"I Want To Blast My Record In Chinatown": an Interview with Fatima Al Qadiri

The experimental producer talks sino grime, and how Imagined China influenced her debut LP.

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Mar 19 2014, 7:30pm

Fatima Al Qadiri must not sleep. The Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised and NYC-residing conceptual artist runs the Global Wav. radio show and column for DIS Magazine, releases on Night Slugs' LA sister label Fade 2 Mind, works with J-Cush and Nguzunguzu as forward-thinking R&B supergroup Future Brown, and is set to release her debut LP Asiatisch on Hyperdub Records this May. Considering such a workload I almost expected her to slightly frazzled in conversation—but Fatima Al Qadiri is incredibly considered. The low timbre of her voice is commanding, as she poetically, pointedly, talks through an album that from first glance, seems a loaded enterprise.

Asiatisch is an album unlike any other I can recall hearing—an uprooting of one of the most intriguing yet undiscussed motifs in contemporary electronic music—sino grime—and refiguring it through the lens of how Western concepts and stereotypes of Asian (namely, Chinese) music prevail.

In this in-depth interview, Fatima Al Qadiri discusses her relationship with sino grime, both the conceptual thrust and reality of Imagined China, and how the broadening of electronic music confirms her self-determined work ethic.

THUMP: I'm curious—having lived in Europe, the UK, the US and Asia, where and when did you first hear about grime music? Were you living in London in the early 2000s, when it all kicked off?

Fatima al Qadiri: I was in New York when I first heard about grime and of Dizzee Rascal. His image started popping up all over magazines over here. I think the record that really got to me first was Wiley's "Treddin' On Thin Ice." I know of this fall in line with the concept of the hardcore continuum and so on, but it really felt like it was a huge break from previous chart music. 

I lived in London for a minute in 2004/2005, but I wasn't aware of grime so much. None of the people I was hanging out with were going to any of the grime nights. They were really into disco, so I didn't have access to the nightlife. I was only listening to it online, downloading whatever I could get my hands on, but I just didn't know what I was looking for. It was only until years later when I met one of the Future Brown members, J-Cush, in 2010. He is the grime encyclopedia. He has truly enriched my knowledge. Before I met him I could tell you the names of maybe 10 grime artists, but I didn't really know all the intricacies; the instrumentals, the crews, the MCs. J-Cush has been my teacher.

I've only recently had access to live grime music too; the first time I saw Ruff Sqwad perform was at your Future Brown show recently.

Wow, that was the first time for me too! The fact that I've been a big fan of all of them for years now, and the first time that I saw them, rapping over our tracks, is just mind-blowing. Surreal. I completely lost my mind when the came on stage.

I heard that the police tried to shut the show down initially, because they heard about Ruff Sqwad performing.

The thing with grime is that it's had a very volatile existence in the UK, with cops shutting down grime parties. This Barbican fiasco for instance—that's not going to happen to parties involving bands. I'm sorry to put it in black and white terms, literally, but really, it's just that. The fact that Trident exists, and has been shutting down parties for years now, there's a concerted effort from the police in London and in other cities to shut down grime culture. It's very, very disheartening, and very tragic for all the MCs and all the fans. It's going to live on but, with the club nights, it's like the physical manifestation of the sound is forbidden.

What is it about grime that appeals to you?

There is something very innocent about grime. It's got a childlike sound to it, but at the same time is incredibly sinister. It sounds like the villain scenes in cartoons and video games. At the same time, it was so painfully digital—and when I say painfully, I mean in a good way. It was such a major departure; like a compendium of all the things that appealed to me as a child in sonic form. 

If grime were architecture it would be brutalism, because brutalism is concrete. Poetic, but very raw. People either love it or hate it. There's no middle ground because, again, it's such a break. I feel like somehow there's a relationship between them. If you could physically represent this music, it's that.

How did you come to rest on the overriding theme of Asiatisch; the motif of Asian instrumental sounds in grime?

