Simiso Zwane has birthed a scene by strictly dancing to his own tune
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon
Party Time Shandees is the “new South African party” that Simiso Zwane aka Okmalumkoolkat has been doing for a while now. He’ll, say, bring a guy from Umlazi and a guy from Sandton – completely different music scenes – and get them to play at the same venue.
“DJ Lag from Clermont in Durban is going to play Gqom. We got Maramza who is based in Cape Town and plays just about everything, and we got Christian Tiger School. So we exposing everybody to everybody so there is a cross-pollination.”
Simiso is drinking a dry lemon Schweppes at the hotel bar because the sun is only just starting to set and he wants to be fresh for his set, which is at midnight. Later he’ll pop a few bottles of G.H Mumm (demi-sec, not brut). He’s wearing a black trench coat by @BangyIsDead, Sauconny G9 Shadow, Ice Cream kicks, gold rings, a gold Casio databank, two thin gold chains with religious pendants – and he smiles with 18 karat gold in his mouth.
“Got the fronts two weeks ago, man. 18 karats. Put your money where your mouth is. Yeah man, it’s a good investment! Grills, or rather gold teeth, are accessories and just a lifestyle in Durban umswenko, where I am from.”
Simiso’s life wasn’t always like this. He grew up in Umlazi, and later the post-94 RDP township of Bonela, Durban. One thing’s remained constant though – he’s always been dancing.
“Battles, beauty pageants, weddings, dance competitions… We were killing it. All the clubs knew us, or knew about us in some way. My crew was Loxion Kulca, Insimbi, the reign was from 98, no, 98 we were still battling, let's say 99 we became problematic, 99 to 2003.”
However, Mrs Zwane didn’t raise a party boy and kept sweating her son to get a job. Around the same time the dance scene in Durban started to dissolve from losing dancers to the growing Joburg music industry. One day Simiso happened to pick up a magazine called Snac, and after that life was never the same.
“I was looking for a trucker cap, because I saw Pharrell Williams in a magazine and was like, ‘Yoh, I need this cap.’ So I went to these surf shops in Durban and for some reason I picked up this free magazine, there’s a competition in there, entered it, and got a call for a scholarship at Vega.”
I was surprised to see that Simiso recently had work exhibited at the Kalashnikovv Gallery, but for as long as he’s been known as a dancer, he’s also been the go-to-guy for illustration work, with kids lining up to request illustrations from when he was in grade two already. In high school he graduated to drawing iconic Durban taxis in the Taxi Sound System era with his friend Faheem, and that's when he got design inclined as opposed to just drawing portraits.
“When I got to Vega it was like a zuper unlock, all the schools I went to never offered art as a subject, and I was lucky enough to do Imagination Lab, a bridging course at Vega, where we did film, fashion, music, graphic design, learn the whole creative process like… proper.”
It was at Vega that Simiso connected with a crew that is still pushing culture. Guys like Sanele Xolo, Lex Trickett, Jamal Nxedlana, Jean Rene Onyangunga and Ravi Govender. Simiso refers to his time at Vega as a “zuper unlock magangi” and a platform that helped him to get an idea of where he wanted to be and, more importantly, the man that he wanted to be.
“I saw Neville Trickett at school. I was friends with his son. I think he came for a talk this one time. He was smoking a cigar, had tattoos, rocking the clothes we were into, street wear umswenko you know… At that age, grey hair and rocking the sneakers I wanted. So I was like ‘Yeah, I want to be that guy.’ As much as I didn’t know the route, I saw that if I did this properly, or worked hard enough, then I was going to get there. I wanted to be the best student in packaging at the time, and I am still at it."
There are four elements of hip-hop: graffiti, rapping, DJing and breakdancing, and some argue that there’s also a fifth – knowledge of self. Although Simiso hadn’t started rapping and DJing yet, he knew who he was, and so when he first experienced the local rap scene he had established a rep and confidence from dancing and drawing. Something that helped him in defining the type of artist that he wanted to be.
“Coming from a dance background, a township dance background, everything is township, we all competing, but we competing at a township level. The language we speak, the dances… We would also bust American dances, but we’d fuse it and localise it. It wouldn’t be like a dance I saw in a Janet Jackson video. People would laugh at that. So when I got to the hip-hop scene and the kids there were battling, rapping in American accents, I was like, ‘No, his name is Sipho. That guy, I know him. Why is he a Young Dre now?’”
Simiso and a friend Sanele Dlamini once dominated a b-boy battle with a dance style he calls Tekken 3, a video-game inspired take on the classic pop-and-lock robot dance, which he used to defeat break dancers busting classic power moves.
“We were killing cats, made it to the final, killed those cats, the crowd was ours, but the judges were like, ‘Yo, this a hip-hop show and we really appreciate what you’re doing, but if we let you win you’re basically killing our heritage,’ or whatever. And we were like, ‘Aye, ok, cool.’ But basically from that day I started to realise that this thing was powerful. That people were tired of the norm and they wanted something homegrown, and if it’s better than imported American culture then you’re on the right track.”
Fast-forward a few years to when my friend Peet Pienaar sent me a download link to the Dirty Paraffin's Greatest Hits Vol.1 mixtape. Prior to this, my relationship with South African music was rushing onto the dancefloor at 21st birthdays whenever the DJ played Nkalakatha. This was my “zuper unlock” moment. I recognized the Kraftwerk beat and I could make out some of the words – OMFG, SABC, 325s, CYMK - but the rest was foreign – siyasebenza, ishuu, shandees, primustof... It was wonderful and I’ve been playing that mixtape on repeat ever since I first got it.
Back then, Simiso was pushing on his own, now he has a crew of collaborators and a bunch of imitators. What’s worth noting is how Simiso is responsible for birthing a scene where his slang is being stolen by advertisers to punt their client’s brands, his dances are being appropriated, his fashion sense is being dropped in on, and his sound straight up bitten. Simiso is the catalyst to the culture you see around you, and doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Maybe because despite the rap braggadocio he’s actually really humble?
“I think the vibe is, like, like just staying with the wave. Like not chasing it. When I started this I wrote songs to tracks that I liked and that’s how (Dirty Paraffin's) The Greatest Hits mixtape came about. Then SpiZee was like ‘Yo man,’ you must cava my beats and it turned out he had nice beats, so we stared working on original beats by Dr. SpiZee. After that I started collaborating with other people and it grew from there.”
The Okmalumkoolkat sound has always been based on bass music, whether it’s the trap and turnup vibes of Gusheshe and Bob Mabena, or the new age kwaito with cats like Riky Rick ("Amantombazane"), or "Slyza Tsotsi" with Major League. Surprisingly the stuff we’re into now is five years old already.
“People weren’t ready, you know. It’s kind of like Dirty Paraffin. I feel if we dropped Dirty Paraffin now people would be like, ‘Yoh! Iyashisa le-shandees!’ But back then it was this weird thing that had 20 people that liked and wanted to keep it for themselves. I keep going back to go forwards, the student and the master.”
Jay Z has a great line in Moment of Clarity about dumbing down to reach a wider audience, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be. Lyrically Talib Kweli. Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense. But I did 5 mill' - I ain't been rhyming like Common since.” Does Simiso relate?
“I think when it comes to the music, I never really think, ‘Oh yeah, I want to sound commercial’, or whatever. Especially since I’m a vocalist. I get a beat, get a feeling, get a melody flow out of that beat, and then whatever happens next is, like, God’s plan. If people like it, if it gets played by Giles Peterson on BBC, then that’s God’s plan. It’s not me thinking, ‘Hey I must get this track on BBC, or YFM or Ukhozi FM or crossover to 5FM.’ You know, people still want to cross over and stuff? (laughing). I just approach it in the same way that I’ve always approached it. I like it. It makes me feel a certain way.”
A feeling that’s contagious.
Later that night Simiso controls the mic at a warehouse in Paarden Eiland for his Party Time Shandees eSpezialle Cape Town Edition. The International Pantsula aka Zulu Compura aka Futuremfana aka Mfanafuture aka Smartmompara aka Zuper Tsatsatsa aka Bhut’yangchaza aka Bhut’yang’washa aka Matsatsela aka Mr Partytime aka Uptown Skhothane aka Zharp Zharp That O aka Ok Zharp Zinto The First aka Umswenko Voetsek Hamba Kini aka Simiso Vishuali Swaghili aka Okmalumkoolkat – goes Rambo!
More United Colours of Benetton campaign than the usual pallor of pale City Bowl privilege, it’s good to see the diverse crowd do their taxi driver impressions exclaiming ‘ishuuuuu!’ and ‘turnupyangempela!’ After Okmalumkoolkat wraps up his set, his guest DJ Lag starts playing the feverish Durban Gqom beats, and Mr Party stays on stage, dancing...