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In Session: DJ Lag

An impactful mix of gqom, afrotech and Sgubhu from the South African pioneer

  • Words: Patrick Hinton | Photography: Travys Owen & Marlon
  • 21 December 2020

The hot streak DJ Lag has been on since emerging as a gqom pioneer midway through the last decade has been pretty much peerless. With fuel from the King of Gqom’s enthralling sets and productions, the South African variant on house music has evolved from a microscene in Durban to a global club phenomenon. Producers from the UK to Japan have started experimenting with their own takes on the style, and in 2019 it hit mainstream heights in about the most conspicuous way possible with Beyoncé tapping DJ Lag for production on ‘Lion King: The Gift’, her album accompaniment to Disney’s remake of the cinematic classic. DJ Lag and his gqom peers have shown the sky’s the limit for the stripped-back sound that stars broken beats and emphasis on the low-end.

Read this next: Gqom is the explosive South African sound bursting into Europe

DJ Lag has worked so relentlessly over the past few years - releasing across labels like Goon Club Allstars, Hyperdub, Good Enuff and touring in five continents (just South America to tick off) - that he initially greeted the global pandemic with a sense of relief. Some time off from the road has allowed him to spend more time with his young family and focus on studio sessions (despite the distraction of Will.i.am plagiarising ‘Ice Drop’). On the cusp of 2021, DJ Lag is feeling refreshed and raring to go, with an album in the pipeline and exciting ideas for collaborators. His newest single saw the Durban DJ join forces with fellow South African phenomenon DJ Tira for the first time, producing a formidable collab titled ‘Siyagroova’. It’s a tantalising taste of what more an energised DJ Lag has in store for next year.

To close out the 2020 run of our In Session mix series in style, DJ Lag has made an exclusive new hour-long mix of impactful sounds. We also caught up with him to discuss the evolution of gqom, South Africa’s fertile dance scene, Will.i.am’s plagiarism, and more. Hit play and read on below.

Growing up you wanted to be a soccer player before an ankle injury halted that plan. Was that tough to overcome? How soon after discovering producing/DJing did you know this was the direction you wanted to pursue instead?

Yeah, it was tough to deal with because my father was a soccer player, and he passed away when I was 11 months old, so I always wanted to follow his dreams and try to be like him, because I didn't know him that much. I was just trying to make my family proud and to maybe see my father when they see me.

When I stopped playing soccer, I became a dancer for about two years, and I wanted to make my own music because my dance crew wanted me to make beats for them and try and edit some of the slow jam music and hip hop in the set. I used to use Virtual DJ to do that. The person who had a computer in my neighbourhood had FL Studio and he was making hip hop beats. So I always went to his place to see him make music. I didn't have a computer at that time so I was just teaching myself by looking at what he was doing. He gave me the software and then I had to wait until my parents bought me a computer in 2011, that's when I started making my own music.

My cousin who is a rapper used to take me the studio and I started making hip hop. But that wasn't my thing, because I was a dancer, I was dancing to house music a lot. I changed my style to tribal house, from tribal house I went back to deep house, and then I went to Kwaito. From Kwaito, that's where I started listening to afrotech music. Then there was one track that was releasedproduced by guys called Naked Boyz ('Ithoyizi') and it was the first track I heard which was broken beat. I wanted to make that, because all the beats we had in Durban were [steady and] slow. So when I got the software I started trying to make the track that Naked Boyz made, then I ended up making something else, which was gqom. When I grew up making gqom, other producers started telling me that they were also trying to do the same thing, to copy the track that Naked Boyz produced. I think that's how gqom was made in Durban, because all of the producers were trying to make the same song.

When I was making hip hop, Kwaito, tribal house, none of my music was getting played anywhere. When I started making Gqom, my music was being played everywhere in Durban, so that's when I thought, ok I have to stick on this, because everybody is playing my music.

South Africa has been a fruitful birthplace for dance music movements, with styles such as Kwaito, gqom, Sgubhu and amapiano invented there. Why do you think the country produces so many pioneering artists?

I don't know how to answer the question, I wish I knew! I think the country is so big and we're listening to different things in different provinces. I didn't know anything that was happening in Jo'burg before I started playing in Jo'burg. I thought that people listened to what we listen to in Durban, but it wasn't happening. When I was in Jo'burg, none of the people knew what gqom was, when I went to Cape Town people didn't know what gqom was. I think we're listening to different things in different places.

Read this next: The beautiful chaos of Amapiano, South Africa's emerging house movement

You’ve spoken before on how people in South Africa didn’t really take to gqom until it started to getting played internationally. Why do you think that is?

These questions are serious. I'm still young to answer these questions; I don't know! We used to have this website called Kasi MP3 and we used to upload all our music onto it. We only thought a few people knew about the website, but it turned out everybody knew about it, so that's how my music spread out. Goon Club told me they got the music from Kasi MP3, so I think that's the site that helped us. At that time, we didn't have our music on iTunes, Spotify or all of that.

How has it felt to see gqom take off as a global phenomenon?

I'm so proud to see what we were doing just for fun and just playing around become this huge. I wasn't expecting that. I was just thinking that we're going to get big in Durban, but we didn't think that the music was going to get this big. I'm super proud of us. To get Beyoncé on a track is really crazy!

