the future sound of africa
From Kwaito to Qgom, Shangaan Electro to Barcadi, we explore the South African house scene.
Whether we're discussing Kwaito, Qgom, Shangaan Electro, Barcadi or straight up 4-to the-floor, South Africa's electronic scene is among the most innovative in the world right now. i-D travelled to Johannesburg with Boiler Room and Ballantine's Scotch Whiskey to meet the main players - Black Coffee, Okmalumkoolkat, DJ Shimzu, Culoe de Song and Black Motion - to find out the past, present and future of sounds of Africa…
How do you define the success of South African house and electronica, particularly over the last few years?
Black Coffee: It's been quite a journey. I mean, locally, the scene is growing. Five years ago Black Motion didn't even exist and now they're one of the biggest DJ duos in the country. I played in Osaka, Japan for the first time ever recently. I played Black Motion's Rainbow and the whole club started singing. This is people who can't speak my language and yet they knew every word of that song. It was the most beautiful thing ever. That's how far our scene has come. Over the years we have made enough noise for people to notice who we are.
For so long African music of all genres was lumped into 'World Music' a, well, terrible…
Black Coffee: Terrible! Yes! Say it. I hate that corner. The 'world music' corner. I'm really passionate about it, and I will fight to get our music out of that space. It's house music. This is how people need to see and understand it. But artists need to grow too. If I was to work with Sam Smith, no one is going to call me 'World Music' again. That's how I see it moving forward.
Black Motion: In the past year, it's grown even more. We no longer feel 'important' buying house music from Europe or the US. We change music.
OKmalumkoolkat: It's a crazy thing about the world. In SA, I know so much about the UK. A kid here will know so much about the UK and America but an American or British kid won't know anything about Africa. In SA we always think we're so behind but we're actually really progressive.
Black Motion and OK, you started out as dancers. How did that affect your music?
BM: The background of dancing in the production and DJ section is very vital because as a dancer you know the elements of a song that will make you move. Apparently that's our signature; to make people dance. The drum patterns are very important to us.
OK: I grew up in township in Durban so we were partying at night back in 88, 89. I used to go to my cousin's house; his older brother, was part of a dance crew. That's when I started dancing - I haven't stopped since. For Zulu people as a tribe joy and happiness are the most important things, so dancing has always been a part of our lives, whether it's traditional dancing or dancing in the streets.
What's the infrastructure like in terms of record labels? Is there a network?
Shimza: It's very easy, there's lots of people taking care of us. There's Soul Kandi, there's House Africa. You listen to the sound you're making and you choose which label you want to go to. If you're making really Deep House music you'll go to House Africa. If you're Kwaito-ish and very punchy House, commercial, there's a label called Kalawa Jazmee. If you're a bit soulful you'll go to Soulistic. There's different camps. I'm in the middle. I play everything because I want to go to a party like Boiler Room and reach the people there. I want to do a party in the hood and relate to those people as well. I've been to Soul Kandi and I'm with Soulistic now so that should tell you everything!
It seems, from being here, that house is sewn into the fabric of everyday life.
DJ Shimza: When you're in Joburg, you get into a taxi, it's house music. You listen to radio, it's house music. You go into a shop where you buy clothes, it's house music.
Okmalumkoolkat: And in Durban too; people really live the music culture there. People love to dance. There's a crazy house lifestyle. In Europe with house music, it seems that people go to the club and leave it at the club. In Durban, where I'm from, you're drowning in it. If you're in a hip hop crew in Durban, you're playing by yourself. House is being played on someone's phone, your mum is singing house music at home, the radio is playing the latest house tunes. You can't escape it. People really live the music culture here and people love to dance, it's part of everyday life.
Black Coffee: You hear this music everywhere; it's in the taxis, it's our everyday life. It's our 'pop music', if you may call it that. But the essence, the soul, the artistry is still intact, which is the most beautiful thing in the world. That's something I hope we keep forever. As it grows, I hope we keep the meaning in it.
But you're respectful too of traditional African music?
Black Motion: Yeah, there's a lot more soul in our dance music than you might find in Europe. We don't even try; it's in our essence. It's innate. It's just there. We grew up with soul music everywhere.
Culoe de Song: In my Boiler Room set, I was playing the new energy. When it comes to South African House, there's a combination of international and local vibes. I wore a mask in my sets for a while; it is an expression of my upbringing and the music of this country. All of that is an expression of underground electronica but also of Africa. Tonight I was about playing new energy while respecting the legacy.
Black Motion: We want to connect the youth of South Africa to what they're now getting away from. Western society is getting a lot of the youth's minds, so what we're trying to do is bring it back. On stage you don't get to see a whole lot of drums, so we're including them in our music and our sets, ethnic drums straight from Kenya. We fuse them into our music so the youth, especially, can relate to the sounds that we're doing, in the times that we're doing it.
How do you stay true to the roots of the music?
Shimza: I don't follow trends; I make sure I set my own.
Black Coffee: I've always been that guy. I did a show with a 24-piece orchestra - no one has done that. But that's me; doing what I want to do. Staying true is what I do. Regardless of the new wave, the new singers, I'm always running my own race.
Black Motion: We're loyal to our crowd and we're never manipulated by anyone. We stay true to ourselves. Black Motion is more than a name, it's a feeling. The Black is the zone we get you into when we play drums; that's how we connect to our ancestors and our culture. Black is the zone and the motion is the movement caused by our art.
Culoe De Song: It's a sound, a sound I make, a sound I introduced myself. It was me being stubborn. People can make things their way but I'm happy to make my things my way. I'm building brick my brick. The sound I had didn't gain me huge amounts of fans at first; it's been a slow process over the last seven years, but now people recognize it as the primary product when it comes to music in this country. And I'm really happy about that. I think what makes me different is that I acknowledge my truth. I live life day by day, that's my truth.
OK: My whole vibe is a guy who grew up in the 80s and 90s and 00s in Durban and Joburg, in this [post Apartheid] era of South Africa. If you know the history, you'll connect. I want to carry all of that and put it into this thing. I want to be able to create an attitude within the worlds that people can feel. Just like books, recorded music is forever so if I want to communicate with people not just in the now but to people forever, then music is the best way to go.
How does SA House take it to the next level?
Black Motion: I think it's a matter of time; nothing more. We get international artists coming here now asking for our production. It's just a matter of time.
Black Coffee: For me, it's in collaboration. I think collaborations with producers and artists who have a similar outlook on music is how we continue to take South African House to the rest of the world and show them that what we're making is not 'world music'. This is South African House music and it's among the best being made in the world.
To check out all of the performances Boiler Room: South Africa, as well as all of the previous sets from Ballantine's and Boiler Room's 'Stay True Journeys' series, head to boilerroom.tv/staytrue
Text Hattie Collins