Sonic Street Technologies has long enjoyed the support, shared interests and enthusiasm of many friends and collaborators over the years. Even before SST, several of the current team worked together as Sound System Outernational, collaborating with numerous artists, writers, musicians, sound operators and people passionate about sound system from all over the world.
Hylu from Unit 137 has been one of our long-term friends and collaborators to the project. Today’s blog recognises this long standing and valued relationship between Hylu, Unit 137 and the Sonic Street Technologies project. This relationship began when Hylu was invited to speak at the second Sound System Outernational event in June 2016. For this event, Hylu spoke about the development of Unit 137 as a Lewisham based sound and the sound system’s story thus far. Since then, Unit 137 has further worked together with the project, with Unit 137 hosting Sound System Outernational dances over the years. Most recently, Hylu and Unit 137 worked together with the project on the Sound in’ Lewisham Sound System Masterclass that took place in April 2022 at the Albany. A blog about the event can be found here. Hylu has continued working with students as part of the Alchemy music workshops based at the Goldsmiths Music Department, culminating with a performance at Lewisham People’s Day on Saturday 16th July 2022.
To show our thanks to Hylu and Unit 137’s support, Sonic Street Technologies would like to reciprocate by spotlighting and supporting Hylu’s release of Latent Variables Vol. 2. This is a brilliant record and we are happy to share it as part of a continued spirit of collaboration and friendship. The lead single from the EP, ‘Betty’ can be viewed on Youtube here and the full EP is being released today and can be bought from Unit 137’s bandcamp here. A limited run is being lathe cut on black vinyl which keeps within the sound system culture, tradition and lineage.
We hope you enjoy the interview below with Hylu by Pietro Zambrin and Elena Gilli from Astarbene. Thank you Hylu and Unit 137!
This blog is also available in Italian at this link.
Hi Hylu, nice to meet you. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself?
I’m Hylu, a music producer, DJ, sound engineer, soundman and founder of Unit 137, which is a sound system and record label based in Lewisham, London. This year marks our tenth year running. And, yeah, music is a big part of my life.
Latent Variables Vol. 2 dropped today, one year after Latent Variables Vol. 1, your first work as a solo producer. Are they a single body of work or did you create them separately? How are they different and what does this Vol. 2 add to the first one?
Yes, I’ve done lots of other releases in the past but Latent Variables Vol. 1 was the first solo one. Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 are different snapshots of time, made in different moments. So, yeah, they’re more of a continuum, a journey of musical expression; they’re not something that I see as a single thing. The way that they are linked together is that they’re both made in a collaborative process with a visual artist, whose name is Latent Variables. So, Vol. 1 was a collaboration between me and him, making music, making visuals, kind of ping-ponging the two kinds of media: I’d start with a rhythm, and that would have a tempo for him to create on, and I’d be inspired by his work: that’s how we made Vol. 1. It was very inspired visually; I get really inspired by visuals in general.
Then Vol. 2 was made slightly differently. The single, Betty, was a track that I created with minimal equipment: a drum sequencer called Digitakt and a Moog Voyager, working later with a krar player, which is an Ethiopian string-instrument with five or six strings, quite similar to a guitar but played very differently. So I recorded various takes of the krar, and that was cut and sampled to create the different melodies that are in the song. And then the video was created when the track was finished. But the second track, Earl, is more similar to the ones in Vol. 1 in the way that it was made: things being passed back and forth.
We also involved another person in Vol. 2 – who’s a cinematographer and director, Keifer Nyron Taylor – into the mix and that created different video content and I probably composed different music because of that. So, yeah, they’re different. And there’s no further intention really with the music, it’s all based around play and expressing where I was at at that particular time. Subconsciously, the genres of music that I’m making are coming through from my love of all sorts of music, but a lot of it is rooted in sound system culture, you know, bass-oriented music.
Latent Variables Vol.2 LP cover
The public has already listened to the first single, Betty, which is per se unique and experimental: what inspired you while building this track? And what should we expect from the whole EP?
The whole inspiration for Betty came from, like I said, not really defining what I was going to create. It’s not a thing like “Ok, I’m creating a dancehall track”, or “I’m going to make a reggae track” or whatever genre: it was just the feeling of that time and how that expression came out. I limited myself in the amount of equipment that I was going to use and as the song continued to be created I invited a friend of mine (Julius Richard) to play krar. I have Ethiopian heritage, my grandfather was Ethiopian and I’ve spent a lot of time in Ethiopia, so I really wanted to work with this instrument and player. Through that time there were a lot of issues going on in Ethiopia, a lot of tribal disputes of all sorts going on, so for me the track is an expression…
I suppose the inspiration came later to understand what it actually meant at the time, because as I was making it I was very intertwined with what was going on in Ethiopia. So for me, it’s actually a song that formulates the question “Where do you find peace in war?”, and I haven’t really expressed that to anyone else, but for me it really is a personal piece of art that depicts how I feel about the current and past situation in Ethiopia.
As we already mentioned, your work is quite experimental: what’s new about Latent Variables Vol. 2 and what do you mean to bring to music in terms of evolution and progress?
I don’t really know what’s new about it, it’s really personal, all the Latent Variables stuff is personal. For me it’s an opportunity to express myself, to sort of progress in terms of my own creativity and my own musical expression. In terms of the scene, I don’t know exactly where this music sits, it’s quite an interesting place to be for me, because I have a history of making a lot of roots, reggae, dub, more traditional kinds of sound – I’m quite into a lot of that 70’s roots and dub – and also jungle and other stuff. In a way I see it sitting a little bit in the electronic music pocket, but there’s also a dancehall rhythm there, and there’s dub in the way I process the sound: using a lot of reverbs, delays via auxiliary sends.
So, I suppose I’m bringing in a technical way of making dub, but then also bringing in a dancehall rhythm. What I really love about it is that it is my own expression. I say this a lot when I’m working with people, if I’m teaching or mentoring: personally, there’s a lot of things that I see sound system is or was, but a big part of it is expression, people being able to express themselves the way they want to express themselves, and not necessarily limiting themselves in what they want to do. And I’m not saying my music is going to inspire someone else do that too, but that’s what I did.
Does that resonate with other people? I don’t know, but hopefully it does, so other people feel like they can do what they want to do… but who knows how other people interpret that. And I’m ok with however anyone wants to interpret my music. I don’t know… I’m blabbering, but it’s quite a deep question.
Hylu of Unit 137
It definitely is. You are a founding member of Unit 137 sound system, so we imagine that you already had several chances to meet MCs and producers: who would you like to work with for a future featuring and why?
Oh, man… there’s so many people that I’d love to work with. As for vocalists, from the top of my head, when I think about vocalists that I listen to I think of Biga Ranx. I really like what he’s doing, he’s doing his thing, with all the crazy artwork: you can just see he’s being himself, finding his own way. Production-wise I’ve done a lot of collaborations, so for me it’s like I’ve gone in to come out again, so if anything, at the moment I would collaborate with a vocalist. There’s so many, man. I’d love to do some music with Phoebs, who’s in 137 as well.
Let’s talk about sound system culture. How is your activity as an artist and producer linked with the one as sound system operator?
I feel that the journey I’m on with what I’m creating now is really interesting experiencing playing that on the sound because it’s quite a different vibe than what would traditionally be played on a sound system: it is an interesting challenge to go through. Lately, I’m playing more of the music that I like, relating to what I’m creating and think about what would mix with it, because when I DJ I don’t just select tunes all the time, I mix (beat match), because that’s my background: I was a DJ before I made music, but we’re talking about when I was 13 or whatever.
Being a soundman for me encompasses quite a lot of different things, and it’s not just about me. In Unit 137 there’s Sleepy Time Ghost, who runs Bun Dem Out Records and he is very within what he makes, so like a reggae roots/dub sound; so when we’re playing as a sound he’s playing that. Personally, I love playing roots, dub – and when I say “dub” I mean the 70’s dub and that kind of sound – but I play a bit of jungle, all kinds of sounds. I’ve started to integrate more of my productions into my sets, which is cool because that’s always been a bit on the back-burner, because I’m doing so many different roles, you know: I’m running the sound, the label, and all kinds of different things, so now it’s kind of healing for me to be creating more of my own music and playing it.
