From the unkempt townships to the swanky Durban clubs, the music preference in South Africa is the same – house. House music has been slowly brewing at the base of the continent for some time and is now filtering into clubs and radio stations all over Africa.
The man at the centre of this exciting ripple effect is DJ and producer, Black Coffee. Often credited as being the original pioneer of SA house, he has naturally become one of the most prominent figures associated with the scene.
Since the release of his debut album ‘Black Coffee’ in 2005, which he has said Christos and Oskido encouraged him to make, Black Coffee has gone from strength to strength. Permanently in demand to DJ all over the globe and with more awards than you can shake a stick at, Trina John-Charles caught up with South Africa’s new national treasure, to discuss his journey so far, the rumour mill and the African house music takeover.
A lot of people still have a hard time associating South Africa with house music. Could you explain just how big house is over there?
I recently won an award… and these are like the Grammies of South African music. We have House music on that level now. It’s on TV, it’s everywhere. They play my video on TV, then they play Rihanna’s video, then they play Bucie’s video. It really is an in thing.
Kwaito music was the genre of choice in South Africa for a long time. Would you say that South African house has evolved from Kwaito, or taken over from Kwaito?
In a way, our house music is like a sub-genre to Kwaito. Kwaito is still around. Kwaito is also merging with house as well now. Some of the biggest Kwaito songs right now are over house beats. I think that Kwaito has just kind of evolved and found a place within house music. House is house.
Diplo described Kwaito as ‘slowed down garage music’. For someone that has never heard it, would you say that is an accurate description?
Kind of… it is a bit harder and in our own vernaculars…
Where did you get the name Black Coffee? (It suits you!)
(Laughs) it’s actually from an ex-girlfriend. It had nothing to do with music. She just used to call me that. Then I started DJ-ing and I needed a DJ name… I used to use my real name ‘DJ Nathi’, but Nathi doesn’t really work and there were other ‘DJ Nathi’s’ already around at the time. So I thought ‘Black Coffee’ is the only thing I’ve ever been called outside my name, so it just stuck. Now she wants her royalties! (Laughs).
Does she really?
No, but she always jokes about it.
Tell us more about how you started DJ-ing and subsequently playing house music?
I started DJ-ing quite early. I think I was about 17. At the time it was Kwaito and everything else… I am from that generation where you played alone as a DJ, for the whole night. So you would play everything. We were using cassettes then. I am from that school. As the scene grew, so did my passion for it.
Your first two albums were made on very basic equipment. Now that you have the luxury of super-equipped studios, has it made your job any easier?
Not really. To be honest, I am so much of a perfectionist. It doesn’t matter what I make music on, I will be always be my own worst critic. There were songs that I released on my pervious album that I still didn’t believe were finished but, because of time I had to let them go and put them on. ‘Superman’ for example, I did so many versions of that song. Every time my friends would come to the studio, I would play them all the versions and they would always be like, ‘they are all amazing’ and I would be like, ‘…really? Are you sure?’ (laughs). I often do that. I record a song and on the first day it sounds really good and when I go to the studio the following day, I’m like, ‘nah’. So I always make different versions when I do an album. I always have like five versions of one song and then in the end, I always go back to the first one. I am really, really thorough with my music.
You mentioned ‘Superman’ on which you collaborated with Bucie. How did you meet and start working together?
I have a band back home called Shana and in that group, there are three of us and each of us has our own record label. So I, Demor and Shota, all have our own labels. Bucie is signed to Demor Music and that is where the connection is.
You and Bucie have collaborated a few times. Do you find that you are just a good team?
It’s funny because, after we worked together on ‘Turn Me On’, I thought, ‘Ok, I’m not going to use her on my second album’. I just felt that it was a feature, it had been done. People were already starting to think that Black Coffee, was actually the two of us and I really wanted to avoid such. When I had the idea to do ‘Superman’ that all changed. I had done the music and I thought, ‘I need a vocalist… hmm… Bucie!’, so I called up Demor and I was just like, ‘forget what I said before, we have to do it again’ (Laughs). Then when it came to the 3rd album, again, I said, ‘NO. No Bucie’ (Laughs), but I did a song for her album instead that time.
You have so many awards… At the last count, it was three SAMAs, you were also voted GQ South Africa ‘Man of the Year’, you were an MTV Europe Music Award nominee… With all these awards and accolades, which means the most to you?
(Laughs) Yeah, there is stuff everywhere. I am so grateful. I have one from my wife… it says ‘To the best Dad and Husband in the whole world’. That is the best one out of them all.
Didn’t you say in another interview that a DJ can never get married?
You know… I knew you were going to bring that up (laughs).
What exactly did you mean by that?
I was upset when that story came out…
Why? Were you misquoted?
I did that interview here in London actually and the guy was asking like, ‘with such a busy life, do you think you would ever get married?’ And my response to him was, ‘not at the moment’, because at the time it seemed quite impossible. I was always, always, on the road. I can be in London, then I can be in Paris for a night, then Hong Kong, Portugal, then back to France, back to Portugal, then back home. It can get really, really crazy. I think for him, he just saw a big story, ‘Black Coffee – A DJ can’t get married’ and he ran with it. My Mother in-law [now], was saying to my wife, ‘What the hell are you doing with this guy? Did you see what he said?’ I got into trouble because of that.
Well, I’m glad that we’ve helped you clear that up. Slowly, but surely, house is creeping up through the continent. Swaziland has developed its own little scene and there are also producers coming out of Nigeria now. Who should we be looking out for in terms of house music from Africa?
It’s growing every second and fortunately, our house music is very much embraced by the African media. There are a lot of guys coming up. I don’t even know where to begin… On my label, there is Zakes Banthwinini. He is like one of the biggest stars right now back home. He has his own album out and a few singles. I would say that right now, he’s the one to look out for internationally.
Is it weird that you can get on a plane, go to a place you have never been before and every body knows the words to your songs?
It is, yes. I can’t get used to that. In South Africa, house music is so big that a song is here and then it’s gone. There is no lingering around. Overseas, they treasure the music more. I love France, the people can’t even speak English, but they know all the words to my songs. The same happens in Hong Kong now, it’s amazing.
You have re-released your first album ‘Black Coffee’, here in the UK. Was that a political decision?
Political? I’m not sure (Laughs). What has been happening is… I’ve been releasing singles all over the world with different labels, but never albums. I feel that releasing singles is cool for DJs, but for me as an artist… until a DJ in London decides, ‘I think I like this Black Coffee song…’ you are never going to hear it. There are never house music albums and that is something we are really trying to change.