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Ibrahim Alfa: Buddhist Jailbird, Former Techno Star and Son of an African Dictator's Sidekick (Part 1)

This guy is not your average techno producer.

by Joe Muggs and Ibrahim Alfa
29 July 2014, 2:00pm

Ibrahim Alfa and I weren't exactly mates as such back in the day. We mixed in the same circles, down in Brighton, where a few people kept the flame alive for face-melting but inventive techno, while all around us fell for the twin horrors of Goa trance and big beat. I knew Ibi as one of the good guys. I enjoyed his records on Cristian Vogel's Mosquito Records, his own Automatic and Semi-Automatic labels and a load other besides, and occasionally shared a joke or a joint with him. But that was about the limit of it and when Ibi vanished off the scene in the early-mid 2000s, he was one of many: plenty of people disappeared around that time for variously dark and mundane reasons, and being absorbed in my own dark and mundane crap, I didn't think hugely of it.

When he got back in touch in 2013, saying he'd been through a bit of trouble but was getting back into making music, I was happy to help out - partly because he was an old compadre, and partly because my interest was piqued. The music he was now making was extremely rough around the edges, but full of emotion and intellect, and I could see he was very serious about it. I watched, impressed, as he banged out new tunes – no longer the walloping techno of the late 90s, but touched with weird elements of grime, footwork and jungle – and brought back obscure, European techno names I hadn't heard from for a very long time. 

As we talked about his music and plans, it became apparent to me that his past was slightly more spicy than just having done a bit of petty crime to support a drug habit, as others I knew had done. It also became apparent that even before this dramatic turn of events, his life had been rather more mental than the average techno producer. After a while, I demanded that he let me record the whole lot in one go. This isn't just the story of one man's tangled life, it's the story of a generation – a whole era's misfits who came together around rave, and spiralled into one sort of glory or trouble or another. 

THUMP: My first awareness of you was some time mid-90s in Brighton, when Cristian Vogel told me "There's this young lad from down the coast, he makes amazing techno and just works in a factory all day."

Ibrahim Alfa: Yeah, I was. My girlfriend and I were living in Portsmouth. We were only about 17, and going raving a lot, but then she got pregnant - as tends to happen when you're going out all the time taking E's. Then we moved to Brighton, because it wasn't as grim as Portsmouth. At the same time, I'd made a track with Russ Gabriel, sent it to Kiss FM, so Colin Dale was playing it on his show. We moved to Brighton with just a tape of tracks, and no idea of how we were going to survive. 

I took the first job I could, which was for £3.25 an hour in a factory, doing "crimping": a component would come down, I'd crimp it on to a circuit, and I'd try to do that for 12 hours without getting a bollocking. I had no idea about the benefits system, so I stayed there for 3½ years because I was terrified that, if I left, our baby would be taken into care. I was getting in the NME and others, but this was hardly the kind of workplace you could tell anyone about something like that. Techno became a private thing for me.

And before Portsmouth, you grew up where?

Ibrahim Alfa: In Chichester, which is just 30-odd miles up the coast from Brighton. I was born in London, but my dad was... well, he was part of the military dictatorship in Nigeria. I went to boarding school when I was about 6, and stayed with guardians in Midsomer Murders land in Sussex, interspersed with going odd places with my mother. In the school holidays she'd go, "Okay, we're going to LA for 6 months" - which would extend to a year, and suddenly, "Oh our visas are finished, back to school." It was a strange childhood, but it was always underpinned by the fact that Ruth and Arthur (my guardians) were so lovely, and were always there. 

Your dad was in Nigeria all the time?

Ibrahim Alfa: He'd come over every now and again, showing up at school in a cavalcade of Mercedes, like in some cheesy movie. I guess he had some diplomatic stuff to do, but we were never really together. He'd just pack me off with the driver and say, "Go to Hamleys, spend whatever". He was always an omnipresent person - as he obviously paid for me to go to school, and everyone was really deferential to him - but I didn't know him at all. My mother was really, really young – about the same age as I was when my daughter was born I guess, about 17 – and from what I know now, she believed that she was going to have some amazing romance with the head of the Air Force in Nigeria, but that wasn't his pact. I think it must've been pretty difficult for her, but I didn't have a real relationship with either of them.

