Die Antwoord Interviewed

Julia O'Mahony
Posted June 28, 2012 in Music Features

In case you’re not familiar with them, Die Antwoord are generally referred to as a South African rap rave crew, though anyone familiar with their music, fan or otherwise, will admit that this definition hardly does the outfit justice. These guys are all kinds of mental, seriously. They’re often accused of being no more than a complicated construct – just fraudsters out to generate as much publicity as possible. Though I’d have classified myself as a fan prior to the interview, I thought that it was perfectly plausible that the reality of Die Antwoord was little more than a gimmick.

Rude, crass, and just generally offensive –Ninja, Yolandi and DJ Hi-Tek offer up just the sort of pounding music that your parents feared you’d like. Die Antwoord t-shirts are hardly easy on the eye either; Ninja’s homegrown tattoos and aggressive stance eyeing your ma and pop over the dining table, are, I suspect, not conducive to a familial dining ambience. When confronted with the reality of actually speaking to one of the trio, I had to steel my nerves a little in case Ninja was as confrontational as his music videos suggested he might be. I was bracing myself more for a verbal assault than an interview. But really I needn’t have bothered. He was eccentric sure; occasionally launching into monologues that veered completely off the wall, but nothing short of vivacious throughout, and he talked to me frankly about the band’s origins and ensuing success.

The band are currently touring Europe, and are discovering just how world-wide their reach has been. It was before performing at Sonar in Barcelona that Ninja, for the first time felt anything that even slightly resembled pre-gig nerves. He usually tries to avoid the venue before he performs in it, and doesn’t like to know whether or not a gig has sold out, or how many punters are expected. But at Sonar he’d been at one of the acts the night before, and was then informed that that was the stage where Die Antwoord would be performing the next day, in front of 30,000 people. By all accounts, the band delivered. Luxembourg and Berlin were different affairs, and though Ninja hadn’t heard of the former, he had a fun time performing in this “tiny ass country, full of rich kids”. Berlin, he felt, had been “kinda spoilt” by the huge range of acts that play there. It had all been very trendy, but finally at some point during the set, the audience went crazy, and Die Antwoord knew they’d cracked them. He’s yet to develop any real opinion on Ireland or the Irish, having never visited. “Aren’t they like, the guys that made the mafia?” His upcoming performance at The Academy might go some of the way to giving him a cultural reference point.

The new album Ten$ion, is vastly different to its predecessor $O$, though the same vein clearly runs through the pair. Ninja was keen to point out that in both cases, he was trying to create something more than just a natty album name. $O$, was literally a case of Save Our [their] Souls. Its energy is very different to that embedded within Ten$ion, altogether more raw. Interesting then, that Ninja’s plans for the future are not necessarily what one might expect after Ten$ion having met with such acclaim.  He wants to create a video for every song, and has found it a shame in the past when it just hasn’t been an option. In the future, he says, for a long while, there won’t be any more Die Antwoord albums – instead, he wants the band’s releases to be on a song by song basis – with a video for each; artefacts in their own right. Sure, he says, after a while, there will be enough material to make an album – but he gave the impression that he doesn’t like having to constrict himself to the ten or twelve songs per album. It wasn’t like the $O$ phase finished with the release of his album, and similarly he is still very much living out the Ten$ion. I appreciated the sentiment – but remembered that the release of $O$ certainly helped to contextualise the oddities that were Evil Boy and Enter the Ninja, within the band’s musical tradition. Yet more and more, the videos speak for themselves within the absolutely bizarre framework that the band have created.

Die Antwoord are infamous for their carefully constructed identity, yet its origins aren’t as complicated or contrived as one might expect. Ninja was involved in different hip hop outfits before this one – often with Yolandi by his side. He regularly disbanded the groups – “I began to wonder, you know, if it was me – if I was just that dickhead, ya know? Ya, it was like, you know how it is when you meet a girl, and take her out, maybe get down with her, but then get bored with it all and end it”. He got really caught up in a metaphor of his own creation as we talked about the evolution of Die Antwoord, stating that the prior groups were pretty much akin to a little mouse existing in a filthy room, and making little scratchings on a wall in his desperate efforts to escape –“tiny little scratchings, just her and there, until his little claws are all bleeding”. Suddenly, with Die Antwoord, it was as if the mouse had finally made a hole and escaped – like breaking the ice and plunging into a dark pool of water. Certainly Ninja is a man with a vivid imagination – but in these convoluted analogies is an expression of sheer desperation – be it to break out of suburban South Africa, or break into the music industry.

Would Ninja still be making music, had Die Antwoord been just another band that he’d chosen to throw to the waste side? Such a thought hadn’t really occurred to him – from the outset, this was it. It was Yolandi who had said “Let’s make Zef music”, a previously unexplored idea. Zef is essentially a slang Afrikaans-derived word for poor, or common. It existed culturally, but did not yet, really have any strong musical identity. Enter the Ninja.

