It would be impossible to distill a country as vibrant and complex as South Africa into a single text. For one, anyone looking to make that definitive work would have to decide which of the country’s eleven official languages to write it in. If you’re looking for a spot to dip your toe in, to get some sense of what the country is like in 2017, you couldn’t ask for a much better first step than Spoek Mathambo’s Mzansi Beat Code.
The heady blend of sounds on Code mimics the state of South African music, hopping from township to township and city to city and taking a little bit of each dialect of South Africa’s real lingua franca, house music. The Chicago dance music was smuggled into the country from Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s and flourished township warehouse parties into a multitude of interconnected sounds. Now Code is here to present all its many iterations back to the world.
Even the name of the album suggests a cypher. “Mzansi” is the Xhosa word for South Africa used colloquially throughout the country. Even so, Spoek seems to know that to define something is to confine something, so he’s wary of people concluding that his home and its music is an island unto itself. On top of showcasing the country Code shows that, like anywhere else the internet can reach, South Africa is a global society.
“The concept of the album is to celebrate South African musical innovations and expand on them, so I obviously had to get a gang of South Africans to make that authentic,” he said when he spoke to me about the new album. “South Africa has a really wicked concept of rhythm, melody, harmony, tone and intensity. I reveled in exploring and expanding on that…but the album has an international flavor from people like Ceci is from Mexico, Pegasus Warning is from NYC, Imposture is from France.”
It’s easy to hear that mix from the very first seconds of Mzansi Beat Code. It kicks off with a old-school, bass guitar-forward house groove called “Want Ur Love” that incorporates deconstructed chanting, a sample of an Englishman speaking about welcomes and aggressive rap verses in favor of same-sex relationships.
“I’ve been trying to make this kind of music for a long while now. Each of my past projects was me trying to articulate this vision,” he said. “I think that this album, along with Free Love and Musica da Terra are the most successful at crystallizing my musical vision. Around 2006 while listening to a ton of different stuff like everyone does, I had a clear vision for fusing my different influences. All the electronica, rap, house, guitar music, different South African styles kind of come together.”
That Mathambo is able to smash so many of these vibes together and come out with something coherent should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to his career. He’s managed to be successful at a number of things he’s tried his hand at throughout his life including hip-hop ‘zine runner, DJ, rapper, filmmaker and now as a producer. Mathambo’s last project before Code was a documentary about the house music of his home called Future Sound Of Mzansi. That documentarian’s urge to stand back and let the subjects speak for themselves is obvious on his latest album.
While Mathambo’s previous musical projects have him featured as a much stronger presence on the mic, Code is largely a showcase for other artists built on top of his beats.
“I have a lot fun making beats, so I focused on having fun with this album,” he explained. “I have a lot more to say with beats and I left the great singing to great singers…Don’t get it twisted, I made a lot of beats on all of my albums, I’m just a lot better at it now and have less of a inclination to be on the microphone.”
Even when Mathambo could be tempted to hop on the mic to make a point, he tends to speak through samples mined from all over the musical spectrum instead. “Black Rose” starts with a sample of Raven Taylor’s poem “How To Survive Being A Black Girl” explaining that existence and activism are one in the same before launching into a strobing and stomping celebration of black beauty.
“I grew up on DJ Pooh, Bomb Squad, The Chronic, The RZA, The Coup,” Mathambo explained in regards to his affinity for sampling. “I grew up on Ice Cube’s The Predator, so the idea of having a ton of samples and skits, kind of defines albums for me, the albums that raised me. It really miffed me out that it was missing on my last Spoek Mathambo album and I had to get it in on this one.”
If all this sounds intimidating on paper, it’s not in practice. The various sounds of Mzansi Beat Code flow smoothly into one another without letting the spirit of celebration wane; the mark of any good DJ. Mathambo’s mix is as easy to jump into as a 4/4 drum pattern.
“My intention is always to open up new ways of hearing the music, to open up new possibilities for the sound. And to have a ton of fun whilst doing that,” he said. “Whether people are familiar or unfamiliar with SA dance music, I want to show them another approach, the Spoek Mathambo approach.”
Check out Mzansi Beat Code below via NPE and hear “the Spoek Mathambo approach” for yourself.
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Mzansi Beat Code is out April 14. Pre-order it here.