WHP FEATURE 17

BLACK COFFEE

SHARE ON
TWITTER

BLACK COFFEE

20.10.16
Over the years, house music has moved far from its radical roots. A sound that was born in the predominantly gay black and Latino disco scene, the early era of the genre was defined by tunes that were pure message; explicitly preaching unity, tolerance and transcendental joy, fusing gospel’s heartfelt spirituality with a digital heartbeat that yearned for a utopian future. Tracks such as Joe Smooth’s Promised Land or Aly-Us’s Follow Me have the same emotional impact today they had when they first dropped some 30 years back- but in the land of their birth, recent years haven’t offered much in the way of a successor. In 2016, if you wanted to hunt out house that exists to spread a dream of a common humanity you’d do better travelling to another continent.

“On an album,” considers Black Coffee, talking over the phone from his Johannesburg studio “I’ll make sure I have a motivational song, because of where South Africa has come from. I approach recording an album in a certain way, thinking, what are people going to take away from this? What is going to touch them? What is going to inspire them? More than anything in this country we need inspiration. We have a very dark past. As much as we can be considered a free country, we are not totally free mentally, people still feel a certain way about themselves and it’s going to take a while for people to believe in themselves. It’s a very long process to get there.”

“There’s much divide, and my whole aim is to unite people. Songs like Some Day and We Are One, this is me trying to create music that unites the people



Black Coffee – aka Nkosinathi Maphumulo - has become South Africa’s house ambassador, a title he doesn’t wear lightly. At 40 years old his ascent to global stardom has been slow and not without setback. As a teenager in 1990, he lost the use of his left hand on the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison - a car had ploughed into the crowd he was standing in, injuring 35 people and leaving 2 dead. At this point he was already starting to DJ, and following the injury had to relearn his craft. This has led to his now distinctive style, his right hand flashing over decks and mixer like a precision weapon, tweaking knobs and cutting faders to pull off intricate, effects heavy mixes with one hand that would defy most people with two. Such is Black Coffee’s iconic status in South Africa, that some young South African DJs have taken to copying this style of one handed playing in homage– and this tells you everything you need to know about Black Coffee’s determination; he’s turned an obstacle into a calling card.

Having used his own passion for music to overcome personal tragedies, he’s now looking to apply that same tenacious love to his country. He has no intention of shying away from discussing the cracks that remain in South Africa, a country where apartheid remains in living memory, and feels it’s his calling to use house to heal the rifts that run deep.

“There’s still a lot of segregation.” He points out. “There’s much divide, and my whole aim is to unite people. Songs like Some Day and We Are One, this is me trying to create music that unites the people – I’m not Black Coffee for only black people, I’m for the whole nation. On We Are One, that’s a song that has a response, it’s a very powerful song, one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever done.”

We Are One saw Black Coffee enlist the vocals of legendary South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela, now in his 70s. Over a trademark shuffling Black Coffee beat, Maskela delivered a plea that “we’ve got to leave together” channelling the positivity of house and reapplying it to South Africa. New York’s own guardians of the genre clearly approved, with Masters At Work’s Louie Vega appearing in the video. This was the kind of co-sign that led to Black Coffee being picked up by American mega-brand Ultra Records, and a slew of gigs worldwide. This suits him fine, and he sees it as a logical next step in South Africa’s still evolving house scene.

Even production wise I’d like to work with Skrillex. I think we could do something really special, I’m open.”



“It’s constantly growing,” he says of the local scene. “I want our music to compete on a global level in the way it sounds – like basically getting our production better to be able to compete on that level where it’s not just considered South African house, where it blends in with the rest of the world. The elements are there, but still we’re not on a global scale. I feel like I can do much more for the scene from the outside, from leaving South Africa and travelling through the summer. It used to be that I was taking South African sounds to the world – now, while I’m taking South African things out I’m also taking international songs and playing them in South Africa, so I can contribute more by learning more and bringing more knowledge, and putting together collaborations between local and international artists on the same song.”

Has he got anyone in mind to collaborate with?

“I’d collaborate internationally with anyone you can think of, anyone from a Pharrell to a Craig David to a Sam Smith – I’m really, really open. Even production wise I’d like to work with Skrillex. I think we could do something really special, I’m open.”

There is, of course a danger that making his local sound compete on a global level he may lose something about it that makes it so unique in the first place – but this isn’t something that Black Coffee is afraid of –

“I think everything comes from somewhere, and where you come from is what you bring – that can never be changed by who you work with or where you live. The Beatles were the Beatles from Britain, and they remained the Beatles even though they went global. Elton John remained Elton John – he’s not American, but he’s a global artist. It’s a matter of taking a small thing and making it global without compromising who you are.”

He can, in fairness, put his money where his mouth is-

“When I did the remix for the Alicia Keys song In Common, I could hear that the original had been trying to channel that South African house sound, so when I was called to do the remix I knew exactly what to do, and I kept it very South African – if you listen to that remix you wouldn’t be confused as to whether it was South African house. I can’t explain what the sound is though! Even at times when I feel like approaching the sound from a different way, I fail, because that local sound is so deep in what I do – if I try minimal or something and go away from the off rhythms, people still say to me that the tune I make is such a Black Coffee sound. It’s something I can’t shake off.”

“I never just go with the flow,” he finishes. “I always try and tell my own story.” Right now, it sounds like he has a whole lot more story to tell.



That Alicia Keys remix has racked up over a million plays on Youtube (without having a proper video) and introduced him to a wider American audience, and, yes, it is unmistakably made from the Black Coffee sound, built from a percussive skip, a propulsion that hits between the four/four kicks to give his rhythms a distinctive motion. This is then combined with melodies that are deceptively simple, usually treading a thin line between the uplifting and the brooding, with a less-is-more aesthetic that ensures each note counts. And finally come the vocals –and this is something he considers vital, noting that “songs are very important in the South African sound. It’s really important to have that structure and melody, to make something that means something to people. Songs bring that emotion.”

This love of a lyric infiltrates Black Coffee’s DJing – in the same way DJs playing more instrumental sets consider the flow of melody, Coffee is aware of the songs he plays talking to one another, their message building with each extra track. He cites one particular set as the best example of this.

“I don’t know if you saw the set I played for Mixmag in London – they called it ‘the spiritual set’- I didn’t choose that name, but it’s a set I’m really proud of. The music was very carefully chosen, it’s a feeling, it’s where I was. At that time I’d just lost my grandmother so I was feeling very emotional – nobody knew that. They call it spiritual based on how it was received, but I knew it was spiritual based on how I was feeling that night.”

Coffee was raised in part by his grandmother, and he clearly felt the loss keenly. Midway through our conversation he plays a new song he’s working on that is dedicated to her, and it’s a deep, emotional track constructed around a melancholic vocal performance – house music delivering a message with almost unbearable poignancy. For the many producers who crave anonymity and are terrified of voicing a personal opinion beyond ‘get up and dance’ it would be too painful to expose themselves so clearly, but Black Coffee has no interest in following the herd, planning to release this deeply personal track before the end of the year.

“I never just go with the flow,” he finishes. “I always try and tell my own story.” Right now, it sounds like he has a whole lot more story to tell.