There we are again with our series “TropicalBass talk to artists under rough climatical circumstances”. While Berlin was covered with tons of snow during our interview with Wildlife!, when we sat down with Spoek Mathambo it was hot and humid like in a Finnish sauna. Enjoy watching the ‘Best of interview’ video teaser, but if you want it all, you have to go through the text ^^
First of all thank you so much for finding some time for us, especially having in mind in how many projects you are involved. So could you shortly introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the projects you are doing. Just do some name-dropping as there are so many to mention…
This get’s really long. I’m Spoek Mathambo, vocalist, DJ, starting to produce more, from South Africa. I’ve started a band now called Mshini Wam. That’s my first album as well, the album is under Spoek Mathambo, but I did a shankle with my friends Richard and Jake in South Africa, and together we’re called Mshini Wam.
Before that I started a group called Sweat.X, together with Markus Wormstrom. I’m just gonna be listing stuff for ever, maybe you can write down all this stuff. Then I’m going this guy and that guy, and then I have this neighbour, and then we did this.
But I’ve got like 10 projects that I’m working on at the moment. [here we go: Mshini Wam, Sweat.X, Playdoe, Slush Puppy Kids, H.I.V.I.P., collaborations with names like Schlachthofbronx, Sekta, Douster, Djedtronic……]
I was always impressed how many projects you are doing and how different they all are. I really love reading your blog, and I always thought you must be a person who is really into doing research – like connecting loose ends of theories and music here and other cultural stuff there…
It’s cool that you can see the difference. Some people are like “Aw, it’s all the same shit”.
For me, all this projects are based on relationships. A lot of it is just like private jokes, for example Sweat.X is just based on Markus and my relationship. So, there is nothing else like that and it is filled with so many references which are specific to us hanging out together. The same with Mshini Wam, the same with Playdoe…
So more than me doing a lot of research for stuff a lot of it is born out of building up specific relationships. When I worked with Schlachthofbronx, I kind of knew what makes Benedict smile. Yeah, so that’s where the energy will be towards, to the the group.
So is it as well about personal relationships as about historical and cultural relationships – like in terms of concept and the way of working?
Yeah, yeah. But a huge chunk of it is that I don’t work on the stuff in isolation by myself. It’s usually very much about collaboration – with producers, as I might not work with that many vocalists. But with producers I’ve build a lot of strong relationships. With Sweat.X it was almost like we were producing and writing the rap stuff together, like a full collaboration. That’s cool!
Let’s talk about your new project: I was really amazed that you have a live band to tour with. Can you tell me something about the band? Did you start it or are these guys you have worked with before?
I met the one dude, Richard III, when I was about 17. By then, he was already producing Johannesburg Underground HipHop with the whole emphasis on that dingy dark smoked-out sound. He was like a big figure and I had seen his name on the back of a lot of CDs, so I went up to him as a 17 year old kid and I was like “Hey how are you doing, I really like this, this and that…”. And he was just totally cool! Fast forward a couple of years: We just linked up on the internet again, he doesn’t even remember it as I do, but flipside was that now I was a rapper that was coming up and he knew a lot of the music that I’m doing around the world. So we linked up and I heard the new stuff he was producing and we started this project called “Moleke Mbembe”. We were looking for different names and blablaba and ended up with the story about this dinosaur that lives in the Kongo – “Moleke Mbembe” means “He who stops the flow of the river”. Basically we were working on what I always wanted to do: to make some kind of African Electro, progressive but still … a sound how Africa should sound like in 2010/2020. A really progressive sound that is rooted in that history, in that lineage. We cooked that up, but “Moleke Mbembe” was a too obscure name, so we picked up another obscure name, “Mshini Wam”.
Then we got in the studio with Peter and BBE to do the album. […] So, on my biggest personal thing, because it is my first album, I was going to work with Richard cause he is sick. Then I was looking to expand the sound of the album through having a live band. It is not as live as it should be, Richard plays keys on some stuff, but mostly it is machines.
Then there is Jake, who is a buddy of mine. I asked him “hey, dude, do you know anyone who is playing drums?” And he was like: “Dude, I was playing drums since I was 13”. He is like my favourite person on earth, so I was like: “Let’s go!”. […]
And how did you come to actually work with a band, or to start a band for a project? That’s not so common in this genre…
Because I’ve been working in electronic music (as a producer, rapper…) for way long, and I’ve seen it’s limitations. When you go to a show, huge part of it you want to see a show, man. But all these guys are doing the smoking mirrors thing. It’s always only two guys, and they bring the helmets and the lights and all that shit.
I prefer the style of like Sun Ra, where it is 70 people on stage. Or a Fela Kuti show: lots of people on stage and everybody is playing. Because there is so much dynamics, you can spend the show looking there and looking there, and being like “Who’s that guy in the back?”. […]
It’s interesting that you mention artists like Fela Kuti and Sun Ra, as many commentators connect your music or your style to Afrofuturism, which these artists’ style, idea and vision is too. Do you see yourself in a tradition like that?
In a way it’s kind of condescending to pick out some African artists and say these are Afrofuturist artists. I’m just making the music I think should be made right now. And if you look at what’s happening in South Africa it’s all quite futuristic. It’s just contemporary African music. Kwaito House, Tech House is like our pop music, that’s what old women and little children listen to, in taxis and so on. We are all part of that lineage, we are influenced by it and we are the next generation.
But I don’t have any claim to be like them, like a Daddy. Maybe in 50 years… Yeah, like… Sun Ra! But they are my heroes and they have been a big influence.