I saw you say recently that you were a cider-drinking, small-town indie kid... quite a contrast from your part-time jet-setting.

Ibrahim Alfa: Well, you had to be. Everyone that I knew was into indie bands... I mean, my friends in the state school who lived nearby. I'd be home every weekend aged 6 and 7, then after that have a free weekend every 3 weeks. I had a core of friends at school too - from all around the world, loads of them from states that probably don't even exist any more - then I had my mates on the block at home who were just very normal, grounded people. I'm still really close to them now. It was snakebite-and-black, Inspiral Carpets and Stone Roses - absolutely standard. 

But, I had raving too. We'd discovered that this club Sterns in Worthing really didn't give a shit about how old you were at all, so there was about six of us, and we were completely religious about it. We'd get money from our folks "for books", because they were miles away and didn't give a shit, and we'd just spend the whole time in Sterns utterly off our heads. We were tiny. The first time I went, I must've been not even 14.

All these years later I believed that Ruth and Arthur didn't have a clue, but recently they were like "Oh yeah, we knew all about those posters you had in the bathroom..." On top of raving, we had Kiss FM – which I could just get because we had this hi fi radio aerial on top of the roof, so I could get it at home, really crackly - and they'd let me sit in his nice armchair in the lounge with headphones, while they watched Coronation Street. They were like 60 in those days, but they let me get on with it. 

So, let me get a timeline. I think you're 3 years younger than me, so you'd have been 14 in 1991 – the beginning of real hardcore rave. Sterns was definitely hardcore, right?

Ibrahim Alfa: Yes! There was a real community as well, anywhere between Chichester and Brighton, where you had to go every weekend. If you didn't go, it was really like how in another culture it would be, "Oh Maude hasn't come to church, she's lapsed." 

I remember meeting Sterns regulars, I guess about 1992-3, who'd talk about having their own dancing spot – the other regulars would clear it for them.

Ibrahim Alfa: There were proper characters there. When I got out of school at 16, I went to tech, and lots of the people from Sterns were studying there (on the perpetual BTEC). It was crazy the number of people who went. The community extended well beyond the club. Early on I was intimidated - after all it was lots of grown-up people on serious drugs - but now I look back on it all with affection. 

If my daughter had done all the things I'd done at the same age I'd have had a heart attack, but when I was much younger than her I was running round Sterns, and all round the countryside, on a tonne of acid. It really was a community feel, though. There was something weirdly grounding about it: that, combined with Colin Dale and Colin Faver's radio shows, gave me something that whatever the other madness of my youth was like, was a constant.

OK, so techno was your thing but you were raving at Sterns to the more ravey, breakbeat-style hardcore?

Ibrahim Alfa: It was hardcore, but then in the early days you'd get Luke Slater playing there, Colin Dale - people that now you'd say were more purist in their genres - but back then it was still the melting pot. The planets hadn't been formed. It was just all there and, even as it went on, it was still all either jungle, house or techno.

This was the 80s though, and I was the only black kid at school for years.  Some of the things the teachers would say... they probably weren't doing it to be horrible, but there was a lot of small things that were relentlessly demoralising. Ruth's son, though, he'd been in a few bands. He was the first person I ever known personally who'd put out a record, and he got me into John Cage and Steve Reich. In parallel to the raving, that was when I first noticed that you could listen to electronic music in a situation without your face being ripped off by a snowball.

The snowballs at Sterns were notorious...

Ibrahim Alfa: They'd pin you to the wall. 

What happened in between this period, which sounds chaotic but kind of fun, to ending up skint and working in a factory? 

Ibrahim Alfa: Nigerian politics are murky to say the least. My dad had left the Air Force and become coordinator of the National Transition Programme, which was supposed to be shifting the country from dictatorship to democracy. Then, he had this new girlfriend who seemed to be really manipulative. I'd left school, and seemed to be hearing from him less and less and less, until one day, a few years later, it was just, "Oh your dad's dead." "What are you talking about?" "Yeah, his leg hurt in the morning, and the next thing we knew he died." I knew that if he'd had so much as a wheeze he'd have flown to Switzerland and they'd have dealt with him, so that was weird. I guess that was the end of him. 