I make music first, and then I devise a concept for it. I connect the dots between tracks. I don't go into the session thinking, "Yes, I'm going to make a…" Asiatisch happened accidentally.  I got this nonsense Mandarin accapella version of Sinead O'Connor's 'Nothing Compares To You' from my friends in Shanzai Biennial.

They were in a very large-scale group show at MoMA PS1, and this was to be the soundtrack for a video of theirs. They had found this on YouTube, then they found Helen Feng (who is a Chinese singer in a punk band), got her to record the nonsense version they'd found on YouTube and then sent it to me as an a cappella, asking me to make this cheap Chinese instrumental underneath it.

Those were their exact words—"cheap, Chinese instrumental." I did something completely against their instructions, and they didn't use it. That's what made me want to make this record; exploring this notion of Asian musical motifs in Western music. This idea that the west has been stringing together a very intricate tapestry of stereotypes regarding China.

It's very telling then that you open Asiatisch with that track; an album born of a perceived "failure".

Opening the album with that song, I just felt that it sounded like the beginning; like the opening credits to a Chinese Batman, a Chinese Gotham City. The thing is with that song is its process. How they found the track, finding Helen, getting her to record it, giving it to me—it's so many times removed from its original source, and that's what Imagined China is. That's how stereotypes are created. Imagined China is not just a collection of dislocated stereotypes. It is an environment, a value system, a very rich and disturbing narrative. 

One word that's been bandied around with your work for some time, and undoubtedly will be for Asiatisch is "conceptual"—which I find corny.

It's very corny. That term doesn't appeal to me. It's about exploring these niche definitions and boundaries subscribed, or ascribed, to music, that I feel like are very loose. I'm just breaking them in my fingers. I'm a conceptual artist. If we have to break it down into bricks and mortar, the dry wall definition, all my works are and will continue to be conceptual until the end. 

What Asiatisch does explore though, quite explicitly, is the motif of sino grime. It's fascinating to me; a thread within grime that is so evocative, so sharp, yet barely written or spoken about in the wider dance music context. What are your thoughts on sino grime, and what drew you to it for the album?

The thing is that sino grime itself is not really a genre. Nobody is making sino grime. Sino grime was a term that Kode9 created to define what he saw as a thread of Asian musically-influenced grime tracks, which he very adroitly identified. Unlike other genres that really have a whole holistic experience and a visual language, sino grime does not. This was created post-production, years later. 

It was a term that needed to be coined but at the same time I feel like it's still something that was made post, post, post, post-creation of this music. It's not a scene—unlike grime itself. This definition does not have a physical manifestation. What's interesting about sino grime tracks is that they are individual tracks on people's records, not albums, or mixes, or narratives amongst compilations.

I think that Jammer was the one that made the largest number of them—five or six perhaps—but they're all dotted around, one offs. This is why sino grime was a fleeting moment. Kode9 would probably argue with me about this, but I feel like Wizzbit and Jammer were the ones that made more sino grime tracks than anyone else at the time, in this very early stage. 

What do you think the sino motif represents within grime? I always come back to a Dizzee Rascal interview from 2010 talking about the influence of Canary Wharf; this steely totem of an unreachable representation of The Future in his line of sight. 

I feel like all these dudes watched kung-fu movies when they were young, and inspired them to make music that contained these core elements. Wiseness, strength of mind in the face of a rival, the threat of physical power and prowess. The embodiment of martial art. It's a very masculine subject, and it fit perfectly into the sparring nature of rap and grime. This one-upping the other, a sinister rivalry. That's what made it popular. That's what made it threatening. It was beautiful and sublime; the element of a Shaolin warrior, like Wu Tang Clan coveted. One of the tracks on the records is "Shanghai Freeway," and it's definitely about the idea that Shanghai is the most futuristic of cities. Beyond the reach of most. More people have gone to China now than ever before now, but it's still something rare. 

