Space Afrika, the Manchester born and raised duo of Joshua Inyang and Joshua Tarelle, made their name with dub-techno soaked sonic impressions of the grey streets of their hometown. In the summer of 2020 they released hybtwibt? (have you been through what i’ve been through?), the critically acclaimed mixtape accompanied by an NTS broadcast of the same name. Hybtwibt? is a powerful exploration of black consciousness assembled like a collage from conversations, news reportage, R&B samples and ambience. That release marked a shift in style, focus and ambition, and set the stage for their latest album Honest Labour, the clearest expression so far of a unique and intimate production style, born in Manchester flats, and perfected over years of collaboration, track sharing, mixing and broadcasting.
Honest Labour, Space Afrika’s first official LP since 2018, arrived on Dais in August 2021. In October, the duo brought Manchester to Berlin for their appearance at Atonal Festival, where they were joined by members of their extended circle of artists—the cellist HforSpirit, vocalists Blackhaine, Rainy Miller, guest, and Kinsey Lloyd—most of whom also featured on the album. Honest Labour is also the first album the duo have released since Joshua Tarelle himself left the North West of England for Berlin. The album’s powerful evocation of place sits side by side with an equally potent sense of dislocation—a dislocation that was central to its creation.
Max Graef Lakin: It feels like in the few years between Somewhere Decent To Live (2018) and your new album, Honest Labour, there’s been a pronounced shift in your musical approach. Is that fair to say?
Joshua Inyang: Definitely. Knowingly and unknowingly. Part of it was understanding that people are receptive to where we are and to our output. We gained a lot of confidence from Somewhere Decent To Live, which was essentially about creating a world with the bare minimum tools—a pure sentiment. All the trust we got from that got us to a place where we were ready to say: alright, if you enjoy what we do, then let’s do what we know we can do now. The last two years was a period of learning to produce an album that feels and sounds like everything we want to put out, and reflects what we’ve been through.
M: There’s obviously a lineage between projects, but you seem to be making music in a different space now. How does the new record fit into this lineage, what’s the story behind Honest Labour, and how did working with Dais come about?
Joshua Tarelle: I guess from the very first release, Above the Concrete, up until Somewhere Decent To Live–that story makes sense. Then the space we’re in now… it’s obviously linked to what happened last year, with the murder of George Floyd highlighting continuous social injustice and refocused attention on various disparaging situations both in the US and UK, as well as some personal stuff that me and Josh have been dealing with. Everything kind of clicked. We wanted to put ourselves on the frontline, and be less careful or aware of showing vulnerability.
A lot of the experimentation that goes on behind closed doors is done day in day out, but people only see the output. They don’t see what’s happening between NTS shows, the mixing and collaboration. Since the mixtape (hybtwibt?) wasn’t really an album; there was a long gap between our last album and this one. It felt like a chance to show people what we’ve been doing. There’s a lot of genres and styles which have been great influences for a long time,which hasn’t necessarily surfaced until now. Dais completely understood the kind of direction we were going in, and knew what was required to get us into a different — I wouldn’t say market — but for us to be understood not just specifically in a DJ /electronic music environment. That partnership didn’t take long to organise — we just had a conversation.
JI: We are very independent with everything we do. Even when we’re making music that might not find its way into a specific project, the whole process is extremely intimate. Me and Josh are constantly working, making music individually, sending it back and forth, finding what the meaning or the real essence of the track is and how it fits into our lives. After hybtwibt? there was a lot of interest from independent labels. For us, it was about measuring what we know we can do with our music, and working out a growth that made sense.
Could we have put something out on Bandcamp again? Definitely. But how do we want this music to be understood? Do we want people to consistently put us in this bubble of dub techno/ambient defined music? We’re more than that. When we started producing music, we were producing music that wasn’t current. We were drawing on an extreme passion for dub techno, which was music from the past, but we understood that it had a place now. We weren’t hearing it in clubs, so we were making it. Now, we feel like we’ve accomplished what we needed to with that. To do the same thing again would be crazy.
Having the support of a label like Dais to just do our thing made a massive difference. I think also, at that time last summer with everything going on, it was about opportunities — and how opportunities are being taken away from some people. When an organisation approaches you that understands you, allows you to do your thing and gives you the support you need, that’s a no brainer.
M: I see that when you release something and it gets reviewed, there’s always still the phrase ‘dub techno’ thrown in somewhere. The same with ‘ambient’. I think if you listen to Honest Labour without any preconceived ideas, the music isn’t particularly ambient, and it’s definitely not dub techno.
JI: Exactly, I agree, but I think what’s ambient about our music now is the mindset. The way that all the elements are delivered, in an unravelling, slow, sometimes tense manner. Maybe that’s what you can associate with ambience and dub.
JT: Definitely, the techniques are still there in the production. But we’re digging into other genres that we’ve grown up with and putting it all together as a narrative that feels like home for us.
