CTEMF: A sample of Four Tet’s sonic journey

As far as special musical moments go, this one was quite exceptional. 

It was late afternoon on Thursday at a Cape Town Electronic Music Festival workshop in the outdoor amphitheatre at the Guga S’Thebe cultural centre in the Langa township. British electronic musician Kieran Hebden (36), better known by his stage name Four Tet, was explaining eloquently the way he is doing sampling to about 200 local producers, musicians and fans. 

“I’ve been putting out some 12 inches – I’ve been DJ-ing quite a lot and the music I’ve been playing has become more informed by dance music,” he told us. “I’ll play something that I did last year – it is like a house or a club track and I just put this massive sample of this soul record in the middle of it. It is this blatant use of a sample, but it puts you in this whole different context – that’s something that appeals to me. 

“I’ll play it from the middle, then you can hear the groove and stuff and then the way the sample drops in.” He smiled. The sun was setting after a hot day and a light breeze was finally cooling us down. The pale sky was reflected in the inky blue mosaic backdrop behind him on the stage. He pressed play and opened the fader. A percussion-heavy propulsive house beat, with a cheeky Latin ambiance, pumped into our ears – nudging our energy levels upwards. And then, the bassline fades and immediately: that sample! 

Like a surge of electricity through the audience, jaws dropped, shrieks of delight. “Like he is. I think I’ll keep him like he is …” a sultry Syreeta sings, stretching the second “is” sexily. The sample from, Like He Is, a track from her 1972 Motown debut, which was produced by her then husband, Stevie Wonder. 

Hebden’s bassline rises again with more of the spicy rhythm, and then again, an even shorter, almost subliminal snippet of the same sample, in-out, back-to-back with a throbbing bassline. 

The track, called KHLHI and released last year under another of his aliases, Percussions, had the been-there, heard-it-before folks in Langa enchanted, thrilled, captivated, enthralled – applauding. 

In the space of 70 seconds Hebden showed what the magic of music could do if the sound, the place and the people were in sync. He faded the track, looked up with a grin: “I’ve played it in a lot of clubs lately and people loose their shit when that sample drops…” No lie there! 

Hebden was born in southwest London to a South African-born Indian mother and a British sociology lecturer father. He grew up in Putney and went to school with people who would also become musicians like Burial, as well as the members of the bands Hot Chip and The xx. 

He’s been active as musician since 1998 and got his big break 11-12 years ago when Radiohead asked him to open their tour of the 2003 album, Hail To The Thief. Hebden has never been shy to experiment, and has even used elements of free jazz and folk in his music. 

He epitomises the DIY modern musician in that he travels extremely lightly, in every sense of the word. “Everything can fit into my backpack,” he said laughing. “Nowadays I have no studio, I have no equipment, I work just with a laptop,” he told the workshop. “You don’t need to spend all your time learning how to use software, you could better use your time to make music instead. 

As Four Tet he has released seven albums. “All the Four Tet records – about 98% are samples. When I make one of these records I would sample some 300 records.” He worked from a sample folder on his computer, “every time I hear something, a sound from a record, or even sounds from DVDs or TV or something and I like it or think it is interesting I’ll record it into the computer and label what it is. 

“All I do is finding now permutations of how to put the sounds together – I don’t use any keyboards, any controllers, just a mouse … it’s the only thing I’ve ever used to make any records …” he said to astonished laughter from the workshop attendees. “Once the sound is inside the computer I stop thinking about it, where it came from – I think, here’s a sound and what am I going to do with it.” 

This is Hebden’s second visit to Cape Town (the first was nine years ago to visit family). I asked him about tonight’s (Sunday) set he will be playing in the Cape Town City Hall as part of the electronic music festival. “On Sunday I’m doing a live set – I’ll be playing all my own music. The way my live stuff works is there’s never a prepared set list, there’s never a plan – I learned long ago that just turning up at things having it all planned in your head is not necessarily the best idea. 

“It is about all these elements coming together at the right moment: the atmosphere in the crowd, the sound in the room, it could even be the snack you had before – all these things come together. 

“It doesn’t matter where you are, everybody is in the shared space together and suddenly they all have the times of their lives … So Sunday, hopefully, hopefully I’ll have a really good snack before…” And hopefully the audience at the fourth edition of the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival will experience the same magic we had at Thursday’s workshop.   

  • Four Tet, Felix La Band and Octave One are playing tonight (Sunday) at the Cape Town City Hall, bringing this year’s Cape Town Electronic Music Festival to an end.

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