Happiness Machinesby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 02.09.2013
In writing about P.H.fat, it is essential to not only dissect the music, but the trajectory which their career has taken since they, to paraphrase Gangstarr, stepped into the arena. Each one of their two projects to date – 2011’s Dinosaur Blood and last year’s You are going to die – were received with egregious enthusiasm amongst the bass-hungry, (mostly) white, university-going festival hoppers; both Smooth Mike and Disco Izrael have dabbled in side-projects of their own – the former’s Brainwarmth with producer Oolex, and the latter’s collaboration with glitch-hop royalty Dank as Sedge Warbler. In just under five years, with multiple cross-country tours under their belts, they’ve built a cult audience of believers whose mission in life is to “get down like animals” because, hey, people like animals, right?!
Two years before their debut, childhood friends Mike Zietsman and Nazieg Isepi were in the trenches laying the foundation for their music careers. Disco Izrael, on the other hand, had been in a group with his childhood friend, the illustrious illustrator-cum-designer-cum-rapper Lisolomzi Pikoli, better known as Fuzzy Slipperz. How the two duos overlapped is not clear, but the result was Disco joined P.H.fAT and Fuzzy going on to form other rap projects. P.H.fat steadily built a decent following, performing their sleaze-favouring abstract raps in front of half-full audiences and handing out CD-R copies of selected tunes for promo. I still have mine, a white Princo with their e-mail address on the surface, encased in a flimsy paper sleeve framing a translucent screen. There was no tracklisting – evidence of sloppiness, perhaps, or a manifestation of the ‘take-it-how-you-want’ attitude that has pervaded their craft thus far?
By the first album, it was neck-snapping season. In unison, their growing legion of ‘dinosaurs’ confessed their undying love for Mzansi’s “Big Five” while concurrently conversing about “dinosaur blood, and thugs, and lions” to the title track’s dizzying bass synth. Life suddenly made sense when, buoyed by Narch’s incessant bass grooves and polished, G-funk-era synths, thousands of festival revellers stomped, stuttered, and stripped the ground of its soul by affirming that they “loved animals”.
P.H.fAT’s tour schedule got more relentless. They traversed the coast and took a dip in-land, to the hinterlands of Jozi where the STR CRD massive showed them some inner-city affection. Sponsorships came gliding; Puma and Jaeger were interested, and television too was playing their videos. Even superstars came knocking – they had a joint on Jack Parow’s last outing, for instance. The second EP You are going to die said to its recipients: have me for free under a Creative Commons licence, or pay what you want.
“The title is about presenting the idea that your own death is a certainty; which is just about the only message we can give to the world with any certainty”, they stated in an interview.
Narch’s sound was also evolving, at times opting for earth-shattering break-beats to be central to the mix, in stark contrast to the head-splitting incessant bass which had characterised their first project. When he wasn’t telling self-respecting bassheads to jump, Disco Izrael dexterously perfected the art of abstract narrative on “1989”, a stomping barnyard of big beats, deeper basslines, and incredible rhyme technique. While Mike’s lyrics may wander into existential terrain, what Max Barashenkov called “an aural expression of a creative mind[…] withdrawn into one’s own paranoia and fears,” Disco goes full-retard over beats with his deconstructed flow, taking shots at dudes whose girls Mike has had carnal relations with; being Wolfgang Amadeus (Mozart?); and rolling on his feet because his skateboard’s broken. “You are going to die” effectively announced that, hey, you can’t say fuck on the radio and get away with it. The radio ran with it – 5FM no less!
Two days before Madiba’s birthday, a trailer appeared online announcing a new project to be released on the 22nd July. Then a video, their lead-single entitled “House of clashes”. They’d never really left, but it felt good to have them on computer screens; on blogs and social media platforms; and on the radio, damn, the radio! The first free release crashed their server. One wonders whether the machines were able to withstand the pressure this time around if, according to Twitter, they got “between 5 and six times as many downloads on the first day” as You are going to die. Then the complements came, first from the Cape Town producer community congratulating Narch on his commensurate production skills, then from their fanbase which appreciated the album’s fullness. “I feel it’s a very complete product”, Disco Izrael told Rob Cockcroft.
Indeed, the album is as much Mike and Disco’s rap canvas as it is Narch’s production landscape, a broadsheet for the forlorn producer to experiment with his new-found love for analogue gadgets. Some of the best highlights come when he’s left to his elements, beats with no rappers to think about (see “Butterfly Stroke” and “Snacks” for evidence). The overall product brims with interlocutors of unplanned-for rowdiness and certified back/forth and side-to-side head-nodding bangers. The bounce remains central, the bass as powerful! There’s a marked improvement in the rhyme schemes – Mike sounds smoother and more assured, sometimes to the point of cockiness (“everybody’s always tryna tell me how to flex, shit/ fuck you/ i’m making music that i love dude”, he zaps the critics in “Facepaint”. Disco? Well, the circles he rapped on previous albums have become deeply-entrenched anomalies of darker, dastardly matter. He’s essentially miles ahead of anyone else trying to out-rap him!
The content can be debated for days on end: what does it all mean? Who is it all for? And, oh my god, the misogyny! Yes, everything else can be addressed, but those would be mere destructions from what is central to Happiness Machines – the music!
*Shortly after releasing this album, P.H.Fat announced that Disco has decided to leave the group. Read the full statement here.
*Illustrations © Jason de Villiers.