Spoek Mathambo released his album Father Creeper through the Sub Pop label in 2012. It was a big deal. He was fresh off of creating a movement whose tremours took root in Jozi’s CBD and completely changed how kids coming up then approached their art. He hadn’t released Mzansi Beat Code, his latest project. He hadn’t created Batuk, Fantasma wasn’t a thing, and his Future Sound of Mzansi documentary had yet to hit the streets.
This was a Spoek who’d been on The Fader magazine’s cover when peak World Cup mania ran the streets, on- and off-line. In retrospect, the Spoek I spoke to then existed in happier times; times when rappers had yet to be called out on their suspect ways, and when women could still dance to Dirty Parafin; when Okmalumkoolkat changed the game, a while before he let the kids down.
First published on Mahala, this interview puts into context what I thought then; in hindsight, and with concrete evidence to back it up, it’s safe to say it: Spoek Mathambo is one of the great bandleaders of our time.
The images included in this article are never-before-seen behind-the-scenes documents of the group Big FKN Gun’s video for “Space” filmed in Jozi. The video remains unreleased.
“Spoek…yo, Spoek”. Thirteen seconds elapse…”Um, yeah, I was just having a think”.
I had already envisioned that scene from the Lil’ Wayne documentary where he shifts his head up and hollers to someone “yo, tell Ms. Kia I don’t like this interview, this one here over with,” and casts a baleful glance towards the reporter before adding that “yeah, you cut that off man, I don’t like you.” Soul-crushing, life-changing stuff!
Spoek Mathambo is a challenging subject to interview. One imagines that it would not be out of character for him to make his feelings known when below-par questions are directed his way – a strange dichotomy considering that, as founder of the now-defunct underground hip-hop zine Levitation, talking to other artists was his occupation.
Intermingled with this off-beat persona are ecstatic moments of elation (“I produced five songs on their new EP, and it’s gonna be awesome”, he says, referring to Kenyan group Sauti Soul), poignant social commentary (“I don’t think back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s you could be on the periphery as an artist”), and blatantly honest exposition (“there’s a huge side of the sound that I hate, I don’t like some stuff”). In retrospect, Spoek Mathambo is a human being; it is unrealistic of anyone to expect to make any credible connection with his persona in just under 30 minutes of conversation. One supposes that it would require more time – much like it does between any two people – to establish common ground and get along without glitches. On the contrary, it could be that his responses are painstakingly well thought-out, which often leads to moments of uncomfortable silence; or that his train of thought is in the tradition of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Prince; great artists, but not always the best interview subjects.
Central to our conversation with Spoek is his forthcoming release, Father Creeper, on Sub Pop records. We prod on the change in direction from his debut Mshini Wam, the collaborative spirit that underlies his projects, and discuss at length his role as a producer.
Father Creeper marks a departure from the sound you had on Mshini Wam. Did you know exactly the feel you wanted for it, or did it just evolve from experimenting?
When I recorded it, I’d been touring with my band for about six/seven months, so a lot of songs that we wrote are very organically included on the album. The band is me, Nic (van Reenen) on guitar, he’s from Cape Town, Richard the III’s from Johannesburg, and Jake (Lipman, drums) is from Joburg as well. And we kinda wrote and produced the songs together, so there are about four songs like that. Then on the flip, there’s “Venison fingers” [which] Nic produced by himself, and I just really liked the beat. The rest of them, it’s my first production outing. A chunk of it was mixed by me and a friend of mine Marvey in Malmo. The album is just really about growth in terms of production, songwriting, and mixing. For me it’s more representative of what I do and where I’m at.
“Let them talk” first appeared on Mshini Wam, and is given a re-working on this album. Why that decision?
I wrote it for Zaki to sing on the last album. And then touring, we just did a new version. The version is very different from the last album, so I decided to put it on this album. I’d always looked to people like John Coltrane. Every album, he’d do a standard of his, only to mark his progress; if you listen to “My favourite things” in ’59 and if you listen to it in ’63, they’ll be very different works.
Are you a fan of jazz?
Mmmm… jazz is such a dirty word. But yeah man, I like all kinds of music; I love absolutely all kinds of music. I like the good parts of everything.
Interesting observation regarding the word ‘jazz’. We were listening to Gil-Scott Heron talking about jazz and breaking down the origins of the word. If we bring that to the now, ‘genres’ and the classification of music into genres is an issue with some people. On the back of Mshini Wam, the label ‘township tech’ was mentioned a lot when people wrote about your music. Is it a label that you are comfortable with?
