek, solo work and collaborations with the late, great J.Dilla; to his under-the-radar Black Pocket project for dBridge‘s Exit Records and his most recent work with Mark Pritchard as one half of Africa HiTech, Steve has preserved a soulful aesthetic while unintentionally fronting futurism.
Modern Streets arrives via Ninja Tune; the result of numerous back and forths with Alex Nut – A&R, Eglo Records head honcho and Saturday afternoon Rinse FM host – towards the latter end of 2013. It’s a project inspired by nostalgic memories of clubbing days in London as equally as it is by modern life. Created largely using iPhone and iPad apps, it’s underpinned by an urge to freeze-frame the emotion of a particular moment; using first takes of recordings to capture certain fleeting inspirations in the music. Along the way, the album steps through highlife, rocksteady through to dubstep and garage.
Just after the festive period, Steve took time to talk through some of his motivations for this latest outing. The recording started as we were engrossed in a conversation about Black Messiah – the long-awaited LP from D’Angelo – and in particular its analogue-heavy production style. Read on as he dissects some of the motivations behind his own work – including an awareness of afrofuturism, the beauty of music of black origin and creating for the moment.
ERROL ANDERSON: I’ve been listening to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah album religiously. Overarching the satisfaction I’ve got from knowing that those 14 years were worth the wait, there’s a real classic nature to the sound as a result of it being fully analogue.
BEAT SPACEK: I’ve been listening to bits of it because out here there’s one radio station called SBL, which is a community station. So whenever we’re in the car we’re always tuned to that. As soon as I heard it, nobody told me that it was D’Angelo, but I could tell straight away because it’s just got that rich sound. The other night I was at a friend’s house and there’s always someone that jumps on YouTube and starts playing a track, so I thought ‘let me type in a few more of the D’Angelo tracks’. I haven’t heard the whole album but it sounds like D’Angelo in his element. The vibe and the feel is good.
It was all recorded on tubes as well. I remember when we were at the Red Bull Academy in Toronto we were hanging out with Russell Elevado, the guy who mixed down the new album and he was saying that not one bit of digital went into that album. Apparently even when they were doing live shows they were bringing along an analogue rig. That’s a lot of it as well. So with the analogue sound, there are definitely more dynamics and it’s really warm.
I also thought that the mastering [on the D’Angelo] was surprisingly quiet in comparison to a lot of recent releases.
It’s getting louder and louder these days, and that’s a big debate right now. The other day I was online checking out some mastering techniques because I had quite a mad year mastering some of my stuff with John Dent. Sometimes I realise that some people don’t get what it is that you’re paying for. They obviously know that you’ve got to do it, but with John Dent, he’s quite expensive as he’s one of the old school guys who did a lot of work with Island. I’ve always tried to work with him as much as possible whenever the budget is there. It’s quite interesting because where I’ve been mixing and mastering myself – checking some courses out online – I was starting to master some of my old stuff, beats that I just had laying around. It’s a fight between getting the levels and also maintaining dynamics as well because the more level you get, the more you’re squashing the sound. It’s trying to get that balance, but obviously the better your equipment the more really nice transistance there is.
I’m asking because I was curious to find out how much you like to get involved in the mixing and mastering processes yourself.
If I was in the UK, I would have been in the studio with [John] no doubt, because it’s an amazing lesson just to be there. He’s just a don when it comes to playing with sound. I’ve attended some sessions with him and it’s mind boggling to see what he’s doing. Also, now I’d really like to go because when I used to go back in the day I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and could just about mix let alone get along and master. I just knew that when they pressed the compare button between the two stages, there was a massive difference. But with what I know now, I’d really like to sit in on a session with him. It was more over email; I’d send him a track, he’d do his thing and send it back and I’d then say what it needed.
