To an outsider, South Africa’s music sphere appears volatile and unpredictable. The cultural hangover that the apartheid left in its wake rendered individual scenes divisive at best, and insular at worst. As such, it’s fascinating to hear DJ Lag imply that gqom, the hybrid strain of South African house that he played a singular role in proliferating, had to break out internationally before receiving even a modicum of attention in South Africa outside his home city of Durban, where he and a band of peers laid its foundations.
“For me, it really helped because when the international crowd started taking note of the sound, gqom became a big thing in South Africa as well. People who didn’t know about gqom in South Africa got word of it because of the international exposure, and they started searching for it, trying to get the music, and it became a big thing in the past two years”, he explains.
It’s been a couple of years since gqom first made the headlines. In 2015 its international hype compounded tenfold, as tastemaker and Hyperdub mastermind Kode 9 had begun to incorporate the sound into his sets after an introduction by South African-born Hyperdub signee OKZharp. This push thrust gqom into what relative limelight these pockets of electronic music can offer, and the genre caught the attention of Moleskin, who operates Goon Club Allstars; the London label responsible for Lag’s first release proper. He has previously spoken humbly of his disbelief that a label from outside Durban would even hear his work, let alone release it.
And yet, occupying a void between raw and refined and provoking a more bodily response with each new track, Lag’s brand of gqom has since catapulted him to notoriety on the international circuit. It’s been around two years since gqom broke out, and I’m intrigued as to how it’s international communities of avid fans have influenced its communicative effects back home. He simply states:
“When people from South Africa found out that a South African genre was being played a lot internationally, that’s when they woke up and started taking notice of it.”
This statement speaks to a wider, deeper paradox that seems to plague contemporary musical styles with their roots in South Africa. In a recent conversation I had with DJ Okapi, he spoke of the strange reticence South African music fans have towards music that originates from their home. Perhaps an amalgamation of nuanced sociopolitical reasons is to blame, and yet the same story is told of each widely adored South African export: they must prove their worth internationally before finding their footing in their country of origin.
However, thanks to the tireless graft of DJ Lag and his contemporaries Rudeboyz, Emo Kid, Dominowe and countless others, gqom’s reputation the world over has resulted in its eventual embrace by their home country. Now, “for sure, gqom is getting bigger and bigger. The sound is taking over South Africa. Every club and every radio station – they play gqom” Lag discloses proudly.
The vocal strain of the genre has proven particularly popular, with records by Distruction Boyz and Babes Wodumo enjoying enormous success. The former’s 2017 debut album Gqom Is The Future was even awarded gold certification by the Recording Industry of South Africa as recognition for it having sold over 20,000 copies.
Lag says “there were vocalist growing up alongside Gqom producers, and as we grew, so do they, but I honestly feel like Babes Wodumo brought gqom to the mainstream with ‘Wololo’”. Taking in the trademark gut-wrenching gqom grooves that Lag employs and icing them with impossibly catchy hooks, ‘Wololo’ is a deserving breakout. And yet, once again, this is a success story marred by controversy. I am noticing a macabre pattern emerging. As she released follow-up single ‘Mercedes’, Wodumo instantly found herself the subject of a tabloid with-hunt “The lyrics on the tracks were open to interpretation, and a lot of people thought they had bad meanings, like referencing drugs” Lag explains, which led to the track being banned from the airwaves by the SABC.
In spite of these setbacks, Lag is perfectly optimistic about gqom’s future, and charmingly humble. He’s also refreshingly grounded in comarison to the lavish imagery of the gold-certified producer-vocalists Distruction Boyz. “I can say for myself that I will continue touring the world, pushing the sound abroad. I want to make it recognizable to everyone in the world. I’m dropping my next EP in April under London based label Goon Club Allstars. And of course, continuing my worldwide tour, visiting new countries and revisiting others.”
It’s not all he’s got on the horizon. As he continues his world tour, he has the following to look forward to: “The international crowd is completely different to Durban crowd and how they react to GQOM music is a bit different. In Durban when GQOM is playing, we’ve got a unique way of dancing which is called ‘bang’, whereas all over the world they just go crazy with no specific style.”