I guess people always need a label to attach to music, which is kind of beyond me. I would think that in 2012 there wouldn’t be a need for that. But I guess commercially there’s obviously a need for it, in the same way that in a grocery store you’ve gotta have the cereal section and you’ve gotta have the dog food section so that people aren’t eating dog food. It’s the same with music. The township tech thing, yeah, it’s gotten a bit clumsy. I had started putting that label out when I was doing mixes (the HIVIP Hot Garbage mix) and describing music of other people that I’d heard… when I was playing a lot of South African house, that’s the label that I put on it. I didn’t want to call it ‘kwaito-house’, and I thought ‘house’ wouldn’t really do it. So to describe the particular angle on the different sides of the music that I liked, I coined it as township tech. When I did my first album, I had some music that was influenced by that sound, so it kinda stuck. And now, even if I make a rock song, people will want to say it.
In your TedX Soweto talk, you mention how ‘bubblegum’ was a despised genre when you were growing up. The same thing kind of happened when Mujava was coming up with his sghubu sa ko-Pitori; seasoned house music connoisseurs were dissing his sound, that is until he got snapped up by Warp Records. After that, he was all the rage…
I don’t think he ever became the rage as far as South African house music is concerned.
Exactly! The cats that were into South African house never really looked up to him, but he was still selling a lot of tapes through taxis and at taxi ranks.
I mean, in his scene he was a don. But the people who run and own house… it’s a lot of Johannesburg and Durban cats. They like to talk about ‘deep house’, and if you’re into ‘deep house’ then you’re a serious house listener. For me, I love house music from all the nine provinces. And I love different parts of it. There’s a huge side of the sound that I hate, I don’t like some stuff. But I take parts from all over that I like.
Would you say you are more deliberate now with the music you are doing, or are you still experimenting? What stage of your career are you at right now?
I just started producing like this last year, so I’m very much finding my voice and my feet.
What aspects of production do you enjoy?
Collaboration. Directing different vocalists. Sitting with an absolutely blank canvas and, after two hours it’ll be the beginning of a musical composition. I enjoy that. Even when it starts sounding like it’s going left, we get back in. And I’m working very closely with a good friend of mine, Theo. I grew up with him, went to primary school and high school with him. He’s always been a keyboard player, and we were in the choir together. We’ve always had a musical relationship, and now we make tracks together. And then he brought on a homie of his, Ayanda, who is the engineer of the crew.
So what role does the Mshini Wam band play?
We’ve toured a lot. We went to Brazil, we’ve been to Argentina, we’ve played in America, and we’ve played all over Europe. Right now I’m gonna go on tour with Nic, the guitarist. We haven’t been together for a long time; I don’t live in Cape Town, everyone else lives in Cape Town. But when we link up, we make music. But we’re friends, and on this album, it’s hugely their contribution. Back to Theo. On Father Creeper, he came on as my musical director from the very beginning, track after track. And we made some of the beats together. Even beats that he didn’t make, he helped me navigate some music theory stuff that I wasn’t fully comfortable with… what key to sing stuff in, where things need to be transposed, arrangement ideas… stuff like that.
The idea of living with a song, from creation, to listening, to mixing, to listening again, releasing and touring it, listening again and hearing holes in it… how does that contribute to your growth as a person?
I’ve got some songs which are from 2006/2007 that are on this album, things that I wrote a long time ago and never had an outlet for. So now as a producer, I’ve been able to create outlets for all my old ideas that I couldn’t really get to do with anyone else. For me it’s beautiful man, it’s like a big release and a big relief to be getting this stuff out, and to not have to rely on other people as well. But the process is heavy because you go through points when you absolutely hate, hate stuff. And then you get over that, when being overly self-critical is gone. And then it’s just extreme excitement and pride. I’m really proud of myself, I’m proud of my team and what we’ve done with this. I think it’s genuinely a new direction, it’s a big direction. I think it’s unique as far as South African music goes, and as far as music all over the world goes.
You started out pretty early on, but when we got introduced to you, it was through Waddy and Sibot’sFantastic kill project. And then you went to do collaborative projects such as Sweat.X and Playdoe after that. Were you ever afraid of burning out during that phase…
Burning out?! What are you talking about, I was really young and energetic. There was no risk or fear of burning out. There was absolutely none.
And what did you gain from those experiences?
Hanging out and working with… Waddy’s ten years older than me. He had a lot of experience and knowledge to impart. Simon was also like a big brother to me, and he taught me a lot. There was a point when I was working with Simon where I had radical rap ideas, and by radical I don’t mean, cool. I mean weird and strange and progressive rap ideas. But my skills didn’t match up to my ideas. And his beatmaking had already gotten really advanced. His rhythmic stuff was super-intricate. It was like a training ground; if I was a boxer, it was like getting punched out by my sparring partner day after day until I learnt to duck properly. The same with Markus; he’s a great producer and great musical director as well. Mostly, those collaborations were a rad kind of internship. The first time I did an international tour was with Waddy in 2006, going to Belgium. That experience is cool not just for doing it, and for the show, but just for what it means. It showed me that the world is open to what I can do, in a real way. You get money for doing it, and there’s an audience out there. From there, it was just really on for me.
