As the dire Euro trash dance sounds of the |1990s reinvent themselves as 21st century electronic dance music under the auspices of David Guetta, and more recently will.i.am, Britney Spears and a few faux rappers, there are better choices to be found under the dance umbrella. Therese Owen speaks to Capetonian dance music protagonists who are leading the battle in the continual underground revolution.
It was agreed that they meet at Mr Pickwicks on Cape Town’s Long Street. Mr Pickwicks, Marvel, Friction and Zula Bar are the hosts of the origins of the music scene that is underground dance in South Africa.
While it is a particularly Capetonian movement, its independent, anti-establishment attitude never translated into the shiny white tiles of Camps Bay clubs. As for ever reaching the expensive velvet lounges of Jozi’s Rosebank and Sandton clubs, this independent, anti-establishment culture would rather set fire to itself faster than a Tibetan monk can say “Whoosh!”.
Underground dance music, like all underground cultures, eventually bubbles over and influences pop culture, hence the rise of Skrillex, the popularity of dubstep, the reinvention of techno/house/ whatever into electro and the blending of drum ’n’ bass et al with a mixture of hip hop beats which all bleeds together on the worldwide pop charts.
In South Africa, these sub-genres have had a vibrant life in the clubs of Cape Town. They are the best kept secret of the music industry and merrily carry on with their way of life, happy in the exploration of their growing culture. It has maintained exclusivity mostly because it evolved at its own speed, with scant regard for, or interest in, the commercial reality of the music world.
But, with the growing interest in anything with an electronic beat, and the international success of artists such as Die Antwoord, Haezer and Sibot on various levels, all of whom have their roots in Cape Town, many questions arise.
Thus it was on a fine Cape summer day that I summoned Sibot, Mr Sakitumi, Tommy Gun, Mix ’n’ Blend, DJ Niskerone, Haezer and chief organiser of underground parties, Duncan Ringrose, to discuss the state of underground music in Cape Town, how much it influences the rest of the country and who the new movers and shakers are.
Initially the idea was to have a group discussion about the progressive scene they have created and/or are part of. However, it soon became apparent that they are all such purists, it would take ages before there was even any vague direction in their discussions, outside the esoteric.
What they did all agree on, however, was that African Dope Records was responsible for starting everything.
In my vague memory, the beginnings (for, yes, I was there) also included the legendary late 1990s club, 206, in Jozi. Owned by Alan Freeman and Rob Allen, and featuring DJs such as The Blunted Stuntman, it was the first to offer an alternative to the mass production of the Mother raves and their ilk.
The venue also provided the birthing ground for artists such as Max Normal and when 206, with DJ Bob and the Blunted Stuntman, moved to Cape Town, a spontaneous synergy happened between music lovers of 206 and the African Dope label, which was owned by Roach (Hilton Roth) and Fletcher (Beadon) , who were collectively known as Krushed ’n’ Sorted.
Krushed ’n’ Sorted never set out to be famous or rich, they just wanted to play new music with phat beats for anyone who was willing to understand. To their young record label they bravely signed artists such as Max Normal, Constructus and Felix Laband, artists who could not be pigeonholed, artists who were perennially stretching the boundaries in the name of the beat.
At the same time Ringrose was putting on drum ’n’ bass parties at Mr Pickwicks.
“The scope of clubs in Cape Town playing that kind of music was and is amazing,” recalls Sibot, who is the premier underground DJ in the country.
Sibot also played with Max Normal, the Real Estate Agents and was a long-time musical partner of Ninja (of Die Antwoord). He has just released his solo album, plays across Europe and was also in a group called Playdoe with Spoek Mathambo. His brother also happens to be Duncan and aside from his creative contributions to this scene, he and his brother own Shadoworkss, which is a booking and events agency. They are also the organisers of the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival (CTEMF) to be held this weekend and are the owners of one of Cape Town’s premier live clubs, Assembly.
“In those early years the scene was also helped by the Ghetto 3 000 and Pickle Parties. They were the first parties which weren’t part of the rave scene. They were underground hip hop-meets-dance,” continues Sibot. They were also the first to bring out Ninja Tunes artists. They lost money in those early days and there were even Save Mr Pickles Kneecaps parties because they literally had to. However, they were really influential.
Duncan adds: “Cape Town is a fertile breeding ground for experimentation as you can live off life lightly, you can float. In Jozi you need that Beamer. I was working at Pickwicks and we would meet here and exchange ideas. At that stage, African Dope was already rolling out. No one could identify the sub- genres we were into and the weird s*** we were creating under the umbrella of dance. Ninja Tunes was the corner stone worldwide and African Dope was the local version.
“The Mother raves were techno and house and we took it away from that cheesy, fluffy sound and made it broody, dark and warped. And we just carried on doing it.
“In those days there were about 200 people coming to the parties. Now at the CTEMF we are expecting 2 000 people a day.”
Duncan says that on a national level there is no particular party circuit but there are regular, random parties in Durban and Gauteng.