Years down the line, and the band show no signs of slowing down, or getting caught up in the corporate machine, and still direct and produce all of their videos themselves – handpicking a team to help them each time. There was a bit of a fracas with Interscope records in 2011, which Ninja admits was a bit of a Satanic deal. They got given a lot of money for signing with the label, but were insistent that they should retain creative control – especially as they went about making their new video – which at the time, was for the song Evil Boy. The video is almost definitely the band’s most disturbing, positively an assault on the senses, and Ninja looks at it with the most regret. It’s a video borne out of rebellion – after signing, the group were trying to show that no one was the boss of them by creating such frenzied imagery, and yet this in itself meant that they were in far less control than they had been in the pre-Interscope days. The label didn’t know what to make of it. Though they had given the band creative control thus far, after Evil Boy, they were keen to reign them in, and when Interscope offered up some more funds to release Ten$ion, the group knew that a more mainstream sound was going to be demanded of them. It seems then, that the split was largely prompted by the group’s artistic integrity, and Ten$ion was subsequently released on the bands own label, ZEF RECORDZ.

What’s the third, more elusive member of the group, DJ Hi Tek’s role in all this? There was a bit of a skirmish earlier this year, in response to the track, DJ Hi Tek Rulez, not quite a charming ditty (the main hook essentially; “DJ Hi Tek will fok [sic.] you in the ass”). The use of the word ‘faggot’ in the song was not especially well received in the USA – but Ninja is keen to make it clear that DJ Hi Tek himself is gay – and that the lyrics of the song quote Mike Tyson, pretty much verbatim, when he flipped out at a reporter in 2009 with a series of threats. The band watched the altercation, and were dumbstruck. Back in the day, DJ Hi Tek was big into rave, but kept it quiet from the others, because he didn’t think rave was cool. Finally, they teased it out of him, though a little frustrated that he’d kept it on the down low, considering the rap-rave direction the group seem keen to pursue. It is Yolandi however, Ninja tells me, who is largely responsible for the direction of the group. Though she really likes Nirvana, on the flipside, it is her that will call, “No we need to go more 50 cent on this shit” as the tracks demand it. She’s heavily influenced by the likes of Justin Timberlake and Timbaland – particularly those songs “My Love” and “SexyBack”, and also the collaboration with 50 Cent on “AYO Technology” which Ninja says is not as good as the others, but was still important to the band, in terms of inspiration. He himself loves the group’s own work that samples Enya – Orinoco Ninja Flow, which always goes down well when it’s performed.

Do the pair fight, especially with such diverse musical interests? They both certainly come across as pretty intense personalities. They get a bit scrappy, often when writing songs, because the thing that seemingly exasperates Ninja the most is writer’s block. A nice example of this involves going into the particulars of his hair care regime, it seems.There is one man who always cuts Ninja’s hair, Andrew – he knows how to cut the distinctive box style that Ninja favours, and as far as is possible, Ninja only gets his hair cut by him. Occassionally, when touring Europe say, he’ll ask a hairdresser if they know how to cut a box. Just the slightest flicker of hesitation in their eyes is enough to put him off. However, when he was in Johannesburg recently, he decided to take a chance, and was convinced into getting an appointment with an award-winning hairdresser, who assured him that she knew what she was doing. She’d been cutting his hair for a while, but suddenly, when she got to the crucial moment, Ninja clocked her hand wavering, and had to tell her to stop, and had to go calm down, still wearing one of those shapeless capes they insist on making you wear, lest you get hair on your neck. Ninja recognised how excessive it was of him, but he was going to have to fly to Cape Town to see Andrew. However, out of all this…tension, came the complete dissolution of the writer’s block which had been plaguing him for ages. Was it worth nearly ruining his hair (something I get the impression that Ninja has come to value quite highly)? Definitely – “I’m sort of…addicted to progress, you know. I hate inactivity.”

Suddenly, I get it. Really. It’s not actually about whether this image that they’re projecting to the world is authentic or not – the point is, that however psychedelic, or disconnected from reality Die Antwoord appear – their lyrics are born out of genuine human feeling. A weird sincerity exists in their madness, but also a completely ordinary sense of humour. Sure, the whole outfit is terrifying – it’s meant to be. And yet their music is both original and catchy and live (because as Ninja tells me – this is what it’s all about) they go completely nuts, and give it all. For goodness sake, as much as anything else, Die Antwoord are good fun, and if you take them as you find them, they’re sure not to disappoint.

Die Antwoord play the Academy on July 3rd, tickets are a handsome €25.


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