Steph Kretowicz meets the South London trio who've made one of the albums of the year with South Africa's finest MCs.
“Our personalities come through the music that we make and in the choice of vocalists that we choose to work with. So it’s the whole thing in totality and our personalities come through in that,” says a reticent, mostly silent, Will Horrocks of South London production unit LV. Sitting casually on the wooden benches of a chilled Peckham bar to promote their second album ‘Sebenza’ on Hyperdub, Will is happy to leave most of the talking to his colleagues Simon Williams and Gerv Gordon. But on this point – that the trio are as evasive of questions about their personal lives as they are in deflecting attention from themselves through employing vocalists – he’s recalcitrant: “It’s not that I’m reluctant to talk about my upbringing, it’s just that it’s not particularly relevant to the album.” On that point, one is inclined to disagree.
If you’re at all familiar with their output, you’ll know that LV produced one of the defining releases of 2010 with their debut album ‘Routes’. That record, featuring vocals from local poet and musician Joshua Idehen, captures the frenetic pace and transitory state of a life lived in one of the greatest, most merciless, cities on earth. An anthem of the heart palpitation that is the tube network, Northern Line was a skittering trip through the anxieties of public transport; Murkish Delights a sombre portrait of the north-eastern Borough of Hackney. But where those tracks were rife with an argot only someone intimately acquainted with the area could understand (“crisps, scratchings, foxes and sub woofer lights”), ‘Sebenza’ is an album sprung from an even more complex context entirely.
With vocals from four MCs based across South Africa, including Okmalumkoolkat (aka Smiso Zwane), Spoek Mathambo, and Max and Sello of Cape Town’s Ruffest –it’s a glimpse into a growing global culture where people communicate, collaborate and create without ever laying eyes on each other.
“Will and I haven’t even met Smiso, worked in a studio with him or got to chat with him in person,” says Simon about the Johannesburg-based MC contributing to eight of the 14 songs on the ‘Sebenza’ track listing. “But we’ve managed to do this whole project, basically, with only Gerv having met three of the four vocalists.”
Relegating meatspace contact to Gerv’s irregular South African family trips and the rest to the cyber world, LV embarked on what would become ‘Sebenza’ long before there was ever any talk of an album. Now it’s four years later and the end result includes Okmalumkoolkat’s tightly wound celebration of all things WWW in International Pantsula (“You’ve got to check out my blog, I’ve got so much shit to share with you”) and the brilliantly percussive English and Xhosa jargon of Ruffest in Thatha Lo; worked and reworked, expressed and distorted, through a vigorous sieve of each individual’s unique sensibility.
“The difficulty came when they sent back the first versions and my vocals were on other beats, not the ones that influenced the lyrics,” Smiso offers via email. “That is the craziest thing because you write to a beat because it gives you certain feelings and when the vocals are on a different beat, you sort of have to learn to love it the way it is at that point.”
“We cross over on certain things but genres aren’t particularly useful in the music making process.” Gerv Gordon, LV
Not surprisingly, that process of adaptation isn’t far away from the way the genre-averse LV work amongst each other – several different dispositions working toward a common goal. “We cross over on certain things but genres aren’t particularly useful in the music making process,” says Gerv. “Because if someone had an idea to do that, someone else might disrupt it with a little bit of this, get rid of that and take it more in that direction. So you end up with something that you didn’t necessarily set out to do.”
Compound that approach with the unreliable South African internet and the distance between not just LV and their MCs, but among the MCs themselves – Smiso lives in Johannesburg, Ruffest in Cape Town and Spoek splits his time between Africa and Europe – and you have a very fascinating composition indeed.
“Our experience was that the internet is good at Red Bull Studios in Cape Town,” says Simon to collective laughter, “But, apart from that, when we sent over tracks, it would take a little while before they could actually get somewhere that you could download it.”
