“House and Techno Are Black and Brown Music”: Fiyahdred in Conversation With Ikonika
Ikonika and Fiyahdred are igniting dancefloors around the world with their unique blends of UK genres and Afrodiasporic sounds. Here, the Hyperdub labelmates chat about their formative influences, playing together in the club and what the future holds for London's underground scene.
Born and raised in London, Ikonika and Fiyahdred grew up on wide-ranging palettes of garage, dubstep and jungle. It was in 2009 that Ikonika released her first ever remix. Titled Township Funk, it saw her put her own spin on Mujava's Bacardi house banger for Warp Records. Fast forward to a year later, and the Hyperdub mainstay linked up with Optimum to launch the record label Hum + Buzz with a collaborative release. Then, across three critically hyped LPs released in the 2010s, she forged her distinct sound: a mix of UK drill, grime, dubstep, R&B, UK funky, gqom and more. Her most recent body of work is the 2022 EP Bubble Up, which sees the producer lean into a more pop-focused direction. It marks the first release to feature her own vocals, and the producer has described it as her “coming out” record containing "queer love anthems for the dancefloor”.
Fiyahdred, formerly known as Bamz, began beatboxing at six years old before turning their hand to music production at age 10. It was in 2011 that the producer left school to pursue music, and under the Bamz moniker, they grew a fanbase from their high-octane sets at Boiler Room and self-released EPs. Recently, the artist went on a two-year hiatus before returning with a noticeable switch-up, building upon their talent as both a producer and lyricist. A co-sign from Scratcha DVA saw them ink a deal with Hyperdub, resulting in the release of their EP Anyway.
As a duo, they’ve set dancefloors ablaze with their incalculable genre-skimming back-to-backs. They’ve championed and challenged each other at the decks, connecting on musical touchpoints and sparring on curveball selections.
This Friday (2 December), the two are set to go head-to-head at Trippin’s fabric takeover, sharing a line-up with DJ Lycox and Tommy Gold. Ahead of the night, we caught up with the pair to talk their formative influences, how they’ve both resisted being boxed into one genre and their synergy behind the decks.
What was your first foray into music?
Fiyahdred: My journey has been fuelled by curiosity, experimentation and pure fascination the whole way. Beatboxing was the stepping stone into production. I first used Fruity Loops Studio 4 on one of my cousins' laptops. I didn't know what I was doing, just that I could put a four-beat pattern and get a little groove going. My mum's friend Yvonne bought me the producer's edition on my 10th birthday, so shout out Yvonne! For a 10-year-old, they weren't half bad, you know. I remember them being on some house, garage, grime vibes because my brother was playing a lot of early grime riddims. I was very shy, so production was a vessel for that, instead of being out on the roads doing foolish things that young people can get caught up or pushed into. I'm keen to learn more about the theory behind music and learn piano and guitar properly over the next few years.
Ikonika: I'd love to learn piano now. I was brought up with R&B and hip-hop, and then UK garage and dubstep came about. At the same time, I was playing drums in hardcore and metalcore bands – I was a bit of an emo. I used to play a double bass pedal with my drum kit. I've always had a pure fascination with drum patterns. I always wanted more and I wanted to learn more. Playing a drum kit is quite physical, so it allowed me to get right in there and into the music.
When did the transition happen from bedroom producer to landing gigs as a DJ?
I: I started DJing around the same time I started producing. My band broke up, and I had nowhere to go. All I had was my laptop. When I should have been doing schoolwork at Kingston University, I was on Fruity Loops messing around in this tiny studio. I was collecting dubstep and garage vinyl. Then I got into grime. Every time I got a new record, I was studying it as much as possible, and that led to more producing.
What music was around the house when you were growing up?
