In this second of a two-part series on selling contemporary African beats to colonial Europe, Lloyd Gedye explores the power relationships in these trafficking circles, and what it means for the artists and the scene. Just who benefits from feeding Europe’s dance floors?
Gqom, the raw, dark, hypnotic electronic music genre emerged out of KwaZulu-Natal in 2008, but really began to gather steam only from 2011 onwards. Gqom was a move towards minimalism, a reduction of kwaito and house to their base elements, stripping away everything until there was just a beat, with vocals consisting of a shout, grunt or chant.
Gqom may have started out as a four-four beat, but in 2011, the offbeat was introduced. The kick was broken and syncopated, creating “offbeat dance techno”, as journalist Kwanele Sosibo describes it in an article titled ‘The New Underground’. In the article, Sosibo interviews one of gqom’s innovators, 25-year-old Sbucardo da DJ, who recalls proto-gqom tracks emerging in 2008 in the nearby township of KwaMashu, north of Durban.
“Back then it wasn’t offbeat, though,” says Sbucardo. “I came up with the offbeat from watching people dance. They would react even more to something a little offbeat, so I pursued that.” Sbucardo says his first offbeat hit was Haibo Hey, released in 2011 through file-sharing site Kasimp3.co.za.
Although gqom has taken tentative steps into the South African mainstream only in 2015, a host of European labels have released South African gqom artists in the past few months. In May, London-based label Goon Club Allstars released a four-track EP by the three-man Durban gqom crew Rudeboyz. Boomkat.com wrote that the tracks have an “intangible dread” that “plays devil with tension and atmosphere”.
At the same time, another London-based record label, Shangaanbang, which up until then had only released shangaan electro tracks from South Africa, launched its first release under its TownshipTech imprint. The free release, titled #001, offered up four slices of gqom from the likes of Citizen Boy, U-zet, DJ Mtu and Cruel Boys. #001 was the first in a rapid succession of gqom releases from TownshipTech, with the DJ Dino’s Udino Loh EP released on July 5, Darkslavez’ StolenPCMix released on July 13, and U-Zet’s Soul Groovers EP released on July 31.
Then Italian label Gqom Oh joined the throng on July 31 releasing The Sound of Durban EP featuring tracks from Citizen Boy, Cruel Boyz and Mafia Boyz. Boomkat.com described the tracks as having “bilious low-end drones, parched drums, and gasps as percussion … something like techno for a club sequence in a Neil Blomkamp flick”. The Sound of Durban EP was just a teaser – Gqom Oh is planning a double-vinyl release of Durban gqom artists early next year.
It seems gqom is all the rage in Europe, but in South Africa it is still very much an underground sound. Just how did a bunch of Europeans get hip to gqom? What does it mean that they own the economics of trafficking this music to the world? How are gqom tracks being selected for release?
Who is making these decisions? How is the revenue split? If all they are doing is putting South African gqom artists up on Bandcamp, surely this is something that can be done from our own shores?
Then you get the case of Gosh, the debut single off of Jamie xx’s new album, In Colour, even a casual listener can recognise more than a passing resemblance to gqom. Its superimposing of the production values of the UK underground bass scene on to gqom have made it a global dance floor favourite.
Jamie XX rose to fame on the back of his band, The xx’s, with their self-titled debut album in 2009.
Since then he has become a celebrated London DJ, remixer to Gil-Scott Heron, and has put out a string of great singles since 2011. In May, he dropped In Colour.
A key figure in the introduction of gqom to South African middle class hipsters and international audiences is serial collaborator Okmalumkoolkat, real name Smiso Zwane. He was born in the township of Umlazi, south of Durban, and grew up as a dancer. In 2010, Zwane began to get attention as one half of the duo Dirty Paraffin, making music he described as “gqom life”, “nu age kwaito” and “Primus stove music”.
