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NinjaPhotography Pierre Debusschere; styling Robbie Spencer

Ninja: zef master

Yo-landi’s partner-in-rhyme is the alternative to alternative rap. He explains how Die Antwoord learned to embrace the dark side

Taken from the spring 2015 issue of Dazed. Read our interview with Yo-landi Visser here

From his early days in horrorcore outfit The Constructus Corporation to his current helming of rap-rave crew Die Antwoord, Ninja has dragged listeners to hell and back with his psychotic verses and intense stage presence. Now he’s tearing up the multiplexes with Chappie. Eyes glistening like a werewolf, he lets us into his and Visser’s hive mind.

Yo-landi said that she really became ‘Yo-landi Visser’ when you cut her hair into its signature mohawk for ‘Enter the Ninja’. Did you change as well?

Ninja: Yeah, we did. A rap dude has his rap persona, his hyper version of himself. Do you know Method Man’s real name? Or Elton John, Marylin Monroe? You make up this character. That’s kind of what we have done with Die Antwoord, playing with characters. I was always flipping through characters. In your mind you’re a superstar before you are a superstar, this hyper motherfucker who is on camera and on stage. You’re walking around the streets like you’re that person. Psychologically, it’s you. You know that philosopher, Jung?

Carl Jung, yeah.

Ninja: I was hanging with Money Mark from the Beastie Boys, ’cos we’re homies, and he said a weird bunch of shit to me about Jung and the shadow self. You’ve got your two sides of the brain: your conscious mind that’s actually here speaking to me, and then you got your subconscious – all your fears and desires and dreams…

And all the fucked-up shit that you never say.

Ninja: Exactly. Bam! That’s both of us when we are fucking with Die Antwoord. We did it by accident, we tapped into that shadow-self shit – all that shit that I was too scared to say. I just started taking my filters away and saying anything and whatever the fuck I thought. Ninja was my shadow self and Yo-landi was Yo-landi’s shadow self. And then, as time went past, I was enjoying this shit so much that I was like, ‘This is more me than me.’ We worked on each other, but we didn’t know we were being autobiographical. It flipped both of us, we transformed into these new, hyper, upgraded versions of our old selves. I don’t even remember who I was before. Someone told me that overthinking kills fun, and we’re a lot more fun now.

What were your early collaborations with Yo-landi like?

Ninja: We were doing other music and she just started swearing on this one track. Her dad’s a priest – he’s high up in one of the churches and he’s a sweetheart – but she’s, like, fucking rebellious. Afrikaans culture is very right-wing and conservative, very proper, and you get this hidden underbelly, the zef side of Afrikaans which no one knows about. Yo-landi started teaching me all about all this zef slang.

So you weren’t part of zef culture before Yo-landi?

Ninja: Culture? There’s no culture.

I thought zef was a movement? 

Ninja: No. We made it into a fucking movement. Zef is like dirt, it’s like scum, there was no zef movement before we came along. It was an insult, it’s like eurghh, talking shit about people. It’s a word made up by non-zef people, Afrikaans people talking shit about their dress: ‘Eurgh that dress is so zef, it’s disgusting.’

“Die Antwoord flipped both of us... We transformed into these new, hyper, upgraded versions of our old selves. I don’t even remember who I was before” – Ninja

But that’s interesting, because in your early videos like ‘Zef Side’ you make zef look enviable.

Ninja: It’s the blackest joke, Yo-landi just being like, ‘Let’s be zef.’ She started telling me all this zef slang and I’m like, ‘Jesus, they swear so bad.’ She started swearing and swearing and saying ‘we zef’, which is like saying ‘I’m a piece-of-shit scumbag, I’m that person you hate, I’m that thing you’re embarrassed about.’

Why did you guys want to become a mouthpiece for outsiders?

Ninja: We didn’t.

Well, if zef is looked down on and you’re owning that…

Ninja: It was just us being punk and stupid, a lot of it was joking about. We just wanted to be as extreme and as ‘fuck you’ as possible because South Africa is… you’re not getting out of there. South Africa is trying to do shit that looks like overseas shit. And all the rappers with American accents, everyone sounds like they’re from the 90s, everyone sounds like the fucking Wu-Tang-Clan. We just wanted to do something that was violently South African and not be mistaken for fucking anything.

