Rappers have different names for it: work, hustle, grind. But whatever you choose to call it, Waddy Jones has it.
The man known as Ninja from Die Antwoord has been putting in work, hustling, getting on the grind for more than 15 years. Before he was Ninja, the man many international hipster-journalists consider a rookie had nine albums and an EP, a back catalogue which includes the undisputed Max Normal classic “Songs From The Mall”. Nobody in South African hip-hop circles would knock his musicality, his originality as an MC and his sheer work ethic. Whether or not you rock with Die Antwoord – Waddy’s first really major commercial success in his career – there’s nobody who deserves success more than him.
So we applaud his Interscope deal, his new group’s festival spots and the love they get from international tastemakers. It’s a good look. But anybody who listens to hip-hop (especially SA hip-hop) will tell you, while their success is amazing, the music simply isn’t.
Strip away the extravagant personas of Waddy and his partner Yo-Landi, get past the invented zef-rap tag and the strange interviews, and you’re left with…well, not a lot, really. Sketchy beats and rhymes that, to twist an old Royce Da 5’9” line, most local dudes could probably rap circles around.
In a piece this week for The Daily Maverick, Diane Coetzer argues that Die Antwoord need a lot more respect than they currently get in South Africa. The gist of her argument is that, since Die Antwoord are hugely talented and gifted musicians and have made history by pulling off some landmark international deals, they should be getting a lot more love back home. Instead, she says, critics are unjustifiably shredding them – she singles out Charl Blignaut of the Sunday Times and Mahala.co.za. She boldly questions their professionalism and knowledge, and calls Blignaut’s take “tedious and one-dimensional”.
We’ve touched on that tricky issue of whether Die Antwoord actually make music worth listening to, and we’ll get back to it in a second. Let’s just pause for a moment and look at music criticism in South Africa generally. Let’s put this hating in context.
Now, I’ll be the first to stick my hand up and say that there just isn’t enough critical music writing here. There’s way too much reliance on easy-peasy Q&A writing, sycophantic introductions and regurgitating press releases. We don’t have nearly enough publications willing to support the decent, long-form writing needed to properly look at a scene.
But – and here’s the thing – contrary to Coetzer’s argument, when South African acts (and hip-hop acts in particular) go hard internationally, there’s mostly nothing but love – both here and abroad. Die Antwoord might have had the attention of Jimmy Iovine at Interscope and Ari Emmanuel – and good on them for doing so – but making out like they’re the only hip-hop group to break out of SA? Come on. Our rap cats have been doing that for years.
Let’s take an easy example: Tumi and The Volume. Arguably one of the finest live hip-hop bands on earth, certainly the finest in Africa. A frontman generally considered to be top-five-dead-or-alive in SA. They, too, are massive internationally – they’re royalty in France, massive in the rest of Europe and draw huge crowds when they rock across Africa. And you’d have to work very, very hard to find a South African critic who doesn’t give them props. I’m not going to claim that every South African music writer loves The Volume and hates Die Antwoord (far from it), but I will put money down on the fact that when the former get props, it’s because they consistently make great music.
Let’s take another example: Ben Sharpa. Here’s a guy who (helped ably along by his label Pioneer Unit) has developed a cult following in Europe, and has collaborated with UK hip-hop heavyweights The Foreign Beggars, as well as the storied American rapper Wordsworth. His spiky flow, love of dubbed-out grooves and complex lyrics mean he doesn’t always get the mainstream press he deserves, but you’d have to look under every rock in the country to find a critic who thinks Ben Sharpa isn’t at the top of his game. And there are others: Cape Town’s Ill-Literate-Skill travelling to London to record an album at the Red Bull Studios. Joburg’s Last Days Fam working with American producer Oddisee. Godessa putting down an entire album project that involved some of the biggest rap names in Europe. It’s not just Tumi who’s global and rolling in a league of his own.
And this is the main point. Blignaut and company aren’t whaling on Die Antwoord because they made it internationally. They’re whaling on them because they’re just not that good. I’m not best equipped to judge their criticisms of Prime Circle or The Parlotones – as you may have gathered, rock music ain’t my preferred area (although as far as I’m concerned, any dude from Witbank with a mouth like Ross Learmonth deserves a bit of respect).
But even outside of hip-hop circles, where I’m in less stable territory I don’t see it – Goldfish (who are just as big if not bigger than Die Antwoord in international terms) get love wherever they go. Reason? They’re doing something genuinely hot with their music; something that demands musicality, dedication and skill. Not a bizarre persona.
There’s another error Coetzer makes, which is to assume that the US is still the holy grail. Not any more, it isn’t. While they’ve still got one of the biggest and hardest-to-crack industries one Earth, theirs is a scene where it’s nearly impossible to make a lasting impact, where you have to constantly reinvent yourself to stay relevant. When it comes to the US (and even the international) hip-hop scene, Die Antwoord are old-hat already. Their brand of antisocial, twisted personality disorders has been traded for the younger, more hardcore Odd Future. I don’t particularly dig the music of Tyler and company, but they’re already much, much bigger than Waddy and Yo-Landi, and they’re just getting going.
“It’s a rags-to-riches story that warrants applause and interest and respect, even from those who’re not fans,” says Coetzer of Die Antwoord’s rise. Agreed. What it does not warrant is the kind of fawning sycophancy of the rest of her argument. In musical terms, Die Antwoord are a curio, a weird little corner of the music universe that has somehow had the spotlight thrown on it. And as for Yo-Landi being “the most genuinely enchanting figure in pop since Bjork”; you’re kidding me, right?
I have no doubt Waddy is enormously satisfied with their success, but I can’t help thinking – with, I grant you, the comfortable distance of someone behind a computer screen –it would have been kind of cool if he’d stuck to his guns. He’s made some dope, dope music in his career.
[Disclosure: Rob has worked on a track with Ill-Literate-Skill in the past]