You worked with Ghanaian visual artist Daniel Jasper on the Put some red on it EP, worked with (DRC-born, Belgian-based rapper) Baloji on a remix to one of his songs, and (Ghanaian-born, USA-based rapper) Blitz the Ambassador expressed interest recently to work with you…
And the cool thing is in September we went to Kenya for about ten days to work with a group there called Sauti Soul. They’re three singers, and they also all play instruments; just three super-talented dudes! And through chance and fate, we got a link-up to go work with them. So I produced about five songs for them, the EP’s gonna come out soon. And hopefully we’re gonna perform with each other at SXSW in two weeks.
How important is that building of bridges throughout the continent to you?
I’ve always worked with people all over the world (Europe, America), so it would suck, it would very much suck if that didn’t include Africa. So I try to work with a shitload of South African artists, some people that I find really exciting, the likes of BFG (Big Fkn Gun), Dirty Paraffin, The Frown, and The Brother Moves On. And I plug a bunch of artists from all over Africa that I find really inspiring and exciting as well. I made a mix called “OAU”, and it’s all about what I see as the next wave of sound throughout the diaspora.
What do you think of the new wave of South African acts that are coming out?
I think South African music is always awesome! I think we’ve got a good, I’d say, seventy years of music. So I’m glad to look around and see my contemporaries be as awesome as our lineage. We’ve got a lot to live up to. It’s exciting for me, and I want us all to come up. Like, when I’m coming up all over the world, I definitely want us all to come up. When I say ‘all’, I don’t mean ‘everyone’, but people that are dope, working hard, and are innovative.
Was that part of the idea behind the Nombolo One mixtape?
It was about tribute to the lineage, and expressing a new generation of sound; engaging with it from different angles. It’s not like South African music has always been protest music. There were always pop songs about girls and sex and clothes, so that aspect is handled. But then like, The Brother Moves On brings a bigger, more spiritual side to things, which I dig. As does The Frown.
How did the link-up with Sub Pop happen?
They wrote me a mail man, they sent me a message on Myspace. And this was a couple of months after I had the band Mshini Wam going, so we had a chunk of the songs written. And the direction was moving in more of a guitar-ey way with Nic getting more involved. For me, that’s where my ear was for a long time now, personally. So that was awesome that one of the greatest guitar music labels in the history of music hollered at the time. They said “we dig Mshini Wam a lot, it’s out favourite album, and we’ve been playing it for the last couple of months in the office”. I didn’t believe that, because it didn’t make sense to me; the sound of Mshini Wam relative to the label, and the person wasn’t writing from the label side, it was from a personal side. And at the same time I had had so many people name-dropping and kinda talking shit, making their story sound bigger than it really is. So the person wrote back from the official Sub Pop page and then was like “yeah, we’d like to link up, what’s your label situation?” They flew me out to Seattle for a talk, and yeah, they gave me a good offer.
So what is your tour situation looking like in support of this album?
I’m gonna play France next week, and then I’m gonna tour America a little bit, and then South Africa in April, Europe in May, and then back to America for a proper tour in July.
Do you enjoy the performance aspect of music?
When the conditions are good, you know?! But there’s the other side which isn’t so glamorous, there’s a side of it that really sucks. I much prefer studio because studio never sucks. My team is awesome and we making good shit constantly, so that’s always a good feeling. And sometimes when I’m on the road and it sucks I have the feeling that ‘ah man, the work that we could be going ko-kgae would be awesome’.
What’s the part that you dislike about touring?
Shitty venues, bad engineers, flights getting cancelled. There are so many variables, that’s what sucks about it. But on the flipside you can get awesome hotels, the best sound in the world, the best sound engineers, awesome crowds, and play with really amazing musicians.
Lefifi Tladi spoke of ‘being at the periphery’ and not actively partaking in any political movement during the struggle in one interview; just contributing what he can without necessarily being tied to a political organisation. Is that what you are? Are you defined by a certain border (eg. musical affiliation)?
Is he from a while back?
I think being an older cat means something different. I don’t think back in the 60s, 70s, and eighties you could be on the periphery as an artist. Because politics dictated so much more of your life than it does now, I think at some point you had to be expressly politically involved. Even people who weren’t making political music were politically involved. At this point, South Africa isn’t nearly where it should be, and it’s not hunky-dory and sorted out. But, from my side… I wanna make music man, I wanna write stories. Some of them will be politically motivated, but some of them will talk about the politics of everyday life; the politics of sexual relations, the politics between families. I don’t think everything needs to be politics in terms of ‘parliament’ and that. That being said, I think my contribution to the world has to be more than to put out music. I’ve always thought that since I was a little kid.
