There are some people in this world who just don’t ‘get’ hip-hop. These people think that rap music is generally scary, offensive, or just inaccessible. While I would not count myself as such and hope that people of this ilk eventually come around, sometimes hip-hop is scary and offensive and inaccessible. The upside is that this isn’t always a bad experience, as evidenced by the game-changed extra-strength weirdness that is Die Antwoord.
WARNING: MOST OF THE MUSIC IN THIS POST FEATURES DISTURBING OR OFFENSIVE CONTENT. OR IS JUST REALLY, REALLY STRANGE.
It was a cool, but sunny Indiana day when I walked into the house where my friends Adam and Joe were living. Joe had just discovered a really wild South African rap group and was all about it. It was driving Adam insane. The polarizing nature of Die Antwoord’s music isn’t really all that surprising; the group’s offensively aggressive style is unquestionably abrasive and learning more about the group seems to incite either admiration or rage, but never anything in between.
To gain an understanding of what exactly is going on with the loud and vulgar brand of rave-rap that Die Antwoord deals in an explanation of the South African zef subculture is necessary. Zef refers to a certain anti-posh attitude, or perhaps more accurately to reveling in the dirty glory of Johannesburg slum life. Die Antwoord’s vocalists Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er take this trashy-but-extravagant ideal to great lengths, and the band is really as much of a performance art piece as a genuine expression of its members’ roots. Die Antwoord bristles at being questioned if their presentation of graphic lyrics, prison tattoos, and grungy bleach-blonde mullets is real, but the deeper point is actually that nothing is real. Ninja himself has expressed the idea that the general public needs something as outlandish as Die Antwoord to wake up from complacently consuming establishment pop culture. In this sense the hip-hop outfit is just what its name portends: die antwoord is Afrikaans for “the answer”.
Die Antwoord is the current project for the aforementioned Ninja, the erstwhile Watkin Tudor Jones. Jones has previously helmed the similarly self-aware satirical rap groups MaxNormal.TV and The Constructus Corporation. While MaxNormal.TV and The Constructus Corporation aimed to take the music industry and mainstream capitalism to task while also producing high-concept multimedia projects, Die Antwoord took a dive into the Zef underside of South African society. The fascination with art (particularly the work of photographer Roger Ballen) and societal issues has remained, but Die Antwoord presents itself in a much dirtier package than the clean-cut suit-and-tie rapping of Max Normal and the Constructus Corporation. Not only are there no suits to be seen, it’s fairly uncommon for anyone associated with Die Antwoord to even be wearing a shirt.
Die Antwoord’s core is composed of real-life couple Ninja (Jones) and Yo-landi Vi$$er (a.k.a. Anri du Toit), who trade off hyper-energetic rap vocals and dance moves over the souped-up beats made by their “producer” DJ Hi-Tek, who is associated with the group because he has a “PC Computer” that can make next-level beats. The group burst onto the Cape Town Zef scene with 2008’s $O$, and following the release of some enlightening music videos on youtube signed a contract with Interscope Records. Disputes about potentially offensive content and subject matter, however, strained relations between the rappers and the record label, and Die Antwoord split from Interscope to release further material on their own. The group’s second full-length album, Ten$ion, was released in 2012 on Zef Side Records and picks up almost precisely where $O$ had left off.
The next-level beats that Ninja uses to describe DJ Hi-Tek’s tracks are varied in their influences and their outcomes: A Die Antwoord song may creep slinkily along to a light piano loop and a minimalist drum click or slam the listener’s ears with syncopated tribal grooves and hard-edged synthesizer stabs. As accompaniment to the snarling attitude of Ninja and the pint-size anger of Yo-Landi, the beats set up an aural atmosphere that matches the apocalyptically dirty things happening in the songs’ lyrics. Ninja and Yo-landi’s lyrics aren’t always easily discerned, as English is woven in with Afrikaans, zef slang, and on at least one occasion the Prawn language from Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9. While the lyrics that do come through are typically unprintably explicit, they also carry important messages; aside from painting a caricature of a sexually aggressive and potentially violent pair of lunatics, Die Antwoord has tackled societal issues from income inequality to ritual circumcision. The songs of $O$ and Ten$ion are really statements validating the existence of anyone living at South African society’s margins; if the context is grimy and unsettling, it’s equally a statement about the perception of these people and a glamorization of that which is inherently un-glamorous.
Die Antwoord’s music is enjoyable (this may not be the best word here…) alone, but a full appreciation of what is going on isn’t really possible without the visual dimension that the band provides through its music videos and live performance. It is fair to mention that some of the more evocative moments haven’t been brought to life this way, such as the transition from the impending-doom durge “Doos Dronk” to $O$‘s sublime title track and straight to the triumphant South-African-acapella-meets-dubstep of “Never Le Nkemise 1“, but the group’s performance-art roots lend themselves well to a visual medium. These videos often make the videos seem more important, as the clip for “Enter the Ninja” introduces the act as the ugly-but-true reflection of South African culture and stars the Cape Town electronic artist and progeria sufferer Leon Botha. Both the music and the video for “Fok Julle Naaiers“, meanwhile, give zef culture a bad-boy swagger: the track is menacing, and the video features heavily-tattooed and fearsome-looking men glaring in monochrome darkness. Both “Baby’s on Fire” and “Fatty Boom Boom” are satirical and play up Yo-landi’s role as a female MC that is equal parts sexy and terrifying, her wild makeup and horror-movie contact lenses keeping the viewer from looking away even as the images get ever more off-putting otherwise. The video for the song “Evil Boy” likely takes the award for both most meaningful and most provocative: monsters, phallic representations, revealing costumes, and a young Xhosa rapper named Wanga all swirl around in the dark underground as the group takes a stand against forcing young men to be ritually circumcised. Die Antwoord has also taken their carnival of insanity as high as the Late Show with David Letterman, which is important at the very least for the mental image of the mainstream American audience being subjected to the hyperactive wickedness of “I Fink U Freeky“. So they have that going for them as well.
The fact that Die Antwoord’s music and the imagery that they choose to represent themselves with probably makes a lot of people squirm is undoubtedly intentional. For that matter, controversy is essentially one of the group’s stated goals. The conflict with Interscope that led to the end of their short-lived tenure as major-label artists stemmed from disagreement over some of the ickier points of that album’s subject matter. In the short few years that Die Antwoord has been performing they have angered both gay rights groups (unintentionally- there are a lot of misconceptions about “Evil Boy”) and Lady Gaga (intentionally and unapologetically), and the shock value approach that the group has chosen to employ in getting their message out is working beautifully. To paraphrase Yo-landi Vi$$er, the group made its music their own way, and the fact that they’ve been able to garner a cult fanbase without compromising their own vision of artistic integrity is a blessing. Die Antwoord can be followed through their official website at dieantwoord.com, as well as through facebook and twitter. Nobody is listening to Die Antwoord, and though the group is often a bit horrifying and not at all something that’s appropriate for polite company, the group has a unique vision for their band on the record and in real life. The music Die Antwoord makes mirrors their personas: creepy and loud, but strikingly informative and unflinchingly honest.