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Bass, Snare, Bacardi: DJ Spoko Interviewed

His drums are unmistakable. You’ll remember the first time you hear them—we certainly did. A sharp, spare, mid-register attack, it rolls out of the speakers on tracks like “Township Funk,” an international hit for DJ Mujava, with production by Spoko. Afropop producer Sam Backer interviewed Spoko for the recent podast “Ghost Man.” This is the full transcript of that conversation. 

Sam Backer: When you were first listening to music, who were you into?

DJ Spoko: Chico and Brenda Fassie, I can only remember them. There were other artists on those shows—it was a big lineup—but as young as I was, I can’t forget Chico and Brenda Fassie. It wasn’t only one night when I went there, I went time and time and time. But every time when I’m there, I used to enjoy listening to Chico. When he went off, and Brenda comes in, I’m like, yo, on fire man. Every time. So they’d be like my favorite artists of all town. At the stadiums, my uncle would put me on his shoulder, he was so fucking long—on his shoulder, I could see better then everyone. He would be dancing all night long!

But then I got to Pretoria and it attacked me, man. You gotta do music, you gotta do music. WHYY? Because I can’t do music, I don’t know nothing about music. When I’m at school, I don’t even bring books. In my bag I had my headphones and a mini cassette player—if you play too much it starts to draaaaaggg and it doesn’t play anymore. Every time when the teacher went out, I would put on my headset, listen to music. Listen to The Chronic of Doctor Dre, listen to everything. Everything there. I gotta do this. At that time, I used to love hip-hop, I thought maybe I was going to do hip-hop because I was down with hip-hop, man.

You moved to Pretoria when you were 13, right? Was that when you really became interested in pop music?

The music was everywhere when I was 15, man, in the ’90s. I was like, you could get access now. When I was in Pretoria, I had access to music. My father had records, he had CDs, he had a computer. Before I moved to Pretoria, I lived in the northern region, in a rural place. You can’t see no computer there, it’s hard to see a TV. So a computer is another story at that time. Now at least it’s better, it’s trying to develop. I didn’t even know that there was a machine called a computer until I was 15 years old. My father had his own PC that he used at work, so he gave me an old machine—”This is yours, you can do your thing. Play games.” But I was like, “Off with the games man, I gotta do music. Come on, talk to me, machine. Come on, talk, man, I’m listening. They said you can talk.”

Tell me about Fruity Loops. 15 years ago, it was harder to make music without a studio, right?

For me, when I started, everything was hard. My computer was like Pentium One. Back then, I couldn’t record what I was hearing in my head inside the computer. The sound wasn’t good because they were just these midi sounds. The kicks weren’t good—I had to put 5 kicks so I can hear it. But when I found Fruity Loops 1.1, that was when I started to believe that there was a god and that he was looking at me. I started to do miracles. That’s when I started to push my thing. I found it in 1999, and that’s when I put out my first ever record. And it went straight to TV! I didn’t have a CD writer then—I just had to connect the tape recorder to my sound card and played it out listening to it, just checking. And I would have to do that when my old man wasn’t around, because he didn’t like me taking my tape player to my room. Like—”You’re gonna break my shit!” [Laughs]



How did you first get Fruity Loops?

I first found Fruity Loops on one of the CDs that my old man used to bring home from work. He used to buy those PC Style magazines because he was a technician. I was reading through it, I saw this article on Fruity Loops. It said that you can just do music now and save it as a wav or mp3 without a hassle. So I started looking for the CD that came with that magazine, because my father would just throw them away. I looked for days. Until I found the right CD, loaded it on my computer, and everything started now. Then I got more Fruity Loops—from there I got 3.1—that’s where I got this bass sound that I did township with. I found it with 3.1. You can only find it in there, you can’t find in anywhere else, even today. I’ve had to sample 3.1 to move with it until today.

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Fruity Loops Drum Patterning

Now, I got many Fruity Loops, that I can donate others to my boys. When I’m on 4, I give them 3, when I’m on 11, I give them 10. Like, “Go hustle, boys!” Some of them, I can hear their music, they attack very hard. They are doing everything that I used to do. I can see that they are coming, man. That’s why I gotta move, that’s why I gotta be here. There can’t be a confusion between me and them.

