“I always had headphones on and I always knew I wanted to make music”, Ikonika told me. I sat down with the London-based electronic musician, producer, and DJ last week at KCB Braamfontein, where she and the Pussy Party posse were embarking on a nation-wide dancefloor revolution: a series of femme insurgencies to shake up club culture, forge new sound, and nurture emerging talent. With Ikonika as guest mentor, Pussy Party is launching a series of DJ and production workshops for femme-identifying artists in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban.
Alongside the workshop series, Ikonika will be pouring her bass-heavy, off-kilter rhythms and oozing synths over our urban dancefloors. In the process, she will be engendering a sonic dialogue between two parallel generations — across continents — each seeking to make a life radically different from that of their parents. Each born of collisions between multiple times and places.
As a kid growing up in London, Ikonika listened eclectically: metal and punk, alongside RnB and grime. “All the different tribes, I was hanging out with all of them”. Like many producers before her, Ikonika (Sara Chen) crafted her early sound from late nights and Fruity Loops. She remembers starting out as a DJ: a dingy Sunday night residency with an audience of five. Today, Ikonika has given us more than a decade of genre-bending, progressive electronic music. She has released two albums with Hyperdub Records (Contact, Love, Want, Have 2010; Aerotropolis 2013) and produced four EP’s (Edits 2010; I Make Lists 2012; Beach Mode 2013; and Position 2014). She has toured widely in Europe, Asia, Australia, as well as North and South America — all the while shifting between her roles as DJ/Producer.
“When I DJ, it’s about making people move and feel something, but when I produce my music, that’s really personal to me. That’s my own little world I wanna create. And if I can play those tunes and people feel them too, that’s really special to me. To be able to share my music, and music I’m feeling, my friend’s music”.
Dub-step holds special place in Ikonika’s origin story as a DJ/producer. “The sound systems were incredible. Mad Jamaican sound systems in places like Kitcheners. I’d never felt music like that physically.” In small basement clubs like Plastic People and parties thrown by DMZ, Ikonika was taken by the new dub sound. “The music would just shudder in your chest and you couldn’t swallow anything apart from bass.” Those were the days when Ikonika learnt the importance of sound systems and started infusing more base into her music.
Since these early days, Ikonika’s sound has broadened, spanning grime, RnB, dancehall, footwork, house and techno: spinning soundscapes at the underground’s most progressive cusp. Her sound is a testament to her love of nightclubs, to the dialogue between DJ and dancer, and to music itself. When I asked Ikonika about the supposed ‘death’ of London’s club scene, she said:
“We still keep it underground and we still find basements. Chuck sound systems down there. Could be a fire hazard, I don’t know. We always find a way to have our music because music means so much to us, and clubbing means so much to us. Dark room and a sound system is all you need right?”
In the club, Ikonika’s focus is on the dancer/DJ dialogue. I asked about the extent of improvisation in her sets:
“I used to plan a lot and that never worked out. You just don’t feel the room as much. If you’re just sticking to a set, it becomes very cold. You’re not watching people. For me it’s about interaction. It’s a team effort between me and the dancers. I’ll try not to plan too much. Maybe I’ll decide on the bpm range and take it from there”.
That magic that happens, when all of us collide in a dark room, with bass flowing down our throats needs to include women: especially behind the decks.
That has been the fuel for facilitating femme-focused DJ’ing and production workshops. “I would want women to feel a bit more comfortable in this industry”, Ikonika says. I’d never felt real sexism till I started in music. I’ve had a lot of guys come up to the mixer, and I’ll have like two faders up in the mix. They don’t believe that I’m mixing so they’ll come up to the mix and pull the fader down. Or like on a day I’m playing vinyl, they’ll put their hand on the vinyl to make sure it’s actually coming out of the vinyl.”
Alongside fellow artists E.M.M.A, Dexplicit and P Jam, Ikonika has co-facilitated a series of workshops in London, titled Production Girls. “We teach production at a beginner level. People are scared to try the software. They can’t navigate around it. We show them how to make drums, how to mix down, how to use the synths and that kind of stuff”. It’s no wonder then that Pussy Party, which provides ongoing mentorship for Johannesburg’s femme DJs, would partner with Ikonika on a femme-oriented club-culture intervention.
“Women as tastemakers is the best thing you could ever have. Cos if the girls aren’t dancing on the dancefloor, what’s the point?”
‘This article forms part of content created for the British Council Connect ZA 2017 Programme. To find out more about the programme click here.’