Soon after, my girlfriend got pregnant. My mum was furious, but I wanted to do the right thing and stay with her, which led to me not speaking to my mother until a few years ago. My girlfriend's mum and dad are lovely people too, but for me, I'd gone from a situation that was, like you say, chaotic, but I knew where I was, to being a teen dad working in a factory on the edge of Brighton. It really was just my girlfriend and me. There were my mates, but they were all still living at home with an attitude of "You've had a miraculous ecstasy baby, that's the end of you, then."

And did you know about the experimental techno scene in Brighton?

Ibrahim Alfa: Yeah, absolutely. Cristian Vogel especially was a huge influence on me. There was a record shop in Chichester, Peach Flavour - it had been a skate and surf shop called Skate & Surf, but they went bust and instead got in on the rave  – and that was where everyone from Sterns would go to buy records. Even when I was 14, they'd get stuff specifically for me. I remember getting the first Polygon Window stuff, and these Acidiferous records; red, yellow and green labels, I think by Dr Fernando [actually Fernando Sanchez]. The guy working there would go, "I've got something for you Ibi", and they'd known that, if they ordered them, I'd buy them. 

One day they got me the Infra EP by Cristian on red vinyl. I remember getting it, getting home, putting it on and going "Fucking hell, I do not believe this." We'd been into some of the other Magnetic North stuff, but it was atmospheric, ambient, intense - totally something else. Later, I had two copies of this tape I'd made, which had had a couple of plays on air by Colin Dale. I went into Ugly Records, and I gave one to Nick Spice, who worked there. I was actually asking about getting the tape reproduced, and he said, "Leave one with me." I was really wary - not like I thought he'd copy it and make a million pounds off me, but just in case he lost it or broke it. He called me up a couple of days later, like "Mate, come down to my mate's club, we want to release this as an EP." 

I thought this smelled fishy, but I went down there and it turns out his mate was Cristian Vogel. My stuff was really fast, I remember - like 150 to 160bpm stuff – and he said, "It's too fast, but the production's really sound. I want to hear some more." I thought he was just being polite, but they were living nearby to us in Hove and so I dropped him in another demo – and he invited me in and showed me an A-Z of sequencing. 

I thought, "That's pretty fucking solid." Cristian is not always the easiest person to get on with, but here he was being massively open and caring. That took my knowledge from using really basic MPC sequencers, into using software and opening up a load of potential. I made him another tape and it was, "Yep, that's going to be the next Mosquito, then". He invited me up the office, gave me £250, and I was pretty much speechless. I mean, my daughter had literally been asleep on my lap when I recorded a couple of the tracks.

And you started to build up a support network within the techno scene?

Ibrahim Alfa: Yeah we did. We had [producer] Justin Berkovi in the same building as us. We knew him as the weird guy 2 floors below who would come over for moussaka. He signed some tracks to his label, too. We were a little techno unit but, in truth, I was so paranoid. I had such a limited understanding of what the real world was like outside the gates of Seaford College. I really believed that if I left the factory job I'd have no way of supporting my family. I was getting gigs, more and more records coming out, but I couldn't leave there. Techno wasn't a job. 

The first time I played at Test in Glasgow, I asked the guy there if I could have a day off to prepare – this was a proper live show, not DJing, and I was committed to giving people a different live show every weekend – and he went "How much are you getting paid?" I should've said £50, but like an absolute arsehole I blithely said "Oh, it's £500", and he went said a straight "NO." I just ran for it. 

As it turned out, I was alright for a while, but then the pressure of it got on top of me. Music was what I had to do for myself as a kid because it was my way of communicating, but I never felt that way about techno – or, at least it, wasn't the best way for me to speak to people. I thought there was a bigger palette that I could use, or that the people going for it in the club weren't appreciating all of it completely. I found myself in the position where I had to keep churning out the bangers or I couldn't play the rent. My girlfriend was not keen on getting a job at all, either. She was 20 years old and had never worked, so it was a bit sticky, really. 