I told them, “Guys, when you go to the papers, I go to TV. When you go to TV, I go to cable TV. When you go to cable TV, I’ll be on the billboards. And when you go to the billboards, I’ll go to the moon. I’m going to perform for the aliens. That’s how I’m going to roll with you. You’re my boys. I love you—whatever I’m doing, I’m doing for you. Spoko’s boys! You get access, you get a free coffee! [laughs]

How did you first start making music?

When I started, I can’t say I was making electro music—I was trying to make kwaito. There were so many powerful names under kwaito, you just couldn’t get in there. I couldn’t play the kwaito that they were playing. I wanted something bigger. So we started to do this weird kwaito, a little more faster, with a little more energy. And I took it to Jo’burg, they were like “What the hell is this, man?”

But in my hood, I was playing it on my computer and this guy was like “Yo, give me your tape” and I was like “What do you want to do with my tape?” And he was like, “I got a car. I just want to play it in my car for myself.” So I was giving him tracks. And he became more famous than me. By just playing my music!

Who was it?

Just another thug in the hood with a stolen car! But he became bigger than me. And people were like, “You’ve got this brand new style!” But he was like, “I got my homes, Spoko. He’s the one who do that shit, you must go there and get the music.” I wasn’t interested in the hip-hop or the house that was taking over, I wasn’t interested in the kwaito that was so big at the time, I kept on doing what I’m doing. Kept on doing it, kept on doing it. Until in my hood—boom! They’re just listening to me. Until it started to take over other other townships around Pretoria, until it took over the northern province. They only city I didn’t take over is Jo’burg. And it did! They just don’t want to admit it…

 Tell me about how you first hooked up with DJ Mujava.

At that time, I wasn’t deejaying, I was just producing music. He was the DJ to push the thing—to spread the disease, you know what I’m saying? So he did that. The next thing, we moved to the taxis. The taxi drivers are gangsters. They are like hollering, saying, “We play this kind of music, man. We need it!” So it became like taxi music, each and every taxi was like… blasting it! The old people, they used to get irritated. Only the youth, you’d find them there, happy, waiting for this certain taxi to come because this certain taxi plays this certain song that other taxis they don’t have. It was just fun.

So when DJ Mujava got the deal with Sheer Sound, that was when we did township funk. It was like, powering him to go to the next level. But when he got there, the credit wasn’t there for a homie, you know? That’s why I came back, and did Mugwanti for him, and the credit wasn’t there for a homie again!

Why not?

I don’t know!—credit issues, pay off money, protection fee. My dream was just to push him, because we came with a new style. He was lucky to be famous, I was lucky to create, I needed him in the picture. You know what I’m saying? I’ve read books—you can’t make it alone. You need an army.

You described your music as kind of weird kwaito—could you explain that a bit?

If someone never heard kwaito, they will think it’s like listening to Jimi Hendrix. His rock ‘n’ roll is not the same as other rock ‘n’ rollers. It’s crazy. Music that makes you go crazy. Let yourself sleep on the floor, roll on the floor. It’s electro, man, it’s electro.

With kwaito, I used to like M’du, you know, M’du Masilela, this crazy-ass mid-tempo kwaito. He’s crazy, man. His style, for me, is classic. It’s not like that bubblegum kwaito. His style—even today, I can go to the club and find Mdu’s song. Because they didn’t release so many albums, no. But each and every album has four or five hits that I like—not just that I like but…he makes sure to give me four of the songs that I’m going to worship. M’du. The feeling of the fingers is there on that man’s music.

Do you think kwaito now is less crazy?

There’s no more kwaito now in South Africa. kwaito is down the drain nowadays. The big names are old now, and they are now longer creating kwaito. The youth is not creating kwaito—they are too much into hip-hop, too much into r&b, they are too much into African music. Kwaito is for thugs. Music that is created for thugs is not easy for people to join it. They believe that if they do kwaito, they are from the kwaito, they are in All-Stars and Dickies, and you know “I’m not. So I can’t.”Some of the people say “Your music, even if they play it in the club, the club just becomes a shebeen.” What the fuck, man. It’s not my fault.

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When you first started, was kwaito really big? Or had it already started to go down?