The frenzy of the international dancer is hardly surprising. To have led the way on a vital genre borne of a DIY movement at the age of 21 is enough to incite envy and awe in equal measure.
Back in the day, techno was such a boy’s club. You could count the ladies on the international stage on one hand. At one point, way back in the Nineties, there was just Eindhoven’s Miss Djaxx (owner of the mighty Djaxx-Up-Beats label). Then Grenoble’s Miss Kittin and Zywiec/Detroit’s Magda appeared in the late Nineties (plus doubtless one or two others, now forgotten). With pioneering auteurs such as Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Tron etc), Delia Derbyshire (BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and Cosey Fanni Tutti (Throbbing Gristle/Chris & Cosey) having done so much for electronic music in its early years, why should it just be the preserve of the men?
Attitudes have changed a fair bit of late and it’s more than a little bit refreshing to see so many women forging an international following as techno artists in 2018. Lena Willikens and Violet (aka Ines Countinho) are two such women and we’re proud to be hosting them, thanks to ace party-starters Lionoil. Each comes with no shortage of props and with good reason…
Willikens is a resident at Düsseldorf institution Salon des Amateurs, nearby her hometown, Cologne. She’s released on Cómeme, and as a firm member of the tribe she presents a monthly radio show ‘Sentimental Flashback’, which is class and very highly regarded. A packed diary with appearances at Panorama Bar, Berghain, Corsica, Concrete and Dekmantel alongside her long running residency tells you all you need to know about her prowess as a selector.
Violet is a relative newcomer to the international circuit, but with an equally expansive portfolio. Founder of Rádio Quântica in her hometown, Lisbon, she started the naive label last year and made a very strong impression at Berlin Atonal festival last year (recording below, so so dope). There is a strong political dimension to Ines’ work; organising a series of all-female techno releases for International Womens Day, which began with her 2014 cover of Detroit classic ‘Transition’ by Underground Resistance, which attracted much praise from the dance music community and UR themselves.
This interview Willikens gave to Alasdair King for The Ransom Note is fairly revealing:
The sky is an unpleasant shade of ominous grey as I walk amidst the hustle and bustle of Kingsland Road. It’s a moody Friday afternoon in East London and there is a stark chill in the air, summer seems far away. That evening Lena Willikens would play all night long alongside her old friend Valdimir Ivkovic at a warehouse space on the shadowy outskirts of town, the flickering lights of the city but a distant glimmer against the deep black of night.
I meet the pair at Gillet Square around rush hour and am greeted with polite smiles and handshakes, both Lena and Vladimir have been on the road for quite some time, there’s no exit route in sight. As disc jockeys and artists affiliated with electronic music they seem far removed from the stereotypical intricacies many whom spend their nights beneath the glow of lights often portray. There is a humble honesty to the way in which they speak and present themselves, this was not “the dream” but a reality based upon an array of spectacular circumstances and events which helped shape a career.
It is hard not to reference Düsseldorf at this point.
Salon des Amateurs remains a sparkling example of an institution which has helped define a narrative within a particular niche of music. It is more than simply a club but a state of mind and the perfect representation of in which music meets environment. There isn’t a stereotypical sound but a sense of understanding as to the history which exists behind each of the founders and to whom the environment is curated for. Both Lena and Vladimir have held long residencies at the club in recent years, honing their craft and expanding their breadth of knowledge along the way.
Lena talks about the early days of the club.
“In the beginning Salon was not supposed to be a club at all, it was just a place to meet, hang and listen to music. During the first few years it attracted a lot of people who couldn’t really name what it was, they didn’t understand what was happening there. There were huge queues on a Saturday night and we would run a really strict door. People played free jazz records at ‘peak time’ and there wasn’t even supposed to be a ‘peak time’. All of a sudden so many people started coming and were interested in dancing to weird shit and this led to the first regular party every weekend. I wasn’t djing back then but Vladimir was, for me it was just really welcoming and about sharing new music that we discovered. It wasn’t about DJ egos.”