What are you hoping for people to take away from listening to Father Creeper?
The album is really is really hugely more personal than any art that I’ve done before. Personal because of some of the stories that I touch on, the way it was made – from the sounds, to the lyrics, to the context. One thing that you will take away absolutely is a better look at who I am personally, and what my interests and references are. For young South Africans, I hope people can dig it as that 2012 that they can relate to on a level of it being that bugged-out 2012 album which feels perfectly South African, like nothing else has ever been before. So it’s a revelatory album in that way. Sonically, I hope people take the cue that you don’t need to be confined into doing any particular thing, and that the ideas of genre are really old, stale, and archaic.
Does it ever cross your mind that a song such as “Stuck together” will probably be the soundtrack to babies that will be born nine months from now? Do you ever think of your art as being that influential?
Absolutely, I mean, that’s what I strive for! I think from being a hip hop head and coming from that background to now… people that I look up to in music, whether it’s The Stooges and Iggy Pop, or Prince, or Stevie Wonder, it’s just big, definitive, boundary-making music that’s not really bubblegum-ey. I wanna make music that’ll stand the test, and have a function in life beyond just club music.
Your live shows have always had a strong visual element to them. Will that side also be expanded and incorporated into this album?
I always think it’s important on one side; on the other side, with the little that we have, we try to do as much as possible and push it. There’s other times that actually doing the music and rehearsing it, making sure that it’s tight, takes up so much of the time and thought process of… that’s where the team’s head is. Other musicians have got someone dedicated to that visual side. It’s been DIY before, but I’d dig to build on the collaborative spirit of my work, and collaborate with more visual artists to bring that side of it out. If people are reading this and wanna get involved with the live show or video stuff, get at us, definitely! I love making new video collaborations. We just shot a new video in Durban for “Let them talk”; it’s gonna be the first single, and that’s bugged out. I wrote it and partly directed it; that was exciting for me to do. And another thing is that Sony is putting out Father Creeper in South Africa.
Do you feel like it’s been a good progression from the independent DIY ethic, to Sony Music now getting involved with your music?
I can’t say it’s ever been… my music has never, ever been in stores. My music has never been available, except for on the Internet. So many people have Internet problems, so it’s absolutely dodgy to say that it’s absolutely available if it’s on the Internet. But I’m super-excited about that! I hate the fact that I’ve got cousins and aunts and everybody who’s excited about my progress around the world, but they can’t hear my music in South Africa. I’m gonna fuckin’ make sure that this Sony deal rectifies that. I’m all about this being a game changer for real, to inspire the next league of kids, to push my whole…I’ve got a line of homies that this is gonna be a huge put-on for.
What inspired the features on the album?
Smi (Smiso Zwane, Okmalumkoolkat from Dirty Paraffin) and I have been homies for a long time. I think we were friends from before he started rapping. It’s been awesome to see him become such a beast! The last Dirty Parrafin thing had potential, but this next EP that they’re gonna release is gonna smash people’s heads off. He’s been super-secretive about it, but the one day I was in somebody’s car and got to listen to the EP, and it’s really awesome. For me it’s exciting to work with him; he’s someone whose feet are firmly in South Africa, but his mind is in the outer realms of the future – in a very good way. I wanted to work with Eve from The Frown, but that didn’t happen because we didn’t like up, she’s got an awesome voice. Yolanda’s my homegirl, she was on the first album and she wrote a chunk of the stuff, “Gwababa” to “Mshini Wam”. I’ve plotting to work with Rebone for a long time. She’s sixteen now but when I first met her, Markus and I were doing a Sweat.X project with a school for blind kids in Orange Farm. From that, Rebone just kept calling asking ‘wasup with the music’, and I was like ‘ah man, I’m getting phone calls from kids now’. But she was so persistent. She’s super-energized, super-motivated, and if I can help keep her positively motivated, that’ll be rad! She wants to make gospel, so we’ve been talking about producing a lot of stuff for her as well. There’s this pretty famous drummer from America called Zach Hill, he played on “Dog to bone”, Nicolaas played all the guitar stuff, and we made “Dog to bone” and “Put some red on it” with my homie Chllngr whilst touring. My wife wrote “Put some red on it”, and that’s another aspect of it as well. There’s also a cover of a song by this group Batsumi on the iTunes version of the album.
For which song is that?
“Mamshanyana”. When I heard that, that was a brain-bender; I’ve never ever heard any music from South Africa like that! So we did a version, and then my friend Cerebral Vortex raps on that.
More power to you and your people on this project, keep on!
Thanks a lot my man, aweh!