So Yo-landi really influenced your zef aesthetic from the word go?

Ninja: I didn’t know she was Afrikaans (at first) because she was hiding her accent because she was embarrassed about it. She used to speak, like, perfect. Then she’d speak to someone in Afrikaans and I said, ‘you should rap in Afrikaans, it sounds so dope.’ She started rapping like how she speaks, like, rough and raw, and started twisting this shit into a rhyming war. It’s just this total fluke, this thing that she just went into. She started swearing at shows and we started using new names when we rapped, changing our names every two weeks. Yo-landi Visser’s like the most common, shittest Afrikaans name. There’s about a million Yo-landi Vissers.

So you were playing at hip hop clubs in Johannesburg at this time?

Ninja: There’s no hip hop (scene), it was just clubs in Johannesburg and Cape Town – we were staying in Cape Town when I met her. We put out this one song, and it said ‘look here, fuck you’ in Afrikaans. And then we’d go and do shows and all the kids (said it back), but it was weird because they said it so affectionately. They were so happy to scream, ‘Fuck you!’

Was Yo-landi wilder than you on stage?

Ninja: We both fucking were. Don’t come to wild shows if you’re just going to talk to your friend about whose shoes you’re wearing. We didn’t even think about it so we just started swearing more and more in this dope like style where we were just saying, ‘Fuck, if you’re down with this, ill, if you’re not, don’t come to our show or you’re gonna get slammed.’ In a few of our first shows, people would come and stand around and talk and drink like they were used to doing. And that’s the wrong shit. Yo-landi would snap, glass up people and push motherfuckers to make them stop talking.

How come you’ve done support slots for Linkin Park but then turned down Lady Gaga?

Ninja: After that support for Linkin Park, we never fucking opened for anyone again. We were the wrong people to put in front of 40,000 people who don’t know who you are, with all their little skateboards. Three songs in they started getting offended, and we were just like, ‘Fuck! And we carried on until the end, getting worse and worse, and we came off stage and they were booing us. And I said to my sound guy to say, ‘Fuck all of you’ in German. We came back out on stage and everyone was like, ‘Whaaaa! Fuck you!’ It was fucking hilarious. So we are very careful. We knew that Lady Gaga would have been a fucking abortion, like an aggressive abortion. Her fans are, like, little kids, and we don’t have fans like that. She was asking us because she wanted to look like she’d discovered us. That was the vibe, obviously.

Why did you depict Lady Gaga as a cultural tourist in ‘Fatty Boom Boom’?

Ninja: She’s just not original. She’s boring. It was quite funny: we thought, ‘Oh ’cos she’s coming to South Africa, it would be funny if she wore that meat dress and goes to a lion park.’

With your video for ‘Ugly Boy’, were you trying to reach a wider audience?

Ninja: We always try to make the image a flawless extension of the audio. It starts with the music before how we get to the images. We’re doing ‘Ugly Boy’ live now, and this weird thing is, like when we did it last night, there are all these levels to the show but ‘Ugly Boy’ is the heart. 

It’s a love song, basically.

Ninja: Its just a sweet, fucking beautiful song. So, we just wanted the video to be on a level that doesnt fuck with you, you know? They’re all our friends, they’re all fans of Die Antwoord and they all happened to be in LA (on the filming date). We just wanted to make it look all beautiful, ’cos the song’s, like, warm. But there’s that level of surreal spookiness like on all our shit, and also a G level to it, like gangster, ’cos that track is so weird, I’ll play that track to motherfuckers like Charlize Theron, that actress.

You played ‘Ugly Boy’ to Charlize Theron?

Ninja: Yeah, she was like ‘What? Fuck!’ She was supposed to be in the video.

Everyone in the video – Cara Delevingne, Jack Black, Marilyn Manson – are part of mainstream pop culture, but they are also at the fringes. Why do you think you guys are such a magnet for people with that sensibility?

Ninja: Those people are the same mind state and vibrational frequency as us. We met Cara on that shoot, she just popped up. She looks like a real Looney Tunes freak, you know? She’s even more fucking weird than us, she asked if she could do stuff and we were like, ‘No, you can't fucking do that!’ She’s 50 million times worse than us.

