The underground house producer putting out raw, deep and hypnotic bengz
Words: Sandiso Ngubane | Photography: Nick Gordon
If you’ve ever been inside a taxi in Durban’s CBD, you’re almost guaranteed to have struggled with telling uS’cabha – ‘gaartjie’, or the door guy – where your stop is. That’s because those minibus taxi owners don’t play around with their sound!
The bass that reverberates inside them can make you feel like your eardrums are about to burst, and, at times, the vibration literally leaves your entire body feeling shaken. Your voice is no competition. You may as well just sit down and hope the taxi will come to a halt at your next stop, anyway.
If you’re not used to it, finally getting off can feel like a relief, but most commuters in the country’s third largest city don’t mind it. It is part of the culture. I’ve witnessed commuters literally letting rides pass them by as they wait for a particular taxi, simply because it has better sound (the taxis have names, identifiable by the graphics plastered across the windscreen).
I’ve read many times about how government has often sought to ban this culture. “It’s noise pollution,” stuffy conservatives tend to contend, but what a pity that would be. I mean, where are we? America? Europe?
Part of the culture also, is referring to music in slang terms like 's’donko' (description of 'bass'), 'induku' (thick stick), 's’bhaxu' (lashing) or, before the term became known as a genre - 'iGqomu'.
In context: “Ey, aw’fake iGqomu lapho,” would translate to “play some music there, will you?”
It wasn’t until one Lwazi Asanda Gwala, then just a grade 9 pupil, titled a track “Gqom 3” and distributed it to friends via Bluetooth on their phones, that the name became synonymous with the sound he started producing as early as the age of 16.
Of course, today, many Gqom “producers” have come and gone, but Lwazi, now known as DJ Lag, has stayed on course, trying to create a culture around a sound he pioneered – although he hesitates to admit to doing so.
“There was no genre called Gqom before Lag,” his manager Keorapetse, popularly known as Khura, offers. Still, Lag won’t admit on the record that he is the creator of a genre that has only now caught the attention of many here in South Africa, even though it is already popular in the UK and elsewhere.
Lag tells me a story of how rapper Okmalumkoolkat got in touch with him earlier in 2015 after hearing his music at a club in London. “He said they were playing my music there and even hosted something they called a Gqom-party.”
A British indie label also got in touch with Lag via email and requested that he produce, from scratch, five tracks for an EP they expect to put out in the UK during the first half of this year. British native Jumping Back Slash often mixes Gqom into his sets and sound. Back home, together with Keorapetse and two prodigies, Terrece and Vale, Lag is trying to build a following that goes beyond Durban, where the genre, albeit popular, is not having much of a commercial spin-off.
Early in December, the four of them came down to Cape Town to play a gig at Evol. This followed a coup they staged at Evol a few weeks prior to that, where Keorapetse, known as Khura, approached organisers Ben Johnson and Jarred Figgins, and asked if they would let Lag play. The Evol duo hesitated because, of course, they probably get many such requests every Friday.
They later wrote about the encounter on Facebook:
“A few weeks ago this bro came up to us and asked if one of his DJs from Durban could play. We get this quite often, as strange as that seems, and we obviously have a schtick well prepared.”
And their response: “LOL. Sure mate, just hit us up with a demo of what you want to play and we’ll take it from there.”
Khura insisted and the organisers of Evol hesitantly gave in, only to find themselves and the rest of the Evol crowd baptised to the church of Gqom, with Lag as the High Priest.
Many were left speechless, asking: “What the f**k was that?!”
While the music is popular overseas and slowly gaining momentum locally, Lag still produces everything from a single laptop in a back room at his grandmother’s house in the township of KwaDabeka in Clermont near New Germany, Durban. This back room is where all the cooking is done, and it sometimes turns into an all-night turn-up spot with young people who enjoy the music coming in and out throughout the night to listen to Lag’s work.
I ask him what his grandmother thinks of what I imagine are noisy all-nighters with girls, and quite possibly a lot of drunk people walking about, basically partying in her yard. He admits there was trouble at first, and his family even wanted to send him off to boarding school in order to get him away from the township.
His family’s attitude has softened significantly. “They started seeing white people coming to shoot documentaries and started thinking: okay, maybe there’s something there,” Lag laughs.
While it’s all good and well that “white people” are coming to his house in droves, finding his music interesting, I ask Lag if this doesn’t fall into the category of a culture created by township kids with no resources, being appropriated by those with the power to influence culture.
Khura interjects: “We are trying to formalise a structure around this and put value to it. At the moment we are not making a lot of money from it, but we are making those connections and working with people who are happy to work with us, people who enjoy the sound.”
The second gig at Evol was a step towards achieving this goal, and the Durbanites see the interest that Capetonians exhibited as an opportunity for them to leverage a fan base and take Gqom to the next level, locally.
Many reports have linked it to drug culture, but this is something that isn’t of their making. “Drugs have existed way before Gqom,” Lag contends. “Gqom itself is influenced by our lives in the township. In the township you have taverns and drugs that are easily accessible. People dance to Gqom when they are under the influence, but it’s not like Gqom is what’s making people take drugs.”
A fair argument from a guy who says even he was surprised to jump into a taxi in Durban CBD to hear his own music blasting out the speakers.
I suggest that youth culture everywhere is the same, it just may not be portrayed that way in media reports that seek to angle the township experience in a particular way, otherwise the sensationalist narrative falls flat.
“A lot of people here tonight will most probably be high, too,” I say.
PLTFRM.com described that evening’s gig as the “Evol of your life,” and the very next day, Lag got an impromptu booking to play at Garden Turnip, a gig with a line-up that included Maramza and Thor Rixon. I wasn’t there for long, arriving just before Lag got on the decks. Beer in hand, myself and the few jollers I could probably count on a few fingers were keeping the dancefloor alive. However, like he did at Evol that first time, Lag raised most of the crowd to their feet, the music getting almost everyone in that small crowd to report to the dancefloor and stomp their feet to the Gqom.
Not everyone may know what it is yet, but one thing's clear: Gqom’s now reverberating beyond the confines of Durban’s taverns and minibus taxis. Considering what’s happening in London, where Gqom is now being mixed into a myriad of sets, it's good to see the rest of our country waking up to this new sound.
Lag is expected to bring Gqom to the masses at Cape Town Electronic Music Festival 2016 early next month, and while there will still be some asking – "what the f**k was that?" – most will know that it was Gqom.