Die Antwoord butchering old beats

Going through photographer Roger Ballen’s Boarding House series, each portrait made me wonder: “but what are these people in the photographs doing after the shoot?” Ballen’s portraits are detailed, staged pictures of unnamed human figures, often with out-of-place props (rats, crosses, dolls…) in the same frame, always against a dead cold grey background. I failed to imagine them to be alive, real, or moving. Watching the music video that Ballen directed for South African crew Die Antwoord (“from da dark dangerous depths of Afrika” — their words) changed that a little. The figures do come to life. But I never imagined them dancing to an old beat.

I didn’t imagine them freaking out to hardcore bass drum gabber beats, that Dutch sound which flooded the clubs in the nineties — those records now safely stored somewhere in my basement. I imagined the figures as puppets in an American-South African photographer’s play, hinting at what he believes is an undiscovered surreal mental wasteland, that of poor whites, poor white South Africans, poor Afrikaners. It’s the same trope Die Antwoord played with, and it’s a trope we won’t write about again.

Although some people are still tempted to consider them as being exemplary of white South Africans’ (and Afrikaners in particular) “liberation” through art after Apartheid (as this article in the New York Times suggests), I don’t believe Die Antwoord’s essence lies in their projected identity, nor is the latter a useful concept to explain their runaway success.

I don’t think they ever wanted to be regarded as ‘Afrikaans artists’; they are only Afrikaans in so far as the press, blogs and online trolls believe them to be Afrikaans or poor Afrikaners. The new album, tellingly, hardly has any Afrikaans lyrics on it. Ninja makes sure to keep that to a minimum on the album as a whole.* Sure, there’s some swearing and a skit in Afrikaans, but when Ninja for example raps how they broke with the American record deal that got South African press hyped up, he does so in English.

What they always did want though, is to play with the spectacular to get people’s attention. As one does as an artist, I assume.

Die Antwoord play the game well; whether they play it fair is open for interpretation.

What they still do badly is “borrowing” from other people’s work. Ripping Jane Alexander’s sculpture Butcher Boys in the album trailer — without the South African artist’s knowing — is one example, while ‘I Fink You Freeky’ not just seems to take the title and the sound of LFO’s track ‘Freak’ but also an idea from this video made for that same LFO track. And maybe for good reason. If your songs don’t differ much from what kids growing up in the nineties listened and danced to, you better come up with striking visuals and clever marketing.

And this is how Diane Coetzer, in an “interview” for the South African version of Rolling Stone (which put them on the cover), deals with questions of appropriation and race. She has it in for “South African critics who accuse the group of cultural appropriation (or worse) and spend hours analysing why two white South Africans shouldn’t be stepping over the border into [coloured] Mitchell’s Plain or Fietas to mine the lives of those who reside there.” We learn that Die Antwoord’s “ruthless loyalty to their imagination are the sole boundaries.” Yes.

Anyway, good PR helps. And it helps to be well connected. (Diane Coetzer’s partner is Die Antwoord’s music publisher.) The PR worked last time, and so it will this time. The New York Times fell for it (including misrepresenting their critics) and fashion designer Alexander Wang flies them in for his new spring campaign.

By the way, I see Welsh rock band Feeder’s using a Ballen portrait for their cover art too. It’s becoming a trend. And it sells.

* That is, unless you don’t count the odious lines “Ek’s ‘n lanie, jy’s ‘n gam/want jy lam in die mang/met jou slang in ‘n man” in ‘I Fink You Freeky.’ For those who don’t understand Afrikaans, translated that reads “I am a boss, you’re a child of Ham/’cause you’re locked up in jail/with your snake [penis] inside a man.” Let me break that down. “Lanie” is colloquial coloured slang for a white boss. As for Gam, it’s the Afrikaans for Ham. That’s the Biblical Noah’s cursed son Ham. In Apartheid’s theology coloureds were deemed children of Ham, i.e. the cursed ones. The rest is self explanatory and recalls the homophobic lyrics on their last song.



  1. “ruthless loyalty to their imagination are the sole boundaries.” If you were an artist, you’d understand the validity of this comment. That there are certain intertextual references in their work does not detract from the truth of that statement one bit. Again, if you understood the artistic process a bit better, you’d understand that. I fink you freeky as a ripoff of LFO’s freak, well that’s going to be a hard sell as well based on what I just watched.

    1. @Michael: you’re quite right, I shouldn’t have said they’re “borrowing” from LFO; “intertextual references” sounds better — particularly, from what I understand, to those in the loop of the artistic process.

  2. Tom, always appreciate your posts on the site but I think you’re off the mark. Sampling gabber is a relatively interesting gesture at a time when finding the next retro craze is so often allied with finding the new. To me, sampling gabber in global pop is more interesting than for example re-versing tired hip hop tropes… And even if this particular beat is not new, it sounds fresh, their flow on top of it evidences skill.

