Sara Abdel-Hamid is a renegade. First as a drummer in metal and hardcore bands, and now as an electronic music producer/DJ who evades categorization, she’s made a career out of balking at the traditional. She calls herself Ikonika, derived from iconoclast: “That means someone who destroys religious artifacts, but in my case it’s more to do with music. When I started out I was a little bit of anti- everything to do with the music industry.”
She told me about her background over Skype from her home outside of London at 1 AM local time (“I’m a bit of a night owl,” she explained). Her rebellious approach to music began in the punk/DIY scene of London where she developed the unique rhythmic foundations that would later inform her production style. “When I first started out [as a producer] I wanted to have really mad structures and really odd sounds, and that only could have come from me being in a band and being that type of drummer that didn’t want to play the same beat for five minutes. I really hate repetitiveness.”
Ikonika moved to electronic music when her band broke up and she decided to pick up some production software (Fruity Loops was her instrument of choice). Dubstep was quickly spreading throughout the UK at the time, and she found herself at home amidst its sub bass frequencies and the simple structure that gave her the freedom to experiment. This, plus the fact that it was a combination of all of her favorite music — R&B, garage, hip hop, house, and techno — meant that it was essentially the perfect genre.
“That’s what I love about it; considering my musical background, it seemed right. It was from London, it was really dark at the time, really quite minimal, but to me the only rules were it had to be around 140 BPM with sub bass, and whatever you did on top was a free for all, basically.”
It makes sense, then, that Ikonika was drawn to Hyperdub, the Kode9-led London label that began in the outskirts of UK dubstep and has since continued to evolve much faster than our standard idea of dubstep — or any other definable genre, for that matter. Ikonika began sending her tracks to Kode9 in 2006, and eventually landed her first release on the imprint in 2008.
Hyperdub has been hugely influential in developing her sound, with Kode9 himself acting as something of a mentor to the budding producer. When Ikonika took a more clean and polished approach with her most recent album in an attempt to improve her technical ability, Kode9 told her that she had sacrificed the raw, human element that had defined her sound. With his advice to stick to her initial instincts, she went back and roughed it up around the edges, and the final product, “Aerotropolis,” proved to be an exceptional showcase of her unique voice.
Ikonika has long since moved away from producing and DJing strictly dubstep — even the left field, nonconformist version that she favored — but she still often finds herself stuffed in that box. “I haven’t really played any dubstep for really about three or four years. Sometimes I might sneak in one or two tunes but I’ve definitely moved away from that genre since 2010. I’ve discovered that people in general like to label things and like to have things completely categorized to make them feel comfortable with whatever they’re listening to.”
Not only does she reject these labels and categories, but she actively avoids them — aiming to stay so far ahead of the curve that her style simply transcends categorization. “Whatever I do as a producer will always be evolving or changing and that’s part of my challenge. It’s the goal I set for myself, and it’s a way of me discovering new styles. I don’t like repeating, it makes me feel really uncomfortable.” Whereas some may panic without a proper label to keep things in order, Ikonika thrives in this freedom without rules.
Ikonika sees producing music as less about trying to make a particular end product and more about using the creative process as a means of expression. As a musician, she speaks through her synths much like a writer wields a pen or an artist uses a paintbrush. “I soak up everything I’ve seen and heard and then go away in my little studio and just have those feelings come out. One of the best things about being a producer is you have something to express and a way of expressing it. I guess I just feel more as an artist that chooses music as my form.”
“That’s what I love about producing, I step into the studio and I have no idea what I’m going to make and how I’m going to make it… but all I know is that I want to experiment and I want to play with my synths and whatever bits of equipment that I’ve got at the moment. I treat them as toys, I want to play with them.”
Indeed, Ikonika finds many parallels between producing and playing video games. She grew up as a gamer, and still plays when she’s not in the studio (she tells me that she just completed The Last Of Us and was disappointed by the ending). This influence is apparent in her style; her frequent use of chiptune synths paints an image of a younger Ikonika mesmerized by Final Fantasy VI, the 8-bit tunes stealing away in a corner of her mind.
Alternating between gaming and producing might have been a natural progression for her: “They definitely share some similarities; especially growing up battering a control pad, it’s the same thing as battering a drum machine. I always try to get in the rhythm of a game, and every game has got its own rhythm and I like to try and catch that. These sounds from early video games like Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive games, they did something to me almost subconsciously. I didn’t know how much of an influence they were until I made my first album, [“Contact, Want, Love, Have,”] and I kind of dedicated the album to that weird childhood of just playing video games.”
In the meantime, Ikonika runs her own label Hum & Buzz with Night Slugs’ Optimum, where she relishes in the ability to do whatever she pleases. This year, she’ll appear on a Hyperdub compilation in celebration of their 10th anniversary, a new Club Constructions compilation with her friends from Night Slugs, and potentially a vinyl-only release on Hum & Buzz.
For the next month, she’ll be bringing her (non dubstep) DJ set to North America—including Middlesex Lounge this Thursday. I asked her what the Make It New audience can expect from her set, and she said: “A lot of energy, fast mixing, really rough at times, really thumping. It depends how much I drink, and how much they drink as well.” No word on how much she drank prior to her Boiler Room set as part of the Night Slugs takeover in 2012 — this week’s featured DJ Set of the Week — but I’ll be happy if what she delivers this Thursday is only half as raw and banging.
MAKE IT NEW WITH IKONIKA
W/ RESIDENTS CORALCOLA AND BALTIMORODER
[MIDDLESEX LOUNGE, 315 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. THU 3.6 9PM/21+/$10 @MIDDLESEXLOUNGE MIDDLESEXLOUNGE.US]