Nobody Listens to…Die Antwoord

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.

 

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Nobody Listens to…BLK JKS

To my knowledge, African prog-rock groups are few and far between.  This isn’t to say that this isn’t a genre that deserves more recognition or investigation, but simply that it’s one that doesn’t get much play.  BLK JKS may be working to change that.

BLK JKS

My introduction to BLK JKS was one of simple circumstance.  Not only was I the beneficiary of the it’s-a-small-world fact that the group had recorded their first full-length album in the town where I was attending university, but also the group had come to that same southern Indiana city for a set at its annual world music festival.  By the time BLK JKS’ Saturday night showcase set rolled around, I had already developed a fascination with the group and purchased their CD.  For music geeks like me festival lineup pages are enough to get excited about.

BLK JKS (pronounced “black jacks”) are a quartet from Johannesburg, South Africa that play a swirling blend of progressive rock,afrobeat, jazz, soul, reggae, and post-rock.  Formed in 2000, the group grew their sound and following in South Africa for the better part of a decade before journeying to the U.S. to record their debut with the Bloomington, Indiana-based independent record label Secretly Canadian.  Recorded in such a way as to really translate the fury of BLK JKS’ live show, and with cameos by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, 2009’s After Robots is still BLK JKS’ only full release.  Given the album’s singularity (and relative short tracklist), After Robots is all the more impressive for its wide scope and the wild abandon with which each track progresses.

Musically, BLK JKS are quite hard to define.  The songs on After Robots generally would fall within the heading of “progressive rock”, but there is a distinct afrobeat flavor to much of the arrangements, and both rhythmically and melodically the songs often touch on jazz or reggae themes.  One constant tends to be the band’s proclivity towards abrupt dynamic changes; at moment a song may be loudly sweeping with washy cymbals and distorted guitars only to break down immediately into an acoustic near-silence.  Rhythmically this same idea is echoed, as time signatures and tempos are liable to jump forward or back or sway just as frequently as the volume swells.  These traits identify this as incredibly difficult music, and leave the listener suitably impressed with both the band members’ talents, but also their arranging and composition of some of the more avant garde soundscapes that are laid around more straight-ahead melodies and songs.  In many ways comparisons to The Mars Volta are apt, though BLK JKS expectedly replaces that bands’ vague Latin-American influence with a thoroughly African one.  Additionally, The Mars Volta’s trademark quasi-falsetto screams are replaced by BLK JKS lead singer and guitarist Lindani Buthelezi’s ominous narrations.  While all four members of the quartet fuel the music in their own ways, it is often Buthelezi’s guitar work or drummer Tshepang Ramoba’s well-placed accents that lead BLK JKS on musical odysseys through space and time.  The group’s music is an exercise in anticipation: expectations are constantly subverted, and every time the listener has an idea of what will happen next the music takes a sudden turn in the opposite direction.

After Robots leads off with “Molalatladi”, one of the more afrobeat-tinged tracks on the album. Over a jumping drumbeat and staccato stabs from the horn sections, gang vocals in both English and Setswana chant a circular melody that keeps the song rotating on its head.  Following “Molalatladi” is the intense syncopation of “Banna Ba Modimo”.  Within the blender of odd time signatures that follows are lyrics that may sum up the group perfectly: “It’s the ominous and the disquiet” (the line where Buthelezi orders the listener to “Defenestrate the trash” is a close second).  Even at the points where the song becomes easy to follow, “Banna Ba Modimo” is lurching over the bar line and into different times and feels.  These tracks only lay the footwork for the rest of the album, which stretches from the ambient (“Standby”) to the acoustic (“Tselane”) by way of the scorching lead single “Lakeside” and the horror-reggae of “Skeleton”.  Each progressive track makes the high points sound louder and bigger and the quiet sections smaller and more intimate.  With a careful application of special effects and sounds to the undeniable musical prowess that the group boasts, After Robots becomes a true experience in listening.

BLK JKS

When I saw BLK JKS live in the fall of 2009, they had just released After Robots and were just beginning to cross into American music scenes.  Their tent was completely packed when I arrived partway through the set, and the whole room was filled with delay-overdriven noise.  While special effects add a great deal to BLK JKS recorded sound, when the group plays live everything is put through delay pedals, linking every instrument and every note in one echoing wall of sound.  The group doesn’t seem to be hiding behind their effects, as lives clips do exist of the band playing crisply clean, but the application of heavy amounts of special effects serves to unify the band’s sound.  Whether this is or ever was BLK JKS’ intention, their live sound condenses everything into one level out of which bits and pieces of guitar, drums, bass, and vocals occasionally poke out to accent the heavy grooves underneath the psychedelic prog-rock the group lays out.

BLK JKS did release a five-song EP in 2010, led off by the title track “Zol!”.  Recorded and released to accompany the South Africa-hosted 2010 World Cup, the EP features a more dance-influenced sound and straighter rhythms.  With this exception however, BLK JKS have largely returned to their live roots.  The group is actually somewhat difficult to track online, as the groups twitter handle @BLKJKS and page through the record label Secretly Canadian both link to blkjks.com…which appears to be a single page with a paragraph of Chinese characters.  Nobody is listening to BLK JKS right now, and while their apparent online shortcomings don’t help, the group definitely deserves a listen.  The group has been criticized as not living up to favorable comparisons to other groups, but I believe that BLK JKS’ relative singularity as a quartet of young Africans playing heavy experimental rock music makes them an interesting and worthwhile endeavor regardless of their similarities to other groups.  BLK JKS should be judged by what they are as opposed to what they are not, and I can say that the group are a talented young band with a wild sound that couldn’t be classified as anything else I have ever heard.