I've been listening to Kode9's sino grime mix from 2005 a lot this week in tandem with Asiatisch. Was that an influence on you at all?

It's funny because I finished the record, and then J Cush sent me the YouTube like of Kode9's mix. That was the first time I'd heard of the term sino grime. 

You're kidding me. I thought you'd have heard it years ago—at the time, even.

I literally heard it a week after the record was finished. I didn't know it had been defined by anybody, I was just drawn to the Asian motifs in grime production. Wiley himself, even though its not particularly sino grime, he did make some tracks like this himself. He has a track called "Shanghai," which I found out about recently. 

Sino grime had its "moment" as it were in the early 2000s. Besides yourself, where do you think this motif still lives in grime? Are there any tracks that stand out to you?

Well, I love Preditah—"The Big Wok." That was the first sino grime track that made me think, "Something is going on here." I heard this track when it came out in 2011 and I was blown away. Everything about this it is so fucking beautiful. The beat, the sound, the engineering, the composition, the arrangement—it's just killer. He fucking nailed it. This is a much later manifestation of that sino grime energy, but you can see that the strain is still there. It's from the other side of the decade. 

Do you feel that it borders on being too concept-laden to be an approachable element of the genre for the listener, though? That people become so invested in the idea of it, that the execution often fails to live up to its demands? And maybe that's why it's such a sparse, difficult to identify element of the sound?

I'm not invested in these ideas, I just think that they're out there and not many people are talking about it. When I say this is a reality, I'm serious. This idea of Imagined China; Shaolin monks, the incredible detailed intricacy, a scrambled imaginary tale spun from so many different mediums. It's not a stick of butter that you can put a knife in. It's hard to penetrate, but I'm trying speaking about this in the most intelligent way that I can.

You do speak about it very intelligently though. You've said previously that you've never been to China, and that the album is an exploration of an Imagined China. What exactly do you mean by Imagined China; is it your own image, or something wider?

The West created this Imagined China. I've just been consuming it all these years. Every other cover of The Economist is China this China that, in a really urgent, vilifying language. I'm not the one creating this Imagined China. Imagined China is a reality; created in the West in the imagination of anyone that's consuming Western literature, films, sociopolitical and economic magazines, media, cartoons, comic books, you name it. The West has been creating monologues, diatribes, tapestries of sounds and visual languages of other cultures for centuries, and instilling it into its readership and educational system.

And how does this translate into music, for you?

Asian motifs in Western music originally started as a colonial export. In Looney Tunes cartoons, and previous examples of that, there's an element of this fascination with the East, and need to create a leitmotif in order to identify characters. These melodies aping real Chinese music are meant to create characters - however removed from reality that music is.

How is that worked through in the technical process though?

These Asian motifs, you can pick them. You can taste them. I didn't even have to search for Chinese virtual instruments. They were already available with the software that came with my computer. Logic has something called the Asian Kit. It's encouraging you to use these sounds. The Korg M1, which is a synthesiser that's favoured by a lot people that make sino music, is full of Chinese flutes, Japanese flutes - you name it. There is a want, a demand, for Asian motifs in music but martial arts and architecture are the largest sources of exposure to Imagined China for people who are consuming Western media.

Where does sampling come into Asiatisch then, considering the weight of using these virtual instruments - if at all?

There are no samples of anything. I think I've used one or two seconds of a sample in all the records I've made. With the exception of "Desert Strike," where I had to sample the sounds of guns and bombs (I can't make those sounds myself, or record them in a controlled environment), I don't sample anything. I've read several articles saying this, but there's not a single video game sample on any record that I've made. 

I'm pretty amazed by that to be honest. And the use of Mandarin on the album, that's a big part of it too?

