Gqom is still a thing.
This might seem like a throw-away statement, but part of me is surprised that it still exists. It hasn’t even reached that death knell in some explosive styles where teen producers throw out genre remixes of any and all pop tunes to get attention (a phenomenon that is a leading contender for the title of Cause of Death of Dubstep). There will probably never be an ad for a new Microsoft product featuring a Rude Boyz track. Indeed, Durban’s remained the creative hub for the genre, even as its economic roots slowly expand in reach to include the perilous world of European dance culture (a trip very few genres have returned from unscathed). A key difference between what’s happening with gqom when compared to other internet-era genres – besides Durban culture’s militant insularity and mobile-centric digital distribution – is that the faces behind it are more aware than ever of the power and perils of representation; in 2016, it is still a thing.
Gqom’s biggest moments have all been inextricably linked to the music’s geography and its originators. Rude Boyz’ self-titled release on Goon Club All Stars, Babes Wodumo’s rewriting of the South African national anthem as ‘Wololo‘, and DJ Lag’s self-titled EP and European tour with GQOM OH!, all feature Durbanites at their centre.
While I treated the foreign parties involved – Britain’s Goon Club Allstars and the Italian label/promoter GQOM OH! – with a respectable amount of distrust at first, even they seem on-message with how to sustainably approach the music. Even if their attachment to the gqom movement has often been a vehicle to revitalise stalling careers, there is respect for its creators. GQOM OH!’s first tour, for example, features label-head Nan Kolé playing alongside DJ Lag, and when I asked Kolé for his motivation in pursuing Lag his answer was simple, “He’s the gqom king!” Why Lag chose to tour, especially overseas, with GQOM OH! right before his GCA release is a mystery, but what isn’t is that he more than deserves the slots he’s been playing, across venues in Europe and Asia.
Both Lag and Nan have years of experience playing dance music, but both started their careers in similarly different musical waters, focussing initially on rap. “I was into hip hop a lot. That was the first genre I started producing, and then later started doing gqom” says Lag about his early years in the late 2000s, still a teen. Although Nan’s start was nearly a decade earlier, beginning DJing in ‘94/’95, his story reads the same. “I was a hip hop DJ with scratching and vinyl and that sort of thing.” Says Nan. “Then I moved into the techno scene”
The link between gqom and rap isn’t obvious at first. A lot has been said about the genre’s genesis either as a logical next step (and reaction to) the dominance of deep house or the result of an influx of new drugs to the Durban scene. Lag, though, sees another connection between the styles which offers a new chapter in the history of gqom. “I think it comes from hip-hop and tribal house. Gqom, if you listen carefully, the patterning of the track is similar to hip hop.” It makes sense. Syncopation is the bedrock of rap, and one of it’s biggest contributions to the popular music that followed it. That along with the use of 808 kicks pioneered by the US South has defined the sound of modern rap in recent years. Both of these traits are ones that differentiate gqom from preceding dance styles in Durban.
On their recent tour Nan Kolé and DJ Lag usually alter one hour slots, with Kolé priming the crowds before Lag detonates the dance floor. Running GQOM OH! means having a steady enough source of new music to have both the variety and depth needed for this approach. As Nan puts it, “my approach to DJ sets during this tour was to have a wide perspective on all the different styles from Durban. We normally play one hour each, and my hour would be a preparation, or an introduction. I really studied this thing, of preparing the dance floor and the in the end just smashing it”. It’s an approach that’s a perfect foil to Lag’s, who calmly lets me know “my style is my style wherever I play” when I ask about his sets.
Exclusive mix from Gqom Oh! Showcase in Italy.
Nan Kolé opens and DJ Lag shuts it down.
Variety has been a theme in Nan Kolé’s broader career too. His first label, PepeSoup, began as an avenue to release his own music, but quickly grew to host artists from a diverse set of locations including the UK, Ghana and South Africa. Nan’s curiosity and voracious online listening habits fueled artist discovery, and eventually lead to him finding gqom.
The music, though, was inextricably linked to the city it was from. In trying to represent the one through GQOM OH! Label, the other would also be highlighted. This wasn’t lost on Nan, who speaks with honesty about his place in the conversation.
“To be honest, in the beginning of the journey of this label it was mainly imagining [the Durban scene], and trying to chat to the guys to understand it, then briefing everyone I work with this side, like the graphics guys, for example. I was trying to explain what was the main cultural context of Durban – but it was from my point of view as an Italian.” says Nan when I asked about how he approached defining the label. “It helped a lot that I was able to go to Durban in March and see with my eyes what I was imagining and what was the reality of the city. So we’re going deeper into being authentic to durban, while still keeping the European design.”
Back in SA, the reality of the sound he was promoting was changing rapidly too. Radio and the broader pop eco-system have become increasingly happy to accommodate the new sounds of Durban. This represents a dual opportunity for players in the position that Nan, Lag and the Goon Club Allstars, giving them potential to capitalise both on a niche European and commercial South African audiences. “Just a few months ago radio didn’t want to play GQOM at all, but now something is changing. One of my priorities for my next trip is getting more contacts with local radio and press. At the same time we’ve had some success, and we are doing work in the locations in Durban” says Kolé.
Lag, also, is savouring the prospect of being able to work with some of gqom’s newly minted superstars. “I’m planing to do a track with Babes Wodumo since she’s the Gqom Queen and I’m the Gqom King, so I think we can come out with something really crazy together” he says in a typically to-the-point fashion. “I’m always open to collaborate. I really feel like what we are doing is part of the bigger scene in South Africa.”
At this point I was speaking to Lag while he was in Shanghai – a cool 16 hours away from home. It was the latest stop after having also stopped in a variety of spaces in Europe, including Unsound Festival in Krakow and headlining a GQOM OH! Showcase at Seoul 874 in Brescia. The live set recording from the night (embedded above) is a perfect example of the Nan Kolé/DJ Lag 1-2 combination that dominated the tour; with the set up and the K.O punch coming one after the other. It’s a process that also describes the relationship between the gqom scene in general and some of its European proponents. It could, and will survive and thrive alone, but with the added support it can have an even bigger impact – moving beyond merely existing in a global underground to potentially dominating it.
DJ Lag’s EP release tour kicks off tonight in the basement of The Bannister Hotel in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, stops at the much-hyped inaugural Muse Festival on Dec 10, and closes out in his hometown of Durban.