It’s almost impossible to overstate how popular house music has become in South Africa over the past few years. Academy alumni like Black Coffee and Culoe De Song are just two DJ/producers that can hardly walk down the street without getting recognized. As part of their Real Scenes series of videos, Resident Advisor recently visited Johannesburg to find out why the sound has taken such hold. In the course of their time there, RA spoke to a number of artists, telling the story of how house became the biggest form of music in the country. In partnership with the site, we’ve compiled exclusive interview snippets that didn’t make it into the film from Black Coffee and Culoe De Song below.
Black Coffee: Music is very important to South African life. When we were going through hell, it was the one thing that brought us together.
Culoe De Song: I grew up in a small town, but came to house music through Oskido’s Church Grooves series of compilations. He's one of the great legends of house music in the country. Brothers of Peace – Oskido and Bruce Sebitlo – was one of my favourite house music groups growing up. The sound was very warm, and made you look forward to tomorrow. Then there were guys like Black Coffee. He’s so exciting because he really changed the direction of things.
Black Coffee: When I was younger, I had a car accident and lost the use of my left arm. When I look back now at what I have achieved, I think it all happened for a reason. I see myself not only as an ambassador of music, but I also see myself as God’s work. Anyone who has any doubts in life should know that if you have a dream – and you’re willing to work hard – that anything is possible. I don’t think it’s all me. I think there’s a bigger power behind me, and my job is to inspire.
Culoe De Song: Black Coffee has been a mentor to me in many ways. He took me under his wing to the point where when I started doing my thing, I would stay with him when I was in Jo’burg. My music got really big in Jo’burg, and so I would need to come up here to do things. The city is a little bit like the New York of South Africa. Television, radio, you need to be here to use those platforms more practically. Johannesburg is not a city for the faint-hearted. It’s very hot, not just climate-wise, but also socially.
Black Coffee: Jo’burg is like New York. It gets a bit fast sometimes. Everyone is here to chase dreams and work hard. It's always been that kind of city. It’s that one place where, if you make it there, the whole country will accept you. If you have an album in a small town and it’s the best thing ever, but it doesn’t come to Jo’burg... That’s why I decided to move there. There are examples of people making it in Durban, for example, but they often spend a lot of money on flights to Jo’burg.
Culoe De Song: I started DJing and producing in high school at the age of 16 when I got my first computer. I had a program called FL Studio and was fooling around with the software to the point where I could finally burn a CD and say to someone, “Hey, listen to this.” The legal age was 18 to go into clubs, but I was lucky because I was a bit taller. Every time Black Coffee would come to Durban, I would give him some stuff. Eventually, I guess, he felt like he wanted to give me a foundation. He took a song of mine and we decided to make it a collaboration on his album, and a few years later he told me that he wanted an album of music from me.
Black Coffee: Culoe de Song is one of South Africa’s most gifted artists. I met him when he was still in high school. He has done very well. What makes him different, even in the beginning, was his sound. I think he created a genre, a different sound, when he came out. There was nothing like his first album at the time. It was something fresh. And then a lot of people tried to do it. This happens with me as well sometimes. I think that bothered him a lot for a while. He changed his sound totally for his second album.
Culoe De Song: I think it’s hard to describe my sound. But my music is deep, tribalistic and cinematic. I really love movies, so that’s where the strings come from. I attended RBMA in 2008, and I only had music that was released on the internet and South African websites. When I first started playing music internationally, people would say, “Oh, this is very nice... It sounds very Innervisions.” I guess people like Dixon started getting emails from those people, and then I started seeing YouTube videos of him playing my tune “The Bright Forest” at places like Cielo in New York.
Black Coffee: We always thought that house was big internationally, because that’s where we got it from. But through my traveling, and being exposed to the club scene in Europe and America, I’ve realized that we have the biggest house scene in the world in South Africa. Most of the parties I attend [elsewhere] don’t have the same energy. We are a very different culture. Probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to was during the World Cup. They had probably 80,000 people.
Culoe De Song: House music is the biggest thing in South Africa for youth. You’ll have a Beyonce video on TV, and then the next one will be a South African house producer. It’s an amazing thing. Right now, I think house music is where hip hop was at back in the day in South Africa. For instance, I get recognized on the street. House music is commercial to that level. You hear it in shops, mobile phones, you hear it almost everywhere.
Black Coffee: We were getting music from overseas mostly, and not all of the records were making sense locally. Every now and then there would be something special from certain labels. But there was a point where there was nothing. So I thought, if I can’t find a certain sound, I should try to make it. I can’t really explain what I was looking for – it was in the rhythm and the sounds. Nowadays, it’s all around. There are many promos I’m receiving from locals that are exactly what I was looking for at that time. I DJ a lot of music from South African producers.
Culoe De Song: There are a lot of young DJs and producers in the country, inspired not just musically but by seeing that it can be done. I think a lot of kids love it, but can’t see themselves doing it. But it’s just following your passion. So when they hear about a young person such as myself, they maybe think that it’s possible to make it big. We usually try to give out the message, though, that it’s not that easy. There are a lot of things that go into it besides talent. Respecting yourself. Respecting your craft. That’s the message we’ve been trying to give to the youth.
Black Coffee: If we understand how big our house music is already and take it even further, we can have a chance to grow and become world-class producers. We have potential. We just need to have the vision. We need to think when we’re making music that we’re not just making it for South Africa. We’re making it for the world.