This article is part of a series about historically iconic Black artists and creatives. This series was started with the intention of shedding light on the importance of Black artists in all aspects of the creative sphere, but, especially, to note that many of them spearheaded some of the most influential trends and art forms of our time with little recognition. Stay tuned for more additions as they are published!
By Erin Christie
When you think of “shoegaze”—as in, the musical sub-genre characterized by its ethereal mixture of obscured vocals, guitar distortion effects, and feedback—you might automatically think of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive, assuming that these popular acts are quintessential “dream-pop” and the key inspiration behind countless acts to come. Historically, however, general consciousness tends to accidentally overlook perhaps two of the most elemental contributors to the genre, the originators of shoegaze itself: British duo A.R. Kane.
A.R. Kane was composed of Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, East Londoners, “dreads,” and friends since nearly the womb who found themselves with an affliction for shoegaze (from the likes of Cocteau Twins to The Jesus and Mary Chain). “We oozed African confidence and a degree of arrogance—we ruled,” Tambala recalled of his and Ayuli’s youth. As they grew older, the two took their common interest and translated it into their own craft, later becoming an impactful part of the scene that they admired. Little did they know that they were about to completely shift the landscape.
Despite the career that awaited them, A.R. Kane’s start was a little hazy, if not simply accidental. After a party where Tambala jokingly remarked that he and Ayuli had started a band (which, at the time, was untrue), news somehow spread to label One Little Indian’s founder, Derek Birkett, who requested to work with them. In a short amount of time, they hastily put together a lineup with Tambala’s sister on backup vocals and two (barely trained) friends on bass and drums. After Birkett heard them play live, his words, “You’re shit. Let’s make a record,” signified the start of something beautiful, chaotic, and life-changing for the pair. At the time, Birkett was also working with a young Björk.
A debut EP, When You’re Sad 12”, and a string of gigs marked A.R. Kane’s opening, in which Tambala and Ayuli stunned audiences with “a wall of feedback” when their appearances might have wrongly lead listeners to assume they played reggae (which speaks to the racial biases of the time, for sure). But, no; A.R. Kane was brewing something that the masses weren’t yet prepared for, and they basically anticipated almost every musical breakthrough of the years yet to come.
“A.R. Kane were even more important as figureheads, as proof that this shit should have no color code,” wrote Neil Kulkarni for The Quietus, noting how, as “an Asian [that was] into avant-garde indie music made by and for an overwhelmingly white group of music makers and listeners,” finding A.R. Kane, an act composed of people of color, was heaven-sent; they were not just important because of the revolutionary additions they contributed to their genre, but for daring to exist within that genre, alone.
After their start, the pair created together on a steady basis from the years 1986-1994, producing four records within that timespan. Though short in length, their body of work is some of the most intense, experimental, and, ultimately, influential to come out of their era, largely due to the massive number of different influences that amalgamated to produce their unique sound, and how much sway said sound had on their peers and the industry at large.
Ayuli was noted to have been a frequent club-flier, no stranger to electronic and house parties, whereas Tambala found solace in the jazz-funk scene of the time. The duo’s diverse repertoire resulted in them incorporating a cacophony of different sonic fusions throughout their work, inspired by their individual tastes, a well as their shared interests. Their music, as described by The Guardian, is a mix of “dub, feedback, psychedelic dream-pop, house, and free jazz,” meshing together the likes of Velvet Underground to Miles Davis to Black post-punk outfit, Basement 5, to produce an ultimately lo-fi, experimental, dream-pop sound (not without a sample or two from all over the spectrum).
Their first massive hit, oddly enough, was M/A/R/R/S/ single, “Pump Up the Volume,” a house track they contributed effortlessly reverberated guitars to, alongside Colourbox’s bumping dance beat. When the record came out, the boys were signed to Cocteau Twins’ label at the time, 4AD, and the sheer magnitude of the single nearly “blew the label apart,” as they simply weren’t equipped to handle such a huge release.
A.R. Kane’s arguably most notable piece of work, though, was their debut record, Sixty Nine, which came out in 1988. Creatively, this record was unprecedented: “We wanted to go as far out as we could, and in doing so, we discover the point where it stops being music,” Tambala said.
As Sixty Nine gradually received rave reviews (followed by an equally positive reception of their next record, i, in 1989), A.R. Kane gradually caught the attention of other burgeoning talents, leading a string of acts to mimic the band’s tendency for sonic ingenuity. In a 2014 interview, Tambala noted how My Bloody Valentine (who also had their start around the same time) seemed to take a note from their book, transforming from “a jangly indie band” into a new kind of beast with a sound in the vein of A.R. Kane’s track, “Baby Milk Snatcher.” “And they did it better than us, which was interesting,” Tambala noted, which is certainly arguable—it’s unlikely that My Bloody Valentine did ‘it’ better, but that they somehow managed to come out on top of the heap, even while Tambala and Ayuli had created the very basis their newfound sound stood on. Sketchy, right?
This considered, megastardom just didn’t seem to be in the cards for A.R. Kane, and acts such as MVB transcended. Additionally, interpersonal woes in their later career seemed to plague the duo’s trajectory, too, this being a major reason for their eventual move to “call it quits.”
Fast forward to 1992.
At the same time that Ayuli and Tambala began collaborating with David Byrne on a record for his label, Luaka Bop, they were steadily growing apart, creatively and physically—with Ayuli heading to California to work in advertising, and Tambala in London, working on his own production company and record label. With these restraints considered, the resulting record, Americana (1992), didn’t come together exactly as they’d hoped, not to mention that they began encountering legal complications around this same time: “The only reason I remember that so clearly now is because I found some old papers at home, recently, and I ended up going through the faxes that had been sent between the lawyers and…I almost threw up on them [laughs]…disgusting,” Tambala recalled.
Though this period was certainly stress-filled, Ayuli and Tambala eventually reconvened in 1994 for one last record, New Clear Child. Soon after the record was finished, it was clear to them that things simply weren’t the same; they recognized that the energy they had manifested on records such as Sixty Nine and i was long-gone, and A.R. Kane was henceforth put to bed (but not without a massively influential career behind them).
Throughout their time working together, Ayuli and Tambala allowed creativity to come to them, to help them find innovative ways to discuss life and light, death and darkness; to make flawed music that had the ability to spark dialogue and mean something more than what might be gathered on the surface. In their courage to be unconstrained, especially as Black musicians who said ‘fuck it’ to predetermined stereotypes, they cued a future generation to break free; to innovate, find their own style, and make something of themselves. During their heyday, maybe they didn’t realize they were the catalyst to something bigger, and maybe the world still has yet to recognize their impact, too.
In 2012, One Little Indian gave A.R. Kane’s music new life in the form of The Complete Singles Collection, a compilation of every single the band ever made. Below, I’ve listed a few especially notable tracks of theirs that you should check out.
A.R. KANE NOTABLE TRACKS
Butterfly Collector (Lollita, 1987)
W.O.G.S. (The Complete Singles Collection, 2012)
Green Hazed Daze (Americana, 1992)
Spook (i, 1989)
Supervixens (i, 1989)
When You’re Sad (The Complete Singles Collection, 2012)
Haunting (The Complete Singles Collection, 2012)
Spermwhale Trip Over (Sixty Nine, 1988)
You can also watch A.R. Kane reunite to perform at Primavera Sound (Barcelona, Spain) in 2016, below.