The club acted as a gateway and helped form the basis of an ideology which many of those associated with Salon des Amateurs have since adopted. Just as the parties were free natured and unconfined so must be the belief system behind the people playing the records. In fact, even the notion of a “DJ” in a formal context remains up for debate when referencing the musical trajectory and style of Lena Willikens.
“For me it (the club) was super important. Without it I might never have started dj’ing and running my own nights. There wouldn’t be this belief in sharing music. It’s never been about ‘dj skills’, that was never the focus, just the music. Logically becoming a ‘dj’ was never something I intended and I still have a hard time identifying myself with the profession. However, sometimes it really amuses me. I enjoy reading the faces after telling people ‘i’m a ‘dj” and guessing the stereotypical images in their heads…”
Whilst the club acted as an entry point for Lena there have been several chance encounters which have helped her navigate through the collision course that is modern day electronic music. Cómeme, the imprint run by Matias Aguayo aided in the output of her first EP back in 2015 whilst her long standing radio show “Sentimental Flashback” was also hosted on the label’s illustrious radio station for a number of years. However, these opportunities were not sought but granted, an ethos which Lena has applied to the way in which she lives her life day by day. She smiles with genuine honesty as she reflects on her aspirations, or not, as they may be.
“All my life I’ve refused to think about ‘becoming something’. Having a profession has always felt weird and wrong. I try to stay an amateur and don’t let too much routine into the game. I try to avoid repeating myself too much, in order not to bore myself. I’m not someone who looks back much and I’ve never enjoyed picturing the future.”
There is very much a priority placed upon the present, throughout our conversation this becomes clear and apparent in regard to a variety of circumstances and life choices, not just musically but across the board… When asked about the nature of stereotypes and her somewhat abstract take on the world of dance music she laughs and relays the manifesto. It’s admirable to say the least.
“It’s neither a choice nor an accident. It´s a consequence of what I’ve done in my life so far, and which people I’ve met. I was lucky to meet a bunch of wonderful open minded people at Salon des Amateurs and in the Cómeme crew, all are dedicated to music and willing to share. Stereotypes are boring and for me it’s more of an instinct to avoid them in order to keep me going. Not only in music but in life in general.”
Little is certain and self reflection has the potential to bore and tire. Why look back? This brings us to the conclusion of our conversation, a refreshing insight into the nature of the mindful experience behind the booth which is often forgotten. Having reconciled the nature of musical discovery and the importance of a humble presentation Lena places emphasis on how best to proceed in an era in which analysis and saturated opinions far too often have the last word. If you weren’t there then what do you know?
“I really enjoy creating special moments together with people who are willing to go on a journey with me. It’s over when the lights turn on and these moments become something else in your memory – but cannot be reproduced. It’s not creative detachment, I think it’s actually the opposite. In order to create something in the moment, which I can identify with, I have to be emotionally connected with the music and the crowd. Listening back to a live recording is frustrating because too much information is missing and sometimes I just can´t recreate the feeling of the night in my head. It tries to capture something which cannot be captured. From the temperature of the room to the smell, the mood of the crowd, the atmosphere behind the bar, and so on… It’s not just the DJ and their music that’s involved in creating something that’s special, or something that’s not.”
And this interview with Violet (courtesy of laccroix.com) is equally enlightening:
Almost ten years ago, when Myspace was the best option to listen and discover new talent that was only at a distance of a mouse click, A.M.O.R., two female rappers from Lisbon (Violet and Honey), catch my attention with intelligent lyrics, really peculiar flow and beats that blended Hip Hop, Grime, Dubstep and blinking the eye to other musical hybrids. I never stop following them since then and what a better moment to ask Violet (Inês Coutinho) for an interview if not right now, following her recent collaboration with Versace for SS16 Haute Couture show?
Lacroixx: I will begin by saying that I still proudly keep your first mixtape, the CD-R “Cor-de-Rosa” from A.M.O.R., a captivating work since the beginning which let us with powerful tracks like “Game Over” or “Abecedário”. How did the group start to take form with your “partner in crime” Honey?