How many beats did you send Beyoncé when her team approached you for involvement in the ‘Lion King: The Gift’ album?

When Beyoncé's team came to Durban, I remember I was going to Australia that day and they wanted to meet me the same day I was flying, so I had to go meet them before going to the airport. When I got there I had my USB that I DJ with, and I had all my tracks on there. I think I sent her six or seven tracks and they only did her two. So maybe they're going to still release the second one... fingers crossed.

What do you think of the evolving styles of gqom such as the UK variation made by producers like KG and Scratcha DVA?

There are some styles that are happening outside of South Africa. Japan is also creating its own style of gqom. In London it's happening, and Scratcha is one of the artists. I've always been supporting Scratcha to do it man, do it. I think this is the time to get the sound even more bigger. If people from London are doing it, it's going to get bigger. I'm super happy with that, because I can see that people can see that we're doing is something good. If they're doing it, then it's great.

You’ve been known to get on the mic during your DJ sets [and DJ Tira raps on 'Siyagroova'] - would you like to see more rappers work with gqom beats and MCs on gqom sets?

Yeah I would like to see that more, because when gqom started and really got popular in 2016 when Okmalumkoolkat released 'GQI'. He was a fast rapper who rapped on gqom and that song was huge in South Africa. Even Cassper [Nyovest] started working with Babes [Wodumo] on a gqom track. I still want to see more of that happening.

Read this next: No more 4x4: How sounds from the Global South stopped club culture stagnating

How did you find out about the Will.i.am and Megan Ryte track that ripped-off ‘Ice Drop’ and what was your reaction when hearing it?

I can't remember who sent me the first DM - they sent me a link of the track when it dropped the first day. When I heard the track I didn't listen to it properly because I was doing something, and I didn't take it serious. Then the next day there was like four people who sent me the same thing, and I was like ok I have to check this out. When I listened to the track I heard it — you know, this is a shock! Same time I called my manager and said you have to listen to this.

I was shocked; I wasn't mad. I was happy but shocked at the same time, because Will.i.am is Will.i.am, he's big. I've been following him ever since I was a child and it was crazy to see A$AP Ferg and Will.i.am jump on my track. When I told [my manager] Sevi that this happened he was like, ok we have to do something for sure. I said yeah, we have to do something. We're sorting it out.

How did you come to work with DJ Tira and what inspired your new track ‘Siyagroova’?

I always wanted to work with Tira. When I want to Jo'burg last month we met at a gig at Altitude Beach. I was performing there and Tira had a birthday with his wife. When he started hearing gqom playing in the speakers he went straight to check who is playing and it was me. We started playing together, then I got his number and I called him the next day when I got back to Durban and he said he's coming back on Tuesday. I went to his place on Tuesday and we recorded the track. It didn't take even an hour to finish the tack; I think it was supposed to happen. He didn't write down anything, the lyrics, he just played the beat and started recording.

How has it been living in Durban during lockdown and how much did the pandemic disrupt your plans for the year?

For me, I was happy when the lockdown started, I don't wanna lie. Because I've been travelling for like four years now and when the lockdown started I just got my new place, I wanted to stay a little at the place and spend some time with my son. And I didn't know that the lockdown was going to take like the whole year. When my manager called me telling me all my shows are cancelled for the year, that's when I saw that this thing was serious. I had to deal with it because there's nothing else you can do. I had to use that time to make music, because for four years I didn't get any chance to get in the studio to make music. I always made music on planes or in hotels. So I had more time to make a full album for next year. I'm ready to go back on the road now, this is too long; the whole year, yo! It's too much.

What genres and artists are you excited about currently?

I listen to a lot of hip hop. For my album, I'm still planning to get a lot of American artists on gqom tracks. I want to get A$AP, Travis Scott, then from the UK I want to get Skepta and Wiley. Those are the people that I always wanted to work with. Oh shit - and Rihanna! I want to get Rihanna on a track.

Tell us about your In Session mix.

For this mix I’m playing you some afrotech, gqom and Sgubhu. And I want to wish everyone a happy Christmas, thank you for the support, see you guys in 2021.

DJ Lag & DJ Tira 'Siyagroova' is out now, listen here

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter

Tracklist:
1) DJ Lag - Afro Tribe
2) DJ Lag - 2 Stady
3) DJ Lag - Dark or Blue ft DJ Bongz
4) Deep Narratives - Hard Cong
5) Rude Boyz - Rudemaster ft. Campmasters
6) Brightque - Ghost & Shadows
7) DJ Youngmaster & DJ Vega - I ghost lento
8) DJ Lag - Into Ongayazi
9) DJ Lag - Fokof
10) DJ Lag - Wema
11) Irohn Dawgs - Riot ft General Cmamane
12) Rude Boyz - No Mercy
13) Element Boyz - Dankie Boy ft worst behaviour
14) DJ Lag - Flying
15) Que - Ilwa Ntombo
16) DJ Lag - Nero
17) DJ Lag - Sleepy
18) Worst Behaviour & DJ Lag - samba ngolayini
19) DJ Lag & DJ Tira - Siyagroova

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