F: My mum is English and Trinidadian. She was at all the jungle raves, all the UK garage raves, house raves, proper in it. We bonded over the records she played at home and in the car. A lot of rare groove and 80s funk, jungle, drum‘n’bass, garage, smooth R&B and soul. There was a whole spectrum of music she gave me. My dad's Jamaican, but he spent time up in Birmingham and New York, and there was a point in his life where he used to be a b-boy, so he's all about hip-hop and rap. That genre was innate in him.
Your brother played a huge part in you getting into UK funky, right?
F: Massively. I was too young to go to the clubs. I was about 13 or 14. He's six years older than me, so he would always bring me back all these mix CDs from Supa D, Pioneer, Kismet, Circle, Scholar Tee, in all these different clubs that are probably gone now. There would never be a song I disliked. You've got the hosts and the MCs on it, like Coldstepz, Roska and Dogtanian. The vibe was crazy. Obviously, shoutout to Crazy Cousinz and Kyla and The Funky Anthem because they pushed it onto the map, but it was more than the chart-toppers. The beats drew me in, and I realised there was more than UK funky. Afro house was taking it to South Africa, then Latin elements, Chicago house elements. It was much bigger. I was listening to this music like, "This is crazy!"
How has your family and heritage shaped your sound?
I: My parents came to this country in the early 70s. My mom is from the Philippines and my dad is Egyptian. They used to catch the bus all the way to central London to go raving at dance halls and listen to disco.
F: Nowadays, I've been going back to go forwards. I've been going to the archives and trying to mix some more R&B and rare groove into house records. I'm enjoying seeing the distinct differences and similarities, and challenging myself more to do blends that people haven't thought of yet. And also bridge the gap because there's been such a gap before between house, disco and electronic music – especially being Black and queer. I feel like my mum and brother are with me in the music everywhere I go.
I: I'm not sure my heritage has influenced me as a DJ, but as a producer Arabic melodies always end up being at the forefront of my music, and I think people can tell that part is coming from there. Regarding my Filipino side, I don't know much about the music, but they love Celine, Mariah, Whitney and these big diva tunes. There's a joke that you don't ever go to karaoke with Filipinos. One person might have the mic while the others are doing dance routines. We don't mess around.
F: Are you sure they're not Jamaican? That is so funny to me. It reminds me so much of Jamaicans.
How has London impacted you as an artist?
F: Being a beats person, you're constantly deconstructing the elements that go into a track. In London, you might be walking on the street and catch someone playing a track where you'll hear multiple components creating the rhythm alone. The city is buzzing with so many different hybrids of genres that were born and birthed on this same soil. Then those keep amalgamating into another genre. A unique sound is coming from down the road. There's music across the city. You can't go anywhere and get rid of it! It's not only London that inspires me. When you go to different parts of the UK – like Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds – the regional distinction when it comes to music is incredible.
I: I grew up listening to pirate radio and being blasted with so many styles without even knowing it. When I was clubbing, the format was a mixed bag. There would always be an R&B portion, a UK garage portion, and then jungle and drum‘n’bass at the end of the night. Then that evolved into genre-focused nights where it would just be dubstep and grime. Until UK funky started coming about, there were people like Kode9 playing it for the first 20 minutes of his set to a dubstep crowd. The way that we've been able to mutate and combine sounds, and a multitude of genres, for me is a very UK thing and a very London thing.
F: There is a particular grit when it comes to London and club music. Every place in the UK, whatever genre they birthed, it sounds dark, heavy and bassy. Each one has its own rawness and grit unique to them. Coming from London, it's also distinct. We have bouncier and darker basslines and different types of drops – even percussive elements. I'm not gonna lie, when I listened to amapiano in 2019 for the first time, sonically, it felt like UK funky again. So when people from over here made fusions with all of these homegrown genres, it made sense. Ikonika, you're definitely one of those artists where I can hear you've been influenced by amapiano and South African house. Yet still, you made it your own by playing certain chords and scales and using synthesisers that are not typically found in amapiano. We have that flare in London to go deeper and darker.