Violet: Aw, thank you – means a lot to know you got it at the time. It all began almost 10 years ago in Lisbon. It literally started on a specific day – 5th October 2006. It was a holiday and we had nothing to do – Maria (Honey) is my cousin and we would hang out a lot. We both loved hip hop, especially Portuguese hip hop, and we both had a vein for creating so we thought we’d write a lyric over a Sam The Kid beat off of his “Beats Vol.1 – Amor” album. We recorded it on my laptop, uploaded it to MySpace and from then on we just kept them coming.
A.M.O.R released in 2013 the excellent début album “∞” where Rap merges with instrumentals that go beyond Hip Hop. Can we expect the same irreverence in future works from A.M.O.R.?
Yes, I think that will always be inevitable for us. We relate to a vibe, not a genre – and it’s definitely a futuristic yet super emotional thing that we aim for. I feel like in the end, it is hip hop to be fair – just not a revival type of hip hop. We’ll definitely keep that edge in any music we put out in the future – we really can’t help it!
You were initially working with talented producers and beatmakers inside your group of friends like DJ Núcleo till you start producing your own music. How did Violet moniker and solo work start to take form?
Our first beat was by DJ Núcleo (Abecedário) and then we got some stuff from Photonz for “Game Over” and we fucking loved it. For the album we worked with Photonz, Shcuro, Niagaraand Chainless, some of our favourite Lisbon producers. I did produce ‘Reality Check’ for A.M.O.R. around 2007 but didn’t pursue production very seriously until 2010 when I started playing around with Ableton more often. By 2011 I had some interesting material but no finished tracks yet, and it wasn’t until early the next year that I wrapped my head around finishing tracks (it’s a right mission for me) – the first track I finished was ‘Palmas’. I put it up on Soundcloud and it got signed straight away by Nazar from Wicked Bass, and that was a real push for me to finish more tracks as I had to come up with an EP for the label – and so I did. By July my 1st solo release ‘Collective Data’ was out.
I bought that EP, “Collective Data”. “Palmas” never left my Dj sets, was such a blow of fresh air when I first heard it. These steps in music production lead you to being selected for RBMA Barcelona. Did you feel that experience was influential in your career after 2008?
My time at the RBMA was amazing and certainly helped me shape the way I look at my ‘career’ (really don’t like this word ahah). The lectures with idols like Gary Bartz, Front 242 or Goldie inspired me to do my best and work on my dreams, while my co-participants were amazing humans that inspired me to really dig deep in my soul to reach for that creative, original drive… My artistry really. They were all so talented, phew. I came back really energised (no pun intended) and bursting with ideas and plans.
One of the things I truly admire in your work is the chameleonic way how you express with the same intensity the creation of explicit music for the dancefloor, other times more chill or even song writing where you also sing or rap. Do you have a preference when creating or it can result in a surprise at any time.
I guess like all humans I experience quite a wide palette of emotions daily. I tend to listen quite closely to them but I’m not great at ritualising my emotions: I’m not the kind of romantic who will buy flowers and chocolates or call my friends just because, but I’m the go-to person to talk about anything for hours on end when my loved ones need me. I love big hugs and real human contact, and I often find myself having a very meaningful conversation with someone at a café, over the phone or even at a big rave. I feel like this kind of non-conventional emotional intensity really bleeds into my music, too. If I were to be honest about my experiences when expressing myself through sound, I would 100% have to reflect this, and that’s what I do. I also think that the intensity you mention comes from the fact that I love so many types of music with so much passion. I’m a sucker for a Chicago acid banger as much as atmospheric, melodic stuff or a great pop song, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable limiting myself artistically so I think anything could come out.
Your cover of Underground Resistance’s “Transition” inspired all the team of Donatella Versace and the fashion designer herself which created an “empowering” collection for women that helped introduce a new concept, the “Athletic Couture” Spring/Summer 2016. What was your idea when you first started to develop your version of Undergrond Resistance which has magnificent voices from different female collaborators.