He made his international breakthrough the same year when he featured on the track Boomslang, released by London-based production crew LV on the Hyperdub label, in a collaboration instigated by South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo and Hyperdub label boss Steve Goodman, who goes by the stage name Kode 9. The story goes that Mathambo had played some of Okmalumkoolkat’s tracks for Kode 9 and he had hipped Gervase Gordon from LV to Zwane’s work. Gordon was born in South Africa, but emigrated to London at the age of six. When Gordon visited South Africa to catch up with family, he hooked up with Okmalumkoolkat for a few hours, and the result was Boomslang.
After his trip to South Africa, Gordon launched a new side project under the name Okzharp, a term he lifted from Okmalumkoolkat. Okzharp was created to focus on South African house and kwaito, which Gordon had been introduced to on his trip. Between March and May of 2012, Okzharp dropped two free mix tapes featuring South African dance music, including tracks by Big Nuz, DJ Clock, DJ Tira, DJ Mujava, Brothers of Peace, and DJ Cndo. But his interest in South African house and kwaito didn’t stop there. When LV’s album Sebenza was released in August 2012, it featured Okmalumkoolkat on eight of the 14 tracks, with Mathambo featuring on two and Cape Town kwaito outfit Ruffest on the remaining four.
Around this time, Zwane was DJing entire gqom sets under the moniker DJ Zharp Zharp. As reported by the press, he was becoming sought-after locally and internationally as an ambassador of gqom. “The Durban sound is a very important part of what’s happening now,” Okmalumkoolkat told journalist Evan Milton, describing gqom as the stepchild of house, kwaito and techno, and describing the music as containing “Zulu drumming”.
“When I say Zulu, I don’t mean from maskandi; I’m talking traditional Zulu drums,” he added. In 2013, Okmalumkoolkat boasted to Sosibo that he had got everyone interested in gqom. “Every time I’m in Cape Town, I play gqom and not much else,” he said. “I’m sending it out to my friends in London as well.” In 2013, he went as far as describing himself as “King Gqom” on his Tumblr.
Okmalumkoolkat was a steady source of gqom for his European producer friend Okzharp, who had been adding examples of the underground music to his DJ sets. His record label boss, Kode 9, was also adding gqom tracks to his sets, as was DJ Moleskin, one of the co-founders of the Goon Club Allstars record label. DJ Moleskin told The Con that Okzharp gave him a zip file of gqom tracks in 2013. “He made me a folder of maybe 10 tracks of big South African house tracks,” said DJ Moleskin. “About half of those were gqom.”
He said these gqom tracks wormed their way into his sets until he was playing mostly gqom. Eventually in 2014, they took the decision to release some of them, resulting in the Rudeboyz EP in May. “I was playing so much of it in my sets and it was going off in clubs, so it just made sense to release some of it,” said DJ Moleskin. “The record has almost sold out. People keep telling me how much they love the record. We co-run a party in London called Zhambeez that is mostly dedicated to gqom, and the first one was packed out. London had its own house music for a while called UK Funky. Unfortunately that fizzled out despite it still being very popular, so gqom fits very well into that. It’s travelled well because this is the good shit, man. This is some of the best club music I’ve heard.”
Durban gqom producer Menchess, real name Menzi Ntuli, 21, whose popular track Mitsubishi was featured on the EP, said he couldn’t believe the international popularity gqom has gained. “Gqom wasn’t even a national thing, Durban was just partial to it,” he is reported as saying.
The Con chatted to the Rudeboyz the day before they played The Churn electronic music festival in Johannesburg. Menchess said DJ Moleskin called them and said the London clubs were full of their songs. “I want to see that,” says Lionel Bonga Msabala, 23, aka Massive Q. “I can’t believe it. Gqom is something for us in Durban. We can’t imagine white people in London listening to it; we don’t have that picture in our heads,” said Massive Q. “It was quite a surprise.”
The Con asked Rudeboyz who selects the tracks for release in Europe. Menchess said the label knows what Europeans will respond to, so they select from their catalogue. He said the four tracks were from their first EP in South Africa, released in 2012. Menchess said the label still has to feed back about how it’s sold.