“Yo-landi started swearing and saying ‘we zef’, which is like saying ‘I’m a piece-of-shit scumbag, I’m that person you hate’” – Ninja

What’s your relationship with Aphex Twin like?

Ninja: I’m friends with him. He’s a bit of a weirdo. We were talking for ages, before I stayed at his house in Newquay. We were trying to get music together but he doesn’t collaborate. So when we hooked up, the first thing I said was, ‘If we make music together, I want to make pop music with you.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah that’s cool.’ I said I wanted to make big pop music like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. 

So not like Die Antwoord?

Ninja: We pop, in our brain. It’s not my fault pop is so shit. Pop used to be good, like The Beatles were dope, Queen are sick. Abba! That was dope, I fucking love Abba, Michael Jackson... (shouts) HE’S ILL, DUDE! Like, ‘Bad’ by Michael Jackson? It's a good pop track, it’s sick.

But none of those artists have your crazy videos, with bleeding, violence, swearing… You turn it up to 11. 

Ninja: But, like, ‘Thriller’ has zombies eating people, dude. I know when I say ‘pop’ it sounds fucking ridiculous but I’m being serious: I want to make music for everyone.

Now you’re in Chappie. What was the vibe like when shooting?

Ninja: Neill was bouncing with us, it was a collaboration. It was scripted really nicely, that shit’s authentic. It wasn’t us playing ourselves in some random story, Neill did it all super specific –  ‘It’s 2016 or whatever and your music career has failed and you can’t get real jobs and you’re fucking dealing drugs.’

You’re a drug dealer in the movie? 

Ninja: I’m a bad motherfucking criminal, ’cos we’re trying to get out. We keep on talking about fucking getting this music shit started again, if we move to LA. This whole film’s like an alternative reality but it’s very close to home. Like, our kids have been taken away because we like fucking doing drugs and shit. The South African police are all robots, one comes into our possession in the film and we end up being its mommy, you’ll see in the film. (Neill) was asking us what guns we wanted, so we chose our guns.

You’re not trained actors though, did that pose a problem with being in a big studio blockbuster?

Ninja: Well yeah, we like these nobodies. Like, ‘Who are these fucking weird-ass fuckers?’ Neill just completely tooth-and-nail was like, ‘They’re in the film’, he just stayed fucking locked on it like a psycho and he fought for us, so when it came to us for doing the film, we just did every fucking thing, it was the first time we submitted to someone, it was a big deal for us to do that. On another level we are like actors and visitors in his world and he’s a fucking genius, it’s kind of corny to say but he is a flat-out artist. It looks like his film is shot just a few years from now. It’s sci-fi but it’s not really, it’s just ’cos there’s a robot. It still looks kind of real, we’re two steps away from probably having fucking robots that can do that, it’s just a slight future thing.

You’ve had a kid with Yo-landi and become famous around the world. How has your relationship changed over the years?

Ninja: We are just, like, ultimate best-friends-forever type of thing. Going from being little homies to having a kid was like an ‘oh shit’ moment. We were always just making tracks and then the baby came into the mix and made it like, ‘We need to get our shit together.’ We blew up because we had a kid. We just became better. From being so experimental, we were then like, ‘We need to connect.’ Now we have gone through a whole universe of things, we’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, we are separate but we are best friends. We are homies and the kids have a good mama and daddy. We just carry on making tracks. It just makes us better at music. Our main thing has been music, that’s what we are married to.

Do you think she has changed as a musician?

Ninja: She has got better. She can rhyme now, she flows. She writes shit for me. She will be writing and I will be sitting there and she’ll write my flows out; we write for each other now.

So not just Afrikaans? She’ll write your English raps?

Ninja: Yeah she’ll write a verse for me and say, ‘Oh, you should say this shit’. She’s like this little disciple that overtook the master.

When she writes for you, how does that differ from the subjects you like to write about? 

Ninja: It’s a weird thing, we’re the same. When she writes it’s this stuff that… Like, when I write for her or she writes for me, it’s the one thing. It’s weird, I know what she’s thinking sometimes, like identical twins. That’s why being a couple would be too limiting. You have your jealousy and insecurity and we just went past that into this hive-mind stage. We are like this one thing.

Like this interview? Then you'll love our 2010 feature on Die Antwoord too – read it here

Chappie is released in the UK on March 6

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