Kool Katby Ts'eliso Monaheng / 31.05.2013
From the moment we heard their Michael Jackson-referencing, 80s disco-inspired songs from “Greatest hits Vol.1“, we knew that Dirty Paraffin were onto something. But we lay low, waiting to be transformed from mere spectators of their technicolour blog into firm believers in the healing power of Okmalumkoolkat and DJ SpiZee’s hyperactive pantsula-inspired techno groove. And believers we eventually became. Ever since linking up with London-based outfit LV on ‘Boomslang’, Dirty Paraffin have managed to curate a sustained interest in their craft – branching out into side-projects (Okzharp), collaborating with like-minded musical matadors (Big FKN Gun, Spoek Mathambo), and demonstrating a singular vision and conviction to their art-meets-life approach to music. So when the opportunity presented itself, we couldn’t resist asking a couple of questions, from the mundane (yes, we already knew that they were from KZN), to the outright ridiculous (one question elicited the response “Clearly you haven’t listened to my music.”) Overall, it was an informative exchange, one which you should check out below.
Mahala: Malume we know you used to work at the Nike gallery back in the day. How did you make the transition to music full time? Do you still have a day job to make ends meet? If so what?
Okmalumkoolkat: The bungee jump from a secure job at Nike was a test to myself, around about the time I had realized that I am here to really change the mindscape of people through the arts. Music happened to be the artform that confirmed I had what it takes to really do it.
I do not have a nine to five. I don’t actually know how I have been living, scraps here and there. Dirty Paraffin this week, DJ Zharp Zharp the other, Okmalumkoolkat brings in money too.
Tell us the Malumkoolkat founding myth. Where did you grow up? How did you get into music? What were your early influences?
I was born in Umlazi, Durban, and then moved to Bonela, Mayville in my teens. My biggest influence would be radio, Ukhozi FM to be exact. The playlist was incredible. We didn’t have records or CD players at home. I got into picking up good music from a young age, chasing beats and melodies.
I started writing poetry in high school, but at that time I was in a dance crew and I didn’t like the poetry scene for some reason. Maybe because most people from that scene acted like they were deeper than your swimming pool. So, I wrote poems, songs that I never got to recite or perform.
We had to get nine to fives to survive so that kind of faded into the background. But you know what they say about these creative energies, once they are let out they never really leave. So I started to working on flows and started writing Dirty Paraffin’s Greatest Hits Mixtape Vol. 1 and the rest, as they say, is history.
We’re aware that DJ SpiZee, your partner in Dirty Paraffin, used to be friends with your brother. Is that how you met?
No, its actually the other way around – I’m college friends with his brother, Sanele Xolo. After college, he came up to work and live with his brother Zamani (Dokta SpiZee). My crew was always made up of big dreamers, you know. So, he called me up and told me to come along and I thought it was a good idea. I had never been out of Durban before that. I was 23. So we were all crashing at Dokta SpiZee’s spot and we kind of ignited the flame in the good Dokta.
As far as collecting tapes is concerned, what part of your collection was from dubbing songs on the radio? What part was from stealing your parent’s tapes? What was the first album you purchased yourself?
Back in the 90s I would use a couple TDK tapes to dub my favourite songs and play them over and over to learn the lyrics. I actually started buying music when I started working professionally. I have fallen off collecting music. I am collecting my own thoughts and philosophies and putting them down on records nowadays.
How do you think 80s/early-90s culture found its way into your music?
It’s a no-brainer. The 90s were my early teen years and some people get stuck at that age forever. I think I am an adult 15 year old version of myself.
What do you like most about this era of South African music?
Kwaito was agressive and flexed the feeling of freedom, house was creeping in, a strong hip hop scene was a very rare thing in most cities. Some musicians that made disco in the 80s, started making ‘world’ music in the 90s, it was a time to experiment. Internationally, Dr. Alban was blowing up, Shabba Ranks was blowing up, Heavy D was dropping a verse on Michael Jackson’s Bad. It was the smell of opportunity!
What about the ANC/IFP fights during those times, do they feature heavily in shaping who you’ve become today?
Yeah, it made me realise how bad it could get if people get misinformed. That’s why spreading information is one of my strongest points. We need to grow a nation.
Some people acknowledge the place of their origin as influencing their music. Is there any relation to the music KZN is known for (i.e. iscathamiya, mbhaqanga) and your sound? Your track “But’yan’chaza”, for instance, has elements of scathamiya vocalisation. Is this coincidence? Are we reading too much into it?
I was in a scathamiya group in primary school, I sang in choirs but I was never great. As a people we sing a lot in KwaZulu. Mbhaqanga, Mgqashiyo, Maskandi was all embeded in me before I knew who Mozart was.
