#RespecTheProducer – The Cape Town Beat Scene [Throwback]

This article is part of a series of articles on music producers throughout the African continent called #RespecTheProducer. Check out daily updates on tumblr and follow the Instagramaccount. 

It’s mid-morning in late January when I meet with Shane Cooper, bassist and winner of the 2012 Standard Bank’s Young Artist Award 2012 in the jazz category, at a restaurant in Upper Woodstock, Cape Town. The nod, unexpected by his own admission, places him on the path of a legacy kick-started, posthumously, by Moses Molelekwa, and peppered with luminaries such as Andile Yenana, Mark Fransman and Kesivan Naidoo. He orders a cup of coffee while we grapple with where to sit, finally settling for a spot outside where the late-summer’s sun casts sharp rays on the four-person table. As he lights up his cigarette, I set the frame for the interview; equal parts jazz and electronic music conversation. The latter is a genre he’s been dabbling in since obtaining audio sequencing software (from his brother) over a decade ago. Prior to that, he fiddled with music instruments. “I started playing guitar when I was thirteen and then got into bass in high school/”.

Cooper, or Card On Spokes as he’s known around the beatmaking (or beat) scene in Cape Town, teamed up with Music Without Borders to conceptualise Live Evil, a series of events premised on catering to electronic music producers who perform their beats live. The idea was birthed by his growing frustration from not getting booked at gigs “because my stuff doesn’t fall in line with one tempo all the time.” In between drags from his ciggie, he explains to me the science behind his eclectic set, stating that “it goes through different genres and things like that.”

The first Live Evil took place in April 2012. Each event features the headliner (Dank in one instance), supporting acts (Mr Sakitumi, Christian Tiger School have featured), and Card On Spokes as resident knob-tweaker. While name-checking his influences – Kid Koala, Four Tet, Prefuse 73 – he let it slip that him and Dank were in the process of mixing their “Strawberries” EP. Initially slated for release around March, the project was only unleashed in June on the US-based independent imprint 710 Records. They aren’t the only ones. As far as quality releases go, Cape Town is bathing in swathes of sonic brilliance, admiring its own production wizardry at every juncture. Over the course of one month, beat heads have been spoiled for choice, from the uber-slick collective dialects of Gravy (a crew of kindred spirits featuring, among others, Sibot, Ol’tak, Mr Sakitumi, as well as Dank and Card On Spokes), to the shrieking, hazy lo-fi pleasantries of Funtoy, right down to the experimental shindigs of relative newcomer Thor Rixon.

But surely this has happened before?

The year 2000 ushered in an era of producers influenced by the creations of Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow, Anti-Pop Consortium and the better part of Ninja Tune’s artist roster – from Blockhead to Mr Scruff to Kid Koala. Names such as Felix Laband, Markus Wormstorm, Sibot, and a handful of others crafted sonic textures which effectively altered how people approached music consumption. African Dope records synergised that entire formation – two dudes and a chick holed up in a nondescript room on Buitenkant, banging away at ideas daily to advance what, albeit rewarding, ultimately proved an unsustainable exercise. “African Dope [was] pressing up 2000-3000 CDs; it’s not a business model!” says Fletcher. He’s one third of the original trio that ran African Dope; the other two being Honey B and Roach.

As Krushed and Sorted, Fletcher and Roach’s 2000 release “Acid made me to it” arguably set the tone for the sound of magic yet to be conceived. Felix Laband followed soon afterwards with Thin shoes in June, a minimalist fan’s wet dream that is still as ghoulish and haunting today as it was in 2001, infallible in every aspect. Roger Young described it as “an intrepid indie-tronic mashup of hybrid high and low cultures” in his excellent Rolling Stone profile of the troubled wunderkind.

Angela Weickl hosts The Mashup on Assembly radio, a show aimed at giving a platform for artists and deejays to showcase their music. She’s also a regular at venues like the Assembly and Mercury Live where she spins genre-defying sets under the alias DJ Sideshow. The first wave of the Cape Town beat scene tanked during the mid-2000s, and I was interested to find out the reasons. She attributes the dip to the rise in live bands, referencing early stuff from Fokofpolisiekar and later on the Plastics and others.

In 2009, African Dope records re-tuned their creative compass with African Dope Vol. 2, a compilation whose progenitor had been birthed some eight years prior, admittedly a long time in-between albums in music terms. A lot had changed. Instead of Waddy Jones (credited on the song “Crypticism” as ‘The Man Who Never Came Back’), we got Disco Izrael from P.H.Fat, a scruffy-haired stoned-looking wordsmith who wrapped creative circles around producer Narch’s beats, concurrently rapping his way into alternative imaginaries with his partner-in-words, Mike Zietsman. We got a glimpse into the collision of beats and words; Narch’s extra-thick squelches and super-grumpy basslines created a comfort zone for the rappers to yank out their best dinosaur metaphors.

UCT Radio is one of two terrestrial stations with shows whose focus is on uplifting the local beat scene. Sean Magner, host of The New Music Show every Sunday evening, realised the dearth of support media were giving to producers in the city and decided to try remedy the situation. “I knew there was so much to see and get involved with that this is was sort of my only way in”, says Magner. His co-host Dylan Heneck quickly points out the resemblance between locally-produced beats and what is being churned out elsewhere on the bass music globe. Says Heneck: “It’s cool seeing how they align with each other, and how different they are as well. The stuff I’ve heard from here is a lot more obscure.” And they’ve heard a lot. Their show has become somewhat of a stopover whenever beatmakers active on the scene are about to release new music. All the usual suspects, from Ol’tak, Card On Spokes, Mr Sakitumi, and more have paid them a visit. Even the elusive Slabofmisuse was due for a guest slot but decided against it.

Heneck, who moonlights as a club deejay going by the moniker Daddy Warbucks, laments the lack of marketing smarts within the scene, identifying the defect as the missing link in connecting the music to a larger audience. “All these guys should be big!” He declares. Or at least bigger.

In a way, there are relatively ‘big’ names on the beat scene. During the festival season, a selection of beatsmiths pack blistering sonic shockwaves into their goodie bags to feed bass-hungry revellers (normally at the Red Bull stages). Sibot’s impressive show left a 3000 person-strong crowd at Rocking the Daisies dumbstruck; P.H.Fat fractured ligaments at Synergy with their psychedelic bass-funk; and Mr. Sakitumi had kids eating out of his palm at RAMfest.

While beat-centric electronic music may be drawing capacity crowds at festivals, it’s hard to say whether this translates into album sales. Card On Spokes’ Shane Cooper gives out his debut EP In You Go for free at shows nowadays because “electronic CDs don’t really sell in stores anymore, it’s all gone online.”

Indeed, there are plenty of beatmakers across South Africa, but Cape Town is unique in that some of them have managed to build something resembling ‘a scene’. Their output compares with any in the world; the kicks thump at subsonic frequencies and the snares knock hard! The beat scene is comprised of these pockets of producers who are going out on a limb, working inside a mostly hip hop-inspired framework to bang out electronic music which draws influences from techno right through to straight-ahead jazz. But the most important aspect is that they play their beats live.

Sean Magner offers this proposition: “It seems like we [Capetonians] are very culturally aware, in terms of everything! We’re so hyper-aware of what’s going on in the UK, what’s going on in the States… to some extent what’s going on in Europe.” He continues that Cape Town producers are in a prime position to spectate on the rest of the world while also reflecting their environment, searching for elements within it to fuse into their productions, whether implicitly or explicitly. “We’ve got so many influences to draw from here, so it’s a fairly unique product,” he concludes.

When he’s not busy producing beats as Richard III, Richard Rumney manages the Red Bull Studios located on Jamieson Street in town. Red Bull has been instrumental in helping mould the scene, grooming talents such as Das Kapital, RVWR and Damascus, as well as curating the electronic music stages during the aforementioned festivals, and others. I wanted to know the selection criteria for which artists get to work with the studio.

He explains that the Red Bull Studios operate on a multi-tiered system which includes mainstream players such as Black Coffee, Khuli Chana and Professor alongside emerging artists – think Manqoba, Damascus, Jumping Back Slash, Christian Tiger School – adding that they need to ensure that “a certain amount of projects” are covered monthly.

Rumney has a firm grasp of the current progression of multiple forms of electronic music. I ask him what he thinks has inspired the current wave, and he traces it back to the late 90s, or, “when African Dope Records started.”

“The old-school of beatmakers probably paved the way.” He says, adding the afore-mentioned line-up has “shown many up and coming guys that they can be as game-changing as they wanna be.”

*

I love instrumental music, mostly of the hip hop-tinged variety; Pete Rock’s Petestrumentals remains a firm favourite. I try keep tabs on the global bass music scene, and however suspect that word may sound, it arguably remains the most apt descriptor of the sonic exploits birthed in people’s bedrooms, then disseminated on internet blogs until a label deems their creations worthy of a festival slot. I think the LA beat scene, with captain Fly Lo at the helm, is a brilliant example of how consistently good product will get you noticed regardless.

But there are other admirable movements too; France’s Evil Needle and Denmark’s Robin Hannibal are geniuses in my world. I recently discovered a group of musicians from Canada who use their music to raise awareness about the plight of indigenous people in North America.

However, it’s strange that almost all of the music coming out of the Cape Town beat scene is being made by white, mostly middle-to-upper-class kids either fresh out of university or just finding their footing in the world. If parallels are to be drawn, while the LA beat scene maintains a healthy cross-collaborative spirit between rappers and producers (Flying Lotus’ work with Earl Sweatshirt comes to mind), the practise is almost universally lacking in Cape Town – arguably the tabernacle where some of the rarest rap talents in South Africa rear their heads. Card On Spokes attributed this to his lack of awareness of any rappers in Cape Town, while Sideshow posited that the current crop needs to mature first before thinking about expanding. She made an example of Christian Tiger School, two beatminers whose profile rose after Questlove of The Roots crew tweeted a link to their song ‘Carlton Banks’, reasoning that they’re in a transitory phase where tightening up the live show and developing other aspects are more important.

Her theory seems to hold somewhat, but I remain unconvinced. Markus Wormstorm began his career with the rap outfit Constructus Corporation. The crew, a pre-precursor to Die Antwoord, also featured Sibot’s turntable wizardry. The two went on to work with Spoek Mathambo on futuristic rap projects – Sweat.X (with Wormstorm) and Playdoe (with Sibot). African Dope compilations were always littered with guest appearances from rap and reggae artists, from Godessa to Zoro. But then again, look at Mr Sakitumi. His next project is slated to feature collaborations with a list of rappers and Sakitumi’s a fairly established musician with an almost-flawless live show to boot, Sideshow’s theory could well be plausible. Yet again, I digress.

Either way, it is an exciting time to be living in Cape Town, to be immersed in this city of slime and grit on one hand, and a manicured, lilly-white image on the other; to navigate the Assembly/Fiction/Waiting Room scene alongside the parkjams in Gugs and Paarl. The beat scene could, unlike the city, attempt to be more inclusive. To have, for instance, more people like The Banktella – a bass music producer whom Fletcher discovered while running errands at the bank – active on the scene. Perhaps it’s shaping up; in the past six months, we’ve had a sizeable number of visits from internationally-renowned producers, from Hudson Mohawke, to The Clonius, to Chief, who trekked down with another producer, Deheb.

Then there’s Sibot’s songs getting released on Mad Decent subsidiary Jeffree’s compilation, and his forthcoming effort on French label Jarring FX; there’s Christian Tiger School’s Adidas endorsement and their trip to New York; there’s scene-stealers naasThings getting profiled on other portals and contributing to the quality music getting released.

The final word goes to Richard Rumney. In response to a question about what propelled Christian Tiger School’s meteoric rise, he said the following: “They’re really good producers first off, they play their shit live (as opposed to just DJing), they made an instantly catchy underground hit with ‘Carlton Banks’, they have a great manager and they were in the right place at the right time. Success is a combination of talent, focus, hard-work and a healthy dollop of luck. Whether that actually constitutes “making it” in the music industry I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t necessarily translate to big bucks.”

* This article first appeared here.

 

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