His set up is very specialised and the whole room is floated as well so the sound is disconnected from the room outside. Essentially with the album because it was done the way it was done with the iPhone/iPad – being digital and electronic – it’s trying to get the warmth of the sound into that setup. Once I did the album, I needed his mastering to get that warmth; especially with the first track which was quite a big problem. When I recorded it originally, it was a two track and then when I went to do the multi track it felt a bit different because of the way it was worked through the machine. I ended up with just the original two track and got him to work on that. The rest of the album was a lot more dynamic because by then I’d got my head around everything. But it was definitely a lesson though and every time I’m doing these things I feel like I’m learning something.
There have been a couple of instances where you’ve been sat on work for an extended period of time before releasing it. The first example that springs to mind is “Turn It On” with Mark Pritchard. To my understanding, that was made in 2003 and it only got released in 2007 or 2008. Has that always been coincidental or has there ever been a conscious decision to hold the music back?
It’s more of a coincidence. Even when I hooked up with Mark, the backing track was the first thing I heard and wanted to work on. When I went back to the studio, we started working on it but then hit a brick wall with it. We were working with a couple of other bits and he took that sample from the tune “Without You”. We got the drums down and some other bits here and there plus the sample which he had chopped up. That ended up coming out before “Turn It On”, because it seemed to flow and also as a result of hitting that brick wall. That went on to the Trouble Man album, Time Out of Mind. “Turn It On” was always going to come out but was more unofficially announced as Africa Hitech. It was basically the both of us showing our love for that type of music and dance.
Some things are immediate and come out straight away but then sometimes I realise that some of the music we’re making, people just don’t get it at the time. It takes people a bit of time to get their head around. Sometimes you play people stuff and they don’t really get it, then about four or five years later it’s the best thing since sliced bread. It’s just the way it works. We’re always trying to make music and pioneer stuff that to our knowledge, doesn’t exist yet. So it’s hard because sometimes people aren’t ready to catch up and that’s fair enough. When you’ve got tracks and you’re playing it to the people that want to put it out, they’re not really listening to it because it’s too out there and as far as they’re concerned, it’s only somewhere down the line that people are ready for that stuff.
That’s a very purist approach.
It is. I suppose it’s about not really thinking about anything apart from making the tunes and whatever happens happens.
“A lot of the tracks you hear of mine, what you’re hearing is literally the first thing that came out.”
It feels like, as a result, there’s a constant battle between spontaneity and timelessness throughout your music.
It’s more about the feel of music and not being caught up in ‘this is what’s in now’. Obviously if something is in and I like it then I will jump in, I don’t care whether it’s fashionable or not. When I’m making music it’s just about what I’m feeling right now. However it comes out is the way it comes out. I also try not to get tied down and eventually it will fall into something anyways.
If you look back to the ’60s and ’70s – some people even look back at the ’80s now – people can’t get out over them periods. My feeling is that they can’t get over them because they were using the latest technology at that time. So a lot of that would have been with the only template being rhythm and blues or blues and taking it. All of a sudden, you have this music that’s so infectious that people are still on it. You talk to some people now and they’re not even interested in modern music because the old stuff had such a big effect, but for me I’m trying to make music in a way that they were making back then but this is where I am right now, these are the tools I have available to me and I want to make music that’s timeless but also of right now. In the moment, not yesterday or tomorrow. A lot of itself tends to take itself towards the future sound naturally, but that’s not intentional. It’s more about that feeling at the time. A lot of the tracks you hear of mine, what you’re hearing is literally the first thing that came out. I’ve got to a point where you come up with the feel of an idea and you put it down because you want to take that moment and freeze it in time.
As soon as you start to develop something too much you begin to lose it, especially if you’re dealing with compression, the attack of the sounds start to change and then the swing might be slightly different. Emotionally, you’re dealing with a different thing. Everyone else will think ‘that’s a better version of the demo you did’, but the feeling has gone. It’s really about being in the moment. Spontaneity is an amazing thing. When you see someone put themselves out live, they may have the original template from their recordings but what you see on stage is spontaneous. It’s quite nice to be able to do the same thing with recordings. For someone to listen to something and know that’s what came out of your head first. It’s quite exciting because then you’re getting a snapshot of what someone’s brain was looking like at a certain time.