About that, do you feel that some people over-intellectualise your sound?
Only intellectuals would do that and that’s what they do. I recorded the record, my part is done. Let them play their part.
Please define the concept of “primustof” music. What about “shambeez”, what’s that all about? Explain it please?
Primustof is reminiscent of the times we were so poor we didn’t have electricity. We would use this paraffin fuelled Primus stove. We feel like we want people to remember how far we have come as a nation and how far we need to go. Hence the heritage references with the futuristic take. Shambeez is slang for crazy, in most parts of South Africa actually.
Dirty Paraffin seems to have gained traction amongst the kool kids of Mzansi. Do you ever fear that it’s all you’ll ever become, a novelty act?
I don’t know what a novelty act means, but only time will tell.
How do you feel about the term ‘black hipster’? The kids in Maboneng, Braamfontein and STR CRD… And how do you feel about the idea you represent them?
First of all I think the term ‘black hipster’ is wack and kind of borderline racist. I have never heard ‘Indian hipster/ Chinese hipster/ white hipster’ they seem to fall under the hipster umbrella. Kill that noise. As far as I understand, the hipster is fuelled by information, knowing thyself and what you like and living progressively. That’s what I am about, I represent myself.
We’ve noticed that you’ve done some work with European cultural institutions in South Africa (eg. Goethe-Institut, British Council). How do you, as an artist, reconcile the atrocities these nations may have committed on the African continent in the past with what they are trying to plough back into African society? Have you felt wronged, undermined, or censored while working under those institutions? Is there a feeling of contradiction, or are you just happy for the opportunity to pursue your art.
I really enjoyed working on those projects. If I thought like that, then I wouldn’t be doing this interview, because Andy Davis [Mahala’s founding editor] is white. I wouldn’t use this laptop from Apple because Steve Jobs, who is also white, was behind it. Should I paint a bigger picture? Dr. Langalibalele Dube was sent to school by missionaries, he started the African National Congress. Go figure.
The content of your lyrics is reminiscient of early 90s kwaito: care-free, ‘let’s-have-a-good-time’, monate fela! In a lot of ways they reflect your surroundings. Is that important to you, to speak of what you see and how you live (eg. references to Rea Vaya buses, ‘on-line speak’, your twitter and tumblr)?
Yes. Listening to American rappers, you end up researching a lot about their culture just so you could figure out what they mean in those songs. It should be the same for us. I am sure listening to my music has pushed some people to learn a bit of Zulu here and there. It’s all about change.
Are you planning to get more serious, political and social in your music, or will it always be good times tunes with a distinctive geographic relevance (Jozi)?
Clearly you haven’t listened to my music.
What model are you currently using to push your music? Do you think it is sustainable in current-day South Africa?
My songs are not products, they are messages. Some people understand them.
How do you feel about Spoek Mathambo and his music?
That’s my brother, he is super talented.
Who inspires you most in (South African, African and international) music right now?
Lil B, Mpharanyana, Mos Def, MF Doom, Bhekumuzi Luthuli… My iTunes has been on shuffle for the past six years.
For the music and the scene you represent, where to from here?
Was isPantsula big when you were growing up? Matter of fact, didn’t you used to be a dancer at some point? On a scale of one to gumbafaya, how would you rate your dancing skills? And why did you stop anyway?
I haven’t stopped since I met this pantsula crew that used to rehearse at my cousin’s house in ’95.
How do you feel about skothane culture?
I thinks its as relevant as the London Mods and the Japanese dandies. South Africa is just not used to appreciating their own, even when they know the situations that created them.
Currently, there’s this new wave of kids, dancers, who are incorporating all manner of South African dance into their moves. For instance, this one crew called Clinch were telling us about fusing sbujwa with their hip hop dance routines for the Beat Battle finals. What is your opinion on that? Is it necessary? Will it fall by the wayside? Do you see it growing?
South African youth has always been remixing foreign culture. It’s a good thing. Europeans and Americans do the same with so much pizazz. We are getting there, we live in a global, remember? It’s kind of like how ‘mahala’ is from ‘mahhala’ which is slang for ‘free’. It’s all about appropriation.
Arthur Mafokate made quite a killing back in the day making songs about dance styles. Which dance style is your favourite? In fact, please give us a top five of your “tracks to groove mindlessly to”.
Taxi Driver (I remixed Lil B’s cooking dance with references of South African Taxi Driver)
Durban Double Step
Lil B’s cooking dance
Insimbi footwork (my old dance crew, Insimbi, came up with that)
Finally, what should people expect at your performance this weekend at the Red Bull Beat battle?