Started rapping when he was nine
Interview Matt Sullivan
Photography Gillian Steiner
I was more than a little excited to meet Nthato Mokgata, aka Cape Town, South Africa’s resident master rapper/DJ Spoek Mathambo, but I didn’t realize I was so excited that I would commit this detestable fashion faux pas: light brown belt and checkered black-and-white shoes? What the hell was I thinking?! Look, I’m not normally the type to worry too much about this sort of thing, but you have to understand I saw this man perform the night before at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival and he was looking fresh. Too fresh. Women swooning in front of the stage at a free outdoor festival on a Sunday – that kind of fresh. I was sitting near mostly middle-aged couples that wanted something fun to do for free, and every wife in the place ditched their man to get up closer and party down.
Spoek’s music is definitely smart. Since his Sweat.X and Playdoe days this guy has been crafting some of the funniest punchlines of any MC, and any fan of his solo debut Mshini Wam (BBE, 2010) will tell you “Don’t Mean To Be Rude” has, debatably, the greatest rim job reference of all time. But more importantly, the music has style in spades. His progressive music – self-proclaimed “Township Tech” – maintains an elegant balance of opposing forces: it’s distinct but accessible, a global melting pot and a sincere ode to African culture. It’s extremely cool, and I was about to walk up to Mr. Cool ignoring the most important piece of fashion advice my high school sweetheart ever imparted.
I realized this at the top level of the Empire Hotel, where he was staying. I decided to grab a drink, hoping that the confidence boost would be well worth the insane hotel mark-up. The fact is, Spoek just signed on to Sub Pop’s roster and is about to release what was destined to be his most exciting record to date. When he did arrive, we had some drinks for fun, not for confidence-boosting. He probably didn’t give a shit what I was wearing.
When I was watching you play yesterday I was wondering how you felt about playing large festivals. As a listener of your music, I always envisioned seeing you in a club, or a small, intimate space. Do you like being outside with a big crowd like that? Is there anything in particular about it that you find different or challenging?
Well, I’ve been playing clubs for quite awhile now. I’ve been doing music for really long, but I’ve been touring since 2007 so, you know, you get over it. Once you’ve played a lot of clubs, you want to play bigger and bigger spaces, and if you can get that much energy in a bigger crowd, that’s cool. It’s also just a challenge. I’m into Iron Maiden, and Bruce Dickinson was explaining how to communicate to bigger and bigger crowds. I don’t know, it’s interesting to me. It’s a real challenge.
You still tour with the band you assembled to create Mshini Wam. How’s that been working out for you? Do you like playing with more people?
Yeah, I do. I was really jealous watching Blitz The Ambassador yesterday with like, eight people, ’cause at this point I can’t really afford to travel the world with that many people.
That’s a lot of mouths to feed.
Yeah, it also means having bands in different places, possibly re-rehearsing or something. It gets complicated, but it’s cool. My South African band is really nice, the guitarist is Nicolas van Reenen. He’s a super-imaginative, super-energetic dude. And he’s got his own band called Bateleur. It’s like six of them, a totally instrumental band. It’s sick, you should definitely check that out. We produce a lot together as well.
You’re always working with a lot of different people. Is there anyone that you wish you could work with that you haven’t gotten a chance to?
Right now I’m just consolidating my team, you know? But, I actually just started working with my uncle. He’s 59 years old and he makes beats. He was working in a bank for thirty years and then he got re-trenched. Then he went to sound engineering college for around six months, and since then he just makes beats. I’d never met him before – he’s my dad’s cousin – and he calls me, and he’s like “Nthato, I hear you’re making music! I myself am an electronic music composer!” I was like, “What?” (Laughs.) And then I didn’t see him for months and in the back of my mind it was always there, like I have to link up with him. So, some dude was shooting a documentary about me and I was thinking it would be the perfect opportunity to link up – during the documentary – and start working with him. For the new album he’s on a lot of the drum programming.
Yeah! I would lay down basic drums and then leave them [with him] for hours and he just cooks up really intricate, weird drum work on it. It’s crazy.
Is that how you usually lay down a track, starting with the drums, or do you vary your approach depending on the track?