    Your dismissal of Ballen is not backed up (I want to hear more). Also, dismissing DA simply because they steal is not really convincing — they’re original in the way they steal (sampling, gabber for example). In any case, DA are here working directly with Balen, and I think the collaboration represents something way more successful than any other new video on the net, especially more successful than Spoek and Hugo’s recent trance dance…

    To me, DA and this video perhaps represent a hyper-aware, stoney-eyed satire of exotification. They take it so far and so seriously that the cliches become unhinged (like Nicki Minaj doing her barbie-like voices). Stereotypes become satire then become something uglier, sexier and more multivalent — forged purposefully to elude easy interpretation.

    With the last few DA videos, it seems we’re meeting artists that have risen to the challenge of hype. I think they’ve earned the right to keep going.

    1. @warbling: thanks for the comment (what took you so long?). Nobody’s saying DA hasn’t got vocal flow (nor did I dismiss Ballen). Referencing without crediting (you call it stealing, I wouldn’t disagree) might well be a sign of the times, but (legal) questions about the “fair use” of another artist’s work abound. More to the point: in what way is sampling gabber beats more interesting than ‘re-versing hip hop tropes’? What makes it “unique”, or “successful”? What I see is a mash-up of ideas, none of which I haven’t seen elsewhere before. The end result is ‘spectacular’ (‘something to behold’), but I find it difficult to see it as anything else than a manufactured, heartless product. Did Yolandi not only rip out Ninja’s heart (see the album trailer) but also his soul?

      1. Gabber was in your basement. It’s something you have to dig for. Hiphop is the American dream – it’s on TV and MTV almost everywhere. Ninja and Yolandi’s rap style also wasn’t happening in LFO. It wasn’t even happening in Chicago house (what LFO was biting). The DA song represents a development musically (even if that’s just a twitch), and that combined with the highest level of visual care and craft make the video a success. This isn’t supposed to be a graduate thesis or a bibliography — sure, it steals and probably conceals sources, but it reads as something that’s congealed into a consistent new global pop aesthetic (unlike Spoek and Hugo’s mess). I agree that un-mixing the remix is essential — while you’re at it, get at Beyonce and Diplo for their bubbling beats. Tom, you can see the parts because you’re close to the sources, but all art is mashup if you get close enough. From my perspective, this stuff subverts a lot of things that have it coming — Dre’s branded headphones, traditional understandings of what’s beautiful, racial epithets, major labels… Regarding your comment about heart and soul, I wouldn’t want to get too sentimental with DA. It’s grotesque self-aware pop, but it doesn’t sound like anything else that’s readily available to global audiences. Some people will misread it, some will just bob their heads, and some will read it at the level of satire. Meaning gets erased and confused by mass dissemination. Any music that reaches the masses becomes a product (even if it didn’t start out that way). At least DA are smart enough to be aware of this so that they can subvert (and try to control) the process a bit.

  3. * by “it doesn’t sound like anything else that’s readily available to global audience,” I meant that with a consideration of the whole package, photography especially. Visual aesthetics color the listening experience, especially online. I agree that the sound in it itself isn’t yet ground-breaking, but I do think they sound a lot better than when they first showed up on the global radar.

  4. Whenever I try to judge the degree of referencing/stealing/whatever you want to call it, in terms of creating something new and credible, or something rehashed and irrevelant, I think about what Jim Jarmush said:
    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existant. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s noth where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

  5. We know musically it’s pretty standard, subpar stuff–their beats aren’t that great and part of their appeal is that they don’t care (btw, is that the point with smashing the Dr Dre endorsed headphones apart from it being a stunt?)

    So it’s all in the visuals.

    Nevertheless, I am amazed how there’s little debate/comment here (in response to Tom’s post) and elsewhere on the offensive content of some of their raps, including in “I Fink you Freeky” where that one line above contains offensive racist tropes and the usual dose of homophobia from Waddy.

    But I may be expecting too much from listeners/viewers. Many music critics/tastemaker bloggers and DA trolls just repost the videos without engaging with the content. Either the visuals are too overpowering to them or, more importantly, they don’t speak or understand Afrikaans, the other language used in the videos.

    But then I can already read the reply. The retort is probably going to be the usual, they don’t mean what they say, this is ironic, they’re artists or the favorite, they’re defanging it, or it’s the new South Africa and go make your own DASO poster, bla bla.

    On a separate, but related note, I loved this line I read somewhere on the Interwebs this morning.

    “Ugh, White South Africans make horrorcore with eurobeats with a video budget and it’s more Duchamp than Limp Bizkit? Duly noted.”

  6. Speaking as an middle aged (56) American, DA is the most exciting combination of audio and visual to come along in quite a while. There is really nothing to compare them to, except in bits and pieces. Their vids are visually stunning, their hooks are mesmorizing and the stories they tell in their vids are interesting if not exactly “War and Peace”. Critics are continually trying to tear them apart (especially, for some odd reason, from South Africa itself!). For christ’s sake, it’s entertainment! . I can’t remember hearing of ANY South African, outside of politics and Jane Alexander. I don’t consider myself unread nor ignorant. I would think that South Africans would be happy that DA is making an impact world wide. They are generating more interest in South Africa than anyone else has in at least the last decade or so (or more!).