When I started, kwaito was hot, but I didn’t realize that it was the last hotness, that from then on it was just going to disappear. Everyone had a hit that year. But my music could still be played during that time. During those last two-three years of kwaito, my music was out there and getting played. I even got a slot on TV to perform my music.

House is really big now, right?

Yeah. In South Africa now, we have Black Coffee. He’s like big. But yo—let me tell you something. We have awakened another demon that is taking over, man. That is Bacardi house. My township, in the west side, it’s Atteridgeville. East side, it’s Mamelodi. That’s why on my album, I’ve got this guy, Capa Capa, who sings with this chick. They’re from Mamelodi, they’ve taken over Mamelodi with that style.

So you invented the style?

I’m the one who program it, but it’s his style. It’s not like township funk. It’s on this other side, this crazy synth. It’s not this one melody, it’s got many melodies with crazy synthesizers. That’s the style that he loved, so that’s why I invited him and programmed something that he can be comfortable with.

So you program the beats, and they do the melodies and the synths?

No, they just came and sing. They can’t touch the devils work. They’re scared to touch it. I’m the one who can add to my music. When I create a song, my friend, I don’t create a song that is not done—I create a song that is finished. I want to listen to it before I sleep. As a song, not as a demo. If I had all the mastering and everything, I could just create a song and master it. If I had my own radio station, I’d put it on the radio station, let the DJ talk and play it. Every night.

I love the Ghost Town EP on True Panther Sound. Can you tell me about it? 

I worked with a couple of guys on that one. Some were singers, but I worked with only one producer, Machepiz. My main man right there. He programmed gospel music, but he’s got the skills of playing that keyboard. So I said,“Hey let’s betray Jesus a little bit—come to my side. I know you don’t like the devil’s world but come to my side.” He’s playing some good chords for me, so I’m like “That’s what I’m talking about, man. All of this is the love of God. Don’t be judging.”

The Ten Commandments be saying every time, “Don’t judge,” because people, they think my music is maybe poisoned by the devil. So many guys used to come to me, like, “Yo, Spoko, you know what you’re song did, man? The first time I started drinking alcohol was when that song came on. I was a Christian.” And I’m like, “So you want to blame it on me? You want to put all the blame? Guys, let me go and enter heaven. Don’t put so much blame on me.”

Where do the melodies come from? Do you write them? 

I love melodies. If you can hear my music, I love melodies. I have like millions. After this, the other one comes in… it’s from the way I sing. Normally I should have been doing that with my voice, but I can’t sing. I’m weird, yo. Bad.

For me to do music, it comes as a feel. I can’t go and do music if I didn’t hear the song in my brain first. That’s why when there’s nothing playing, I can dance. I hear them in my head—finished track with melodies, and all the arrangements—I can see them like they’re on my Fruity Loops. And it’s very painful because if I hear that melody and I want to play it and it doesn’t come out, my heart will never be satisfied. Until it’s the one I had in my brain.

The Ghost Town EP had a lot of lyrics. Did you write the lyrics?

The song, “I Remember,” is one of the tracks that I did with my homeboy G-Dog. The vocals are an intro on a hip-hop track. He just talks with no beat. So I was chilling, and I was listening to the instrumental that I just did. It didn’t have a name at that time. I thought, now, I could say a few words but I can’t because my voice is bad. Why don’t I just sample G-Dog, my homie and use his voice, because he says some nice things that we wrote together right there. It was like a long-ass intro. It talks for like a minute, but I only took a half a minute of it, and repeated some words and put them on a house version. So it was like a remix.

And “Azange,” I wrote it, and called Maguala to come and sing it. And “Batauweng,” it was the Kapa Kapa who wrote what they sing, and then I was the one who came up with the gimmick of “Batauweng,Batauweng.” It’s just passing by. It says, “Those who are drunk.” That’s what it says, that gimmick, “those who are drunk.” That thing was there before the Kapa Kapa’s voice. I was going to name the track “Batauweng” without them. I sampled that, put it in the good music, and let it flow.

Are there a lot more people playing Bacardi house?

Yeah. Many many. I’m not coming alone, I’m coming with an army, man. That’s why I’m cutting some good deals I’m associating with some good people, some good generals.

Like who?

Now, I’m going to be working with the Lit City. We’re going to be pushing some material. The War God is coming. That’s my album with 30 tracks, it’s coming. Twenty tracks pure disease, pure love, it’s everything pure in there, man.

