"Just to be recognized as the f**king best, just sound for sound"
The talented musician took a moment from his busy touring schedule to chat with Marlon Bishop via Skype about dropping out of medical school, writing as a selfish pastime, and pissing off Joy Division fans.
South Africa’s prince of Township Tech, poster child for Afro-futurist electropop, husband of Sweden’s Gnucci Banana, a one-man genre-blender who paints with music and composes with colors…Spoek Mathambo is simply one of the most exciting young artists at work today. And he’s had a hell of a year.
After bopping around musical projects for years, he released his first solo album Mshini Wam last August to wide acclaim, scoring an undeniable summertime banger with the lead single of the same name. Along the way, he picked up a Fader cover and collaborated with photographer Pieter Hugo on a music video that’s drawn widespread adulation from far corners of the internet.
It’s no surprise: his brand of smart, synth-laden post-rap is seriously fresh by anybody’s standards, revealing a plugged-in, musically omnivorous Africa ready to dominate the 21st century dancefloor. To top it all off, Spoek just signed a record deal with Seattle’s Sub-Pop imprint, so expect to hear lots more future-music from him soon. Just don’t ask him if he makes “Global Bass.”
Congrats on the record deal. What’s next for Spoek Mathambo?
I’m working on my next album and yeah, I finished writing everything on it already and I’ll be going into studio over the next couple of months. I’m kind of anxious to get done with it. Just excited to get it out there.
Your music is really hard to pigeon-hole into any one genre. What are the sounds that have influenced you?
I grew listening to a whole bunch of stuff. I have two sisters, a brother, a mom and dad, and they all have different taste in music. My brother put me on to hip-hop stuff when I was really young, my dad has a big jazz and soul collection, and mother always sang in a choir. My sisters were really into Bobby Brown and Shabba Ranks and Bob Marley.
And how did that translate into starting to make music?
When I was five or six, me and my cousin, we used to listen to rap songs and transcribe what the rapper was saying, that slowly moved into writing raps. From there I kept quitting and starting again, but rapping was always a part of me.
You were in medical school for a while. What happened?
I wanted to learn a skill with which I could help people actively on a daily basis, so I wanted to be a doctor. I also I wanted to be a writer, but I thought that was a selfish path. I had started a hip-hop magazine when I was 16, where I interviewed my favorite South African rappers, spouted Zulu Nation propaganda and reviewed obscure Anti-Pop Consortium releases. Anyway, eventually my life just became too chaotic to be a dedicated med student. No one wants a half-assed doctor, so I bowed out.
What happened then?
I got my degree in Creative Communication, which was like a graphic design course.
Huh – that’s interesting, because I’ve noticed your music always has a very strong visual element. What do you think of the relationship between music and the visual arts?
I think its one and the same. Yeah. I guess its just that all the music that I looked up to – whether it was Public Enemy, Sun Ra, or Prince – has always had a strong visual component. Even somebody like John Coltrane, a lot of those Impulse Records covers have really strong graphic direction. That’s what I see music as, I always see it as one big thing. I’m glad to have learned the skills necessary to articulate it.
So, you’ve been molded in part by all these international genres. How has South Africa shaped your sound?
Well, to start, I’m South African and I’ve always lived in South Africa, and I’ve grown up around generations of South African music. All of the old school – Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, The Soul Brothers, Miriam Makeba – my parents used to play that stuff around the house. Plus, there was always kwaito in the background. I was never a fan of kwaito because I always preferred American rap personally.
What about South African hip-hop?
I listened to South African rap of course – it was kind of my job with the magazine to give exposure and create a dialog with the groups here. But I never really found too many groups that seriously interested me.
Most South African rap I’ve heard seems to be kind of very traditional, boom-bap stuff.
I find it sad that people still want to do boom-bap hip-hop. It’s like jazz artists wanting to play ragtime. It’s not the music of the time, that was 20 years ago. It’s 2011, and we have a whole range of influences. For me the spirit of hip-hop today is total pastiche. It’s the ultimate post-modern art that takes all these influences, chops them up, and spits out something that has elements of everything. So for me, the music I’m making is like, I might say, post hip-hop, but it comes from the spirit of hip-hop. That’s where my heart has always been.