Josh Inyang and Josh Reid are many things: scholars, electronic music pioneers, DJs, avant garde filmmakers and radio collage artists. Some of these identities, as you’ll see, are loose, but one thing that the duo unmistakably are, is Mancunian. They both have strong accents of North Manchester where they grew up and went to school together, but even more than that, they have the city’s particular brand of talkativeness. It’s comprised very distinctly of circuitous musing, confrontational dismantling of established ideas, and askew humour that is familiar from various famous figures, from John Cooper Clarke to Shaun Ryder.
But the duo are very different to those forebears. They are representative of a very multicultural, 21st-century Manchester, where experimental electronics and off-beam rave is every bit as important as punk or indie rock. They began releasing as Space Afrika in 2014, making deep and spacious instrumental techno, and since then their sound has opened up through discombobulating and often politicised sound collages on mixtapes and NTS radio, as well as their incredible new album, Honest Labour. This features a diverse cast of voices, both sampled and from guests local and global. They are an international act now, in fact, with Reid now resident in Berlin, but their story goes back almost 20 years to their school days. Here, Inyang and Reid are keen to tell it, in that distinct, circuitous way...
When you two started out doing instrumental stuff together, did you always anticipate it would start to incorporate voices, video and all the rest?
Josh Inyang: Our intentions were to create something that was not common at the time. We were super well-versed in the music that we were playing, be that from the German and American techno side, or from the traditional Jamaican, Caribbean, African side of things. So first, it was "this is what we want to make", just reabsorbing and wanting to create. We were also absorbing all the other music we always listen to – pop, hip hop, R&B, grime, and a lot of dance music. I would never say it was a thought out process, but looking back it was inevitable, right?
Josh Reid: I'd say so, yes. Even before we started the project, it might not have been the plan to go where we are now, but we'd already started to create stuff, whether it was through photographs or collecting things, or just record shopping and bouncing ideas. We always had the impetus to push creativity as far as it could get. Each moment from those first connections was the next step towards a more ambitious project, but a lot of these ideas that are being shown today, they've been in the archive for quite some time, going right back to our teenage years. It's really good to have gotten the response that allows us to realise some of these ambitions.
JI: Thinking back to when we were first shown some serious interest by independent labels for the more techno stuff, we were [simultaneously] making this experimental, left-field, collaged sound too. We had our R&B vocals, high- and low-pitched samples, basslines from the grime we'd grown up on. It wasn't planned, but I think naturally we're the kind of people who will always fulfil our influences and inspirations – especially once it got to a point where we knew how to express it.
In the past decade, it feels like there's been a sea change in how Black British electronic artists can be individualist or alternative and get accepted as such – whether that's Dean Blunt, Lorraine James, Actress or whoever. Do you feel like you're a part of something in that regard?
JI: Well, yes and no. In electronic music, it can just mean you've done what people don't expect. So early on we've put out two or three releases, and even though there's variability in those releases, they have the same root; but we also make all sorts of music, we're photographers, and we're academics outside of music. Now, if someone's description of you becomes consistent, then you reach a point where you just express yourself beyond that, and if you get to a point where that becomes recognisable, that's when they then slap the "alternative" badge on you. Thing is, though, I actually enjoy the term "alternative" as much as I enjoy "experimental" – I think they're very much the same thing, except I would say "alternative" suggests there's some sort of musical understanding behind it. I'm happy to feel part of that, because some of our main inspirations are people you just spoke about, and people like Tricky too.
JR: The fact you mention Tricky makes me think, even Dizzee Rascal's first album is alternative and experimental. There's a tendency to put Black artists into boxes: you talk about the last ten years, and there's more impetus to understand those boxes, but when I came across Dizzee and other grime, that was alternative, having grown up listening to Britpop and American hip-hop. I do think it's nice to be included in the mix of musicians you mentioned, who we really respect and listen to, but that can become a box too. Because we want to keep pushing and redefining, and because we've come off already having been defined as one particular genre, it's less about trying to be alternative than just doing it. With [Space Afrika’s debut offering] Above the Concrete, that was one of the most alternative avant-garde releases of that time because it was...
JI: ...It was out of nowhere for someone like us to be doing that. After hearing Josh and myself speak on this, "alternative" definitely is good, because it justifies a freedom of expression. As a Black artist especially, that's something that you want to be able to do.
You mention your geographical positioning altering how you're heard by others. Do you feel like you fit in the tradition of Manchester bands?
JI: I love to be considered as a Manchester band, because we love our city. Everything that we have become has been because of our environment and experiences within this city. We are that, but we're individuals within this city too, as are our friends. I think Josh and I exist as our own thing within the Manchester context. If you asked other artists in Manchester about us, they'd have said, "Oh yeah, Josh and Josh, that's just them". That’s our identity first and foremost. We're lucky to have our bond – it’s so great that it's granted Space Afrika a lot of leeway, because we are just Josh and Josh before we're a Manchester band or anything else. We’re both: we are our own entity, but we’re also a Manchester band and proud to be that... but at the same time, the sounds and topics addressed in our music are also global, universal.
Is there something musically or culturally in what you do that is descended from, say, Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, or whoever?
JI: Always. 100 percent.
JR: In a traditional sense, the way those bands address the environment definitely feeds into our music. We're relating to the same environment in one way, but it's not stuck in any version of that. Obviously we grew up in a different era, and we're looking at Manchester as a more post-industrial city. Our experiences are different, we're Black artists in the 21st century, and we've got access to completely different resources, whether that's computer instruments or the internet, or being influenced by grime and R&B. But there's something about the landscape that can't help being expressed, though I hope we transcend that, too. I hope we sound like more than just our background.
Apart from the environment, is there a thematic connection, whether it be humour, provocation, darkness or melancholy?
JI: Again, the whole thing for Josh and I, before [Space Afrika] picked up, it was for us. It's always been for us. No matter how many records we might sell, our motives go beyond scoring interviews or getting a top record or playing abroad. The way we portray ourselves online is 100 percent ourselves; at least, I think you see enough to know who we are and that we're real people here. If you come to Manchester, you're going to know you're in Manchester because of the people you're around – the energy, the humour, the realness. Even in the face of authority, even if you operate in worlds governed by people who are maybe less humane.
JR: Humour is important. There's definitely a more general Northern thing too, a cheekiness. The way people will get together and get messed up to really foolish music and do stupid shit together, there's something about that that encourages the humorous side. It just gives people permission to do what they might not otherwise do. Because Manchester is smaller, you're always coming across people, so we’ll literally bump into bands who might be completely different to us if we come out of the studio, and we’ll sit by the side of the road and catch jokes and swap ideas. That encourages collaboration. In a way that's quite punk, which is really what Josh and I started with: "There's nothing really here for us, we don't know where we can hear this music that we're into, so fuck it, let's just jam it out in a bedroom." That’s still true today.
Cover Credit: Chloé Magdelaine & Timon Benson
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs