As part of our research for our recent podcast on DJ Spoko, producer Sam Backer interviewed Jumping Back Slash, a UK born, South Africa based producer. In addition to his own music (which you can check out here), JBS has worked extensively with a number of South Africa’s most interesting electronic musicians, including both DJ Spoko and Spoek Mathambo. Simultaneously both an insider to the scene and something of an outsider to the nation, he provides a fascinating perspective on one of the world’s most interesting musical communities.
Sam Backer: One of the things I’m interested in is Bacardi house because people talk about it in the press, but I’ve never actually heard any other music except Spoko.
Jumping Back Slash: Yeah, a lot of it’s hard to get your hands on. Before I really knew much about Spoko, I remember getting a couple of records. There was one by a guy called DJ Adjuster and one by DJ Mike, who’s connected to DJ Pacco, who Spoko does know and that was one of my first introductions to it, particularly DJ Adjuster. Marvin [DJ Spoko] kind of dismisses DJ Adjuster, because for years I’ve been trying to find out who that guy is. It’s impossible to track down. Marvin doesn’t know him either, but he thought he was a bit too basic.
Anyways, when “Township Funk” blew up I was already over here; I wasn’t in the U.K. I presume for a lot of people that was one of the first times they heard Bacardi house. It’s kind of like Bacardi house, but it also sounded like Warp and LFO, you know. Like this mad fucking music. And it’s shebeen music, you know; it’s party music; it’s drinking music; it’s turn off all the lights and that shit gets played and shit goes down in the hood. It’s like proper, proper. And again, it’s its own little thing that sort of chugs away, you know. Marvin is quite a productive, prolific producer and, like I said, he’s had his hands in a lot of stuff. Far more, maybe, than he’s credited for, I would say.
Why do you think that is?
Oh just because it’s fucking music and shit. That kind of thing always happens.
Huh. I guess that’s fair.
I mean, you know, there was that woman recently who sued Lady Gaga, because this woman wrote this tune, and then she left a Pro Tools session with her ex-boyfriend, and he then goes and submits that tune to Lady Gaga, who uses the Pro Tools session. Next thing you know, Lady Gaga’s got a fucking number-one hit. And the same thing really happens everywhere, where people work together and shit gets left on the hard drive or people work on different computers and shit just gets released under different names. And one of the biggest issues here is that sometimes it’s really hard to fucking find out who made tunes. Sometimes, tunes are just distributed on fucking USB sticks and given to taxi drivers and just called whatever. And they get copied and then copied and then copied and then copied. And it’s really hard to find out .. You know that “Terminator” tune, which, for a long, long time, was credited to CNDO. And it was just that she stuck it on one of her mix CDs. It’s on Finest Lady of House 2. She stuck it on that mix CD and if you see that on YouTube, it’s always credited as her but it’s not, it’s a Gukwa tune. “Casablanca” is another one which is credited to Mzo Bullet. Did he really write it? Because of the difficult and obscure nature of the way this music gets out there, people can just stamp their name on it and no one knows any fucking difference. Spoko’s had his hands in a lot of shit and not a lot of people know about it, but you know, it’s life.
But it’s funny because talking to him, it’s almost in a weird way, like he likes the mystery.
Yeah, I think he does. He’s an oddball and he’s very much his own person. He’s eccentric–that’s how we would describe him in Britain. Frighteningly eccentric, but he’s fucking eccentric. Everyone’s got a story; no one knows what the truth is, the whole truth. So no one hurts with a little bit of mystery; it’s definitely never hurt me. I’m still someone people seem to think is kind of fucking obscure, or no one knows what I look like. I get that a lot: “Oh, you’re English. I didn’t know you looked like that. I don’t know what your name is.” Maybe we all operate under a strange veil of secrecy. He likes to tell stories, Marvin; he likes to talk shit. He likes all that stuff, you know.
Like you said it can be hard to figure out what’s going on. I’m just trying to figure out how his music fits in. Do people listen to it there, much?
Yes they do but it’s very… South Africa is not post-racial. There’s no country that’s truly post-racial. It isn’t post-racial, but it’s slowly changing. Something like Bacardi house will be big in Atteridgeville, the townships, the shebeens, all those locations. They’ll play that shit out, so people will know that sound; they’ll know that vibe. White South Africa, maybe not. Other parts of South Africa, maybe not. So how’s it connected? It’s really hard to say. I think it’s connected in so far as that’s music from South Africa. It’s house music. It’s just whatever the fuck they heard, the kind of music they wanted to make; that’s what’s in their head and that’s what they made, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s part of a lineage. There isn’t a continuum.
In the U.K. they talk about “the hardcore continuum” and they can trace a line from hardcore through to jungle, through to drum and bass, through to garage, through to grime, through to dubstep, through to what they call bass music. I would argue that it’s not so easy to do that here. Because this country is that much bigger, we’re not talking about one city here; we’re talking about house music coming from Joburg; we’re talking about house music coming from Pretoria; we’re talking about house music coming from Durban. The only city that really hasn’t got a scene is Cape Town–not an identifiable scene. Cape Town is just a lot of white kids, so it’s EDM central. That doesn’t mean there isn’t interesting music there, but where it fits in, I don’t know; it only fits in so far as it’s South African. I used to dig in record shops and find weird CDs. DJ Adjuster was one of them, one of the first, I suppose, Bacardi house, or to me, Pretoria house, because that’s what I was describing it as, because that was all I knew. I knew it was from Pretoria. But I can’t fucking find anything out about it. So how you can trace a line? I don’t think you can trace a line; I just think it’s house music; it’s kwaito; it’s South Africa filtered through their brains and coming out of the speakers.
When I interviewed Spoko, he talked about some of the bubblegum stars that he really loved. And some of the early kwaito like Mdu. You can hear that connection.
Yeah, I think you’re probably right there–the deeper sort of kwaito like Trompies. The beat is kind of there, but it’s harder; it’s faster–that simple melody or poppy melody. He’s got a good ear for melody, a very interesting ear for melody, an ear for sound. This kind of cheap, sort of weird Fruity Loops sample sound is what’s so interesting about it. I don’t know how you’d describe it–folk music really, street music. Like grime, like footwork, like Bacardi house, like early dubstep.
I see what you mean; it’s like these early, kind of explosions, almost.
Oh, that’s what I mean, yeah. It’s like jarring sounds; it’s just interesting; it’s an interesting ear that he has. It’s a similar ear that these guys have where it’s sort of delirious music. In a way it’s quite extreme, do you know what I mean? Not extreme like black metal, but it’s extreme in the fact that Marvin doesn’t give a shit. The snare drum sounds like a car door in a car park slamming over your head and it’s got weird fucking sounds in there and, in a way, people might describe them as… I don’t like the word cheesy, but kitschy sort of sounds, but it really works. And not much bass, you know. It’s not really bass-heavy music. It’s actually music based around the snare more than anything else. The kick drum isn’t that important. In a lot of those tunes the kick drum often sounds quite weak, it’s not heavy. It’s a lot about the snare; it’s a lot about the melody.
But going back to your original question- as a music though, that kind of stuff, no, it’s not massively popular. It’s funny though, I did a launch for my last 12″ in Cape Town when I last came over here for the Fantasma EP. We were working in the Red Bull Studios in Cape Town and I was asked if I wanted to throw this thing down at one of the local clubs in Cape Town. I said, “Yeah, cool.” I got myself and Spoek and Spoko, and it turns out that was his first fucking Cape Town show. And that guy’s been going since the ’90s. That was the first time he’d ever played Cape Town. In a way, if you know South Africa and you know Cape Town, it’s not a fucking surprise, really. Spoko, on the whole, wanders around in obscurity, and is now releasing a double 12″ record on Lit City. There’s a lot of musicians, myself included, that are still in that position. It’s only in the last couple of years that people have started to take interest in what I do in this country. Same with Spoko. Same in a way with Spoek. Spoek is another one that’s had a weird relationship with this country. More interest overseas, more people interested in his vision of Africa. Maybe you’re interested in my vision of South Africa, or our visions of South Africa. Same with Spoko. I don’t know what it takes for all South Africans to sort of wake up to it.
I think that disconnect is really interesting.
Yeah, honestly it doesn’t exist sort of on a micro level. Scene to scene, it’s very concentrated in terms of the interest within the scene. You know in all of that kind of music, in a way, they all feed themselves even very, very white Afrikaner music–that’s a scene that serves itself. They make music for their people and their people come and buy it, and they can survive and eat on that money that they make. Lots of South Africa’s like that. And it doesn’t really cross over, you know; it’s odd. But you know, what’s played on the radio everyday? Pop music is played on the radio, like any country. A lot of that’s American; some of it’s South African. But it’d be nice to be in a world where those of us who have more international interest and international success could maybe translate that in this country, but why people are reticent to listen to Bacardi house or feel Bacardi house, I can’t tell you. I don’t know why. I’m not South African, but there’s a weird feeling of identity in this country. It’s had a fucked-up history; it’s still got a fucked-up history now; it’s just a fucked-up history on top of a fucked-up history.
Spoko was talking about how there’s an economic component to it. People are afraid that if they’re listening to his music, since it’s gangster music, so if they’re not gangsters, they don’t want to be listening to it.
Yeah, I think that true. You must remember, he might also be talking about that from a township perspective. I can see an element of truth because I lived in a place called Knysna, which is about 500 miles from Cape Town. And when I was living in Cape Town, friends of mine–black friends of mine from townships–when I used to play that stuff, they would say, “Oh, this is tsotsi [thug] music.” So to them, it is kind of gangster music. I don’t know about the white population. It’s probably true. Obviously, you’ve just got this history of a country politically and ideologically segregated from each other and made to see difference and people treated in a certain way because of their skin color, discriminated against. And when you cross over, post-apartheid, the country’s still not reconciled and the people are still not reconciled, so now maybe it almost becomes a thing of cultural appropriation as opposed to racial segregation.
Does a white South African appropriate and enjoy kwaito? Or enjoy Bacardi house and play that stuff out if they’re a DJ or just as a fan? And there is a disconnect there; there’s a definite disconnect. Why? Obviously it’s some sort of hangover from post-reconciliation South Africa, a country that’s not really reconciled. And so now, maybe, people shy away from it because they don’t want to be seen to be appropriating a culture that they don’t understand, that they’ve never really had much contact with. And maybe it does, to white South Africans, sound like gangster music–it certainly sounds like black music. That’s a difficult thing. It’s what makes it so hard when you’re a producer, a musician over here if you want to try to cross over in this country.
When I first started producing over here, prior to me releasing in the U.K. and picking up success overseas, people didn’t really understand why a white English dude is making music like I was making. And that is true, people were saying things like that to me. “You don’t get it. Do you really like kwaito? Why do you really like kwaito? What’s this music you’re making that sounds really like kwaito?” Kind of odd. It’s wasn’t really until Spoek actually tweeted about me that my sort of stuff started to pick up, but again, now you’ve got this sort of stamp of someone’s approving of it, so now everyone goes, “Of course, yeah, this guy.” In a way, it’s the same with Spoko. I’ve known him for a while; I’ve known his music for a lot longer than I’ve known him for and I know the people now that talk about him like they’ve known him for years. No one fucking knew him; they just don’t want to look like they’re stupid now that a major international label has picked up on him. And that man’s played New York, played all over. Played a few cities in America. Played in Europe. And yet over here, over fucking here, the gig that we do together is his first fucking gig in Cape Town. It’s stupid.
I was interested in what you said about how it’s clearly black music. Is the house music that’s popular, Black Coffee or whatever, not considered, black music in the same way?
Yeah, it is in a way, but obviously there are shades of black. There’s a difference between Black Coffee and Bacardi house. Even someone like Black Coffee isn’t as popular amongst the white population of the country because he’s black. So other than the vibe of it, other than music itself, lyrically it could be in a language that they don’t understand, if he’s talking in Zulu for example. So there’s a linguistic disconnect for some people, even though they come from this country. I’m not saying every white person, obviously, because there are cross-sections and it’s changing. Older generations die away, and new generations come through, so now that upwardly mobile 20-year-old South African maybe is a bit more mixed, but there is that kind of separation. Progressive house is popular, EDM is popular, fucking Psychonauts is massive over here–140 BPM, bang your head against the brick wall. And that’s what makes it difficult, because when you want to be recognized on a local level, people automatically, the moment you sound like you’re coming from this country, South Africans have a weird vibe with you.
I’ve done an album, a couple of 12″s that were played out on big record stations in the U.K., big record stations in America, in Europe, and big names pick up on my music and talk about me in the press. Only in 2013, I started playing my first festivals in this country. And that’s a couple of years after all those things happened. I’m not saying I deserve it just because. But it seems kind of daft that no one wants to pick up on me. And Spoko played Oppikoppi, one of his first–it probably is his first–festival this year. I don’t understand why there’s a reticence about it. But I think in a way, because people here feel maybe a bit cut off and a bit remote, a bit at the end of the world, because you’re all the way at the tip of this continent, if you can make music that sounds like it comes from somewhere else, people go, “Oh, fuck you’re clever; you’re making wonky hip-hop, or you’re making drum and bass or you’re making whatever the fuck it is,” and that hip-hop you’re making sounds like it could be from Los Angeles, like Brainfeeder. And what’s the fucking point of that? Really, what’s the point of it? But that’s what’s popular.
In a way, people kind of respect that more. They go, “Look what you can do to sound like you’re international.” But the reality is that a lot of those guys are not international. They’re only really popular on the local level and no one fucking knows about them outside of this country. And yet those guys that are quite South African and are ignored by people over here, tend to be popular overseas. It’s odd. It’s just a weird fucking thing. Because the other side of the coin is when you’re popular on an international level, you’re fucking expensive because you’re here. People have got to fly you from here. Anyway, it’s life.
Do you think it changes the music that people make? For example, Spoko, instead of changing his sound to connect more locally, because he’s getting this international acclaim, he ends up aiming for a different audience, and he was talking to me about how he’s talking to producers here and they’re like, “You gotta boost the bass. Everything on this track is great, but we need four times as much bass for a dance floor here.” And that changes the music too.
I don’t think he would change so much. I’ve had that conversation with him about the bass and Bacardi house isn’t about bass. Once you start adding tons of sub-bass to it, it becomes something else because it loses the rhythm. It loses the beat, because it’s snare driven, snare-pattern driven, the bass. And maybe you’ll take it in a different direction and elevate it. In an ideal world, that’s what he would do, and cross-pollination can be good for that. But him sticking as much fucking bass on it as he wants, in this country, it ain’t gonna travel, domestically. That’s where the fucking problem lies, not internationally. International is easy because those people are always there and they’re interested. There are a lot of eyes still on this country and a lot of eyes on the musicians of this country. There always fucking are. They come now and again–Diplo or the fucking whatnots. They come and they visit and they steal our beats. But I think the more important thing is that people here pick up on that vibe.
Had you heard a lot of the tracks on Spoko’s album before?
No, there’s not a lot of it I’ve… fuck knows, I mean Christ, he plays you so much different stuff, but I guess they cherry-picked through his back catalog, but I wouldn’t know for sure. Christ only knows, he’s quite prolific. He writes a lot of music. It’s like dubs–making a dub quick, or with footwork–a lot of those Rashad tunes, they were turned around quick. He was making them in like half an hour. And in one day he’d make four or five tunes, six tunes. Because you’re going to go play them right down the shebeen, in his case, or down the club or whatever.
He said that he hadn’t deejayed that much, that he just produced, and that’s what the partnership with Mujava came from.
Yeah, from what I know he was probably more of a producer. Does he deejay that much? I think he probably deejays quite a lot where he’s from. In terms of being a traveling DJ in this country, no, not so much. I can’t even tell you if he’s played many shows in Joburg. You know, it’s entirely possible that the majority of the shows he may have played would actually be in Atteridgeville, in the township where he’s from. I think he came up as an engineer. Like I said, there’s the story; there’s the legend; there’s the press release. What the truth is? Who fucking knows.