For “Transition”, the idea was to celebrate International Women’s Day by re-working a classic I absolutely love. I felt like it would be great to get together with a group of girls and write that amazing piece of history again, from a female perspective. It’s a track that influenced us all so it really made sense. I did my version of the beat and Nancy Wang, 88, Nightwave, Mamacita and Coco Solid added their beautiful vocals. It wasn’t until 6 months later that Simon, the music consultant for Versace, got in touch to use the acapella for the Prêt-à-Porter SS16 show. It was a mind-blowing experience to watch the actual show streaming live – my boyfriend and I, eating toast in our kitchen in London, jaws dropped.
From the initial solicitation to use your cover of Underground Resistance till the invitation to create the entire 15 min of Donatella’s parade, it was a very small step that resulted in the soundtrack “Body/Soul 2.0”. How did all the process happen and how has been the feedback?
After the Prêt-à-Porter SS16, Versace got in touch to ask for an original piece for their SS16 Haute Couture show. That happened early this year. I locked myself in my bedroom-studio and came up with a set that merges some of my favourite tracks I’ve produced alongside an ace remix Ursa’s Reef (a.k.a. Photonz, my boyfriend) did for my track Miami. I wrote additional percussion and tweaked the tracks for hours on end, wrote lyrics with the Athletic couture in mind – Ms. Donatella Versace sent me a few pointers on the vibe of the collection and what emotions she wanted to convey. Such an amazing woman to work with. Simon, Versace’s music consultant and Photonz were both instrumental in the process, helping me through my nervous breakdowns and pointing me towards the best decisions be it length-wise or arrangement-wise (the show timings are very precise). My boyfriend mastered the track and we both got on the Eurostar to see the show live in Paris – it was an unforgettable experience. The people at Versace were super gracious and down-to-earth while very inspiring and professional, and they really adored the piece which was a great feeling. I got very nice feedback from lots of places, from instagram to facebook, media and real life. It was very humbling to get so much love from it.
Together with Photonz (Marco Rodrigues), your boyfriend, both have been collaborating in different fields of music such the creation of D55 label or the most recent Rádio Quântica, which delivers radio programming with focus on Portuguese artists. It seems to me it works also to stir people’s minds, not only the radio heads but the listeners themselves. Do you think there is a lot to do to provide a voice to Portuguese talent?
Marco (Photonz) and I work very well together. We really thrive on bouncing ideas and making things happen – trying to illustrate our common dreams in this reality is something we have a penchant for. We both felt, when we started Quântica last year, that Portugal’s most exciting talent had little to no representation in the radio medium. We felt the same about the political and philosophical ideas we believe in: they seemed to have no place in radio (or any conventional media). With the radio station we aim to make that music, that art, those ideas more accessible to everyone: kind of a cultural fast-forward, as Marco brilliantly puts it. There is still a lot that can be done to make the local artistic playground a fairer one, and we’ll be sure to keep contributing towards that goal.
You live for some years now in London, was the search for new musical challenges that made you leave Portugal?
We moved to London because we see living abroad as a very enriching experience on so many levels. The artistic level is one of them, and it’s a city that can really push you to be more assertive and productive with your passions. On the other hand, it’s a place where the possibility of being a freelance DJ is very real, as there are so many venues and opportunities, and flying to other European countries is so accessible from there.
Picking up the two main subjects of this interview, the women and the Portuguese music scene, can you leave us five names of Portuguese female artists to discover?
EDND, she is half on Roundhouse Kick, one of One Eyed Jacks’ (the label Photonz founded and my primary music home) mainstays. Her music is both beautiful and honest – I don’t think I can recall anyone who can convey their emotion so clearly in their music.
EMAUZ, she crafts a really interesting and vibey blend of acid and techno, but there’s also a very soft and soothing vibration to it.
mariavapordagua, is half of A.M.O.R. but she also makes her own beats. The first one will be released on the new Labareda compilation and features really fresh and original drum patterns and a super tight bass.
Caroline Lethô, a young producer who is really inventive and passionate. Her productions can be quite nocturnal yet energetic, great stuff.
Sonja is a DJ who plays regularly in Lisbon and blends a deep and vibey combination of genres in a variety of atmospheres with real style. She’s also putting out an all-girl compilation on her label Labareda, where you can finds lots more Portuguese girls who are making music.