In studio with the rudebouy behind Nasty C and Cassper Nyovest’s beats
Words: Hakim Malema | Photography: Andile Phewa | Video: VCG
“Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.”
Those words were as true in 18th century France when Voltaire said them as they are now in 21st century South Africa. There's a lot of dopeness out there, but there's also a lot left to be desired. Radio and TV subject us to tiresome copycats who lack originality.
On one iced up hand, America has made a considerable contribution to rap music that cannot be denied, however, this has lead to a scourge of young rappers imitating exactly what they consume on television. Then there’s a new breed of eccentric risk taker, a kind of post-new-age kwaito artist who has taken over our screens and air waves, borrowing from all their life experiences, speaking in their vernacular tongues, using their slang, incorporating their dances into their performances while appealing to a wider audience.
Sure the American formula works, but if you want to be a serious industry player then you have to talk to the nation in a language that they can understand. Songs like ‘Boss Zonke’ by Riky Rick and ‘Caracara’ by K.O. are examples of this alchemy. Where some try and fail others are flourishing, and we meet one of the artists currently rising above the times at home in his studio.
Benn Gilbert Kamoto switches on a jail-broken MacBook Pro to start up a session in FL Studio 10 in his comfortable home studio in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The headband’s missing, but once he starts cooking up beats and strategising who should have the final honours it’s clear that this is Gemini Major in the driver's seat. Gemini is a reclusive character with an unassuming stature and narrow eyes that make it difficult to see into his soul. Watching him it’s obvious that he finds it hard to sit still for extended periods of time, he displays agitation easily, and the only place that Gemini seems to get his release is here in his lab making beats.
“The time I realised I want to make music was in Blantyre, Malawi. I was with my cousin. He had Fruity Loops but didn't make anything that inspired me. Then one day I saw this guy make a beat in front of me, Desert Eagle, he made this track that was a hit in Malawi. That track was a hit bro! And that was when I decided, like, ‘Yeah, I wanna make music!’”
In 2009 Gemini Major visited his sister in Durban and quickly fell in with the creative sub-culture that was booming there at the time. Groups like Wolf Pack and WTF were participating in and being practitioners of more than one creative discipline where rapping, producing, dance and performance were galvanised. This culminated in an annual event, The Battle of the Year.
“The Beerhall, that’s where it all went down for me. I had this home girl, Thembi, who used to help organise the event. She knew I made beats and said to me that I should enter the producer category.”
Gemini Major ended up coming fourth in the competition. This was the momentum he needed to really give beat making a go, later collaborating with DJ Switch and then connecting with one of the members of Palm Tree, Row, and creating Rock Star Island.
Which is why after returning home from his life-changing trip, Gemini Major had a constant need to go back to South Africa. Things were too slow at home, he needed action, and so Gemini applied to study I.T at a small private institute in Durban.
Picking up on our condition of not being able to sit still, Gemini begins to pull back the curtain slightly with an explanation of how he coped at school.
“I passed in Malawi and did a diploma in South Africa so that I could chase my dream. I told my brother that I’m going to do a degree, knowing that I was going to push the music thing, and everyday that I would go into those damn lectures I would go crazy, man. Like I couldn't just sit there and listen to this guy. It drove me crazy. All I could think about was making music, music, music!”
Rock Star Island, or Rockstafarai as he also describes it, is now Gemini Major’s lifestyle. That’s long nights in studio, on the road touring for Cassper’s Refiloe Album Tour and some wild parties. It’s a lifestyle that’s only reserved for the committed and comes with plenty of complaints from the tenants living in his complex.
”I’ve been fined many times. The fines start at R550 and double each time another complaint is lodged. We actually just came back from checking a crib because I’m planning on moving out soon.”
As he should – it’s not like Gemini Major’s gonna stop making bangers anytime soon. While he's playing a beat for Nasty C over his iPhone, I notice that Gemini is the kind of guy who gets things now!
“I’m not a crazy pianist. I don't even know how to play keys. I’m a producer, I get what needs to get done, done! You see how I just called Nasty now? That's how we made ‘Juice Back’. He hit me up and was like, ‘Yo, please can you send me something?’ I didn’t have anything so I whipped up something real quick, sent it to him, and in about two hours or less what he’d sent back to me was ‘Juice Back’. Keep in mind this was before the Nasty C you see today.”
Nasty C's reaction over the phone?
"This shit is crazy!"
Gemini Major’s outlook on collaboration is based on energy more than anything else, which perhaps explains how he’s able to work with the best in the game – Nasty C, Cassper Nyovest, Khuli Chana, Aewon Wolf, Stilo Magolide, DJ Vigilante…
“When I collaborate with artists it has to be an organic process. It’s very different to sending out some beats and then an artist makes a great song out of it. When I am collaborating with an artist we need to be able to feed off of each other’s energy in the studio. From there everything happens naturally. Whether it’s a fresh idea or an old idea, if we are in sync then the end result will be magical. It can never be forced, because once you put a record out you need to be proud and happy about it, because you know it's going to be out there forever.”
Gemini Major has developed a formula for being around other talented up and coming and even established artists, and his ties to Durban based groups Palm Tree, WTF and Wolf Pack prove how he has put in the work and is a team player. Both these things made his move to Family Tree perfect.
“It’s a humbling experience to be surrounded by the best artists in South Africa. Each artist in Family Tree has a unique sound and style that complements the next artist’s style and sound. So this is a platform that I don’t take for granted, as there are many kids out there who would do anything to be in my shoes. Working with the best in the country keeps me on my toes, which motivates me to work hard so I can also give some talented kids a platform.”
Because while he enjoys being signed to Family Tree and collaborating with their artists, Gemini Major has plans to build his own music empire one day, too. And why not? As a Malawian musician producing for such a wide range of South African artists from so many different genres, like his name his influence on our sound is similarly large. Maybe South Africa is just the first country in which he's staked his claim?