I: You're right about the grit. For instance, in South African amapiano, where the log drum sample comes from the DAW Fruity Loops, I use a vintage Yamaha instead. I want my bass to be awake, have some presence and cut through the mid-range. And definitely, I can tell in the mixdowns when it's someone from the UK usually, because there's so much feeling in the low-end and so much thought.
How has fusing those different percussive elements elevated your music?
F: I find genres like amapiano, Afro house and Afro tech to be quite thought-provoking. Before I listened to them intently, like I do now, I found it challenging to mix and master my music. But after hearing those genres and understanding what element comes first, what instrument is placed at what part of the track, it made me think about how songs are structured; who plays this role and who plays that. Since then, it has started influencing how intently I listen to other genres.
What has touring and playing in different countries been like?
I: When I started touring, I started syncing eating with travelling, and working out how you could discover the town or city more deeply; learn about its politics and how the people feel. That's the kind of stuff I'm interested in when I visit places. It's not just going to a place to do a set. I want to know about the people who live there, our similarities and their everyday struggles. If I have time, I love to go to food markets. This is especially great in places like Barcelona. My favourite thing to do is go to the market, nibble on stuff and just take the culture in.
F: Some of my best moments touring have been when I stumble across people on the same frequency where you can have a really comprehensive conversation. That usually stems from music, art and food. You dig deeper into the individual, how they're part of that society and how everything is intertwined. Top of my bucket list is to eat my way around the world because it's such a catalyst for more conversation, connection and inspiration.
What's a place that you hold close to your heart?
F: When I went to Cork back in 2019, that was my first ‘take a plane, play a DJ gig on your own’ experience. Witnessing how music brought everyone together – not just from Ireland and the UK but worldwide – was a significant experience. Then I would say that We Out Here Festival this year was a real surreal experience. I saw so many faces and then a day later, getting all these DMs like, "Your set was so sick! You're fire!" from people from Spain, Portugal, a few Londoners, even people from my school who I'd not seen in years growing up in Clapham.
What are your proudest accomplishments?
I: I feel like I'm getting into it now. I've only recently started to believe in my own sauce. I've been doing this for so long, so it's wild to think that I've only now got the confidence to be like, "Yo, I'm technically good. I can write good melodies, I can write a good beat. I can write a good bassline, sing now and play live." I think I had imposter syndrome all this time or a lack of confidence and slight anxiety. I always want to be the best I can be, and I've got so much stuff left to do. My ambitions are still growing. There are so many things I would like to dip my toes into when it comes to music. It's endless, the amount of learning that you're capable of.
Fiyahdred, what spurred on the two-year hiatus you’ve recently returned from?
F: I felt like the joy and the drive to make music wasn't really there, even before the pandemic hit. To help deal with it, I started a YouTube series called Bamz on Buttonz, with the sole purpose of making beats with no direction or intention, going back to move forward. I decided to change my stage name; Bamz had a great run, but I needed a new lease on life and a new direction.
After that, things started aligning and I came into this new sense of being without the same fears and procrastination I had. I started to make music for myself, which allowed me to recognise how far I've come and how far I could go if I did everything unapologetically.
How did you get signed to Hyperdub?
F: It actually started when I sent Anyway (Do It) to Scratcha DVA in mid-2020. Scratcha has been in my corner since we were on the same Boiler Room line-up in 2018, and he said it was sick. A couple months later, he texted me and said he had to talk ASAP. He called and said, "I was in the gym and this tune came on. I had to know who made this tune and realised it was the tune you sent me a few months ago. I have to send it to Kode9. Do you mind?" He sent it on, me and Kode9 connected, spoke about where it could go and then I spent a month putting the EP together.
Ikonika, Bubble Up feels like your most personal work to date. Where did the decision to appear on the cover art stem from?
