The Mix Masterby Ts’eliso Monaheng / Images by Ference Isaacs and Jason Wessels / 16.04.2013
When we finally meet, during soundcheck for the monthly parties he throws in conjunction with fellow ChiefRockers Falko and Eazy, DJ Azuhl apologizes profusely for all the times he couldn’t make it. He keeps busy; between weekly gigs all over Cape Town, recently getting married, and shooting what he refers to only as “a pilot TV program” without providing further details, Azuhl is indeed preoccupied. Just this past week, he returned from a two-week residency at the Miami Music Week, played at Classic’s April edition (a monthly party he’s been running with Eazy and Falko for four years), and still had enough energy to hold audiences down at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
There are more projects in different stages of completion, along with the impending ten year anniversary celebrations of The Beatbangaz – the once-four, now-three-man deejay crew consisting of DJs Ready D, Azuhl, E-20, and Shamiel-X. The latter left amidst questionable circumstances; Azuhl does little to de-mystify the situation. But he offers more insight into everything related to Cape Town hip hop which, inevitably, is the story of the formative years of South African hip hop. Read on as he takes us through the early years of his career.
MAHALA: I remember your tweets one morning about your early days – how your father was a big influence, and how you got into buying records. Would you mind talking a bit about that?
DJ Azuhl: Between him and my uncle, they just loved music. I can remember as a kid, every Friday evening he’d come with at least ten records. And you know the thing, when you’re a kid you’re not allowed to touch the turntable. At the same time, we have the State of Emergency, a whole lot of madness going on; as a kid, you don’t really understand what’s happening around you. Though we were isolated from the rest of the world, the television at the time was very progressive in what they were pushing. I think the person that was pushing out the music videos was on acid or something. We used to get programs like Solid Gold; on television was where I saw my first hip hop video – ‘Hey DJ‘ by the World’s Famous Supreme Team, I’ll never forget it! There was an image of guys in Adidas track suits, white gloves; guys were spinning on their heads, some guy was talking over a beat. I’d heard this somewhere before, but now I saw it. Slowly every week, there were images of hip hop filtering through. I can remember seeing LL Cool J’s “I’m bad” on SABC.
Besides my dad collecting records, we were one of those ‘fortunate’ families in our hood that had a video machine, so we’d actually record these music videos. We had a collection of over 100 three-hour VHS Cassettes with all of these videos that we recorded every week! So that was my bonding session with my dad, because it was also at the time when him and my mom were going through a whole lot of shit, and I wasn’t given the light of day. But when it came to the music, we’d chill. Being a kid at the time, and also me just loving music, I would try to write the shit down, whatever these guys [were saying], from pop music to rap, whatever they were pushing out at the time.
How did you meet other like-minded kids in your hood? And what was it like growing up under the repressive State of Emergency on the Cape Flats?
You know you think that you’re the only kid that stumbled upon this gold, you’re so egotistical. Only to find out in your hood there are kids doing the same thing. That was a revelation for me! When I was in grade 7, I went with my mom to a place they call the Town Centre in Mitchell’s Plain. We went to OK Bazaar, there was a circle. Breakdancing, what the fuck! There are actually people that can breakdance?! I thought I’m the only guy! You also have to understand, where I come from, Mitchell’s Plain, the communities were isolated from each other. Never mind the country being isolated, or Mitchell’s Plain from Gugulethu or Khayelitsha or wherever; within the communities were fucked! Me living in Westridge, I wouldn’t know what’s happening in Rocklands. Years after when I met Falko, I discovered he lived probably a kilometer from me. I never knew this guy, and I always used to see his graffiti pieces. What used to happen was that security forces used to come in, people would obviously do their thing and protest. They (the armed forces) would make sure that they have beacons for the communities not to come in or go out at certain times. So you knew that there was a certain time that you can’t move, within your own fucking community.
Tell us about your first contact with hip hop.