  7. What’s wrong with Duchamp? And for that matter with art and with satire? What’s wrong with their lyrics? What is offensive and who is being offended? I’d like to better understand this… my hunch is they are not de-fanging as much as re-fanging, sharpening tired tropes into new expressions, re-purposing, tricking-out the past to make something cutting and global. Yes, engaging with stereotypes and the spectacular is tricky and performative. That’s why this is a high stakes game. That’s why I’m curious to read more substantiated criticism… any tips? Especially after the Harmony Korine short film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMVNjMF1Suo), we can see DA like characters in a live movie; we can take them seriously as characters who expose their transformation process. If you’re looking for authenticity, they’re too post-modern, but hey not every big band from SA is Freshly Ground.

  8. Warbling, the Duchamp comment was a throwaway, though it contains a lot of truths.

    Now on lyrics. You’re being deliberately misleading and obtuse. The comment about lyrics and race politics is clear. And trying to drag Freshlyground’s Mango Grooved pop into this, that’s just cheap point scoring.

  9. “I’m a white boss and you’re a nigger, cause you lie about in jail with your dick in another man” – racism and homophobia, spat out with some venom. I suppose the lyricist should be applauded for digging deep and revealing his demons. But whose demons? Waddy or Ninja’s?

  10. jussis, you okes are serious. as for not having great beats, there are few groups who have a sound that so exactly matches their intentions.
    if you think that, say, ‘evil boy’ was an act of garden variety racism and homophobia (for that matter, that it is racist or homophobic) you … ag, whatever bro.

  11. @RK, neither’s, Waddy shops at woolworths, he didn’t grow up on the Cape Flats, he just profits from the persona that pretends to know all of that.

  12. Linda, this is really the crux, isn’t it: “What I’m more interested in, though, is not Alexander trying to control her authorial rights, but what I read more as her desperate attempt to try and retain some meaning, some memory, some history within the South African contemporary popular cultural landscape.”

    We’re still in the interregnum and Die Antwoord is one of the beasts of that interregnum, proclaiming a rebirth from the past while still desperately feeding on it. And, as such, all is contestation, which is what fanbot critics don’t get.

  13. “Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it.”
    Lautréamont, c1870

    I can’t imagine an art history class in South Africa or anywhere in the world that does not make reference to Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q” — a postcard of Da Vinci’s famous painting of the “Mona Lisa” with an added moustache. There are many other examples: the Situationist painter Asger Jorn, who partially painted over works of art he acquired at flea markets; Sherrie Levine, who re-photographed other photographer’s works and presented the results as her own; Anton Kannemeyer, who often references Hergé’s Tintin. Certainly Picasso’s use of African masks in “Les Demoiselles D’ Avignon” has been hotly debated… though the painting has yet to be destroyed!

    “Appropriation” is by now a convention within the art institution and (using the above examples) a practice that is taught daily in the art school.

    Within US copyright law, I would imagine that Die Antwoord’s appropriation of Jane Alexander’s “Butcher Boys” meets most if not all the requirements of the “Fair Use” doctrine.
    Though I recognise that South African copyright law is not as liberal as that.

    While there may be some legal merit to Alexander’s claim in South African law, her action has unfortunately resulted in the censorship of another artist’s work.

  14. Borrowing? Stealing? Not at all. DJ Hi-TEK….which is just a false persona of who actually makes all of the DA beats has been developing this style from the simplest of ideas to the most complex rhythm’s. If you knew who he really was you wouldn’t be claiming such non-sense. And no, he is not the ape with the mask live or in the videos. Maybe 200 or less people actually know who he is and what his stuff outside of DA sounds like. HE is a pioneer for at least 2 decades regarding electronic music of all styles.

    1. @Jimmy: Agreed on Hi-Tek’s skills, but it’s not his beats we were discussing here a while ago.

  15. what a disgrace and an insult. if u say that in my face id be so happy as to bliksim u FUCK U PRICK.

  16. Ridiculous – if you’re gonna hate, do it with less bullshit. There is NOTHING similar about LFO’s song and their song ‘I Fink U Freeky.’

  17. what I don’t understand is the complaint of an artists main agenda. you over analize something, dissect it to figure out if its art or if they are somhow ‘frauds’. fuck you. you don’t listen to music. either you dig the stuff or you don’t care for it. its as simple as that. hipster trash….

  18. You are just reaching for a reason to get people to hate Die Antwoord but obviously that backfired in your face! There is literally not one detail about the two videos that are even remotely similar. The only tiny thread that you are trying to hang on to is the fact that both song titles have a reference to “Freak” in them. You are a jealous hack, and a terrible one at that. Tom Devriendt, you are a fucking waste of a life. Just do us all a favor and hang yourself before someone has to do it for you.

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