I cannot recall exactly when it was that I became exposed to the music of Sakumzi Qumana, the Mdantsane, Eastern Cape-born vocalist/producer better known by his on-stage persona, Johnny Cradle. It could have been at a park jam in Gugs following the 2008 xenophobic attacks, or alongside Pravda 23, Eavesdrop, and Fungus the Mutated Lung in Observatory, Cape Town, at a weekly gathering known as TPDK Circuitry.
What I do remember is the seemingly-frantic organisation of his one-man band setup: the guitar connected to a sound-module which then acted as an interface to the electronic sounds emanating from his computer. Every now and then, DJ Laz would lace the type of cuts which fit in perfectly with his lo-fi beats. “The dude is running away from me, is what he’s doing” informs Johnny Cradle about the misfortune of him and Laz living in different cities.
His is a sound in constant evolution, an obstinate defiance of trends which stands head-first alongside the left-field sonic leanings of inner-city youths. At the moment, Johnny Cradle fully embraces the mean synth flourishes typical of the South African music landscape during the mid-to-late eighties: pop without pop sensibilities; a Brenda Fassie-and-Chico clash via Sipho Hostix Mabuse’s post-Harari flurry of hits. I was interested to find out how he does it, what informs his writing, and why he regularly proclaims ‘all synth everything’ – an ode to his love affair with hardware equipment, especially synths – on his twitter feed.
What grounding has your immediate environment in the Eastern Cape provided towards your present-day musical capabilities?
I don’t think my background had any influence in my current ability to make music. I only started making music as I was about to leave Mdantsane. But I’m from there so I guess it has everything to do with how I think about what I sing about more than how I make music.
The transition from beginner to ‘master’ is oftentimes riddled with periods of immense uncertainty and painful self-reflection. One is not sure where they fit in. How far are you in this journey of self-discovery; are you ‘there‘ yet? In which phase are you (i.e. imitation, emulation, or innovation)?
I’d say I’m in the expression phase. I just do anything I feel like doing now and I know exactly what direction I don’t want to take far more than I know which one to take.
Oftentimes artists (especially in the unfortunately-termed ‘urban’ musical landscape) struggle with the producer-rapper/singer paradox. Where do you fit in in this spectrum? Are you a producer first or vocalist first?
Both. The music that works out as complete songs for me is the one I make with the music and the words recorded simultaneously as I make it.
From what vantage point do your songs emanate? What influences your lyrics? Being that your words glide easily between English and isiXhosa, is language a contributing factor to how you express yourself lyrically?
Not much thought goes into it actually, that’s the way we speak nowadays anyway, isn’t it, mixing your mother tongue and English. As for influence I’d say it’s my personal view of South Africa from a township born [human being]. There’s really no science to it. It’s just songs about how I think certain things are good and how others are bullshit, told the way I would say them if I was sitting in front of you talking about whatever subject matter we’d be talking about at the time.
Besides the environment you grew up in, what other musical influences did you/do you tap into during your creative process? What genres and/or musicians do you look up to for inspiration?
When I’m making music it’s usually the times I’m not listening to anything in particular, and I don’t play much music when I’m at home anyway. So I don’t look out for any aid in terms of the creative process or inspiration or whatever.
Oftentimes, we as people discover our ‘muse’, and fail to progress from then on (e.g. there are still people now stuck in pre-2000 Common, Talib, etc). Are you aware of the stifling effects of this tendency? How do you keep abreast of the dope stuff that is constantly coming out? How do you stay relevant?
I don’t really care about being relevant at all ‘cause I’m not even sure what that means. I think Brenda Fassie’s ‘amaGents’ is as relevant as the new ‘Crystalline’ by Bjork so I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I played that game.
In line with the question above, do you feel that the music you make is relevant?
To me it is.
A recent article in the Guardian newspaper explored the notion of ‘selling out’ as it applies in the 21st century, and concluded that due to declining record sales, etc., selling out is no longer the same as it was in, say, pre-2000s. Does the idea of selling out ever cross your mind? Have you declined offers that would’ve lead to you compromising your artistic integrity for the big buck – something like the Parlotones endorsing KFC for instance?
I don’t think I’m even capable of making music I don’t like so I don’t see myself compromising artistry for whatever reason. As for endorsing brands, why not? That has nothing to do with what music you make. If you work at KFC and wear their uniform are you not endorsing their brand? If someone approached me to smile with a drumstick in my hand I’d jump for it for two reasons: a free chicken piece and stash in the bank to buy gear so I can continue making the music I want to make. iSumpul lento.
Image has for a long time played an important role in how one gets perceived. I hear KISS and think men with make-up, BEATLES and think men in suits, and so forth. What image do you want people to have when your name gets mentioned?
All Synth Everything!
By and large, you are very much a one-man band man. Are there any parallels one can draw between you and, say, Mr. Sakitumi or Madlib (well, besides the fact that they are also one-man band men in what they do). What limitations, if any, are there to this approach to making music, and can we see Johnny Cradle becoming a fully-fledged set-up in the near future, or are you going to be working with session musicians during live shows (like you did at PASS last year)?