Ja, we’re talking, I would say, ’85/’86. The first time I came into contact with hip hop was ’84. Being a little kid, seeing helicopters in the sky just shooting people, and you don’t know what the fuck’s happening, why were these people shooting at little kids?! And people just dropping, you know, because they got shot with rubber bullets. Schools being burnt, I didn’t understand. My father was an activist at the time; it’s kind of also… the vibe between him and my mother was that he was strong in his beliefs. My mother was like ‘I support you in this shit, but we need to make a living as a family. I can’t have you in this revolutionary shit!’ They always used to keep me away from that. When I used to ask them about ‘what is this Apartheid vibe, what the fuck’s happening?’ they wouldn’t give me answers. One night that I will not forget was a policeman coming knocking on our door and just taking my father. He never explained it to me until years later when I asked him what was up. It was because of some shit that he’d started at work, but anyway.
Back in those days you spent a lot of time in the Westridge Library literary archives?
I was a hermit basically; I used to spend a lot of time in the library. Even then, Westridge library were very progressive in what they had. So you would have ‘I write what I like’, you would have Malcom X, heavy stuff! Also at the time, we used to get the socially-conscious stuff filtering through hip hop music. I’d come out of the era of LL Cool J, Whodini, Fat Boys; that era of hip hop was all about braggadocio, just cool to be a rhymer. But now you get Public Enemy, a strange sound! Noise vibes, high-paced, talking about going back to Africa…fuck, I’m in Africa, why would you want to come here?! My time was spent in the library researching this as a kid; it was my first year in high school. It’s like a whole new world opens up in front of you, and at my school, I had progressive hip hoppers at the time that were legends that I didn’t even know. Mak-One was in my school, there was another guy called Neil Fiellies aka Zone Loc Dee). He was a very progressive deejay at the time, he was actually the guy that taught me how to deejay. He used to take a normal hi-fi to school and scratch. And I’m talking Terminator X cuts, on that level. With a hi-fi, using the phono switch! I made a conscious decision to pursue this hip hop thing; beginning to understand what it was, and meeting b-boy groups in and around Cape Town.
So how did you meet Ready D and what effect did that have on you and your direction?
The thing that opened my eyes was meeting Ready D. We’re talking ’88/’89. There was no P.O.C at the time, but there was this urban legend of this deejay that was just the shit. Like ‘he can scratch’ and I’m like ‘no he can’t, only Jam Master J can do that!’ To this day, there’s a community paper called The Plainsman, and there was this article about Ready D in a competition. As a kid I used to push trollies at OK Bazaar; Hit City was my main motivation for working there. I remember seeing this lady in this newspaper article, Sisters In Command. She walked past me, and I was like ‘you look familiar, are you in the group Sisters In Command. [She introduced herself as] Liezel, and today she’s Ready D’s wife. She was like ‘yeah, my sister and I are in a hip hop group and a b-boy crew, you should come to our house, you should meet Ready D.’
A couple of weeks went by without follow-up, because there were no cellphones. One day I was walking in town and who do I see?! Liezel, and she was walking with Ready D. He told me about this place called The Base, and asked me to make a turn. Where’s The Base? 88 Shortmarket Street. The following week I went to The Base, and that was game-over for me! I will never ever forget, there was a guy with a baseball bat and a long-ass ponytail, standing and telling people to get the fuck outta here, and that was Mr. Fat. He was the guy that chose which people went in and out. Luckily for me, I went in, went down this dark-ass place like ‘where am I?’ And I just heard this bass booming. B-boys, graffiti, guys exchanging cassettes in one corner; that was my proper induction into hip hop.
The Bass was a melting pot for creative minds. You also have to understand that it was still in the era of isolation, pre-’94. I used to get all my black consciousness information at The Bass; they used to have the Nation of Islam. Besides sharing music, you’d meet heads from other communities. I met the likes of Falko, Dream Team, who’d later become the dancers for P.O.C, members of Black Noyz, all these ghetto superstars. So that was my introduction to hip hop. Ever since that time, I would religiously go to D’s house every weekend; I would even cut school. Read D used to live about 7km from my house, so I would walk from Rocklands to Lentegeur. At times, he would not be at home. I would walk for an hour and a half only for his mother to tell me ‘this bra’s not here.’ So I had the option to wait or to go back. You had to battle the elements: either gangsters chasing you, or security police asking you what the fuck! I’d go to his house religiously, watching him work, seeing the formulation of P.O.C, also inspiring me to start my own crew at school. But I had other sinister plans. My plan was to spy on what this guy was doing, get the information, and become better than him! That whole battle vibe was very prevalent. But I have to give props to that man and his crew for allowing me to grow and see a lot of stuff.