The sampling of classical Chinese poetry to me is representative of the ancient soul of China. I did a semester of classical Chinese literature at university, so I have more exposure and understanding of these poems than just randomly plucking them out of the internet, and not knowing anything about them. These words are about ancient China, the real China. Even though I've edited them in a way that's scrambled, because Imagined China is a scrambled idea. It's not something that you can easily even encompass in a sentence or two - or three, or four. It's an undertaking.

It's a really heady layering of ideas. How do you feel you can begin to tackle something that loaded?

None of the statements that I'm making are closed statements. It's all open to interpretation. The thing is with music is that music is the most abstract language - so you can give a fuck, or let the music speak for itself. I'm letting the music speak for itself. This is the context that I'm placing it in. Whether you want to read the context or not is up to you. I'm making melodic information. It's not atonal. More than that, Asian motifs in Western music are never going to go away. Once they enter, they stay and mutate. This is something that has to be explored in writing, perhaps. I'm not a writer. That's why I did this through music; to express it abstractly, start the ball rolling into this rabbit-hole. You have your experience of Imagined China. Have you been to China? 

No, never.

Ok, think of all the sounds you think of, when you think of China. Think of all the political systems, society, cityscapes, landscapes, food. You are thinking of something that is Not.

Like a Chinatown?

Exactly, why do Chinatowns exist? I just feel I like I want people to explore these ideas. I want to blast my record in Chinatown. 

So, where do you think Asiatisch lies within this conversation of sino grime? I hesitate to ask this to be honest: it's an overt motif, but I don't consider you a grime producer at all.

I really think that for me, musically, the record, like all my records, is an homage to an existing genre that I then do something else with it. Anyone who calls me a grime producer is mistaken because clearly I'm influenced by it, but influence is the most tenuous of words. That's the thing with musical writing and definitions. They set very narrow standards and talking points. Grime is the most male-dominated genre in electronic music by a long shot, so I feel like trying to create a context for your music, differently, is the antithesis of grime. This is just my homage to and interpretation of this genre; throwing light on the existence of this definition.

How do you feel about the process and final product of Asiatisch, as your debut, now that you're speaking about it with others? 

Well, many of my records were made under extreme depressive states. When I said I make music for myself, I'm not kidding. I make music to get out of a very bad state of mind. Half of those are made under manic depression states, and the others manic joy. This one was made very level-headed, bizarrely. Something clicked after I made this failed version - the supposedly failed version for the artists Shanzai Biennial - because I didn't follow their instructions. I didn't know exactly what it was about then, but I knew I was going to write it, and then have it crystallise in my mind. It was very bizarre. The entire record was written in a month and a half. Almost in a trance. 

Moving away from grime and the album, I read a quote of yours saying that you're largely uninterested in working with current pop artists—which is a path many underground electronic producers have taken lately. Why is that?

For me there's two journeys in music. You start off making underground music, and then you start making pop music. This is the transition. Or, you start out making pop music, and then you start making really experimental pop albums that nobody, or very few people, wants to hear. You either start from that end and progress to this end, or you start from the that end and progress to the other. I'm not making a valued judgement here. You can listen to any music you fucking like, but I'm not searching for that kind of music because it's everywhere. Some people make music for a career, but I'm not a careerist. If I don't like it, it doesn't matter who it's for, I'm going to can it.

This happened quite starkly in grime too—for better and worse.

A lot of grime producers themselves went from producing music for their peers to producing music for mass audiences. And that was one of the first true "devolvements" of grime music. It had its authentic, peer to peer moment, and then a lot of the major producers started making pop as a career. I mean, they came from a specific background. It made sense to make money, and I'm not passing judgement. This is history. I'm looking at it. We're observing, and these are the facts. 

The same goes for electronic music producers. It's whatever you want to do, and that's not what I want to do. I'm not even making music for my peers. I'm making music for myself. People have tried, managers have tried, friends have tried, to get me to make career moves – and I'm not going to.

Fatima Al Qadiri's Asiatisch is released on Hyperdub on May 5th. You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums