The first time I heard Spoek Mathambo I was blown away. The dark energy, the powerful beat, the slightly disturbing, distorted voice – his cover of Joy Division’s ’She’s Lost Control’ truly sounded like something new and unexpected. I knew very little of the South African electronic music scene and his music introduced me to a whole new world. The sound of Soweto born rapper, singer, producer Spoek Mathambo [born Nthato Mokgata] has always been rich in influences that flow into what he calls the ‘Township Tech’, his very own fusion of kwaito, house and hip hop with South African local music, both traditional and contemporary.
On April 14 he dropped his fifth solo album Mzansi Beat Code – in which he proves once more his versatility as a producer/musician and becomes a sort of curator of his own music, championing emerging South African artists in most of his tracks alongside the nation’s most recognised producers. His beats are propulsive, catchy, carefully crafted to make everyone stand from their chairs and dance without hesitation – and this album is no disappointment.
Want Ur Love and I Found you are straightforward, compelling tracks – both featuring the soulful voices of Kajama, the young duo of sisters Nandi and Nongoma Ndlovu, and produced by the collective Fantasma, with multi-instrumentals Bhekisenzo Cele, guitarist Andre Geldenhuys and acclaimed Dj and producer DJ Spoko.
Before the track reveals its catchy, ephemeral sound, nodding to the best traditions of house music, we hear a statement, a celebration of black women’s beauty and pride. The track closes with a twist, making space for a powerful rap flow and eventually an evocative Zulu folk-like chant. Libalela presents a similar house signature and the soft voice of young South-African singer/songwriter Langa Mavuso.
Throughout the album Spoek moves skilfully through genres, mixing them, overlapping sounds, juxtaposing hip-hop/trap tracks like Nothing’s Ever Perfect to indefinable songs like Volcan – with a melody evoking the desert blues of Bombino and Tinariwen and the voice of Mexican singer Ceci Bastida – a combo that is almost impossible to pin on the world map of music.
But there is one sound that comes out prominently in Mzansi Beat Code. It’s gqom, the freshest evolution of African electronic music from Durban, SA. Heavy-hitting, minimal and often dark, the influence of gqom can be heard loud and clear in Blast Fi Mi and Landed (both featuring Loui Lvndm) and especially in Sifun’imali Yethu, an overwhelming collaboration with Johannesburg producer Jumping Back Slash.
Each track has a strong energy and identity, but for the same reason Mzansi Beat Code sounds more like an ambitious collection of standalone tracks rather than a uniform work connected from start to finish, even after a few listenings. It’s definitely a good album, although the unique and unpredictable sound of Spoek Mathambo is put aside, only emerging right at the end in No Congo No Cellphone and Spoek Mathambo International Airport, the only two tracks featuring no one but himself.