M: You’ve always been concerned with communicating a distinct identity, heritage and experience. You’ve spoken a lot in the past about growing up in Manchester, how it influenced your music – the grey urban landscapes in particular. You’ve also spoken about Black Britishness, and what that means to you. How do you see these elements intersecting and intertwining, and how does it translate musically for you?
JI: All that we do is literally just us. We were born and grew up in Manchester, we’re Black, we’re British, we’re just living our life. Everything that goes onto the record is a translation of that. When we were making the mixtape last summer, we were having conversations with lots of different people. Some of these conversations were positive and led to new understandings, some of them were negative and changed our perspective of people in a negative way. There were so many of these conversations that it became exhausting. We were thinking: how can we get this feeling out of our heads in a way so that someone will just get it? If I can’t speak to you as a Black person to another Black person, or a Black person to a nonblack person, and you can’t understand me through words, what media have I got? If not my voice, then maybe someone else’s.
hybtwibt? was about answering these questions — finding the source material that summarises something for you in 30 seconds. We were essentially accentuating and soundtracking these moments. Other forms of media sometimes work better – talking can be jarring or boring. We want to translate the human experience. We know how to translate ours.
M: It’s interesting you talk about translating the human experience. Listening to that mixtape, the collage structure you use creates a strong stream of consciousness effect, at points it sounds like a kind of mixed up thought pattern. There’s a particular track on hybtwibt?, called “Judge,” that really has that effect for me. There’s a piano loop, and a voice saying ‘look’ over and over again, like someone is about to talk, but can’t get the words out.
JI: I’m glad you use that example – moments like that are very conversational for us. It’s a musical piece, but when things like that happen, you remember that there’s a message being communicated. The voice is stuttering, hesitating, struggling to say the next point. Sometimes moments like this are intentional, sometimes they’re not – it just happens, but then we know the track has found itself.
I think you can hear a stream of consciousness in the radio show too. What that comes down to is that when you delve into the music on a daily basis, and every second of your day revolves around it, you start to find links across genres, across different voices, the way that people write — whether it’s classical music or bongo music there’s always something. Me and Josh are also perfectly linked. If we’re DJing b2b, we just follow each other. If he puts something out there I have to follow his lead, it has to make sense.
JT: Sometimes it’s just about letting the tracks do the work. Just being the intermediary between different genres. That technique plays into our production, we’re trying to find the missing pieces that connect things together. That’s essentially the framework we’ve used from the start, just passion and piecing things together.
M: These thoughts hovering out of view, references that don’t seem to connect — it also seems quite reminiscent of the mindset that being online creates, too. Do you think your music is influenced by the online space and changes in how we consume culture?
JI: Yes, I’m definitely aware of how hard it’s become to continuously watch or listen to something for more than a few minutes, and lockdown has played a role as well. I can’t watch the news anymore, and a song has to be good to get past four minutes.
JT: Subconsciously or consciously, people are choosing the best parts of things to create perfect, homogenous entertainment packages for themselves. You’ve got Spotify playing, and YouTube, alongside that your computer’s got 100 different tabs open. It’s difficult to get back to this idea of just focusing on a single thing.
When making collages we’re drawing on music styles we’ve grown up with. Since things have been shut, you have time to revisit things and think: ‘Oh you remember when grime was popping off? You remember when bassline was still sick?’ All you can do is go back in history and think of times when you enjoyed being at the club. You start to revisit all these memories, and you think, what was it about this jungle track, what was it about Dubstep Allstars in 2006? You’re just constantly revisiting old stuff alongside new things because memories are what keep you going. Before you know it, you’re switching between all kinds of stuff. I think that’s the influence of online space on how collages are formed.
M: If your early music was deeply rooted in Manchester, then with the mixtape and new album there seems to be a widening of the scope — you’re talking about race and identity on an international level. In the music itself, we hear British voices, samples connected to your immediate surroundings, but also American voices, US soul, hip-hop. Is this a conscious moving away from Manchester towards a more global perspective?
JI: Yes, with the mixtape, that message and that situation was a global situation. That pain is universal. Every Black person, everywhere in the world, will have a similar story and experience they can share.
JT: It’s not just our story. It’s a collective story for a black consciousness globally. That shift felt so necessary.
M: Who are you speaking for and to on Honest Labour? What’s the location in which this record takes place?
JI: To be honest, this new record is a complete outpouring of everything me and Josh have been through over the last eight months. We’re speaking to and on behalf of ourselves really. This time we felt that we were definitely in a position to deliver a record that can be understood everywhere. We’re producing a sound, pulling on all these influences, but understanding that we want our audience to be broader.
Having said that, one thing we were conscious of is that we understand the UK sound, and even if it’s not ambient or dub, our music is going to be ‘UK’. That’s important to mention, not because we wanted to make an album that is going to make everyone in the UK go: ‘oh my god this is amazing’, but because a lot of the people we studied musically are pioneers from the UK who developed a completely raw sound that broke outside, into the US, and is recognised widely. People like Massive Attack, Tricky, Dean Blunt. We don’t want to make music like them, it’s more about understanding what kind of intelligence helped their records translate beyond the UK.