The Rudeboyz EP was the sign that something exciting was happening in Durban, and was effectively the beginning of the European scramble for gqom. But not everyone was happy.
One punter, commenting on Resident Advisor’s review of the The Sound of Durban EP, wrote that “the whole gqom craze has gotten out of control. Gqom night at my favorite club means a long line and higher cover; gqom remixes of Taylor Swift … gqom, gqom, gqom.”
Meanwhile back in South Africa, there was a different scramble over gqom. While Okmalumkoolkat was indirectly feeding the European dance floors with gqom, he was also sharing the music with a host of middle class producers in South Africa who were equally excited about the underground sounds. “In Cape Town, I’ve been giving it to all my electro friends, like Jumping Back Slash,” Okmalumkoolkat told Sosibo. “He’s coming out with an EP now where he is calling the tracks ‘gqom romance’.”
Jumping Back Slash, real name Gareth Jones, is a British expat who has been living in South Africa since 2007 – about the time the first gqom productions began to emerge from KwaZulu-Natal. Jones was born in Wigan and grew up in the 90s, at the height of the London rave scene. The story goes that on his first day in Cape Town he heard Bazoom Base, featuring DJ Sdoko on production, at a record shop in Golden Acre, and was “hooked” on kwaito and South African house.
In 2011, the same year Sbucardo claims to have pioneered offbeat gqom, Jones released a track titled Kwaai Sneakers on London-based Pollinae Records. Boomkat.com described it as “soured synths, infectious pitched chants and augmented Chicago bump beats”, but any South African can hear that it’s a kwaito track in the vein of DJ Tira or Aero Manyelo. Popular tastemaker blog Generation Bass predicted it could be the next Township Funk, referring to the 2006 DJ Mujava track that blew up in Europe in 2008 after it was rereleased by Warp records in the UK. Kwaai Sneakers went under the radar in South Africa until Mathambo tweeted about it in 2013 and it began to garner some attention locally.
In November 2013, Jumping Back Slash released JBS004, the first of his releases to use the tag “gqom romance” to describe the music. As he saw it, he was blending gqom with elements of R&B to create a new style. Bare in mind that this was almost a whole two years before any actual gqom artists had released any tracks commercially. While Jumping Back Slash’s gqom-and-R&B fusion can be clearly heard on the tracks Blue Smoke, U See What I See and Always Unfinished but Never Outgunned from JBS004, the opening track Plateaux sounds like a wholesale gqom rip-off, with no real fusion going on.
By February 2014, Jumping Back Slash was back again with a fresh dose of gqom romance, five more tracks released under the title JBS005. Again this was more than a year before a gqom track was released commercially. In May 2014, Jumping Back Slash dropped a free gqom mix tape titled Gqom Bhengz, featuring tracks by Rudeboyz, DJ Lag, Fearless Boyz, Cruelboyz and Illumination Boyz, among others. There are loads of examples from around this time of Jumping Back Slash pimping gqom to foreign press like Fader and local press like Mahala.
“When I first heard it, I went mental,” he is reported as saying. “Gqom was the biggest influence on my music. In so many ways, it’s one of the truest and purest youth-music movements to come from the country as it does not take influence from anything outside South Africa,” he said. “And yet it exists in a bit of a vacuum. Even within South Africa it’s not very well known, and that’s a shame because gqom is the real fucking deal.”
When The Con asked Rudeboyz about Jumpin Back Slash and “gqom romance”, they had no knowledge of him. “Eish, I don’t know if it works. I will have to listen, but I doubt it,” said Menchess. “Romance and gqom? Hayi, I don’t know,” said Menchess, laughing. Gqom is high tech and fast paced,” he said.