It’s called The War God? And you wonder why people think it’s scary…

When we talk about war, people, they misunderstand. We aren’t talking about guns anymore, no time for guns anymore. It’s the music that we bring, it’s war now. Bacardi, and on the other hand it’s the Lit City rave. Is that war to other people? Isn’t that war? It’s like, urban music and township music, ain’t no way you can choose one.

So that’s what I’m saying. I’m not coming alone. Don’t be expecting me alone. I will be doing some collab with the Lit City gangster. Secret Society.

Are you doing something with Spoek [Mathambo]?

Yeah. It’s a band. We did a movie with Spoek. That’s the first time when I met him live, when he came to film me in the township. The next thing was when we played in Paris, me playing my set, him playing his set. And he was like, “Yo, man, we’re from the south, man, we gotta holla when we get to the south. We gonna start a band.”

I feel like there are a lot of ghosts, you know what I mean?

The name “ghost” is not a commercial name, it’s the name that I grew up with from the streets. People are like “Spoko”, “spok”—because I’m thin. You know? They were calling Spoko because they were thinking, this boy is evil. So when I pushed my thing, I didn’t have to name myself cause everyone know me from the streets, everyone is like, “This is Spoko’s material.” So I can’t change, because if I say DJ Marvin, which is my name, they’d be like—“Who’s Marvin?” So I had to go because I’m doing this for my fans. Even the name Bacardi is for the fans—they were like, “This shit is Bacardi, for when we sipping Bacardi!” It’s the shit for gangsters.

Is house music less from the townships?

Yeah. Nowadays. You can’t hear too much outside music. The taxis, the phone, in house shabeens—they play Bacardi. Because now, as I said, I’m not alone anymore. There are soldiers who have been beaten by me, they are part of the vampire family. They won’t die until I die.

How’s your style changed, since you first started?

It’s escalated to a new level. It’s getting crazy, it’s getting where I never thought it could get. I thought that maybe in a couple of years, I’d be bored. But more ideas keep coming, you know, and people keep loving more ideas, because it’s changed. Now it’s like lean, where I started. When I listen to my old tapes, the the quantization was not good, the sound was not as good, but when I listen to nowadays, it’s pure. Pure electric. Electrifying now, ain’t no turning back.

The new album has a lot of old material that you’ve reworked, right?

Yeah, I’ve taken them back to the studio, given them some oomph, so they can be on the same level as the new ones, given them the new kicks I have. And all my homies be like, giving me new sounds. Ain’t no snare I don’t have on this earth.

You said when you started you needed a DJ. When did you start deejaying?

When Mujava got off the scene, that’s when I had to go out there and start deejaying my music. That was like four years, five years ago.

Did that change the kind of music that you were making?

Yes, because now I can see what the people need. I don’t rehearse the set that I’m going to be playing—I just throw the songs that I trust, then be looking at the crowd. If I throw this song, and the crowd go wild, I know I got 20 of those, and I come again with another one like that, they go wild, and I know this style—it works. The one I put and it makes the people go like “… ehh”—I don’t need that. Now I don’t have to ask around what is needed, I’m okay. Even my sound now is better, because now I can go home and, when I mix my sound, I know what it sounded when I was in the club, so I know—it miss some top, it needs so bottom. “Oh, it was so weak,” or, “It was so heavy, I need to reduce the heaviness”. I’m learning everyday, man. And I love that. In the township, you don’t get education like that.

That also means you’re making music for a different audience. Before you were making music for the people in your township…

Before I was making music for myself, and I ended up making it for the world. I didn’t know that I had one fan on this earth, man. Because I was in the township, playing the music from the hood. We don’t even know how the song got to the States. But the next thing we know they go, “Yo! That track! It’s playing all over the world man!” Maybe people are just trying to make us not create, you know? Because sometimes people are just telling you things to give you hope. But today, I am here, I can’t believe it. It’s like Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

But I’m ready. I’m ready. Because I didn’t just woke up and became that. It took me 15 years. So the book of this 15 years, I can go back and read. I know all the fuck-ups and the mess, so I can’t go there. I know what is needed. That’s when Jamie hollered at me, and said, “We’re gonna need 20 tracks,” I’m like “Yo, man, do you need 40?”

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