Never has ‘the moment’ been more accessible than now with iPhone/iPad platforms like Propellerhead’s Take and FL Studio getting a mobile version.
I think it’s a beautiful thing. You can combine it with the old stuff as well now, it’s like a blur. Right now, I think you can create anything as we’re in a golden age. If you can embrace that then it’s a beautiful thing.
While preparing to talk with you, I was listening back to some of the lesser known stuff with you and Raphael Saadiq. What are the most vivid memories of being out in Hollywood with the likes of Dilla and Common?
I remember that at the time Dilla was getting really ill, so he had moved into an apartment near La Brea. Him and Common were staying there, so there was a day when it was me, Mr French and some others just hanging out. I’d met Dilla a couple of times before, but not properly so when I came to meet him he was almost freaked out that I was there. I was confused because this guy was the next level in music and he was showing me props. He had his MPC set up and a bunch of DATs that he was just flicking through. He landed on that Billy Paul sampled track “Let The Dollar Circulate” and we just looked at each other and that was it. One time I worked with Common at Raphael Saadiq’s studio. We were there working in the studio and there’s something about the way that Common was, not shy, but he was rhyming and asking ‘are these rhymes cool?’ This was before I came to Australia, so about 2003 or 2004.
A lot of those names have been linked with the notion of afrofuturism. Is that an ideal that you relate with?
I have heard of the term, yes. When we did the Africa Hitech album, I came up with the name in one way as a juxtaposition. Most people don’t think of Africa being hi-tech, but when you listen to a lot of old highlife, a lot of African music even sounds sci fi. Something about the rhythms sounds futuristic and otherworldly. Especially the chord progression, timings and at points the rhythms are from somewhere else.
“It’s that UK sound. It’s the reggae sensibility and that bass sensibility”
As well as being a nostalgic nod to your days in London clubs, Modern Streets harks but further into ska and rocksteady. Take “Stand Firm”, for instance, which sounds like the Heptones channelled through a spaceship.
It was a little rhythm that I had a while ago, but it just came out the way it came out. Some of the music that I make might not make sense at the time (in terms of where I want to place it in a project). I solidified the album around the end of 2013 with Alex Nut and I played him stuff. He happened to be doing the A&Ring for Ninja Tune. So in terms of bringing it all together, it would have been about a year in the making.
It’s that UK sound. It’s the reggae sensibility and that bass sensibility, where a lot of people have grown up around soundsystems and being in a club that rattles your cage. That’s the movement of the drum and bassline. UK dance music and even down to soul music in general has always had that element. Me and Pritchard call it the Congo Natty sound – that tribal, off-on-beat rhythm. It’s the bass and the drum.
People didn’t originally get the jungle sound because when you played it to them in the house or the car, they wouldn’t understand it. But then you’d tell a friend to go down to come out to a night, out to Rage, Spectrum or another place like that and they would hear it in the soundsystem and see everyone getting down to the same beat. I saw people get converted almost straight away.
Seeing Plastic People close down must have been saddening. So many people have spoken about how special it was. I wasn’t there, but I’ve watched the clips of you and your brother dBridge there in 2007. You must have fond memories of the place…
Would have been nice to have one last dance in there before it shut down. That was the first time that I met Fatima [from Eglo Records] and she came up to the mic and said she wanted to have a little sing. I’m sure it’s online somewhere. She was out in Australia recently with Alex [Nut]. I was gutted about it, but it’s a similar thing that’s happening everywhere. Even where I live in Bondi, people with money are coming in and once they move in, they don’t want the stuff that makes it happening and buzzing: the clubs, the bars and the vibes. Places like Plastic People have brought a real vibe to the area. Before that, the area was super run down. I used to go to warehouse parties there and there was nothing round there, so yeah it’s sad to see it go.
Modern Streets’ is available to buy now via the Ninja Tune website and iTunes. Also, get your ears around the latest Solid Steel mix which features the best of his back catalogue and unheard bits (mixed by Kutmah).
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