And then there’s Ed West, and he plays his own sound that he produces, a bit of jungle, dancehall, he plays different stuff. I suppose we’ve always been quite a varied sound, but there’s pockets within it, because of the producers and DJs who will play their own particular vibe. So that’s the way the sound works, and then we’ll obviously read the crowd. Then we have vocalists as well, so sometimes we’ll be playing their tracks, sometimes we do version-excursion, where you play a traditional kind of riddim and then they ride on the riddim.
We encompass different styles, we have the mixing style, the selection style, we have the traditional style where we play the vocal version and we’ll flip it and play the version and we’ll keep on that version, or we might play the dub and just let that run. Because we’re influenced by so many different things, and I suppose that’s because we’re in London, and the thing is in London… it’s a melting pot, man, there’s everything, you get any type of music, you’re spoilt for choice really. That’s why we are the sound that we are, because of our environment, and our environment is made of so many different people.
So, some sounds would be like one person, but here there’s definitely more than just me. When we start talking about Unit 137 and sound system culture, for some people in the crew it’s a religious thing, very based on the Rastafarian faith, for some others it’s a technical thing, they’re proper into things like what frequencies we need to crossover, or how are we going to balance this or that; and for some people it’s a spiritual thing, for them it means so much to be transmitting those frequencies to people or to express themselves on the mic or whatever. It’s very dependent on the person, but for me the point of it is for people to be able to express themselves, and then to transmit those frequencies to the people, to their bodies, their ears and their whole spirit – to uplift them. And the music that we make needs to be transmitted in the best possible way; that’s at the heart of it.
You live and operate Unit 137 in Lewisham, the borough in which Goldsmiths University and Sonic Street Technologies are based, too. Has being this close to the project affected your activity as an operator in any way? How?
Yeah, man. You know, when we’re talking about Sonic Street Technologies for me we’re also talking about Sound System Outernational, so being close to that and that voice, and Julian (Henriques, Professor, SST Principal Investigator) and the whole team (Brian D’Aquino, Aaditaa Chaudhury, Natalie Hyacinth), it’s been lovely to be able to be a part of that. It will have an affect on sound systems, because I, for example, get to hear different perspectives, I get to be involved with the young people that I work with, the Goldsmiths Alchemy, and being close to Natalie and having conversations with you guys from Astarbene, and also with other members of the team, and everyone just supporting us as a sound system; all that has a massive effect to what we’re doing. It’s brilliant to have someone amplifying what the culture is doing. It’s an amplification of lots of people’s stories, you know, there’s a lot of stories out there, there’s a lot of sounds and people doing their thing. But they don’t always get heard, these stories, and it’s great to hear them and to be a part of them. It is a form of storytelling what you’re doing, it’s inspiring.
Unit 137 sound system
In the context of Goldsmiths University, you held a music production workshop with some young boys and girls, the Goldsmiths Alchemy you mentioned, tell us about it.
The Alchemy project, they’re an amazing group of young people and the whole team that run the project. And the opportunity to bring sound system into what they’re already doing, it’s beautiful, because they’re already amazing, talented musicians; vocalists, producers, etc. You go in there and you’re like “You play piano, too? But you also play the saxophone, but you also make videos…”. There’s this girl who’s like “yeah, I play guitar and do this, and do that”, it’s incredible. So for me and the team, Jerry Lionz, Phoebs, Anja Ngozi going in there for the first workshop and getting them to experience the sound system and to be able to perform on it and to hear other people perform on it, and actually feel it, it was really refreshing,
And then we went in the studio to actually create music to perform on the sound at two events (Lewisham Sound System Trail 2022, held on Sunday 29th of May and an upcoming one, A/N); I just think they’re getting the whole experience of the many different ways of performing. Right now they’re performing in the traditional sound system way, with no stage and with the sound facing them, so they don’t hear themselves perfectly and have to think “How am I going to project myself?”, “How am I going to speak to the engineer there?”, and it’s all quite overwhelming because you’ve got people in front of you, and then you’ve got the bass going everywhere; it’s a different thing for them. They’re more used to being on stage, with their monitor and everyone looking at them, but in sound system culture the crowd might be looking at the sound. So, you know, it’s different, you are on the same level, on the ground, with the people; and they’re experiencing that, and there’s not always that opportunity.