“On a national level, outside the Afrohouse scene there are definitely pockets of amazing stuff.”
Moving on a few years later and Mix ’n’ Blend burst on to the scene with three DJs and producers making and performing their own music at the same time on stage. They took Oppikoppi by storm and were released under the African Dope label. They got into electronic music while in high school and readily admit that they were inspired by Blunted Stuntman.
“We saw Max Normal in Plett and followed them around like hard core groupies,” recall Mix ’n’ Blend.
“We had graveyard slots at UCT Radio which is how we met all the African Dope people. They helped us with our first gigs at places like Marvel where we were paid about R400 and a bottle of Jägermeister.
“Obviously the scene is bigger than what it was when we first started. During our journey we have collaborated with musicians who wouldn’t have done electro before, like The Hoggs and The Rudimentals.”
Their DJ sets often include a live band which is fronted by vocalists such as Farrell Adams and, more recently, EJ von Lyrik.
“We collaborate with with other artists because that is what music is all about.”
Mix ’n’ Blend say Assembly as a venue and Red Bull as a sponsor also contributed to the strong underground scene. This includes inviting international DJs and artists to perform in Cape Town. The swopping of ideas between the local and international performers has led to the growth of the scene.
“But what is really cool is that people are amazingly shocked at how progressive the scene is and that is because of the interaction between here and there.”
Aside from Assembly, Fiction is another venue that has opened its doors to the underground dance culture where, say Mix ’n’ Blend, the DJs play a variety of drum ’n’ bass and new disco.
“It also has an epic sound system,” they enthuse.
But on the whole, Long Street has the cool clubs where they allow for cool musical experiments. Plus, a lot of people are attracted to the creativity of Cape Town. It’s a cultural melting pot.
Mr Sakitumi, whose real name is Sean ou Tim, is one of those who emigrated to Cape Town. The multiple instrumentalist, who hails from Kimberley, has played in rock bands in the mid-1990s to hip hop to the most obscure electronic projects by artists such as Ninja. He is now a live DJ who plays his own music and does his own shows complete with complementary visuals by The Grrrl. He portrays his music as much as possible from a live aspect as well as a pre-recorded electronic sound. He takes this ethos to workshops where he teaches people how to mix the electronic and live experience.
He is also one of the original protagonists in the movement, having started playing with Max Normal in the 206 days.
“I started off when the hip hop electro sound happened in the late Nineties, early Noughties,” recalls Mr Sakitumi.
“With Mr Sakitumi, the fact that I get so many gigs is testament to the fact that the scene is growing. But in terms of the players, the scene is small enough for us to see each other a lot through work.
“It’s a village in that respect. It’s a supportive scene with no ego. We often swop tech ideas and it makes us all, as producers, much stronger.
“In the future, who knows where this music will go. On a personal level, I am always in the moment of creating, in the now. I got into this because I didn’t need a band to write a song. I could compose in the afternoon and mix it down and then perform it that evening. I can be creatively free and flowing and still play in bands.”
One Capetonian who is definitely excited about the future is rising DJ Tommy Gun. His light energy reflects his emerging brand, Untamed Youth, as well the music he plays – new disco.
“New disco is inspired by 1970s and 1980s music,” he smiles. “It’s fun and light whereas electronic music can be dark and banging.”
For the last four years Tommy Gun has deejayed under Untamed Youth at Fiction every Tuesday.
The brand and that genre have attracted more than 500 hipsters a night. Untamed Youth have also proved popular in Braamfontein, Jozi’s latest clubbing hot spot and creative precinct for hipsters and their Afda cousins.
“I didn’t really need to promote the event, as its reputation preceded it,” says Tommy Gun.
“The brand is already there. Maybe it’s our cheeky attitude that makes us unique.”
His parties, which have taken place at Great Dane on the first Saturday of every month, are one of the highlights on the Jozi underground calendar.
Tommy Gun and his new disco popularity have also spread to Durban where he has a following at one of South Africa’s top night clubs, Origin.
“I love to play in the basement at Origin, which has the best sound in South Africa.”
He has also played Oppikoppi and Synergy as well as in London.
Cape Town drum ’n’ bass DJ Niskerone is yet another who is spreading his work to Europe, and recently returned from playing Spain.
“Cape Town is contributing to the world of underground music because of the success of people such as Haezer and Sibot. This scene is as up to date as any city in the world.
“In terms of South Africa, in Cape Town the crowds are the most musically educated. They allow you to be creative.”
Niskerone, who is considered a master drum ’n’ bass DJ nationally, says that as much as he wants the dance floor to have fun, he also wants to bring new music to the masses.
“I realised through travelling around the world that I have a responsibility to educate people in new music.”
So, with the Cape Town underground scene finally teetering on the brink of the overground, what’s going to happen next?
Says Ringrose: “We had the Everybody Wants To Be a DJ era. Now everybody is a DJ.
“The success of the commercial side of music is what drives the underground.”
Whatever happens, on an international or national level, the Cape Town underground revolution will stick with this somewhat forgotten mantra – A luta Continua, Comrades.