I went back to work, for Eurostar - going "Well, you've been lucky, but it's time to rein it in" - but then someone told me about the Prince's Trust. Justin had got some money from them, so I made a business plan and got £5000 from them. At the time I'd been hiring mixers for recording, so I got a mixer, a Korg MS2000R (I had a Korg Prophecy already) a Novation Drumstation, and so on.

One night though, we had a terrible fire. A friend of ours had killed himself, and I'd been up all night trying to write a eulogy. The clock was ticking, and, well, when someone has severe mental health issues for the last 3 years of their life, and then kills themselves, there's not always much nice to say about them. So I was sat there, stuck on this, when someone knocks on the door. There was an absolute inferno outside. We'd had people coming for the funeral over to dinner the evening before, and the light in the bathroom had gone out. Someone put a candle on the plastic bath, and the whole place had gone up in flames.

I got my girlfriend out, got my daughter out, but all my records and the Prophecy were melted. I was scared to turn it on for a year, but Justin was amazing. He just went "Have this keyboard, and this one, get back on it!" I was building up an actual catalogue by then, too. There'd been a couple of releases on Mosquito, Nick Spice had put me out on Solid and there was the thing on Justin's label; an EP on Eukatech that I did with Jamie [Lidell] which gave me a bit more exposure, and I'd been playing at Neue Heimat and Stammheim – they were saying, really quite emphatically, "We want you to keep on coming back." 

Then Regis called me up - or was it Tony Vierra? They were at Integral, and they asked me if I wanted to do a label. Obviously I wanted to, but I was like, "How much will it cost to set up?" and they said, "Oh no, we'll pay for it!" It was insane. They gave me an address and said "Take a DAT to this guy. He'll cut it for you." They should never have done that for me, but it was so great. 

Guy, the bloke who was mastering at CTS, had a history of doing massive film soundtracks, but the company was on the wane and it was pretty close to the end for them. This massive thing was coming to the end of an era, and who rocks up but Ibrahim Alfa with some really hissy techno tape, going "Alright mate, can you cut this for me?" But he was so gracious about it all; patiently saying "Do your recordings a bit quieter, it'll sound better on this and this bit" - all of that. He was a lovely guy. He never, ever made me feel small. 

I never saw a penny from Automatic or Semi Automatic, but that wasn't the point. I could put out music when I wanted, and I could sign new talent just like Cristian had done for me. That was more important to me than anything. I was earning from gigs, too. These were big raves full of people playing 20 Deutschmarks to get in, but I couldn't understand that anyone would ever even expect to make anything from releasing this pretty niche techno. 

Were you gigging pretty much every weekend?

Ibrahim Alfa: Pretty much. It was a weird time. I had a daughter, so it wasn't like I got home and was straight out with the lads going "Yeah, I rocked Liepzig last night." It was more, "Right, there's the money for rent, and I've got to be up at 7AM to get her to school". While I was out there, though, it was just me, my Commodore Amiga, all my synths, MIDI interface boxes - all that is a hassle and a risk to set up. In my bloody-minded way, I'd committed to doing a different live show every weekend.

I spent a load of time every week not just re-jigging the show I'd done before, but writing a new one from scratch. Justin and everybody would have a show and take it out on the road, but there was me tapping away, like writing in all the code to the trackers, because I thought that was the done thing. I felt like because I'd been given a break by Cristian Vogel and Si Begg - these quasi sci-fi people - and that was the level that I felt that I had to aspire to. 

So, the question has to be asked: where did it all go wrong?

Ibrahim Alfa: Well, it was tough. My girlfriend wasn't some awful bitch, but she was very young and she wasn't used to being around kids. Looking back, too, I realise that I was off in this weird world of techno, and she probably felt really very alone and isolated. She got pretty withdrawn and introverted, but you know, that left a lot on my shoulders. As far as I was concerned, she was a selfish bitch. She started to really hate the techno lifestyle because it had become a real devil's pact. I was presenting her with this situation of "I'm off to a pit of depravity for the weekend, but I'm earning £500 for you so just deal with it." 

I was a fucking rotter, too. I remember one Monday there was this answer-phone message, and it was some nutter from Glasgow going "Hey Mrs, do you know your man empties his sack more than Santa?" We laugh about all this now, both of us, but it was pretty terrible. Between the two of us, we destroyed our relationship pretty effectively, but still my daughter was the one thing in my life that was more important than music. I was being pulled in half. 

