Sara Abdel-Hamid, or Ikonika, as most people know her, has been an active member in London’s music community for the better part of the last five years. Though her background stems from the hardcore and punk, in 2008 she landed on the shores of electronic music via dubstep. In the time since, she’s focused her attention on the music from her youth, which has a heavy hand in the sound of her latest album Aerotropolis. The album is based around a concept (an “airport city”) that was brought her attention due to the nature of her lifestyle and career. A few days after her album’s release party at Fabric in London, I spoke with Sara about her current music state and how the album came into fruition.
How have you been?
Ikonika: I’m alright, still a bit tired from Friday night even though it’s Sunday now.
I know the feeling. What’d you end up doing?
Ikonika: I had the album launch party at Fabric. It was amazing and pretty cool. We had Hyperdub in Room 2, so it was Kode9, Scratcha DVA, Cooly G, Morgan Zarate, Terror Danjah, and Walton.
It’s been about two weeks since the album came out. How are you feeling about it?
I’m really happy that it’s out. It’s good to be back on Hyperdub as well. I think it’s going well; we sold out the last batch of CDs, so they’re getting more pressed.
What would you say are some of the biggest changes in your approach to making music since Contact?
Contact was kind of a rough and ready album. I think my metal and hardcore influences came out a little bit. And silly me, reading YouTube comments and stuff like that. People were cussing me about my technical ability and how I didn’t see it as the most important part of my music. I felt it was all about my creativity and experimentation with melody; I thought I could learn all that technical stuff later. I did and ended up with a really clean sounding and polished album. Then, you get the other comments saying it’s too polished, it’s too clean. I was pleased with myself that I was able to expand on my knowledge. I’m slowly learning to ignore it and take people’s advice because I see stuff like that as a report card. It helps with my progression.
Do you feel it’s good to revel in being naïve about music in general? Is that something you wish you still had?
I guess that was sort of the point. In the stuff I’ve been making in the months after the album, I’ve been messing around with so many effects and just overusing them. That’s the only thing I can say. For me, it adds textures and layers to my music and I think that will be the next step. I’m kind of playing around with sound design a little bit more these days.
So are you thinking of putting out a 12-inch after this?
Totally. I’ve kind of been working on stuff in the studio and I’m really happy to have the time to do that. And working differently, I’m not just staring at a screen; I’m working with a few machines now. It’s about getting that balance right and mixing old with new.
You’re an ‘80s baby and Aerotropolis had a bit of nostalgia in it. Do you feel like you’re going to continue in that vein?
My productions always seem to be weird memories. I think I just have a complete attraction to those kinds of sounds from that time. For the ‘80s were important in terms of technology. It was really the first time we felt we were getting closer to the future. Not just in music, but with film, ideas, portable technology, computer games and all these types of things. There’s something there that really attracts me to it. I’ve always said I prefer the ‘80s perception of the future than any other decade. The ‘90s perception was just horrible. It was really weird, like what they would wear in Demolition Man. It was overly sharp and crisp with too much purple. The ‘80s still had this grainy pixelated residue.
Do you have any examples of music from that period that is rooted in the album?
I think for a lot of producers here in London, after we fell out of touch with genres like dubstep and U.K. funk everyone started getting a bit more percussive with their DJing, mainly due to listening to a lot of house, techno, and whatever hybrids. I was doing the same. I started playing house, ghetto house, early Chicago house. Then I remember what my sisters listened to early on and a lot of it was freestyle house that kind of came into the mainstream and a lot of pop tunes that had freestyle elements. I kind of started listening to them again and going through their old records. There was something quite modern and fitting; the way the beats are sometimes complex and melodies were really random. I related to it because that’s how I play my melodies. It’s always funny leads and harsh brass sounds. I felt a connection there. With the vocals as well, most of them I don’t think were sung very well, but there was something about that whole girl- or boy-next-door vibe about it; you yourself could sing it because the range wasn’t mental.
The album’s lead single was “Beach Mode” and it was done with Jessy Lanza. Do you plan on using vocalists again that lean toward the pop side of music?
Yeah, I’ve always said I’m influenced by early pop, Madonna mostly. I’m really happy with the way that came out. I didn’t want to be forced to do a vocal track and I waited quite a long time to explore that. Jessy wrote such an incredible hook—really sweet, melodic and heartfelt, and it just kind of went together with the “Beach Mode” dub. I really want to start working with vocalists that can do that, and have that kind of pop sensibility about it. Not necessarily something that’s mainstream and money-making, but more wholesome.
Were you in the studio with Jessy or was it done over the Internet?
Kode9 was the middleman. He listened to the first few demos and said we should try to get some vocals because we’d left it with enough space to do that. He said, ‘We just signed Jessy Lanza,’ played me a few tracks, and I was like, ‘Cool.’ He asked what track to use, and—this was the most random part—I said, ‘Just give her “Beach Mode.”‘ She wrote to it and gave me the project back. Then I more or less stripped everything I had done, and made an arrangement with vocals first and put everything back together. So it was a modern way of doing it.
How does a record usually start for you? Is there a certain sequence of events each time?
It starts off with random projects. I’m the kind of producer, who, if I feel a block coming on, I’ll close that project and start a new one. Before I know it, I’ve gathered up a few sketches and I put that all in folder. From there it’s a process of elimination. Slowly your folder becomes a “yes” pile, a “done?”, “super done,” and “send to Steve [Kode9].” I think I gave him 20 tracks; he starts picking out what he wants. We mastered 17 tracks, one of which is a track called “Animotronik” that came out on the Japanese version and we have two tracks we might use as B-sides for the next EP.
Can you explain the “aerotropolis” concept behind the album?
Usually in the past cities were closer to the border where there was water and you could see incoming ships. We don’t necessarily rely on that these days and I live so close to Heathrow and I’m always surrounded by planes. It gets quite scary. They’re over-capacitated right now and there’s a lot of debate on whether they should have a third runway, which would eliminate a complete town. Basically, it’s just becoming part of the furniture. It started to evade my life a little bit because I’m a DJ and fly from Heathrow. The thing is, I’ve worked there, my first job was there, my mom still works there now, my sisters used to work there. All these things started trickling their way down into my productions. At the same time, I’m totally in love with travel, but airplanes kind of scare me. I have to take a plane to do what I love. I feel like I have to put my life at risk to play a gig and that’s really exciting to me. I started getting infatuated by aviation and the whole idea of living in an aerotropolis. I can’t really escape it right now. Unfortunately, I made an album about it.
You also run Hum + Buzz. Are there any plans for the label?
We’ve got a few releases coming out. One should come out in September. We’re not really the type of people that like to rush. We never really write in stone. I come from a punk DIY background and I have a dislike for all things business related, especially in music. Obviously, it’s a bit hard because it’s my income and career, but with Hum + Buzz, it’s a mental hobby. We don’t do it for the cash. It’s our fun kind of thing we like to do and give a platform to newer producers or people we feel should have more releases. And we just do what we want. The next one will be from a producer called Marriage Proposal and it’ll be a 6-track digital release. We want to do a lot more digital releases because we get a lot tracks and we don’t want to have to choose three so it fits on vinyl.
You’re about to go on tour. Is there anywhere in particular you’re excited to visit or anything you’d like to do while you’re traveling?
It’ll be mostly me, Kode9, DJ Rashad, and DJ Spinn. It’s a pretty hefty Hyperdub tour. For the whole of September I’m away. I’m doing my first live set in Holland, going to Canada for a week, doing some European shows in between, and coming to the States for two weeks, and Mexico for one night. There’s Mutek in Mexico, Decibel Festival in Seattle, and I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything else.