The first thing I heard about Slikback, a year ago, was his prolificacy. A friend, an events promoter, returned from Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival raving about the young talent who had wowed audiences at multiple performances during the four-day festival, shaking jungle foliage along the banks of the Nile with his unique blend of global bass music and regional African rhythms. Not long after, he performed a similar trick at Poland’s Unsound festival. In the scant 18 months that Slikback, aka Fredrick Mwauru Njau, had been making music, he had reportedly completed hundreds of tracks, the majority of them never heard outside of his live sets or his studio. The first five arrived in June 2018 on Hakuna Kulala, a sub-label of Nyege Nyege Tapes; the next six followed in February. Now, both of those digital-only EPs have been fleshed out with three new tracks and repackaged as a 2×12″ vinyl (or digital) release, making for an opportune moment to catch up with one of East Africa’s most exciting electronic musicians.
Where many of the acts on the Nyege Nyege Tapes label work in accordance with specific regional styles—like Otim Alpha’s electro acholi, or the Tanzanian singeli of Bamba Pana, Jay Mitta, Duke, and Sisso—Slikback occupies his own switchbacking lane. The tempos are all over the place, from the slow-motion dembow snap of “Just I” to the 175-BPM assault of “Venom”; a few tracks, like “Bantu Zen” and “Shell,” ride syncopated pulses not too far from late-’00s dubstep. But the tempos of Slikback’s tracks are often a question of perception: “Acid,” which opens the album, starts off torpid, with sludgy 808s punctuated by staccato vocal chops, but a double-time groove soon takes over, flipping a sloth-like creep into a full-on headbang. The same thing happens on “Gemini,” as drawn-out digital death gurgles spin into a rolling footwork rhythm.
In place of melody, Njau tends to concentrate on texture and tone color, and those harsh, brittle timbres might be the most distinctive thing about Silkback’s music. Aside from the occasional nod to the TR-808 drum machine, most of his sounds are resolutely synthetic and wrenched apart from any obvious source. A see-sawing riff in “Venom” might be bowed strings or a weeping alien; the main feature of “Rage” is wave after wave of thundering digital feedback, amplified to a speaker-destroying volume.
Plenty of contemporary club music—particularly of the “deconstructed” variety—favors this kind of crashing, concussive palette, but little of it displays the rhythmic dexterity that Slickback does. Njau had little guidance when he began producing his music, but a stint working at Nyege Nyege’s Kampala studios changed that: There, Nyege Nyege founders Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian introduced him to producers like Jlin and Errorsmith, along with labels like PAN and Planet Mu. After that, Njau told The Quietus, “I began to learn how to let go of what I thought music should sound like.”
What he’s come up with so far bears trace elements of those influences, along with bits of grime, trap, drum’n’bass, and singeli; in places, his music has affinities with South African gqom and the spirit, if not the specific sonic tropes, of Afro-Portuguese batida. But mainly it sounds placeless and otherworldly—music from everywhere and nowhere at once. The new tracks here—“Shell,” “Kite,” and “Senshi”—are self-evident standouts that refuse to slot into a predictable pattern. “Kite” is apocalyptic trap; “Shell” could be mistaken for a Livity Sound or Timedance single; and “Senshi,” the heaviest of the bunch, might be a footwork remix of Ben Frost.
Shortly before Lasakaneku / Tomo dropped, Hakuna Kulala and Shanghai’s SVBKVLT label jointly released a pair of new Slikback EPs, Slip A and Slip B, far more extreme than anything he’d done previously. Some of that might come down to newfound collaborators like Yen Tech and 33EMYBW, both figures from China’s avant-club underground; mostly, though, chalk it up to Njau’s rapidly expanding vision and chops. Just a little over a year ago, Slikback seemed to appear out of nowhere; now, with his staggeringly original productions—by turns forbidding, malevolent, and scarily disciplined—he’s leading all of us into the unknown.