Clyde Macfarlane talks to the enigmatic South African rapper/DJ
Circa 2009, ‘the prince of township tech’ was the self-appointed title of South African rapper/DJ Spoek Mathambo. An intriguing juxtaposition; Spoek was the first person to put these two words together, defining an urban sound that combined the most underground of UK genres – grime, dubstep and punk – with Johannesburg’s homegrown South African house.
He gained popularity in the UK through a Joy Division cover, re-working ‘She’s Lost Control’ with a nightmarishly unforgettable music video (see below). With stark images of black, white, death and zombified followers, it painted an image of Spoek, currently on tour promoting his new album Father Creeper, that I was keen to break down.
I open our conversation with “what is township tech?”, which could just as well be rephrased as “who is Spoek Mathambo?” The question falls flat on its face.
“Township tech? No, that has nothing to do with me now. I don’t think styling was as specific on Father Creeper as on my first album. You won’t learn anything about me personally. I was unable to create alternative characters and I was unable to write much about myself. It’s not in anyway a reflection of my childhood, it’s a reflection of now – when I’m in South Africa, what I see and hear in South Africa; when I’m not in South Africa, what I see and hear around the world.”
Talk me through the ‘She’s Lost Control’ cover.
A friend of mine from Johannesburg, Richard the Third, started a project covering 80s synth-pop South African songs. It was also influenced by South African house music, which grew out of the angst and tension of apartheid. We experimented with two 80s songs from abroad – Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’ and Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control.’ For me, listening to that music had a similar feeling, a similar tension and angst to a lot of post-punk stuff that I’d heard from South Africa. I wanted to make the link that was obvious to me, all that frustration. I was basically illustrating that link in covering ‘She’s Lost Control,’ and I was lucky to work with a great South African director, Pieter Hugo, on that.
How are music and politics connected in South Africa?
South African musicians used to get banned or thrown into jail for being political, but this didn’t stop them. The only solution was to go into exile, which they did. Now we don’t have to, although our music is no more political – being a free country hasn’t let through a watershed of suppressed voices. People do often try and read political themes into my songs just because of South Africa’s recent history. Some of the stuff I do is vaguely political, but I don’t want that wash over the stuff that isn’t, the love songs or the danceable songs. I would say my music was inspired by that energy and that fight during apartheid, by musicians like Hugh Masekela 30 years ago, or Miriam Makeba 50 years ago.
What’s your attraction to horror films?
Aesthetically they just took my interest, not so much horror as spiritual thrillers. It’s a common theme in Nigerian cinema, they’re not really horror movies per se. Ideas of the devil and hell or the priest who claims to have super powers, stuff like that. I find it interesting, because a lot of that is happening across Africa. A lot of evangelist churches are coming up. There’s also a huge wave of Christian conservatism sweeping over the continent, and my work with horror is in many ways a reaction to that. On the one hand I’m just playing with the powerful aesthetics of Nollywood thrillers, on the other it’s my reaction to extreme Christian conservatism. This one dude I produce and play with here, he hates the horror side of my work. It freaks out his family and I can’t argue with that!
Are you a Christian?
No, not at all. I wouldn’t say I was strongly opposed, but I do think Christianity has screwed up things for a lot of people. It would be terrible to continue that. Street preachers are common in Cape Town. You can see them on trains preaching, and people, often young kids, are effectively held captive in our tight train carriages while they’re streaming the gospel. I’ve seen two preachers per carriage. Preaching in that confined environment is completely independent of the energy they possess when they preach in the street. Their powers are running out. And in reaction to them, the kids – just like at the end of the ‘She’s Lost Control’ video – have a knowledge and a power of their own. They react in an aggressive way – the kids are the ones who are taking control now.
Father Creeper is released by Sub Pop Records