All the things I was doing - these hours on building a new live act every week, trying to be the best record producer in the world, all this shit – I probably should have been doing less records, having a job, and being at home more, but I didn't. I got more and more depressed, and eventually started to resent techno. This was the era of really inane loop techno too. Everything was "Jeff Mills-lite"; compressed to fuck, repeated to infinity to the point where it's not music, with no creativity involved in its production whatsoever. I found it all shocking. 

There was an absolute chasm between the guys who'd be DJing at the club and myself, too. I was sitting in four-star hotels every weekend, knowing that my shit was disintegrating at home, knowing that the day was going to come when I would come home and my daughter wasn't going to be there, because my girlfriend became too pissed off. I was 24, 25, my daughter was 6 or 7. We had an actual family life that I knew that I could lose any minute, and at the same time I was realising I actually didn't even like techno any more. It left me without the one thing that really identified me as a person. Itt was a constant sense of "Well what the fuck are you going to do, then?"

It sounds like something had to give – so what did?

Ibrahim Alfa: I was doing a lot of very stupid stuff. I was hanging out with all sorts of people. The worst bits were when someone sent me a demo and asked if they could stay with me – because I'd say yes, just like that. In my idealistic mind I thought I was helping them out, but I didn't see that I was taking on this massive element of further dysfunction in my home life. Certain people would show up at my girlfriend's birthday, repeatedly, when she actually couldn't bear them, and then stay for weeks and weeks and weeks. 

I also didn't really take on board that a lot of the artists may have wanted more from the label. I was making a good deal of money from my live show fees, which I happy to get and gladly took to feed my family, but I wasn't quite comfortable with it. I also had my deal with R&S, so I could get a good few quid for doing a 12" (these were the days when you could, ha), but because of that the label was never a financial concern. It was just an idealistic, arty thing. Automatic and the gun logo was a pun on the fact that after aeons of human evolution, communication was still generally done at some level at gunpoint in terms of what causes major change in the world. 

I'll even admit this, now, on tape - I never even listened to some of the demos. I just, naively, would think, "That guy sounds like a nice person with good ideas, I want to give them a platform", and I'd send it on to Tony Surgeon saying, "These tracks are going on." I knew it would be techno, and I knew it would sell X hundred copies and not make a profit, and it might get them some gigs, but that was it. I began to realise that certain people came into it with expectation that I'd be doing super PR and making them household names – and resentment started to build there.

What happened next?

Ibrahim Alfa: So, with all of this aggro, I just couldn't do my work and live with my girlfriend. She began to wilfully sabotage my work - like forcing me to blow out a tour of Australia, which had already been booked, which obviously caused no end of repercussions. I thought,, fuck, I have to get out of here, so I went off to Latvia for a couple of weeks to see some really dear friends. I'd thought of Germany but it would've been constant techno, so Latvia felt like peace and quiet. 

When I got home, vast amounts of the studio weren't there. My girlfriend had flipped and sold a load of shit – some of which wasn't even mine. 10 years on, of course, she has acknowledged that was an evil thing to do, but then she was beyond reason then. That was a bridge-burner. I just thought, "If she's that angry now, it can only get worse." Our daughter was 7 or 8 by this point and clearly well aware that things weren't right at home, and that was it. I got out. 

With no financial plans, I got a little flat in Hove – but then I had another £400 a month to pay, and another household to run. Typically, that same month, I had two booked gigs cancelled, so it everything went wrong all at once. On top of desperately struggling to hold myself together and get set up in this new place, it completely scuppered my attempts to replace the equipment – other people's equipment – so the whole thing snowballed. Rumours were flying around that I had ripped people off, and I was in no place to put anything right at all. It was a disaster.

To her credit, my girlfriend got a job fairly soon after that, but it was in London, so I agreed to look after our daughter in the week as long as she stick with the job. I was really worried. She was 26 and had never worked before, beyond doing artwork for the odd record sleeve. I realised that this had been no sort of fulfilment, and I wanted her to do something that she could feel that she'd done something for herself. I did really love her, even then, and I still now don't harbour any negative feelings for her. She's the mother of my child. I felt it was essential that she was able to get on with her job. 