I: I only just came out as queer this year, so I feel more than ever it's important for people to know I've always been here. Shit is vital and I need to take it a bit more seriously instead of times in the past when I've been shy or faded into the background. I want to be at the forefront. I want to be seen and this is why my face is on the artwork! It hit me that if I'm singing now, using my voice and having something to say, then I need to be more visible.
How did you arrive at this point?
I: When I was coming through I felt a little alone, like I was the only one out here doing this. It would've been nice to have people that were queer doing the same thing. Now Fiyah and I can play and be visible, and the younger generation is pulling me and inspiring me, and I can influence them too. That kind of communication is what we need.
F: I feel the same. It was a huge milestone to reach a point where I wasn't just recording my voice and leaving it on my hard drive. I'm putting it out into the world, and that's no easy task after all those misconceptions and things that were said to you in the past, or those voices in your head. When you don't see yourself represented, you can't see how you will take up space. It was nice to reach the point where it hit me like, "I'm gonna do this. I have the talent and passion, and it makes me feel purposeful." I'm proud of myself for doing that.
I would say my biggest achievement is my mindset and eradicating fear. Being able to always be confident and fluid with what I do as a queer person, a non-binary, and reflect that in my music. I am very artistic, and I just want to be able to express myself limitlessly and live joyfully.
Did you feel any pressure to box yourself into a genre musically?
F: Breaking out of those boxes is very challenging, you know, it's not light work. As much as I like funky house, there was a point when that's all that people were trying to shout me for. Now people can recognise that I play all genres that might stem from dancehall and soca, maybe even reggae and Afro house, and people want to book me solely for this and solely for that.
For me personally, the hope is that the music industry, fans and ravers will flood the dancefloor for your sets because they want to hear the 'Fiyahdred genre’ and the ‘Ikonika genre’. Do you know what I mean? And that you continue to gain traction and clock clout as DJs, vocalists and producers for your prolific prowess to uniquely blend bangers and pump your own sound.
F: Yes, Tracy! Your phone cut out for a second but that was epic, and I also want to add something. When you talk about being backed into boxes, I feel like, upon reflection, in interviews in the past, I felt like it wasn't the right thing to do to not talk about how it feels to be non-binary or talk about my experience being a woman. But then I thought about it. That's a very repetitive conversation that steers away from the greatness of women and gender nonconforming artists instead of focusing on how good we are musically and the shit I'm putting out; instead of asking me, "How does it feel to play in male-dominated spaces or line-ups?" It feels like shit, but let's keep it moving and talk about my music. It's so reductive.
Surely, the more vital angle we should be taking is shining a light on females and queer artists who were pioneers of electronic music and, even more so, the fiercely skilled female-identifying, queer, POC and gender nonconforming DJs and producers like yourselves who are pushing the genre so hard at the moment.
How have you influenced each other?
F: Ikonika challenges me. You’ve got years of selection on me, but then you're personally one of the best DJs I know! Because I can tell how deeply you study the music, it's not just putting two records together. It's about marrying the beats and rhythms. That's where our similarities lie when it comes to mixing. Even the way you do effects sometimes blows my mind! I'm like, "OK?!" You keep me on my toes! It's nice. I don't wanna feel like I'm coasting in a set.
I: I feel more or less the same about you. It's always really fun to play with you. There's a strong connection there. We don't even have to say anything to each other, we know through each other's styles. We merge things really nicely.
What does the future hold?
I: Now is when we can connect all the dots, bridge these gaps and bring music back – with house and techno – to the people it belongs to. Now is the right to have that conversation musically. Not appropriating but being influenced by each other and feeling the music.
F: It's so beautiful to see how the UK and South Africa are tight. They're like, "OK, we're cousins now for real." We're proper getting into the nitty gritty together, and it's good to see how harmonious we are. We're going back to go forward. We can recognise that house and techno are Black and brown music. It's queer. It's so important we're bridging those gaps too. It's a good look at the London music scene, and Ikonika and I are pushing that musical unity as far and as hard as we can.