Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor on William Onyeabor: 'His music never felt cold, it was exuberant'

The first William Onyeabor track I ever heard was Good Name. It was 2011, and I only had a very low quality MP3, but the production of the music and the vocal delivery were so raw and exciting and felt so ahead of their time. I kept playing it in DJ sets, alongside modern house and disco records, and people would always ask what it was and get very excited.

After this, it felt as if a lot of things were colliding: I found two rare original copies of his albums in Rush Hour in Amsterdam; Dan Snaith as Daphni had sampled him and I knew my friend Kieran Hebden was a big fan. That was when Luaka Bop started the reissues and they got Hot Chip involved to cover the track Atomic Bomb, as well as inviting us to perform the Atomic Bomb! Band live shows with the likes of Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane, Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem, Money Mark of the Beastie Boys, Lekan Babalola and Jas Walton, as well as David Byrne, Damon Albarn, the Lijadu Sisters and other artists depending on the location.

Our shows in 2014 spoke to a new generation: Onyeabor’s music was reaching a new audience and could exist outside those recordings even if he wasn’t there for the live shows. Ahmed from Sinkane really had tough job of learning the records inside out and teaching them to everybody, but the pleasure on somebody like David Byrne’s face when he was playing it was reason enough for anyone watching to enjoy it. The grooves and the immediacy and polemical element of the lyrics made an instant connection with an audience who may never have heard his music before. When the Going is Smooth and Good was a real crowdpleaser and quite challenging to make sound as good live as it was on the record. It has such a drama to it, especially in the vocal delivery. One of the hardest bits to get right is the groove: on the records, he knows how to let the drum machines and the synths breathe.

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When we played his music live, I learned about how difficult it is to make something sound effortless and easy. His music is a series of interlocking parts – he knew how to sit on one phrase for a long time then burst out with explosions of new sounds. He was working in an electronic world but imbuing it with a lot of charisma and life and playfulness: it never felt cold, it was exuberant.

I never met Onyeabor, but I know people who did. People from Luaka Bop were travelling to meet him to try and involve him in the live shows, but he wasn’t interested in looking back. He had made a new album, a religious album which I heard parts of and the production of it sounded different from his older records, he wasn’t using the same synthesisers. I got the impression he was just focused on religion and wasn’t interested in replicating his former albums. I respected that he was trying to do something else: letting the music that he made in the past remain as wonderful as it still is.

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