Probably bass line and the drums first.
Like, the low end?
Yeah…well, no not the low end, more for the rhythm. Just to get the basic rhythm down and then layer melodic stuff over it.
It seemed like with Mshini Wam that you had been exploring different directions in your side projects, at least in little ways, and that album seemed to consolidate a lot of your work up to that point. Do you feel like it was a sort of a clearing-house project, in a way?
Well…I guess the whole new direction for my project around the end of 2009 was going from working on a bunch of scattered things and being side-man on a lot of various things, to not having to compromise and being able to do my own thing. The weird thing is that it’s also the most collaborative project I’ve ever done. There were about 30 people involved, throughout South Africa and the world, who had worked on it at different stages. But I was the creative head in terms of composition, writing, programming, mixing the album, and developing a narrative and so on. At that point, I guess it did consolidate a lot of ideas I had, because I didn’t have to compromise, and I was allowed be the boss without having play tug of war with someone. In the past projects I’ve done – like Playdoe or Sweat.X – they were really based on the relationships between myself and my collaborator. Sweat.X was Marcus and I and jokes that we had, so we’d write all these things based on the time that we spent together. And Playdoe was the same thing: just basing it on that relationship. We couldn’t really go, or rather, I didn’t feel comfortable going beyond that relationship in terms of stuff that I’d write. Know what I mean?
Like, it would be too indulgent? Not representative of both of you guys?
Yeah, because we had a pretty specific idea of what we wanted to do, which is very different from what I think about as an individual. It’s like we’re a couple and that’s how we make music. It’s a musical marriage, and my work alone is different.
You have to make compromises if you’re working with somebody, not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just part of the process.
Yeah, definitely. But at this point, it’s been cool because there are NO compromises. I can pretty much say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ and never feel miffed out. I never feel miffed out listening to a song and being like ‘Oh, this should have been like this,’ or ‘This should’ve been like that.’ At this point, I just try and keep myself happy and realize my ideas fully and not just be left to sit back.
It’s like being able to follow your own compass.
The flip-side is that I didn’t produce any of the stuff before, like Playdoe, Sweat.X, old group stuff, and now I’m getting into production seriously. My next project coming out on Sub Pop is kind of my big production debut, it’s going to be exciting. Before it was more like I was directing people, but on this I get to take a more hands-on approach.
Are you excited about being able to take control?
What are your plans for the new album? Is there anything you want to accomplish with it or are you mostly focused on it being your first big production role?
I want to have the most amazing album for where I am right now. Like I said, I’m like a baby with the production type of stuff so I’ll just be happy to have it done and finished, but I think it’s going to be big, it’s going to have a lot of surprises, it’s totally different from the last one. It’s just exciting!
Were you surprised about Sub Pop coming to you with an offer? I feel like, it’s a label that’s only recently been diving into these types of music.
Super-surprised…I thought it was a hoax or something. (Laughs.) ‘Cause I got a mail on my Myspace. I never check my Myspace inbox, and it was really random that I even did check it.
Yeah, I feel like Myspace mail is really seedy anyway. It’s usually reserved for porn advertisements.
Yeah, yeah…or like, guys saying “$25 a beat” in some mass mail.
But they told me and it was real. They ended up flying me out to Seattle and were like, “Yeah, we’ve been listening to your album ail month in the office.” It still makes no sense to me. As a fan of the label, I almost feel out of place, considering their history.
Maybe you’re blazing a new trail for them.
Yeah, and that’s cool. And they also have Shabazz Palaces on there and I feel like we have a lot of commonality.
I definitely can see the crossover appeal there.
Yeah, totally…but this next album’s going to be very different.
Is “Put Some Red On It” going to be on the new album?
We’re re-working it for the album, yeah.
Very cool. I was recently re-reading this article on Pitchfork. They do this monthly column on Grime and Dubstep—
Oh, where they interviewed a friend of mine, Gervis? That one?
Yeah, that’s the one. They mentioned how a lot of grime acts that have succeeded internationally have had to sacrifice local flavor to break out of London. Do you ever feel pressure to do that with your own music? Like, getting rid of things that may appeal to South Africa but not necessarily the world?
