The South African Prince of Post-Rap is Taking Post-Apartheid Culture Global
It’s not every day a booty-rapper gives a TED Talk, and not every Sub Pop signee who boasts a British day school pedigree and medical training. But South Africa native, Swedish resident, and global underground bass star Nthato Mokgata, who currently records under the moniker Spoek Mathambo, defies pigeonholing.
One of today’s most promising young artists on the edge of mainstream success, Spoek is his own man, and not afraid of disagreement. Whether he’s relating his own experiences of township life as a child under apartheid, or bigging up the team from Cape Town to Paris who helped him put together his ambitious second album Father Creeper, Spoek comes through as thoughtful, prickly, and ambitious.
These are traits that come in handy as the 28-year old builds an international career appealing to Hip-Hop, Indie Rock, and Dance touring circuits equally, while also staying true to his roots as a Black South African. Dare we mention that Spoek has created a music project that is also a moving target in today’s post-Millenial, post-apartheid society.
A few days after performing at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Spoek and his band arrived in New York City for their album release party at SOB’s — a venue that plays host to the premier Rap outfits in the country who aren’t Lil Wayne or Kanye. The day before, Spoek and his team joined us in the heart of NYU land, at a former curry restaurant on Bleecker St, to prep for our inaugural pop-up show. For the interview, Spoek stood in the yard as our three cameras stared him down. The perspective was not unlike the view of a security camera — ironic given that Father Creepers’ title track is partly a meditation on being a Black South African seen via closed circuit security eyes. But he was mostly unfazed by it, and even joked about the session a few weeks later when I phoned him in Johannesburg on the eve of his first South African tour, saying, “I do awkward interviews every day. I’m trying to set a Guinness Book of World Records on it.”
Although he was at ease giving lengthy responses, he spoke like a lawyer, perhaps anticipating misinterpretations that have come up in the past as one of South Africa’s more visible musical ambassadors. When asked about Kwaito music, a popular genre that arose during the late eighties/early nineties that combined Hip-Hop and House beats, the man who had once been inaccurately called the “king of kwaito” by UK paper, The Guardian, was careful to say that he respected it, but that it was only one of his many influences.
“My music is influenced by Kwaito as much as it’s influenced by like Country and it’s influenced by Psychobilly and Metal and Rap,” he said.
But for Spoek, who put out a Hip-Hop magazine when he was just a high school student, American Rap was his first love. He began rapping around the house along with his cousin at age nine. He gained fame at school for trying to pass off Wu-Tang Clan rhymes as his own. “Kids were like, whoa, you got good over the summer,” he related, only to have it all come crashing down when the Wu’s “Triumph” went into rotation on South African television.
In his teen years, he went from loving Gang Starr, to Anti-Pop Consortium, to Anticon. But it kept changing, he said.
“I also went through a big Beastie Boys phase. Then I did a big switchover. My dad left me with his huge Jazz collection so I got to listen to that for a couple of years.”
Anecdotes from his teen years at a very traditional British boys school also reveal the mad-cap prankster that he was — something about a cream cake?
“Yeah, it was the first big trouble I had at the new school I went to. My dad was late to pick us up after school, and my cousin and me were super hungry. So we made a scheme to steal the cricket players’ cake, which was sitting in an empty room while they had a game. But we didn’t know there were cameras. So we got absolutely busted.”
High school was also where Nthato met one of his earliest collaborators, Theo Tuge, who was in the choir with Spoek, and who recently became a member of Spoek’s production trio, Nombolo One. Tuge also co-produced Father Creeper.
“Theo was two years ahead. We were in the choir together…Pretty much all the Black kids at our school hung out together, across a number of ages.
Even in this school, one of the oldest in Johannesburg, change was apparent as Nthato passed through.
“In some of the classrooms I was the only Black student…But then the next year, the year after me, a lot more Black people came to the school. It was interesting to actually see the change.”
When asked what he meant by “the change,” he said simply, “There’s always [a] crossroads in this new South Africa.”
It might be a reference to his own career. Despite the fact that he plays a freaky fusion of horror, underground Bass and wall-of-sound Rock, he’s thinking big — and his songs have a pop skeleton holding it all together in service of his future career playing arenas.
“I want to be the best in my field, which means not playing sh-tty little holes in the wall, but playing stadiums and having the most possible people hear my music. And if it takes developing structures within my music to appeal to as many people, with what I want to say, then I’ll apply those structures.”
His role models for global megastardom are Fela Kuti and especially Stevie Wonder, for “being able to do message stuff, but also having the most exciting structures that are pretty complex, but they seem like the most natural and beautiful thing.”