December 7, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Clear 13°C

Gaika's ghettofuturism

By Patrick Masterson
Published: 2016-10-31

Gaika: "If you're a black guy you're supposed to make grime, reggae or coffee-table music." He doesn't.
H

alloween tends to bring out the spooky, the creepy and the generally dark in even the most innocent of people. Sometimes that means writing ghost stories or adorning your home with fake cobwebs. Mostly it just means dressing up in otherwise socially unacceptable outfits.

For London musician Gaika, Halloween is no joke and the nightmares of social discord are a daily reality. Brixton artist Gaika Tavares conveys this through music that is a cacophonous mixture of dancehall, R&B, hip-hop, and postmodern industrially tinged electronica that he dubs "ghettofuturism."

Atop and beneath (but mostly around) this music are lyrics that act as commentary on urban life as a black man in a Brexit climate. His latest effort, Spaghetto (Warp), sports a deceptively goofy title. Check your laughs at the door.

Those familiar with Gaika's work won't be caught out by the seven songs on this EP, his first for the venerable Warp imprint after two 10-song mixtapes in less than a year — 2015's Machine and Mixpak-assisted follow-up Security were independent, self-released, and similar in scope and sound. In other words, Gaika arrived fully formed.

Tussling with dense, aggressively noisy beats and penning verses on politics, love and wealth, he was always going to find a home among outcasts. Spaghetto is no different.

"Neophyte" opens with an eerie, wordless vocal soaring above an atonal rumble. Leila Adu's voice swirls into distant, reverb-laden vocals — and as Gaika's first words drop into the mix ("What are you afraid of?", naturally), the set is off and running. Amid his economical verses and choruses, the music grinds forth, letting gothic bells run the beat toward its outro. First single "3D" draws rhythmic inspiration from dancehall and "The Deal" was heavily influenced by Lovers Rock, a reggae strain popular with UK immigrants in the late 1970s — both are nods to Gaika's Grenadian and Jamaican parents. And while the music is clearly influenced by the Caribbean, his accent also bleeds through even at its murkiest, most treated moments.

The emotional heart of this EP beats in a one-two punch on "The Deal" and "Glad We Found It." The former features Alyusha Chagrin in a duet. They trade space in an unusually soft, sedate approach. It's a tender moment as Alyusha takes over on the denouement. "Glad We Found It" opens with the intonation, "It burns to love". Gaika's range isn't impressive, but the double-tracked vocals feature a high pitch as well as his usual lower rasp and it'll tear you up to hear as much as it tears him up to sing.

As with the mixtapes, the supporting cast lacks big names. Jam City is about as recognizable as it gets for this kind of thing — Gaika's music certainly owes an enormous debt to the Night Slugs crew of producers who broke open a more metallic bass sound earlier this decade — but whether it's Acropolis Sound or the aforementioned Alyusha Chagrin, it's a tightknit circle. However you look at it, Gaika's sound is focused.

Urban to cosmic, ghetto to gothic, personal to universal, frustrating to alluring, he remains nothing if not consistent and concise ("Roadside," which ends Spaghetto, is his longest song yet at six or so minutes). The cracked-voice, nigh-crying urgency to what he sings is as personally fraught as it is politically charged. If you want an alarming listen in late 2016, listen to this. You'll be glad you found it.

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Patrick Masterson

Patrick is a New York-born freelance writer and DJ who lives on Chicago's West Side.

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