I’m currently working on putting together some sort of a 5 piece thing for the next time I perform and onwards. That one man band thing doesn’t really work for me because it doesn’t give that live feel I want out of my performance. As for the first question, I don’t know who Mr. Sakitumi is and I haven’t checked for Madlib in years so I don’t know if there’s anything to talk about as far as that [is concerned]. I used to be a real big fan of his though, especially that Quasimoto shit and obviously when he’s on Madvillain.
Please guide us through your production process? In pictures that you’ve put up on the web, a lot of hardware is involved. What is your set-up like while making music and recording (mics, synths…basically a mini-tour of your set-up).
I record everything through a Line 6 soundcard going to a MacBook Pro running Logic and Ableton Live. Most of the synth parts and basses I play live on the Moog Little Phatty (Thug Life, baby!), keys with the Fender Rhodes 73, other synth parts from this Roland sampler that runs a D-50 card for those cheesy 80s style sounds. I play the drums on a midi controller routed to Live and Logic. I don’t use too many effects, though I want to get my hands on a hardware EQ, reverb, delay, and chorus pedals. Other spices I play from Logic’s onboard instruments though I’d rather someone got me a Dave Smith Prophet 08 (a hint to the moneyed people reading this). I also have this electric guitar that I use as furniture, you know, it adds to the ambience of the room.
‘All synth everything‘ is what you’ve been advocating. Why? What’s the importance of hardware in an age where arguably what those heavy machines can do, can be replicated by VSTIs?
Unlike what you seem to think, those VSTIs can’t really replicate what those heavy machines do. Even Arturia’s collection of the most sophisticated emulations can’t do it. Play any of those digital emulators next to the real thing and see if you still feel the same. Ever wondered why Dr. Dre’s ‘Tha Chronic’ sounds so heavy, or why ‘Thriller’ is the killer it is? Better yet, an example even closer to home, play any locally produced house record next to one produced in Europe or by any producer with analogue gear. It’s a no brainer.
What amount of preparation goes into your studio session? Besides an idea, is there anything that you take (a skeleton of a beat, anything)? In one interview Zim Ngqawana said something like ‘let’s sit and see what comes out’, implying that sometimes the creation of a product (sound) manifests itself during the periods when musicians are in a reflective mode. Do you ever just sit and stare at your equipment…then suddenly come up with something?
I complete all songs at home first. It’s much more liberating that way. I’ve only recorded vocals in an outside studio ‘cause I’ve got the stuff to put together; everything else [is] at my place. And besides, I don’t have the budget to sit around the studio making songs anyway.
What is your opinion on the ‘genrefication‘ of sound (hip-hop, kwaito, bubblegum, jazz)? How, if ever, do you strive to break free from classification?
I don’t pay attention to genres at all. People often forget that those are names put on things after they were created. No one said ‘I want to make a type of music, I’ll call it kwaito’. People heard that stutter, stop-start bass-ey shit and only after did they think, ‘oh, let’s call this Glitch’ or whatever they call it.
You had regular sessions in Obz back then called TPDK Circuitry. What were they about? Where did they end up, and what happened to your deejay?
Ah the TPDK CircusÉ! It was just a few friends wanting to only play music we liked live in front of an audience, is what it was. We all moved around cities and stuff so that was the end of it. Dj Laz had moved to Jo’burg and now I’m in Jo’burg and he’s back in Cape Town. The dude is running away from me, is what he’s doing.
Radio, television, magazine coverage: do you care?
Hell yeah I care, especially since I’m getting none of them! I want to do shows and those things are what help get people to shows.
Festivals appearances and live shows versus the studio: which do you prefer?
All of the above.
Apart from music, what else do you do? What pays the bills, and do you strive for music to be that which you make a living from?
I’m an Illustrator. Without that I probably would’ve quit making music years ago.
The Jozi vs. iKapa debate: now that you are up there, what parallels can you draw between the two metropoles?
I think they are totally different. Cape Town is full of venues but also full of shit. Jozi has no venues but you can do whatever you like with the right hook up. Personally I think Cape Town doesn’t have the time for Black artists – and by artists I mean all artists not just musicians. Whereas in Jozi it’s all up to you to make it happen. You just got to know what you want to make happen and get it cracking. Cape Town is still the better place to hang out at though, but you already know that.
Besides your solo stuff, you do work on other projects (Lebadi comes to mind). Is this a direction you’ll be exploring more (i.e. producing for other people)?
I’m not sure if I’ll ever seriously produce for other people. I have a pretty one dimensional view with the music I make and Lebadi is a close friend for many years so we’re pretty much the same thing as much as we’re not so it works. I’ve made music for a few other people like the homey Abantu and Nosisi and I’m not really against the idea, in fact I’d be interested in doing stuff with various people if it came down to it and it made sense to all parties involved.
Besides being a pleasant person to just run into, Johnny Cradle is an immensely gifted musician. Make it a point to have a listen to the songs on his bandcamp page and decide for yourself.
Facebook: Johnny Cradle