Also, being in different countries and constantly moving around, we’re communicating from different places all the time and having all these different experiences, which leaves a mark on you. It’s a broad record that is influenced by our location and also by us being dislocated from each other.
M: You’ve got plenty of Manchester collaborators on the album too of course. Blackhaine, Kinsey Lloyd…
JI: These are all friends and extended family—everything was super close to home on this project as is consistent with our dealings and we enjoy collaborating with people that we love. These are also the artists that inspire us. Some of these tracks might be the only collaboration we’ve released, but we’ve been scheming for two or three years per individual and some are very fresh. It’s been a great journey building the trust and following freedom to make the music we are now making with the album collaborators and beyond.
M: I wanted to talk a bit about field recordings and how they fit into your sound. What do you think makes them effective?
JT: It’s the human touch I think. Sometimes computer music can sound too much… like computer music you know? With field recordings, it doesn’t have to be someone standing next to a waterfall with loads of recording equipment. It can just be me recording Josh talking in the next room, or the sound of friends coming out of a club. Anything that sounds like an emotion or of human element.
It’s about memory and location. We like recreating that moment at the end of the night when clubs are shutting, and we’d be walking through the streets of Manchester. All the interference that comes with that environment, sirens going past— a car stereo or cheering at the end of a concert – there are sounds that you want and sounds that you don’t. Including all these details feels innate to us. It’s not like we decided this was a route we want to go down, it’s something that has always been there.
JI: Exactly, that human element is so important. We love R&B music— music that makes you cry, or sing along in your head because the lyrics are screaming out to you because they’re so beautiful and effective. Having something that people can relate to, human experience, it adds a whole new dimension to a track. You know, if me and Josh could sing, then we’d be singing instead and we wouldn’t have to do the collages to be honest.
JT: Never say never!
JI: Haha yeah true! But singing wise, we’re just not there yet (or maybe we shouldn’t spill all the tea).
A lot of the time when we’re making music we think ‘oh that would be so good if someone was singing on that you know’. So we send it to someone like Jasmine (guest), and they send you a song back in 40 minutes. If you have someone who has the skill and beauty in their voice to get messages and ideas across, and if it compliments what we do and what they do, then that’s just an extra level of energy and emotion. With contemplative and meditative forms of music, you don’t need a voice for it to have an effect, but if you do have something that works and adds clarity to the message you’re getting across, it’s a positive.
M: I like the idea of wanted and unwanted sounds. So much music seems to be made in a perfect vacuum — obviously people aren’t at home listening to music in studio conditions. You’re putting the conditions of recording and listening to music to the forefront so that you hear the interference, the background noise.
JI: Yes! You know, the apartment I’m living in right now is Josh’s old apartment. When Josh was here we’d be in this room every day working with the window open. Every time we were making music, you’d always hear the tram in the background. Sometimes we weren’t sure whether the sound was coming from outside or from the track. And that room has some of the best sound I’ve ever heard anywhere, it’s special. So everything that was allowed to come into that room, existed in the world of what we were creating.
JT: We spent a lot of time travelling back and forth between Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, just from flat to flat. A lot of the inspiration comes from walking around with something playing on your headphones, and then the train comes past or the bus comes past and you get some sub bass… Like, ‘oh shit, that would be sick in this track!’ The Manchester skyline is changing too, it’s being developed. All these industrial sounds, cranes going up, building work etc. When you’re just walking round the city, it does influence you. Maybe the rhythm for a track can come from this metalwork, and the bass from a distant car.
JI: From the very beginning we were researching Rod Modell (DeepChord) and all that stuff, a lot of their ethos was about what’s going on in a specific time and place— the records were often named after the city they were in or the location. Or like Hash-Bar Loops which was recorded in Amsterdam, and sounds like Amsterdam. With all of our records, we could tell you where we were at the exact time, who we were around, and what we were doing, because every record has that signature of location.
M: You said radio was the place where a lot of your ideas were generated. It’s interesting how much your radio shows and mixes resemble the sound of your mixtapes and albums – despite being a very different format. Are you consciously blurring the line between what an album is and what a mix is?
JI: I think that’s unconscious. What is conscious though, is that anything we put our hands on has to be a significant body of work. It’s not about doing NTS just because it’s cool. It takes a lot of time to do that stuff if you want to provide a significant experience for people. Both our radio and productions are dependent on layering and storytelling. The elements we’re layering on top of eachother have to contribute to something that’s beautiful and effective. That’s what’s conscious about it.
JT: We’ve been doing radio for a long time as well, it’s not a recent thing. Before NTS we had other radio shows that were fortnightly; at points we had three shows a month. Me and Josh are always sending music to each other, not necessarily trying to outdo each other but more like ‘oh have you heard this — let me try to find something which is going to suit it’.
Having that constant dynamic, pushing each other on, is the best relationship to have for a project to develop. It might be different for someone doing this on their own, but because we’ve got this relationship, we’re constantly building something, and each time we create something it has to be better.