So, it’s an honor to be able to do that with a very talented group of young people, who are 14 through just over 18. And they’re not only getting my perspective, they get Jerry Lionz’, who’s run sounds, does music, does his own thing (Channel One play his tunes, Jah Youth play his tunes, Shaka plays his tunes), he’s a veteran, he plays guitar for Twinkle Brothers. So I do my thing, they do theirs, and then there’s Phoebs, who comes from a different perspective, because she’s coming from a jungle perspective, from running around with the Congo Natty family. And then there’s Anja Ngozi, who’s got heritage from Jamaica and her interpretation of sound system is slightly different because of the way she comes in at it. For her it’s more about her heritage, her family, her history, she has that in her blood; her father used to do all sorts of stuff with music. And when you express all this to young people they hear that, you can really see how you inspire them. It was nice, and it still is.
Last question: what future do you imagine or hope for sound system culture and reggae music?
Well, what’s happening is there’s a resurgence of sound system, there are people I know who build boxes and they’re telling me they’re busier than ever. A lot of people are making sound systems all over the world. I hope people can keep doing it and that they can keep doing it the true sound system way – which I think there needs to be a lot more of, but unfortunately, we don’t always get that. I always say this, sound system is to music what graffiti is to art, because it is accessible to anyone. We were running a dance the other day in Deptford – on private land, but it was on the street – and you had the local families – and they’re of all ages, you had the babies through to the elderly – and then you had the locals, people with problems as well, addictions to substances, and they’re all together on the street, in the dance. There were people on crutches, in wheelchairs, people who wouldn’t step inside a venue because they might not be comfortable in the space or the bouncers might not let them in. But everybody is allowed to come in on the street, of course there’s security but the vibe is a lot more open, and it’d be lovely to see more of that, where people can come together, they can enjoy the music and they can enjoy the art. Just like when you go down and you see a dope piece of graffiti, anyone can walk past that, because it’s on the street. And anyone can walk past a sound system on the street. And it’d be lovely to see more of that across the world.
I’m not saying sessions in venues are a bad thing, but I just think it’s beautiful when you’re on the street, it’s a daytime thing, and you’re not really segregating anyone. People are welcome, and they feel comfortable and safe in that space. It’s nice to see more sound systems and more people doing what they want to do. And I think it’s good that people are playing original sounds, really good, because they are educating people as a sound system, not only through the music they play but also through the voices that are transmitted on the sound. So, it’s really good to hold heritage and to push forward that history so that people don’t forget it. And also, and that’s the way that we run it, it’s important to do what you want to do with your expression, to be true to yourself, and trust in what you’re doing.
Among the young people that we’re working with, there’s this group that are making some drill and trap but with a conscious tip to it. They’re already a sound in their own way because they’re like a family unit, everybody is doing a different thing, this guy is a producer, that guy the vocalist, and so on. They learnt about the sound and were astonished. So, it’s going to inspire more and more people. The most important part of it is the education, so people understand where the culture comes from and don’t lose that, because sound system in the UK played a big part in the fight against segregation, racism and oppression, so it’s really important to understand that. But it’s also important to know who you are, in your context. And the most powerful thing is love, so more love, more creativity.
More love, Adam, and the best of luck to you. Thank you.
Elena Gilli is co-founder of Astarbene.com, web-radio and 360° platform dedicated to reggae and black music established in 2015. As a member of Astarbene, she manages social media for SST and several festivals of the reggae and black music area (such as Bababoom Festival and Bass Forest Festival). She is press-office of the independent label Macro Beats.
Petro Zambrin is co-founder, sound system operator and MC for Blue Shepherd Sound System; co-founder and manager of their independent label Tuff Wash Records. As a member of Astarbene (since 2020), he has written and co-hosted a talk show and provides communication services. He’s a part of the team that manages Astarbene’s and SST’s social media.
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