In July 2014, Mathambo released a gqom mix as part of the publicity for his documentary feature film Future Sounds of Mzansi, which he had made with Lebogang Rasethaba. Rather perplexingly, he spelled the genre qgom. As one cynical journalist recently commented, “he was cashing in on the genre, but couldn’t be bothered to spell it correctly”. Mathambo’s mix tape featured tracks from gqom pioneers such as Sbucardo, DJ Lag, Menchess, Illumination Boyz and Rudeboyz, as well as three of the four tracks from Jumping Back Slash’s JBS004.
Mathambo is another artist who is described as a serial collaborator, but a number of musicians The Con spoke to feel there is something vampiric about the way he chooses to collaborate. The guest artists are often used as aesthetic additions to his work and not really as equal contributors of ideas. Some have pointed out that the timing of his work with certain artists is very much aligned with the guest artists’ rise and any cultural capital he can claim from that. He has been described in private conversation around dinner tables as “a tour guide” for Westerners, hipping them to the latest and greatest dance music emerging from South Africa. His film, Future Sounds of Mzansi, is a perfect example of this role in action.
When he was interviewed in January by Afropop Worldwide, Jumping Back Slash bemoaned seeing a white man making black music in South Africa as cultural appropriation. He suggested white people shy away from genres like kwaito “because they don’t want to be seen to be appropriating a culture that they don’t understand, that they’ve never really had much contact with. That’s a difficult thing. It’s what makes it so hard when you’re a producer, a musician over here, and you want to try cross over in this country.”
It’s clear Jumping Back Slash feels uncomfortable making black music in South Africa, but later in the same interview, he seems to be quite comfortable with the question of ownership of the music genres he operates in. “There are a lot of eyes still on this country and a lot of eyes on the musicians of this country,” he said. “They come now and again, Diplo or the fucking whatnots. They come and visit and they steal our beats.”
Does living in South Africa for eight years entitle Jumping Back Slash to start calling South Africa’s electronic music genres “our beats”?
In June this year, right in the middle of the European scramble for gqom, Portuguese label Enchufada released a gqom track titled Kanganga as part of its Upper Cuts Volume V compilation. This is the same label that was at the heart of the allegations of cultural appropriation of Angolan tarraxinha music, explored in the first part of this two part series. The write-up from Enchufada that accompanied the released of Kanganga described Jumping Back Slash as gqom’s “biggest champion” and “the man making the rest of the world pay attention”, while Kanganga is described as a “perfect example of the sound”. Positioning Jumping Back Slash at the heart of the scene is highly inappropriate; he’s a British man releasing his own version of a South African underground sound that hasn’t even found its feet in global music.
But Jumping Back Slash is not the only white man in South Africa who appears to be jumping on the gqom bandwagon. Cape Town producer Richard the Third, real name Richard Rumney, who made his name in South Africa’s bass, electro and hip-hop scenes, changed his stage name in 2012 to Maramza and started to draw more influence from kwaito and gqom. “The reason I moved on to that name is because I felt Richard the Third really doesn’t fit the current vibe I’m into,” Rumney told OkayAfrica last year. “It made sense when making trill hip-hop and playing indie dance, but I needed something fresh and Maramza was a nickname I had earned in studio, a play on my surname, so I adopted it.”
Rumney is the manager of Red Bull Studios in Cape Town, and so has a front row seat when it comes to the latest electronic music innovation taking place in the country. In December 2014, Maramza released a gqom track called Dogs n Robbers, which was followed up by the Changez EP in January 2015, again heavily influenced by gqom. He recently described his music as “gqomtastic mswenkenstein monster music”, and in one interview said gqom was “infectious like bad street drugs”. Not to hammer home a point, but both of Maramza’s gqom releases emerged a good five to six months before any gqom tracks were released commercially.
Another issue that has been raised regarding the exploitation of gqom’s rise is examples of established kwaito producers in South Africa purchasing wholesale gqom productions from young gqom producers and then releasing it under their own name. Sosibo raised a few examples of this in his article The New Underground. The first example is DJ Cndo, who licensed gqom producer Luisman’s song Wamnand’ uQoh and released it under her own name to much hype. Another example is gqom crew the Fearless Boyz track Sgubh’ Ungakanani, which was bought by DJ Sox and released under his name.