That was the moment I stepped back from music, but what I didn't realise about the "real world" I guess is that you can't blink. You can't stop the tap of cash flow from going, because it gets really messy really fast otherwise. Very quickly she said she couldn't handle the constant travelling, so we decided she was best moving to London. I helped them move up to Clapham, but I was devastated. I'd spent so much time with my daughter, and that was all about to stop. One of the greatest things about music was all the extra time I'd had to spend with her. I realise now how fortunate I am not just for the time I had then, but for how close we remain because of it. 

What happened after she moved, then?

When I got back to Hove I went to see the landlord, and it was a case of "You realise she hasn't paid the rent for the last couple of months?" This was one serious situation. She was obviously still in this brutally cold mode - still so mad at me for leaving - and I couldn't exactly ask her for the money back. She had my child, and your rights as an unmarried dad are so few that I really couldn't risk anything that could turn her against me. I'd even been offered the chance by my old publisher to go and stay in Berlin, which would've allowed me to do more shows and been a really viable opportunity pick the music back up, but my ex told me if I did that, then I'd never see my daughter again. 

The debts were building up, there wasn't any real money coming in, I was losing connections with my friends and with the music, but I had to kowtow or never see my daughter again. She stayed this angry for a good year. I guess she was punishing me. We'd been together since we were 16, and we'd had all the trappings most people would in middle age. On top of this, Arthur, my childhood guardian, passed away around this time, and Ruth became very ill indeed, so I lost contact with what I consider my real family on top of stopping seeing my daughter every day. I guess those things were the real turning point, if you want to know "what went wrong". 

Eventually, I found myself in London. I hadn't released anything for a long time on the labels and then EFA – the distributor – went completely tits up. It became clear that Integral, who were running the labels, were going to go under as part of the aftershock. That was the end of the labels. I ended up staying with some friends, probably really pissing them off by borrowing money and being bad about paying it back, but friends in Germany were saying "Come and stay with us, what are you doing?" Hoping she'd mellowed, I bit the bullet and said to my ex, "Look, we're in a hole here. I'm never going to make as much money trying to start a new career. It just won't happen." I was charging a grand or more every show then, often £1500 – only a few shows and the balance could tip quite quickly – and she realised that it was essential that earned some money.

So you got to Germany pretty smoothly?

Ibrahim Alfa: I went to stay with some friend in Giessen; I'd been their semi-resident live act before. I drifted from gig to gig for ages, sending almost all of the money back to my ex and daughter, with my big plan of settling everything and getting square with everyone never quite happening. People were still chasing me for money and I didn't feel I could publicly blame my daughter's mum, partly because of her pretty awesome ruthlessness, partly because of what might happen to me if I did, and partly because we still had mutual friends and it could've impacted badly on her, and thus on my daughter. My name was mud, more or less.

On top of that, I was becoming massively disillusioned with the personal side of the music business. By this stage, I didn't mind about the music. I was happy to do my thing and get paid, but I was finding that people I knew from gigs and tours… they might be really nice, but you'd realise that though you'd "known them" for years and years and years, and you didn't really know them at all. Techno was important to me, sure, but if I looked at what my life was really about, I defined myself as a dad first. A lot of the fanboys and fangirls in Germany couldn't comprehend that, Monday to Friday I wasn't this wild guy munching E's constantly, but was more like "Hey, stop that, no, come away from there," with a posse of kids on Brighton beach, trying to stop them picking their noses. 

I found it really difficult having to be "on" 24/7, when my routine had been so centred on parenthood. One of my dear friends, Basti, who I stayed with most of the time, he had a family of his own. They'd never ever say I was in the way, but I knew I was. It was exactly the sort of thing that used to piss my girlfriend off, and now I was visiting it on them. Constantly, in my heart, I found it really difficult not having my daughter around me. It was a massive void. I couldn't really handle it, so I came back to England again.

Part 2 of Joe Muggs' interview with Ibrahim Alfa here.

You can follow Ibrahim Alfa on Soundcloud here, and Joe Muggs on Twitter here: @joemuggs

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