Africa HiTech is a product of pure luck, in a way. It’s one that came about when Mark Pritchard and Steve White found themselves coincidentally living minutes apart in Sydney, Australia, across the globe from their native Great Britain. “93 Million Miles”, released this month, is an album one can only imagine the two creating together. Pritchard served his apprenticeship crafting peaks and comedowns for early UK techno enthusiasts, most famously his afterhours ambient peregrinations with Tom Middleton as Global Communication. Some twenty years later (and twenty-odd aliases along the way) his profile is at a renewed high, thanks to Africa HiTech and his Harmonic 313 project. Both released through Warp Records, the latter is his solo effort to electrify stumbling, J Dilla-inspired hip-hop with racks of buzzing synthesisers in place of dusty samplers, which we talked about here.
It’s true that Pritchard has his fingerprints all over “93 Million Miles”, most obviously in the record’s bold, analogue timbres and almost clownish melodies (if they weren’t so smart), all in keeping with the Harmonic 313 aesthetic. Indeed he admits conceiving at least one track originally with his 313 guise in mind. In a subtler way, though, White’s hand seems equally clear in steering Africa HiTech into new territories. He came to prominence fronting the group Spacek, whose early 2000s albums make a thoughtful, consciously experimental response to the likes of D’Angelo’s stripped neo-soul and the cyber-R&B of Rodney Jerkins. On their second (which happens to be named “Vintage Hi-Tech”), ideas run especially free from the constraints of commercial sense, allowing the space between beats to bloom into psychedelia.
It has to be said that all this doesn’t quite explain the outcome of “93 Million Miles” – although arguably that’s what makes it more than a predictable product of its factors. At any rate, it’s a record pushier, more angular and more bass-wise than what we’re used to from Pritchard. Ironically given the geographical distance, it’s seeded in the same soil as numerous varieties of UK dance music, if anywhere on Earth.
We asked how this unlikely (on paper) pair find ways to collaborate, about the response back home to their music, and what we can expect from their imminent European tour (with a gig at Sónar festival included).
First of all, how exactly did the two of you come to work together?
Mark: We met probably in the early 2000s. We were both doing stuff for a guy called Ross Allen, he used to have a radio show on GLR [Greater London Radio, now BBC London] and has run various labels. I’d heard the first Spacek single “Eve”, because Ross had played me that, and I thought it was amazing. So we met via him and then I invited Steve to guest on the Troubleman album that I did for Far Out Recordings. We did another track at the same time and that came out about three or four years later on Sonar Kollective.
We basically ended up ten minutes from each other in Sydney on the other side of the world coincidentally, about six years ago, which was a nice surprise. We ended up both moving here, which is wicked because it’s moving to a new place, but there’s somebody you’ve already worked with and somebody you know has a similar outlook on music and who you can vibe with. When we first moved here we started working on tracks, and the more we started making, the more we thought, “OK, we need to focus on getting an album together.”
How does that process work? Do you find yourselves taking on distinct roles?
Steve: When me and Mark work on projects we just work: there’s no, “You’re going to do this and I’m going to do that.” And personally for me, this was a project I wanted to really get involved in – and not be thinking so much about my vocals. I’ve done three or four vocal albums, as Spacek and my solo thing, and people think that’s what I’m about. But a lot of them don’t realise a lot of the production was done by me. I’ve always been first and foremost a producer – it’s just that I happen to sing. With me and Mark there are no real parameters. I might make a beat at home and take it to Mark in the studio, or vice versa. Mark will do beats in the studio, I’ll come in and I might put a chord down on it or a bass or whatever. Or it might just be done. There are no real rules.
Is there something particular you’re aiming to capture when you work together?
Steve: For a start you’d say it was just eclectic dance music. But essentially, it’s under the banner of UK bass and includes all the subgenres within that. The whole thing is based around the claim that if you trace this music all the way back, it goes back to African roots: via soul music, via disco, via the rare groove thing, rhythm and blues, and reggae as well, because that’s a big part of it. In fact that’s kind of the thing that defines the sound: the basslines and the reggae sensibility.
There has been a level of interest in both your work from those involved in dubstep: I believe Kode 9 is a fan of Spacek, and Mark, you’ve played at the FWD night and made a record for Mala of Digital Mystikz and his Deep Medi label. Could that strain of UK music be considered another touchstone for Africa HiTech?
Mark: The way me and Steve see it, we see all this stuff as the same thing in a way. It all links. Dancehall, drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep, garage, grime, UK funky: all those UK styles, we don’t really separate out. When I heard dubstep for the first time it reminded me of the excitement, the possibilities, of when jungle first happened: here’s a template, here’s a vibe, and you can take it anywhere. And all different kinds of sounds came out of it – people put their own inspirations in.
