Taken from the April issue of Dazed & Confused:
I was sitting on a pile of tyres in a dark gas-station waiting for my ride. I’d been dropped off by some friends of a friend after going to a braai (barbeque) in Pretoria, and was waiting to meet the city’s most exciting house-producer, DJ Spoko. What was supposed to have been a ten-minute wait had turned into hours. Sensing my restlessness and unified in their opinion that sitting around in this location, at this time of night, alone, wasn’t the best idea in the world, various gas-station attendants would take turns to approach me and enquire as to whether I was okay. Some would even call on their phones and give directions to a potentially lost DJ Spoko. His default slurred response: “Five minutes away.”
Just when I was beginning to feel officially abandoned, a beat-up car cruised into view, the sound of pounding house drums and wonky synths blasting out of the windows. Jumping out, Spoko introduced me to his friends, amongst them his “manager”, Shoog Night (pronounced the same way as the name of a certain notorious music executive). They apologised for being late, explaining that Night had had to collect some “gas money” from people. The freaked-out gas-station attendant said, in a hushed tone, “These are your friends?” Once in the car, Spoko and his friends asked me, in unison, “Where are you staying?” I replied: “I was thinking with you guys.” There was a moment of silence and then an eruption of laughter. Someone handed me a plastic litre-bottle filled with whisky, the music leapt in volume and we headed for the township of Atteridgeville.
When we arrived, Spoko took me on an informal tour of the township’s various shebeens (sort of juke-joint bars), waving his arms enthusiastically and saying, “In a few hours these will be full of people going crazy to Bacardi.” Bacardi house, a sound Spoko developed, has come to be associated with Pretoria. A fusion of martial military-style snares, wobbly, disorientated synth sounds and gruff call-and-response vocals, it’s distinctly rawer and more immediate than the music of most of Spoko’s countrymen, and miles away from the sophisticated deep-house sounds that are currently the rage in Johannesburg and Durban. Western audiences may already be familiar with the Bacardi sound through DJ Mujava’s “Township Funk”, an unlikely underground hit from 2008. Although it wasn’t widely known at the time, Spoko did the majority of the programming on “Township Funk” for Mujava, his student and friend.
After roaming with Spoko for a few hours we found ourselves at a shebeen called Strong Bass, effectively a hollowed-out cement block with some subs set up in the corners. Sure enough, it was packed, and playing almost exclusively DJ Spoko tunes. The rest of the night was spent moving from one shady afterhours bar to another, until at 5am we went back to the shack Spoko shares with his best friend and creative partner Machepiz to pass out, three to a bed.
I woke up the next day to find Spoko had barely slept, having stayed up most of the night making tracks, a habit which also explains how he got his name: spoko means “spook”, an entity commonly associated with restless, nocturnal activity. A few DJs came by his shack to pick up some CDs containing his latest tracks. Internet connections still being unreliable in Atteridgeville, most new music is still distributed in grassroots fashion, either in person or via Bluetooth phones. The lack of internet in Atteridgeville also affects how Spoko makes his music, forcing him to travel into the city in order to download a-capellas he’ll go on to weave into his productions when a vocalist from the township won’t cut it. This lack of web presence in Spoko’s life obviously creates a detachment between what’s happening in his world and the world outside, and while I listen to him play some new tracks it dawns on me this guy might be the first person I’ve met who doesn’t know the name of the singer behind “Rolling in the Deep”, just one of a number of mainstream hits Spoko has sampled.
A bald man pulled a gun out of his trouser-strap and shoved it into my backpack. He turned to me and hissed, ‘You didn’t see shit’
Having spent a mellow Sunday morning chilling, smoking joints, drinking beer, eating pap (corn porridge, like US grits) and listening to music, the peace was suddenly shattered by the arrival of a bald man with a shiny patterned shirt who ran into the shack, pulled a gun out of his trouser-strap and shoved it into my backpack. He turned to me and, six inches from my face, hissed, “You didn’t see shit.” We sat there in silence for what felt like an eternity until the yard erupted with laughter. “You so scared Dean!” It had all been a joke. A momentarily terrifying one, but a joke all the same. Since being picked up by the crew I’d noted a few instances of Spoko casually marshalling guys who had been glaring in my direction away from me. But he insisted I had no reason to feel threatened. “No one will hurt you here. You are safe, you are our friend. You are Shoog’s guest.” He explained the basic rules of the numbers gang – for example, Night was a “28”, which meant no one would mess with him or any of his guests, in theory guaranteeing my safety. I started to understand why Night was the only person in the neighbourhood, Ghost Town, with a shower. There was something about this that reassured me but unnerved me as well. Here I was, becoming friends with someone who obviously hadn’t attained immunity within his community by being a “nice guy”, yet exuded a special kindness and earnest love of music.
Though the stunt had been explained away as a joke, the presence of our visitor with the gun created an air of menace, especially when he would nonchalantly make remarks such as “I can’t sing but I can kill” to no one in particular. As I was essentially a tourist, it would’ve been easy to judge what I observed around me, and even worse to underestimate the serious and unforgiving nature of life in a township. DJ Mujava, who created a worldwide following off the success of “Township Funk”, still lives in Atteridgeville, having recently fallen into some of the traps that often sabotage an escape route out of the ghetto. Even though his arms are covered in gang tattoos, Spoko – whose computers have been stolen many times by people looking for drug money – was adamant that he had given up being a gangster. Instead, he channels his surroundings into his music. He may set out to make party music designed to give revellers an excuse to temporarily forget their troubles, but at the core of what he creates there is a harsh and ominous truth. His songs are vibrant and alive, but often tinged with sadness and regret.
Like US rap music, house is both pop and folk music in South Africa. It is ubiquitous, essentially the only thing played in the majority of clubs (besides Rihanna, oddly). Yet with the development of free pirated software each township has an armada of its own established and developing house music producers. Spoko, Machepiz, Mujava and contemporaries like DJ Panyaza and Mugwanti are beloved in Atteridgeville, but treated more like skilled carpenters than rock stars. They serve a specific function – to tell the stories of their community and to create the sounds to shake their asses.