The cover of Dare to Know and the artwork for the Slikback EPs Tomo and Akuhika Credit: Collage by Amber Huff

On Tuesday, September 14, my friend James Kennedy publishes his second novel, a sci-fi thriller called Dare to Know. (His first, the YA fantasy The Order of Odd-Fish, was reviewed in the Reader in 2008.) I’m not going to attempt to rate the new book, because I’ve destroyed my credibility on that front by admitting that James is my friend. I bring up Dare to Know because James’s publisher tasked him with compiling a Spotify playlist to help promote it—and James, acquainted as he is with my reputation as a Professional Music Knower, asked me to help.

The book mentions several tunes by name, and they were easy calls for the playlist: the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” the Looney Tunes theme. But James also wanted to evoke aspects of the novel’s invented world, in which newly discovered subatomic particles called “thanatons” allow for the development of a type of mathematics that makes it possible to predict the exact moment of a human’s death. Thanatons are also connected, via an obscure ritual metabolism, to the maintenance of our universe in the form we recognize. 

The Dare to Know playlist, with Slikback as track three

I found songs to respond to two prompts from James. The first was “a fantastical soundscape of the ‘next world’ where everyone is weird metal dragons in a blinding desert” (uh, spoilers?), which clearly called for “Kuulen Ääniä Maan Alta” by Finnish black-metal xenonauts Oranssi Pazuzu. The second prompt provided the impetus for this post: “a song that puts us in the mood of the ominous mechanical mathematical workings of the death algorithm.”

The first artist to pop into my head turned out to be a perfect fit: experimental producer Slikback, aka 24-year-old Fredrick Mwaura Njau, born in Nairobi, Kenya, and based in Kampala, Uganda, since 2016. I encountered him because I’d become a fan of Kampala label Nyege Nyege Tapes, and he’d cofounded club-centric Nyege Nyege spinoff Hakuna Kalala with labelmates Rey Sapienz and Don Zilla. 

Slikback started making music in 2017 and finished around 400 tracks in his first two years alone. He combines elements of trap, techno, footwork, gqom, and more, but honestly a more evocative description might be “ominous mechanical mathematical workings.” The song I chose for James is “Zuhura,” a sinister series of dense, pistoning crescendoes from the 2019 EP Tomo (and the 2020 LP combo reissue of Tomo and the 2018 EP Lasakaneku).

Even more apt, I think, is “Agent,” the lead track from the July 2021 EP Akuhika—but as of this writing, it’s not on Spotify. That’s too bad for James’s playlist, but thanks to Bandcamp you can easily enjoy its distorted, pulsing grind, numbing concussions, and interlocking layers of gnashing rhythms. And if you like this stuff as much as I do, I implore you to express it via Bandcamp rather than Spotify, so that more of that appreciation will reach Slikback in the form of your money.