This outlandish South African rap-rave crew are on the tips of every trendsetter’s tongue, from LA to London, New York to Sydney and Cape Town to Johannesburg. There’s no doubting their attraction, but are they the Afrikaaner white trash they portray themselves as; or white, middle class art school graduate performance artists, taking us all along for a ride?
As they prepare to play at Australia and New Zealand’s Big Day Out Festival, Tone Deaf’s Lauren L. investigates.
“Mmm, these pickled onions are very nice”
“Ja these onions are pumping.” Yo-Landi and Ninja, the driving force behind Die Antwoord, are eating chip rolls and fish at the harbour in Houtbaai, South Africa, while chatting to the overwrought leader in hipster culture, Vice Magazine.
The interview reveals what they say is their philosophy: “drive fast and play kak music loud. It’s a zef rap-rave jol, with lasers, smoke machines, 3D graphics, rappers… and everyone’s gonna be there”.
However, YouTube clips of the band’s former life paint a very different picture; a far cry from their current subscription to zef subculture – marked by tacky rave music, box cuts, DIY tattoos and menacing dogs on long chains. Before Die Antwoord there were the hip hop groups The Original Evergreens and The Constructus Corporation, followed more recently by Max Normal TV- a quirky experimental hip hop crew. All are carefully painted out of the Die Antwoord biography.
Are we to believe that these individuals have undergone a natural transformation, or are they on a crusade to bring their new style of performance art to the mainstream in order to get more attention? It’s an age old trait of artists to airbrush or deny their pasts when fame and fortune come knocking, but it’s not so easy in the internet age. Indeed for Die Antwoord, a lot of it is there on YouTube … or what hasn’t been recently been yanked from it…
Ninja , AKA Watkin Tudor Jones, (also previously known as Waddy Jones) cuts an unforgettable yet unlovable figure in Die Antwoord – a sinewy but hard man covered in tattoos which look like playground scribbles. Flanked by diminutive albino singer Yo-Landi Visser and overgrown beat-boy DJ Hi-Tek; Die Antwoord have been on a meteoric rise to fame ever since the posting of ‘Enter the Ninja’ on You Tube in 2009. This year has seen them sign a record deal with Interscope/Sony and release their first EP ‘Wat Pomp’; which translates to ‘what’s pumping?’ in Afrikaans. They’ve since released the US/UK version EP $0$ on Interscope in the US in the last few weeks.
They’ve even managed to spark the interest, if not obsession, of The Guardian, Pitchfork, Boing Boing, Vice Magazine and any number of trendsetting publications and websites – a remarkable accomplishment for an obscure South African rap/rave group who rap in Afrikaans and English with all the vulgarity of Mike Tyson on coke.
So what is it that has so many people intrigues by this motley crew? At first perhaps it was the novelty factor, but now tens of thousands of fans worldwide would tend to disagree.
Die Antwoord seem to have been plucked from relative obscurity, spreading through internet blogs and music sites alike – like an aggressive form of AIDS, – but each member has been involved in the SA hip hop scene since the 90s. It is this area that Die Antwoord have been most evasive, avoiding answering a Guardian journalist, who wrote “I asked Tudor Jones if Die Antwoord was another conceptual project, if he and Visser had taken on new, more subversive roles. He declined to answer and politely withdrew his co operation.” As we all know from numerous celebrity and football controversies, denial and ‘no comment’ generally suggest smoke indicating the fire below.
The following clip for the song ‘Total F**k Up’ by Max Normal TV takes us on a tongue-in-cheek look at the challenges of being a new rap group in a culturally-barren part of Cape Town with guest rapper Dappy- a toothless prototype for Die Antwoord.
In an interview shot a few years ago, Yo-Landi and Watkin Tudor Jones discuss the birth of Max Normal TV, saying “We are looking into the visual element to the band. We’re really into movies and making films”. Could this indicate another Joaquin Phoenix-sque stunt on the way? Yo-Landi adds “we wanna show what South Africa is to us.”
In order to get the level of attention they’ve received, you need both brains, resources and of course connections. Several reports have indicated that Die Antwoord have links to brands like Puma and Jagermeister, and possibly even YouTube and Google; who may or may not have accelerated their ability to handle the sudden interest in them, conveniently in the run up to the World Cup in South Africa this year. As of the time of writing, ‘Enter The Ninja’ picked up a million views in around ten days to take it to over 7.5 million views. Conveniently you can also find an alternative version hosted by ‘JagermusicSA’.
For self styled white trash rappers, it could explain the budget for the high-quality and mega-stylised video for ‘Enter the Ninja’, as well as the exorbitant costs of hosting such high volumes of internet traffic in a place like South Africa. It also asks why their videos get pulled down so easily from YouTube.
The people of MaxNormal.tv are miles away from who we see in Die Antwoord, and it seems unimaginable that a natural transformation has occurred from the lanky self-deprecating shaven Jones from Max Normal TV to the violently chauvinistic Ninja we see today.
Remind yourself of MaxNormal in 2002
A further revelation occurred over the weekend (or did it?) in which Ninja revealed to an interviewer in London’s Observer that he and Yo-Landi were the parents of a child. On being asked about the passing comment, he admitted that they were the parents, saying rather cruelly (or perhaps just in character), “ Ja, we’re just friends, but we had this kid by accident. We’re a good fucking mum and dad on that level, whatever. A lot of people wanted to ban the interweb to stop us getting known. And you can’t stop it. We’ve got this fierce fucking following – like the cutest, most freak-mode, wildest kids, and also older people who are super-duper in tune with what we’re doing, and that’s not going away – it’s getting bigger fucking fast. Bigger and bigger.” There’s no denying Tudor Jones his group’s appeal, but it would appear that they (and their sponsors?) are perhaps doing their best to deny their past (and present) to the point of seemingly innocuous videos mysteriously disappearing from the internet.
Although Tudor Jones’ new tattoos are in proud Zef-style, they appear unconvincing, along with the rest of their act. What does seem authentic is their actual music, which after a few listens of ‘Wat Pomp’ (“I rap like a sore thumb/ what’s up with you brother/I fit right in/ like my cock in your mother”) makes it clear that they’re genuinely funny, albeit immature.
There is little doubt they are committed to their act – but it is just that? Do they really live out their lives in Cape Town flats backyard parties with other shady-looking riff-raff as shown on their Facebook page?
Whatever their modus operandi may be – fame, fortune, creative expression – they’re a fascinating act to not only watch and listen to – but also to reflect on whether they’re real. That also lends the question – who are we – white middle class indie music fans in Australia, Europe, the US or the UK – to judge what is real in South Africa; a country our respective cultures have often metaphorically held away from our noses like a stinky gym shoe?