While these offers from established producers may seem like attractive propositions to young twentysomething gqom producers with no way of monetising their beats, what is essentially happening is that the kwaito producers are co-opting gqom, a potential future threat to their stranglehold over the local dance music scene. With kwaito already facing a huge threat from South Africa’s burgeoning hip-hop scene, this appropriation of gqom by producers who once may have shared a similar class background to the gqom producers but now are very much middle class is hugely problematic.
The Rudeboyz say they were approached recently for two tracks. “They are just trying to make money off our beats,” said Menchess. “They buy a track for like R4 000 and they make a lot more money from it than that. They are not offering to take us under their wing or promote as artists. They are not offering to promote us as a brand. They are not even offering to collaborate,” he said.
“We have a competitive advantage right now,” said Rudeboyz manager Andile Ngubane. “Gqom has revolutionised Durban house music and we must not give the established producers the tools to continue their reign.”
“Some producers do not have a choice,” Menchess added. “Say DJ Tira comes to you and says he wants to buy your track – he is the only label who is interested in your song, and if you don’t give it to him, he’ll take someone else’s song and your song will just fade away.” The way Rudeboyz see it at least, releasing their music via London allows them to promote themselves as artists, not just beat-makers for hire. It seems that when you are at the bottom of the food chain in South Africa, all kinds of people will prey upon you, whether they are European, white middle class South Africans, or black middle class South Africans.
While contemplating what this European trafficking ring means for gqom, I came across a chapter in a book titled State of Bass, written by Martin James, which details the history of jungle and drum’n’bass in the 90s, arguing that the dance movement was the greatest subculture since punk. In a chapter titled ‘Shadow Boxing’, James retells the story of jungle gaining mainstream attention in 1994 and how the media misrepresented it. In the end, the media foisted General Levy upon the jungle massive as their poster boy. The originators of the scene revolted. (Similarly, The Guardian crowned Mathambo the “king of kwaito”.)
James writes that “with the spotlight of the media came increasing disagreements within the scene’s various factions. By the summer of 94, things were at boiling point. Jungle had entered the charts thanks to records produced by relative newcomers to the scene.” By the time General Levy proclaimed in Face magazine that he ran the jungle scene and “took it national”, the originators of the sound had had enough. Their response was to form the “jungle committee”.
“The committee, or council as they would sometimes refer to themselves, was intended to act as a mediator between the scene and the media,” writes James. “A united front against the workings of the greater music industry.” The committee held monthly meetings, and at its first one instituted a ban on Levy’s music from all DJ sets and threatened to ostracise any promoters or producers working with him. But many promoters defied the ban, which resulted in a subsequent ban on anyone playing for those promoters.
The committee was causing chaos in the jungle scene, but with pressure mounting on General Levy, he published a letter in September 1994 apologising for his false claims in Face. “No one individual runs any type of music,” Levy wrote. “I am but one voice trying to further the cause of black music in this country.”
Rebel MC, one of the founders of the committee, spoke openly about the committee’s aims. “I think first and foremost we have to deal with what we know as a collective. We have to form a union, a foundation among ourselves,” he said. “We have to build a foundation that’s solid, because before it goes anywhere else we have to take control so that it doesn’t just get taken over by the industry.”
“In many ways, this jungle collective could be seen as the underground rave scene growing up and facing the facts of business,” writes James. Perhaps in this jungle tale is a lesson for the emerging gqom artists in South Africa. Producers of the genre need to organise and take care of their business affairs, and if they need to, they can stand together against exploitation and media misrepresentation.
Otherwise they’ll end up just handing all the power over to opportunists, exploiters and colonial powers, what neoliberals like to call “the market”.
This piece was produced as part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa for the 2014 Ways of Being Here project
This Saturday 3 October Kitcheners in Johannesburg is hosting “Gqom! Gqom! Whos There?” featuring Rudeboyz and DJ Lag. Starts from 7pm and costs R50.