Halfway through the title track of his second mixtape, Security, Gaika Tavares’ voice starts to decompose.
The song’s protagonist is positioned in a bar called Rambo’s high on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, in sight of Mayfair and Chinatown. He’s fearful that men want to hurt him because he has what they want: a girl, the right connections, the right clothes, money to go to nice places. High hats and nuclear drone build and the narrator’s voice goes from steady to barbaric, demonic, choking down the burning Westminster tar like a whale in an oil slick. It’s drama, it’s high art, it’s music with pathos, conviction and war.
“When we immerse ourselves in materialism, we immerse of ourselves in nothingness,” Gaika tells me in a Vietnamese restaurant in Shoreditch. The eatery’s basement bar is inspired by the one in In the Mood for Love, a cult film about a series of chance encounters that impel the gathering momentum of a love affair. “I love it there” he says when I suggest where to meet. I can tell we’ll get along.
Among other topics, the mixtape explores popular modern representations of black culture. To Gaika, Kanye West — who barfs out materialistic, misogynistic music in the name of empowerment — is an example of a hugely popular artist proliferating sinister perceptions of race. “There’s a fear and a mystery around black people. We need to examine ourselves and examine our history. We need to talk about this and stop focusing on all the negative aspects of it. We’re celebrating the destruction of ourselves.” Security, then, is about our obsession with things that make us feel more welcome and accepted, things that give us a sense of well-being, albeit a superficial one. Security is about self-doubt. Live, with the help of sound design cosign Mark Harris, Gaika’s music booms around the room, jumping you from behind like a shadow boxer drawing figures of eight with their feet. It’s eerie and uncomfortable: the false sense of security.
Then, Gaika traces a finger round the folds of his neck-chain. He wears these clothes because he wants kids to identify with him: if he attracts the attention of the masses, the shotter bag hip-hop youth, Gaika can raise awareness of the dangers the messages their so-called heroes are proliferating. He wants to ambush popular culture. “If a kid listens to my music because they like Popcaan, who I love, but are a bit confused by the end of it, then they’re thinking,” he says, with a slightly aggravated stutter. “They are actually thinking.”
As a kid in Brixton, Gaika would spend his time dismantling and reassembling the tools his material scientist dad left around the house. Instead of Tamagotchis and Pogs, he had x-ray spectrometers and magnetic levitation. Father Tavares ran his own business, and worked at a science museum, once on a project that became an Official State Secret. “He was the first person to successfully make a higher semi-conductor material,” he says. “Experimenting is a core part of who I am, because of my upbringing. I’ve grown up with computers.” Vaulting ambition runs in the Tavares blood: one of Gaika’s brothers was granted a full bursary to MIT in Massachusetts, focussing on neural networks. Another, Kibwe, is the filmmaker behind 2013’s Sundance premiered short Jonah, about a sleepy fishing village that becomes a tourist trap once a local fisherman discovers a mammoth-sized sea creature.
In his adolescence, Gaika became immersed in club culture, putting on parties across the south London sprawl: Sidcup, Kingston and Croydon. So Solid Crew’s Ashley Walters came to the 15 year-old’s first event. Two years down the line, Gaika was making serious wedge, and his dedicated warehouse mashups had turned into full-on roadblock raves. “It was a really weird thing – all these white kids queuing up to listen to black music. Travelling to and from the edges of outer London.”
Moving to Manchester to study engineering, Gaika continued to promote nights, and fell into its crime-riddled club scene. “I just thought, I didn’t come here to be a gangster. But I was being treated like one because of who I was associated with. I got into violence, I’ve got metal pins in my face. The point is, I was making loads of money and felt really sad.” Gaika’s body starts to coil on his stool slightly, as if he knows how close he came to self-destruction. “I used to go and get wage checks off a guy in a bar I was co-running, and you’d go in there and there were people fucking everywhere. And it was like, ‘Why is my normal here?’” His raves were getting shut down because of his associations and his music blacklisted from the airwaves: back in 2012, Radio 1 banned a rousing punk-grime polemic called “Torches” by Manc collective Murkage, which Gaika was a member of. Dropping out of university and enrolling into art school, Gaika’s focus grew impenetrable: he wanted out of gangland, but his urban existentialism – and Iceberg tees – meant he felt out of place among the cardigan crowd, too. Too inward-looking for the mobs, too road for The Libertines.
I remind him of one of my favourite Tricky quotes, regarding the time the trip-hop pioneer wore a wedding dress to a photoshoot in the mid nineties. “What is hip-hop culture? I’m part of the mutant age,” he said. “I like disturbing people. I like people to question what I’m doing. There’re people in New York asking me what I’m doing, you know? Am I gay? I like messing with people’s concepts.” Like Gaika, Tricky is important for being a liminal artist — for exploring the in-between, the boundaries of human nature; our greed, our sexuality, our self-awareness. In Gaika’s self-directed video for “HECO”, a track from his debut mixtape, October 2015’s Machine, he’s dressed in tight, deconstructed sportswear designed by London-based artist Sports Militia. It’s an ambiguous piece of agitprop: both fetish-y and sexually exploratory and primitively red-blooded, you get the feeling the metal baseball bat he’s swinging around is aimed towards the same kinds of people Tricky was trying to disgust.
And again, just like Tricky, Gaika’s music lurks like a mucky, shape-shifting stormcloud over the curve of the city. Machine makes a number of pit stops – from reggaeton and drone to industrial EBM, merky rhythms, Gqom and trap – and arrives somewhere entirely undefinable. Whatever it is he’s making, it sounds brand new. “When it came out and everyone is like, ‘This is super weird’… generally, it doesn’t sound strange to me,” he says. “It sounds like how it’s supposed to.”
There’s a violence and intensity in his lyrics — a faded blood stain on Gaika’s shirt, Manchester residue — but it’s necessary because he wants to acknowledge where and why this brutality exists. Machine is all about the way our brains work; it’s autobiographical in the sense that, as a child in his father’s workshop-cum-living room, pulling apart pieces of hardware, Gaika was forming an understanding of why the mind operates as it does. Why are we so content to fold compliantly into stereotypes? “If you think about how neural networks work, they are mimicking patterns of human behaviour,” he considers. “All of our knowledge is now stored forever, in the machine, in the digital sense. It means you can codify things so you can find them, but it isn’t the same [as experiencing them]. Really, that’s what I was trying to get at with Machine. Why do we want people to be in a box?”
“This is our fucking town!” Gaika vomits through a vocoder at Security’s Boiler Room launch party. For once, the artist is being as direct as he possibly can: his voice shudders down the reveries of north London like a lightning clap. “Thank you,” I say, as our interview clocks seamlessly into its fourth hour. “What for?” he asks. “For making sense.”