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Culture, Music

The Heart of Zefness

by Dave Durbach, images by Lauren Mulligan / 18.12.2010

“Go Ninja, go Ninja go!” On stage is a white guy in shorts famous for his box-top cut and razor sharp lines. We’re deep in the East Rand, under a neon circus tent. The crowd is ecstatic – and he’s working them into a frenzy. It could be another Antwoord gig . . . but it isn’t. It’s the theme song to the Ninja Turtles movie. It’s not Watkin Tudor Jones, it’s Robert van Winkle. It’s Vanilla fucking Ice. “I can’t believe y’all still remember that shit!” he shouts. Me neither.

Ice launches into his take on that cornball classic “Play that Funky Music”. “I can’t believe y’all still remember that shit!” he says again, this time to himself. He’s joined on stage by a drummer called Clint Eastwood and DJ Dirty Chopstix. Before long he’s working up a sweat with his new single “Born on Halloween.” 20 years after his first and only hit and fresh from the success of his new reality show, Ice is Back – but with the same old intention. What could be the secret to his longevity? “I’m gonna take a moment to have me a beer,” he tells the crowd. “I’m gonna have me one of those Castle Lite Beers . . . y’all seen the commercial?” Soul’d out, as always.

Soon enough the moment everyone has been waiting for arrives. Queen’s “Under Pressure” bass riff. Cue silver confetti falling from heaven. Ice invites willing ladies on stage. This being Boksburg though, he can’t be too fussy. They flock to the spotlight, overweight, underage or just plain ugly. The guy next to me is on his phone for the whole song, telling his pal he’s at the concert listening to “Ice Ice Baby”. When it ends, the crowd retracts. “Can you believe I wrote that song at the age of 16?” Ice boasts. “It went on to sell 48 million copies. What the hell… and now I’m in South Africa!”

“But it’s not all about the oldskool . . .” he urges, launching into another song from his new album WTF. “Turn it up” is Eminem trapped in a Wildside teen rave. Did you just claim it was nmber 1 in the UK, Vanilla? Nooit. He ends his set with another of his “modern classics” – “Hot Sex”, urging “all the horny people in the house make some noise!”
No, no Boksburg! Keep it to yourselves.

Not your usual hipster circle-jerk, it takes time to acclimatise to the East Rand’s complete lack of pretension. Black and white, young and old – all terminally uncool but determined to make the most of it. One boytjie is dressed like Flava Flav, dancing on stage in his Woolies vest and orange pant. The clock around his neck smacks him in the face as he jumps off the stage.

Turbo B - Snap

Here is a land which time forgot. The irony of getting these ridiculous 90s pop acts here is lost on them. Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer – even Turbo B from Snap, who opened the show – have always been cool here. Immune to global trends, perhaps, things here don’t come and go. Music simply exists – either it’s lekker or it’s kak. This is 94.7 Highveld Stereo territory. In a suburban mall-casino with a circus theme, with peroxided faux-hawks, camo cargo pants, spandex tank tops, jerseys tied around waists and high heels boots at every turn (…and that was just the guys!), it’s just about as zef as it gets.

The only thing showing we’re not stuck at a gig 20 years ago is that every second person watches the performance through their Blackberry or digital camera. Others keep it real (real kak) by waving a glow stick in the air or wearing fluorescent devils horns.

Between sets a DJ is smaaking the vibe. He hits play on his Bump treffers CD, unleashing a flurry of torrid tunes, much to the delight of the audience. They haven’t listened to this stuff in days… “Everybody Dance Now”, “You got to show me Love”, “I like to move it move it,” “Back to the middle and round again”, “Sing Hallelujah”, “This is the Rhythm of the Night”. I was around in the 90s, and even then I had taste. This music was kak then, so why would I enjoy it now? Wouldn’t that make me a hypocrite? Give me New Jack Swing, give me grunge, any day – but to cherish the euro-house from this era, especially free of irony – just doesn’t make sense.

Of course most people at Carnival City would have disagreed. The DJ keeps pomping out the jams until the clock hits Hammertime. Dressed in a baggy tuxedo and Nike sneakers (“Where your pants?” shouts one chop nearby), MC Hammer at least has enough of a repertoire for people to be familiar with his whole set. He warms up with “Turn this Mother Out” before bringing a guest singer on stage to help out on covers of the Chi-Lites’ soppy soul standard “Have you seen her?” and Luther Vandross’s “Keep On” – according to Hammer that was Tupac’s favourite song of his. Then he launches into his four most famous hits, back to back – the Addams family theme, “Pray”, “2 Legit 2 Quit” and “U can’t touch this”. It’s an energetic, choreographed performance – not bad for an old man – with backing dancers straight out of In Living Color.

MC Hammer

For a grand finale he calls Ice and the audience back on stage. With minimal security around, the stage descends into a free-for-all of Boksburg booty-shaking, running men, robots and sprinklers – and the ubiquitous Blackberry photo posing.

Like I said, I was there the first time. I memorized the words to “Ice Ice Baby”, watched Hammer’s talking shoes on KTV. But by the age of 10, I had learnt better. Those were not the good old days – least of all musically. While it’s great we can provide some income to three washed-out rappers before they retire, are we really such suckers for nostalgia? Why are the only “stars” coming here all decades past their sell-by dates? Roxette, Duran Duran, Public Enemy, the Beach Boys, U2, Rammstein, Ice and Hammer – better than nothing, but is that really all we’re good for?

Some memories are best left in the past.

Famous last words: “Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated… I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride… of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: ‘The horror! The horror!’” – Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness.

*All images Lauren Mulligan.

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