With South African house and modern soul music being genres played on a more frequent basis by some of our favourite DJs on the circuit (Floating Points, Palms Trax, Hunee to name a few) we at Mantissa thought it may be interesting to get a first hand perspective from a DJ and crate digger who has been doing this for many years. So much so that Palms Trax in fact gave him a guest slot hour on one of his Berlin Community Radio shows.
We tracked down DJ Okapi in the hopes of getting an insight into the head of this longtime afrosynth selector, check out our exclusive interview and guest mix below.
How would you describe the music you play? Is it pop, soul, house?
It’s mainly South African pop music from the 80s and early 90s. I don’t like to get hung up on genre label as these are static when music is always evolving. ‘Bubblegum’ is usually the label associated with 80s South African music and kwaito with the 90s, but there is a lot of stuff that defies these labels or falls somewhere in between.
In South Africa some jazz is far more popular than a lot obscure disco records, so there’s no clear line between what’s ‘pop’ or not. I’m happy to play plenty of American or other African music too – the common thread is usually that it’s funky and relies on synths – so I just call it Afrosynth.
So how did you get into DJing? Have you always played this kind of music?
I wasn’t always playing African music, but I was always trying to do something different, what other DJs wouldn’t play. I started DJing on campus radio while studying in Cape Town, a friend and I hosted a weekly late-night show mainly playing blues. The guys who played the show before us Mix n Blend had a residency at a bar called Marvel and through them I managed to get a Sunday night residency there that ended up lasting over two years. That was around 2004-5. I was playing mainly soul music, particularly Motown and typical American funk – very cheesy, sexy stuff but it somehow fit in with the vibe at Marvel at the time, where the other DJs were mainly playing American hip-hop that sampled the old stuff I was playing.
I didn’t have a lot of records back then so I was playing mainly CDs. At the same time I was also playing 80s synth-pop, rock and electro at other parties under a different name. It was only after I moved to Johannesburg in 2009 that I started really pushing more local and Afrocentric stuff and starting using the name Okapi.
Is this a popular sound in South Africa or are people more into releases from the US and Europe?
These days the SA mainstream is all about house and hip-hop. The Afrosynth sound is really located far out of the mainstream because it’s so old. It’s the sound of a previous generation in South Africa. People who were around in the 80s would be familiar with a lot of it, but for the younger generation it’s viewed as something one’s parents listened to, which is a turnoff for a lot of young people. Kwaito was the sound of the 90s, which is when I was growing up. But in both cases it’s very old, so there are no other DJs really playing this regularly.
South Africans tend to have a pretty ambiguous relationship with their local music. Most grow up more familiar with American and British music. The media has played a large part in this, as foreign music has tended to dominate the airwaves since the end of apartheid in the early 90s. In 2016 there was a finally a radical shift to introduce a 80% local quota on radio, but the damage had already been done – there’s an entire generation (of all races) whose primary reference is America.
So while contemporary local dance music is huge, the Afrosynth sound of bubblegum and kwaito is yesterday’s news here. I think it’s no exaggeration to say this music is far more popular in Europe than in South Africa. The same might be said for newer niche SA genres like Shangaan electro and gqom.
Is the dance scene as large in South Africa? Do they follow many European and American DJs? Or is there a similar circuit of DJs playing a range of sounds?
Dance music is so dominant in South Africa that there is very little room left for anything else. The biggest artists are house acts (like Black Coffee) and a long line of rappers like Cassper Nyovest, AKA, Emtee and many others. In recent years the country has become a mecca for house music, with cities like Durban and Pretoria having their own sounds and scenes. In 2015 we were named ‘Dance Nation of the Year’ at the DJ Awards in Ibiza, which says something about the international attention the local scene is getting.
Outside a small and very talented jazz scene there seems to be very little room for bands or any other genres, unless you look at gospel and traditional genres. I’m sure European and American DJs have a strong following but there are plenty of local house DJs who have become institutions over the past 20 years. Trance also has its own scene. To be honest I’m really not into any of this… I’m only really interested in the roots – music with real soul and genuine emotion and musicianship that extends beyond a laptop, music which is slowly disappearing.
I'd say that this sound has become increasingly popular over in Europe through DJs such as Palms Trax, Beautiful Swimmers, Antal etc. As well as sellers such as Invisible City Editions. What do you think about this growing popularity and how did you first come into contact with the European/ American DJs?
I agree, the resurgence in bubblegum music is largely due to prominent international DJs and diggers taking an interest. I think the appeal is that it references other global sounds like boogie and techno, but with a distinctively South African influence, and usually great production quality. Plus this is the stuff that was pressed on vinyl in South Africa, which is of course also enjoying a resurgence.
I set up the Afrosynth blog around 2009 and as that’s grown I’ve had many people contact me wanted to learn more. More recently I’ve started selling the extra records I’ve found while digging, particularly the sealed deadstock. It’s primarily been though selling records that I’ve managed to connect with guys like Palms Trax and Antal. A couple of them have come all the way to Joburg to buy records from me (including Antal and San Soda) while plenty of others have bought online (like Palms Trax). Other SA records have over the years found their way into the hands of European and North American dealers, while international collectors are able to buy from South African dealers via various local online platforms.
Of course I can only be grateful that this music is catching on with influential DJs around the world. If it wasn’t for them there would far less interest or demand. It also says something about audiences, particularly in Europe, who are happy to dance to tracks they’ve never heard.
It's probably difficult to judge from your perspective but what do you think has brought about this sudden increase in popularity for South African music?
It’s a combination of factors I think… The growing interest is fuelled by the boom in re-issues in obscure synthesizer and boogie music, particularly from far-flung corners of the globe. There’s a boom in vinyl and in DJ culture in general.
A more critical view is that listeners and DJs are growing disinterested in contemporary Western music, and the internet has granted access to decades of long-lost music from all over the world. There’s been interest in West African as well as Ethiopian music for a few years now; I suppose South African music is relatively untapped. And with the more mainstream rise of contemporary SA house, a lot of people are growing curious about what preceded it.
I think we're hooked on Afrosynth. Is there anywhere we can get our hands on some of this music?
My goal is to make this music accessible not only to the world but also to people in South Africa. In 2015 I started selling online and in August opened Afrosynth Records near where I live in downtown Johannesburg. It’s the only store in SA specialising in African vinyl… it was featured on the Vinyl Factory recently here:
That concludes our venture into the mind of the DJ Okapi
You don’t have to go far to listen to what this expert Afrosynth selector has to offer. The best place to hear this music is by getting your hands on some vinyl from the links above, however check out our exclusive guest mix below as a little taster…