Once I did the techno stuff in the early 90s, after about ‘92 I was mainly playing drum and bass through the 90s. A lot of people were pissed off at the time, but for me that was the most exciting music happening. Whatever’s the most inspiring or exciting stuff, I want to play – the new music that I think’s crazy.
The guys who run Rinse and FWD, they’re into all styles. That night was associated with dubstep, but I think the name is really just about interesting, progressive music. And I think that when the dubstep thing blew up they were thinking ahead a little bit. They can have whatever exciting music they want in the club, and I think that’s why they pushed the funky thing as soon as that was happening.
Do you feel as if worlds are colliding more than before? Mark, you’ve released on Kode 9’s label Hyperdub. Now you’re collaborating with a former member of Spacek, while another, Morgan Zarate, is working with Hyperdub too. Is it something more than coincidence?
Steve: I think it’s more a case of people catching up. You realise that if you make progressive music, it’s always going to be in an environment where people are not getting things straight away. But what it is, is they always come round to it eventually. I remember when I was younger, when the whole rave scene kicked off, you had the rudeboys who were going to the dancehall parties and the ragga parties, and then you had all the rare groove heads and the soul heads. As soon as the rave thing came in, I was thinking it was a new sound – I really liked it, so I was into that. But I knew there were a lot of cats going, “Oh, you’re into that rave sound? That’s weird, innit.” People didn’t get it, but literally a few years down the line you’d see all those people in a rave. Half of them DJing, when they weren’t even into it in the first place. You’ve got to allow people to catch up in their own time, that’s all it is: in more time it makes sense. In the grand scheme of things, that’s like what the picture is now. Everyone’s caught up and everyone can see.
Mark: The internet’s really made it easy, as well, for people worldwide to tune into something that’s happening. For example in Australia, it would have been harder for people to soak up the scene as it was happening, because the records weren’t getting out here and there wasn’t much information. But now people can have access to scene as it happens, worldwide – it happens immediately in all countries. It lets the music develop a bit more in different places. Even in Australia there’s a radio show, that’s been going since 2000, that was pushing the darker garage sound and then dubstep. They booked Kode 9 back in 2003 I think, and Oris Jay came out here. Now the internet’s kicked in, it’s a good thing I think. It means that as something happens, it happens worldwide.
You’re about to tour across Europe and play Sónar. What form will that take? Have you considered translating Africa HiTech into a live performance?
Steve: We will eventually, because that’s what people want to see. Especially if you want to reach a wider audience, you’ve got to be out there playing that stuff live. It gives you scope to do more shows, bigger tours, bigger festivals. As artists, for us it’s beneficial especially as the whole record sales thing has dried up – you’ve got to be out touring and doing all this other stuff.
There are so many things you’ve got to think of, though. There’s a lot more cost involved. You’ve got to rehearse, lug things around. But ultimately it’s beneficial, because you’ll reach a wider audience. So eventually that is definitely the plan. It’ll be fun as well, you know. We get little ideas: it’ll probably be me and Mark and a couple of others, someone on drums, someone else on keys or whatever.
How exactly could you see it working on stage?
Steve: I suppose there’ll definitely be a couple of laptops up there, but also some keyboards and drum machines. It would be nice to have someone triggering the drum sounds from the album or the samples or whatever. Just to try to present that sound. I suppose it’s a case of whether we’re going to be true and faithful to the tracks or do live versions of the tracks that are going to be a bit more free.
Mark: Our DJ sets are more live than most “live” laptop Ableton sets, anyway. And on this tour we’ll do more live things. Ultimately, working a set out in Ableton and playing it – I’d just get bored of that if I was doing it for a few weeks. Every time we play a set it’s always a different situation, and we like to play different styles every set we do. We try to play different tracks: there might be key tracks that come up over a tour, but generally it’s nice to have that freedom to go wherever you want.
Steve: Luckily that’s been really good for us. People have been up for it and they’ve got what we do in most cases. Mark’s picking tracks out on the fly and I’m doing stuff live, like playing some of the instruments, playing basslines, triggering effects and whatever. It’s all just feeling it as we go along. Mark will drop and instrumental track and it might be perfect for me to sing on, but for some reason I might not feel that vibe at the time, so I’ll be playing the bass and triggering effects. But then he might drop another one and I’ll be like, you know what, I can hear this straight away, and I’ll start singing. We’re just trying to create a vibe as we go along.
93 Million Miles - Album Sampler PlayGround is a media partner of Sónar We talk to Steve White and Mark Pritchard about their new project Africa HiTech before their gig at the Sónar festival: an exploration of the limits around dubstep, techno and hip hop, with a futuristic sense of sound.
Review: “ 93 Million Miles”
Africa Hitech will be appearing at Sónar 2011. The Festival will take place from 16th to 18th June at the CCCB in Barcelona, the Fira Gran Via in L’Hospitalet, L’Auditori in Barcelona and the Teatre Grec in Barcelona. Tickets are on sale here.