At this point, it’s like…(pause)…I don’t really think that, man. I’m just kind of learning and I’m doing whatever I want to do, you know? And my career in South Africa is very obscure. So I don’t have any market consideration or audience consideration.
Do you feel like you’re more popular in other spots?
I don’t know, I just think about my career as being obscure anyways. So, I don’t have any kind of pressure to think about what will appeal to who. If you know what I mean. I don’t really have to think about that at all.
I like that attitude. I feel like a lot of artists get caught up in trying to make music appeal to certain people as opposed to letting it happen naturally and letting it find its own audience.
I don’t know if I’m a slacker or what. It’s not like ‘Oh, this is my big career move and this is serious and important, let’s go!’ I’m not really in the industry and I’ll never really be in the industry. I’m just starting out so all of that stuff isn’t really stuff I consider, you know? Like, when I think of people that are going to listen to my music I mainly just think of my wife, that she’s going to hear it. When I’m recording it, my uncle and my friends will all get together and they’ll hear it.
That’s who really counts anyway.
I don’t know about that. My wife is mad that there’s guitars on the album. She’s like, ‘I don’t like guitar music!’ And I’m like, ‘What?’
(Laughs.) She doesn’t like guitar music?
Yeah, and I’m always trying to catch her off guard when we listen to music, like, ‘There’s guitars on THIS!’ (laughs)
Being a visual artist as well, do you feel like your approach to graphic design and illustration bleeds over to your creative process for your music, or do you think of them as two separate parts of you?
(Pauses.) I’ve been such a slacking illustrator for the last while, though I’ve been getting back into it recently. But from when I started rapping— well, not really from when I first started rapping because I started when I was like nine or ten. But when I was like 16 or 17 years old, my big idea was to merge music and visual stuff in a coherent way. This was around 2001 or 2002, and I wanted them to be as close as possible. Everything I was writing back then was designed to have visual representations of all the musical components, and everything would have a music video. I was influenced hugely by concept albums I had been hearing. What’s that Genesis one, with ‘Carpet Crawlers’?
Is that on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway?
Yeah! It was on that. ‘Carpet Crawl’ is a song on that album. So, I heard that and like, Deltron 3030, amongst others. I was just listening to concept albums and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I wanted to create these huge, hyper-visual landscapes, and it’s totally doable because everyone I was hanging out with then, even before I had any design aspirations, was a visual artist. It seemed to make a lot of sense.
I feel like, in independent music audiences, there’s a larger interest in sounds as opposed to harmony or narrative recently. There’s a lot you can do to mix songs to make it feel like you’re occupying a space.
Yeah, and I think that’s what music’s always been.
Are there any instruments that you want to pick up that you haven’t tried playing?
Well, when I was younger I started playing trumpet but I really didn’t enjoy that. (Laughs.) I always thought I sounded really frumpy and my mouth would hurt it was just like ‘Vhrm-vhrm-vhrm-vhrm.’
Yeah, I hated that too.
But, I want to do something with my hands. I really like learning new stuff. It’s also just a bummer when everyone’s just like [mimics virtuous shredding] and you’re just standing there with a shaker (laughs). So, I definitely want to get some lessons in something. I guess it would make the most sense to take lessons for keys, just ’cause that’s so useful for writing stuff. Piano lessons or music theory lessons in general. That was a summer plan I had.
Did you have anything you wanted to say to the world?
I’m just really excited for everyone to hear the new album. I’ve been working on this for the last two months, and I’m just really hyped for my first Sub Pop release. To have a label fully behind it is exciting. For me, it’s the first time that people have really had my back like that.
Does it feel more affirming to have that support?
Yeah. It’s also nice because people respect them so much and people will take their word, and have taken their word, on a lot of things.
Yeah, they’re legendary.
It’s cool…I’m excited about that relationship. I’m also excited about this next project and it’s going to be dope. There’s no pressure or concern because I just know that the music is better than on the last album, you know? It’s kind of obvious that it’s a better step for me, and it’s going to be bigger than my previous work. I’m really hyped for everyone to hear it.