Die Antwoord Leads a New South African Musical Movement

Led by the controversial white trash hip-hop trio Die Antwoord, a slew of South African acts aim for a mainstream, international audience.

Americans are used to homegrown artists copping African musical styles, from Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland, which kicked up controversy by showcasing South African mbaqanga—or township jive—at the height of apartheid, to Vampire Weekend adding bright Congolese guitar filigrees to their Ivy League-manqué lyrics. But the musical dialogue has long been a two-way street. Take two, for instance, new volumes of Next Stop . . . Soweto, a compilation series on Strut Records. The first volume, of ’60s and ’70s sax, organ, and pennywhistle-led township jive, is familiar largely thanks to Simon. But Vol. 2, from the same era, veers a lot closer to American soul and funk of the Motown and Stax variety, even as the music has a clear South African feel.

A new wave of young South African musicians operate in a similar manner, injecting the hard lope of older township jive into dance music and hip-hop, and gaining—or hoping to gain—an international audience. The World Cup shining the international spotlight on South Africa obviously hasn’t hurt either. But it’s also in part due to the Internet creating and feeding a constantly overturning cycle of new acts, the more attention-grabbing the better. And few acts lately, from anywhere, have gotten attention online like S.A. hip-hop trio Die Antwoord.

Die Antwoord’s homepage, where their first album, $O$, is streaming, got so many hits (over 15 million in February alone) that they had to switch to a U.S. server to handle all the traffic.

Consisting of tall, hulking rapper Ninja, tiny, mulleted blond vocalist Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and nondescript, portly DJ Hi-Tek, Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “the answer”) have stirred up controversy in South Africa thanks to their white-trash, roughneck image. They call their music “zef ninja rap rave”—“zef” being an Afrikaans term akin to “redneck,” and while “ninja” refers to both martial arts and the leader’s handle, it’s worth remembering that in hip-hop slang it’s often a less racially charged substitute for another N-word. With his gold teeth, bared upper half full of ink (on his neck, “Pretty Wise”; on his left pec, a fist gripping a dagger), and a scary-intense gaze, Ninja clearly models himself on American rappers like 2Pac and Eminem. A promotional clip from December features an interview with the trio in front of their modest Cape Town homes, talking about their humble beginnings and present-day in classic keepin’-it-real terms.

It’s paid off. Thanks in part to heavy blog action (often positive, with occasional snark, as when an MTV blogger compared Ninja’s appearance with DJ Pauly D of Jersey Shore), the trio’s Facebook page is closing in on 100,000 fans, and the group’s homepage, where their first album, $O$, is streaming, got so many hits (over 15 million in February alone) that they had to switch to a U.S. server to handle all the traffic.

The group made its first U.S. appearance at California’s mega-festival Coachella in April, leading to a deal with Interscope, which issued 5 EP last week; a longer version of $O$ will follow later in the year. This Saturday, Die Antwoord plays the HARD Festival, at New York’s Governor’s Island, which they co-headline an excellent, dance-leaning bill that includes M.I.A., London dubstep producer Benga (who recently collaborated with rapper Eve), and noisy, critically acclaimed Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells.

Listening to 5 EP, though, it’s clear that getting the hipster vote is merely a step toward a more mainstream audience. (Not just musically, either: David Fincher is considering Yo-Landi Vi$$er for a part in the American film remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) Ninja may talk in the band’s promo clip about DJ Hi-Tek’s “next-level beats,” but the “rave” part of the band’s description is no accident: Anyone who attended warehouse parties in the early ’90s will recognize the blipping keyboard patterns and swarming “ Hoover sound” of “Wat Kyk Jy?” quite easily. But rather than signifying as retro, synth-disco has dominated the radio for the past couple of years, from Black Eyed Peas to Flo Rida. Jarring as Yo-Landi’s Auto-tuned warble and Ninja’s gruff chanting can be (not to mention the dwarf that shows up in the video), it’s not a stretch to imagine Die Antwoord’s signature tune, “ Enter the Ninja,” joining those artists’ ranks.

Die Antwoord is hardly alone among young South African musicians vying for the world stage—or doing so with an electronic-dance/rap hybrid. The 24-year-old Spoek Mathambo approaches both vocals and music with a cooler, more minimalist attitude than Ninja and friends. On Mshini Wam, which BBE issues in September, Mathambo makes rubbery keyboard lines, stark digital percussion, and simply chanted lyrics into an enticing palette. Instead of swamping the listener with electro effects, he balances light and shade with ease; Mathambo calls his music “township tech,” and while it’s the tech that you notice first, it’s easy to hear jumpy South African rhythms inside its U.S.-and-Eurofied sheen.

No surprise, either, that out of a bunch of remixes of Mshini Wam’s title track BBE corralled, the most enticing comes from fellow South African DJ Mpula. For underground dance fans, South Africa’s become a reliable source of good new house and techno—as reflected on the friendly, wide-open Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House, a compilation on Out Here. (By contrast, Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa, on Honest Jon’s, the label Damon Albarn helps run, is spikier, much faster, and far more indigenously South African: here, the instrumentation is the main connector to the U.S. or Europe, rather than the grooves.) The best-known act on Ayobaness! is DJ Mujava, who in 2008 put S.A. on the world techno map with the 12-inch “ Township Funk,” whose central melodic motif had some internal South African feel but still hewed to a contemporary techno DJ’s needs.

The other big new South African DJ-producer is Culoe De Song, born Culolethu Zulu in Durban. Two years ago, at 18, he attended an electronic-music production camp sponsored by the Red Bull Music Academy and left with a deal with highly respected techno label Innervisions. “ The Bright Forest,” won instant acclaim for its luxuriantly epic feel. That track is showcased on De Song’s lovely 53-minute DJ set for a Resident Advisor podcast from March 2009. With no album in the pipeline, it’s is as close as we’ll get for now. (You can download it here.) De Song’s been issuing new music steadily since his emergence, most recently “ Ambush,” which builds a stirring, haunting atmosphere.

A few degrees away from all of this is Johannesburg’s BLK JKS—an indie band (their label is the small Secretly Canadian, also home to avant-torch act Antony and the Johnsons) that favors a new wave/prog-rock hybrid that would have been comfortable at hi-fi demonstrations in the early ’80s. But they’ve received a lot of exposure, regularly playing bigger festivals (I caught their act—energetic, if a little diffuse—at Sasquatch!, in Washington state, last year) and, last month, performing as part of the World Cup Kick-Off Celebration Concert, alongside African legends such as Hugh Masekela and Angelique Kidjo, as well as Americans Alicia Keys and BEP.

BLK JKS’ most recent release is a five-song EP, ZOL!, which offers a quick primer of the group’s range. “Paradise” is like the Police going prog, and with its quick beat, grinding guitar, and semi-detached vocal, “Iietys” could find favor with TV on the Radio fans. But the title cut is my favorite. What do you know: It turns out this completely modern South African band does loping, electro-tinged updates of older S.A. styles very well indeed.

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Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Sign ‘O’ the Times (Continuum, 2004), part of the “33 1/3” book series, and writes columns for The Stranger, Cowbell, and Flavorwire. He lives in Brooklyn.