The title of your album, Mshini Wam, refers to a famous protest song of the ANC…
It has weird layers: part of it is that it is a song from the 70s/80s, and those people who were the revolutionaries then, on the frontline, are now fat cat politicians, driving limos, and when they get into trouble for whatever, they still use those songs. It’s a problem of many states: using populist rebel rousing when they are in shit. Because you have that backspins, they use it the same way that they used this songs to bring people together to somewhat good back then. But people do it in dodgy ways now.
So Mshini Wam is one of these songs, the history of it has been people singing it, you know “bring me my machine”. Some people say it is “bring me my machine” like “bring me the industrial revolution”, but then other people say it is “bring me my machine gun”.
Anyways, in the last while our president started singing it when he is in court for fraud or rape, he sings it as another part of the song is “they trying to hold me back”. So it’s a really relevant song for South Africa.
So for you it’s something like a symbol?
Yeah, because in the same time I’m trying to make the music that SHOULD be coming out of South Africa and the title says what IS happening in South Africa. It is laid within a history but it is also very contemporary and very relevant.
And everybody in South Africa knows what it means when you say the name. When I told my mum the title she was like “aaargghnn” [makes a funny face].
[…] You couldn’t really say what you wanted to say all the time. We have seen that a lot in our neighbour state Zimbabwe, where freedom of speech is very much limited. And you wouldn’t be able to do something like that in a lot of places.
And on the other hand it’s again about connections, right? About connecting times and different circumstances.
Well, it’s just about appreciating where you are. I’m not in Geneva, not in London…
So, it’s important for you to make clear your location in South Africa, your origin?
It’s not really even that. In a way that’s just all I know – I don’t know German politics or whatever, I just speak about what I know.
Because sometimes it’s said that for musical styles like Global Bass, Tropical etc. location doesn’t really matter anymore – because of the internet, the artists being able to work together…
Yeah, but it’s different, because this Global Bass thing, it has a little bit of a Worldmusic vibe – “we are celebrating everything together”. But my background and my interest is in South African music specifically. It’s very much an insular thing, and I think Argentina maybe is the same. The interest in Cumbia might be global, but Cumbia, like South African music, is very much local and drenched in it’s own phrases. People might get the rhythm, but they don’t get the context. It’s quite funny, when I deejay [under the name of H.I.V.I.P], people dig the music and they dig the beat, but they don’t get the context, it’s weird to re-contextualize music like that.
But my music is different from that music [e.g. Kwaito], it’s not made specifically for South African audiences, as most of the time I play around the world, not in South Africa.
First time I heard your album it reminded me of a journey, too. A journey in terms of musical style and in terms of geography.
The journey I guess is just based on that I’m travelling quite a lot. And some of the songs are made by friends that I met, in London, in Amsterdam… So that’s a different thing, I think that’s the journey.
But in the end that’s a quality that will lead to tags like Global Bass. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s good, because I was actually really worried about this album and where it sits. Thus I was really reluctant – something like Afrofuturism, where would it sit in a CD store – or Future Primitivism, or Township Tech, is that going to be in the Techno section?
So, the fact that it will be a Global Bass sound is good as a distributor or a marketing person will say “OK, we gonna put this stuff here, and if your interest is this, that’s where you check for it”. Because that’s what it is essentially about, you know.
At the same time I want to make as many people as possible listen to the album – when you listen to a Michael Jackson or a Stevie Wonder record you are not necessarily like categorizing…
BUT I don’t want to be like in the Global Bass Ghetto!
Well, that’s a good thing – if you have a concept for an album which has many faces. You can talk to different people in a different way. It’s a plus factor for the artist if he is versatile…
That’s a thing I would prefer everything – to just be about Spoek Mathambo and the music that he makes.
That’s right, but people tend to label things…
Well, but some people have done genre-defying music. That’s part of my goal… I actually hate it to play a dope-ass festival I have always dreamed to do and then be on the World Stage. I don’t know why it sucks, I just have grown to resent it.
But in another way, like I’m going to play this exciting festival in Spain, organized by Africa Express, that’s gonna be totally in that vibe. But I’m excited cause I will meet some exciting musicians that I wouldn’t otherwise meet. We are doing a lot of workshops before that and collaboration stuff. I’m playing with LV from Hyperdub, we will do a live set together.
Let’s list your upcoming releases to have an overview what will happen in the near future!
There’s the album on BBE, that’s my first solo album, after a lot of stress and worry. Now I’m excited because it’s just the first one and I will get a better album next time. After that I will have a release with Tim Turbo in September, the main track is “Hush” and the B-side is “Linyora”. It’s already getting a lot of support with exciting remixes from Douster, So Shifty, Wildlife!…
Before we finish – can we expect a tour with your band?
Yeah, aahm, great booking agents should holler at me – definitely. And great promoters should get up. I’m always down to tour and we should play the record out. But right now it’s the situation that I’m changing booking agents… OK, SCRAP THE LAST 40 SECONDS OF TALKING!
Yes, we will have an exciting live tour in October and November and it’s going to be Mshini Wam band with possibly two dancers or two people playing like maracas!
Tropical Bass says thank you very much and can’t wait for the tour and all the stuff to come [and after that we all had a nice Monday night out, with magicians and all… ;)].
The single “Mshini Wam b/w Gwababa (Don’t Be Scared)” is already out on BBE, release date for the album “Spoek Mathambo: Mshini Wam” is August 31st
Interview and video by Jelka, Julia & Martin