What the foq is gqom?

How the world is just waking up to South Africa’s most exciting dance movement

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Rudeboyz
Production group RudeboyzCourtesy of Rudeboyz

If you’re in Durban, you know what gqom is; if you’re in London, there’s a chance you do, too. The broken-down, sparse South African house genre is a victim of that strange SA phenomenon Jumping Back Slash described so well in The Fader in 2013: where local music often finds international pockets of avid fandom, but gets little traction on its home turf: “I think there is a strange reticence to music that sounds like it came from this country in any way,” the DJ/producer explained. “It’s sad that people over here don’t realise how popular SA music is overseas. There is music made here that doesn’t exist and couldn’t exist anywhere else on the planet, and it often gets overlooked.”

Gqom was one such movement the Cape Town-based artist was referring to specifically: he referred to it as a more “minimal” and “raw” variant of South African house, most frequently heard blasting from teenagers’ Blackberrys. Evolved from Kwaito, tribal house and skeletal hip-hop influences, gqom – a word meaning “hit” or “drum” in Zulu, which is appropriate for such a stripped-back percussive palette – has been taking over the coastal city of Durban for a minute. Kasimp3 (a website where young SA artists upload their music for free download) is overflowing with the stuff; according to local producer Menchess, “Durban is all about gqom. It’s like it's the only thing they know. Young and old, every corner you turn, it’s gqom. Durban people love igqom (an alternative name for gqom). In the whole of South Africa, though, it has taken a while for gqom to catch on.”

DJ Lag, who has been making gqom since he was a teenager, reiterates that while it’s doing “damage” in Durban, “throughout South Africa it is yet to raise eyebrows.” And yet, halfway across the world, the genre has found a second home, with UK tastemakers like Kode9 putting a spotlight on it in their sets. London-based label Goon Club Allstars – who were behind spaced-out grime producer MssingNo’s debut release – are releasing a four-track EP of the brutally minimalist house next month, featuring DJ Lag as well as producer Menchess, and his production collective Rudeboyz. “To be honest, I never thought gqom would gain popularity beyond Durban, never mind to jump the continent,” says Lag. “To hear that a British label wanted to release my music I was amazed. Even now I still ask myself, how did you guys hear about me?” Menchess adds, “I was totally surprised at the international popularity gqom gained, because gqom wasn't even a national thing, it was just partial to Durban. I'd tell my neighbour about it and he too would not believe me, because we don't have that image!”

Goon Club co-founder Felix, aka producer Moleskin, was first put onto gqom by producer (and ex-LV member) Okzharp, via Keysound boss Blackdown. After being sent a zip file of these hard-edged, spring-loaded tunes, Moleskin became obsessed, folding them into his DJ sets until he was mostly DJing gqom. “It was the rawness, the rhythm and the direct approach to the dancefloor that most attracted me,” he explains to Dazed. “There’s no pretension.”

Fellow Goon Clubber Ed got drawn in for the same reasons. “When I first heard gqom it felt like music that I'd been waiting to hear,” he says. “I found myself getting lost in tracks in a way that I hadn't for a long time. I guess it’s the darkness of it and that mesmerising, hypnotic element it has.” Having fallen so hard for the genre, the label sought out contact with their favourite producers on Kasimp3 – DJ Lag, as well as trio Rudeboyz – and eventually began working towards a physical release.

With internet speed and reliability at rock bottom in SA, this took a lot longer than they initially anticipated; but as of this week, the official EP is finally dropped. It’s taken a while, but this is a leap of instinct for Felix: “I haven't really put much thought into it, in the same way I didn't really think that much about the MssingNo EP. This is just that good shit, and I wanted to put the world up on to it. A part of me didn't want to see these tracks become lost classics - they really deserve to be on vinyl.”

To get some idea of that mesmerising darkness, Dazed have an exclusive 50 minute all-gqom, all-originals mix from Rudeboyz. Over the course of 50 minutes, the producers tease out the genre’s potential as if gently stretching a tightly wound spring: it’s tense, gradual, and so gratifying. Maybe you already knew about gqom, or maybe you’re in the gap between in-the-know areas where, as Jumping Back Slash laments, SA genres tend to get overlooked. Either way, it’s time you got to know this mix.

1. Rudeboyz – “Japanese Sax”
2. Rudeboyz – “Sumbuka Dance”
3. Rudeboyz – “Rude Berings”
4. Rudeboyz – “Get Down (Remix)”
5. Rudeboyz (Menchess) – “Music Note”
6. Rudeboyz (Menchess) – “Mitsubishi Song”
7. Rudeboyz – “Sonic Rhythms”
8. Rudeboyz – “Mercedes Song” (feat TD Snax)
9. Rudeboyz – “Marimba City”
10. Rudeboyz – “Native Drums”
11. Rudeboyz – “Massive Bang”

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