“It’s this idea of travelling through the digital world. It’s definitely a key theme to the album; being able to be connected in that way.” Simon Williams, LV
“The internet is still arriving in South Africa,” adds Gerv. “There was this whole idea of trying to make Cape Town this South African Silicone Valley. So they’ve put all these high-speed things in to get people connected. Now a lot of people have mobile phones, obviously, so they’re getting stuff through there. They’ve got access to everything in the world via their mobile phones and there’s this idea that suddenly all this stuff from all around the world is pouring in and it’s affected things, people have responded to it.”
“Kids in the know down here know as much as kids in the know in New York to London,” says Smiso. If you’re not already wise, you only need to check the videos for Sebenza, Spitting Cobra and previous collaboration Boomslang (2010) to get that. Sporting 8-Bit animal print threads by South African designers Two Bop as we speak, Gerv describes the car spinning culture of ‘gesheshe’ featured on the Sebenza video as “a bit like skateboarding… with a car”.
Then there’s language and the way it’s used. As both Gerv and Smiso point out separately, there are 11 official languages in South Africa and that’s not counting the limitless unofficial ones, dialects and sub-dialects. Smiso himself employs his own private pidgin of English and Zulu within cryptic pseudonyms like Zuper Tsatsatsa, Futuremfana and Smartmompara, all in the pursuit of what he calls “a whole new world language, where everybody is everybody’s cousin.”
“Kids in the know down here know as much as kids in the know in New York to London.” Okmalumkoolkat
“If you say it to a South African person, they know what ‘pantsula’ is,” says Gerv about the origin of Okmalumkoolkat’s title lyric International Pantsula. “It’s like a gangsta hip-hop style. The joke is that it’s international because no one from outside South Africa would know what a panstula is… It’s a joke that isn’t particularly funny,” he adds laughing, “but it is what it is.”
Simon continues that digging into Smiso’s lyrics, rife with references and in-jokes, is central to ‘Sebenza’. “Zulu Compura is one of Smiso’s aliases,” he says of Okmalumkoolkat’s track of the same name where he sings from the perspective of an actual computer (“I’m a Zulu computer. Last name Macintosh, everything’s super. iPhone. Accident. Robocop. Accent. Taxi driver. Dialects. Wifi. Direct.”). “It’s this idea of travelling through the digital world. It’s definitely something that influenced him and it’s definitely a key theme to the album; being able to be connected in that way.”
“Someone just asked us, ‘is there a South African music scene,’ and it was like, ‘what do you mean?’” Gerv Gordon, LV
Because, whether it’s among the intricate South African scene of Kwaito-meets-house, Pretoria’s Barcadi House, Durban Kwaito, or just the heady international waters of the world wide web, there’s no end to the creative possibilities of LV and their South African counterparts.
“There’s all sorts of stuff coming from that place. Someone just asked us, ‘is there a South African music scene,’ and it was like, ‘what do you mean, really?’ It seems to me the more I’ve been going back and listening to stuff, the more I see the personalities of different places. In English music, people identify the ‘Bristol sound’, the ‘London sound’, the ‘Croydon sound’, the ‘South Croydon’ sound,” Gerv chuckles, “but no matter where you put the boundaries, you can identify common things within it.”
“There’s as much music coming out of South Africa, as there is in England and it is quite interesting that a really mainstream tune from South Africa will get played at underground clubs in London. Likewise, an underground tune from London five years ago will suddenly crop up in South Africa and be a big hit. But I don’t think that’s specific to that, I think that happens in other places in the world as well.”
So, why the attraction to South Africa in particular? “It was just one of the things that fed into what was getting us off at the time,” says Gerv. “I don’t think it was a defining influence for the album, it didn’t inform the direction.”
“We’re interested in the culture of all nations, really,” laughs Simon. “Will and I did a collaboration with an Armenian pianist recently for the Gilles Peterson show [on 6Music] so it doesn’t really matter where they’re from as far as we’re concerned.” It also makes one think that when Will Horrocks says LV’s upbringing really has nothing to do with their music, he probably has a point after all.