It’s not often that you are approached by your government and dispatched to a former colony to celebrate its 10th year of democracy. It sure beats the hell out of being sent to Iraq, which is the other place the British government is intent on sending its citizens. But the assignment for these James Bonds of groove is a lot more festive, and South Africans are set to reap the rewards for our efforts of mass construction. Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliff, the talented London-based duo who make up Basement Jaxx, are on their way — with orders from Number 10 — to help us celebrate our metamorphosis from stinky apartheid pariah to one-love democracy.
Much like South Africa, Basement Jaxx got themselves together in 1994 with the advent of their record company Atlantic Jaxx.
“Yeah, that’s a nice synergy,” says Buxton over a crackly telephone line from central London.
Despite their association with dance music, a notoriously shallow and hednoistic canon, Jaxx have set themselves apart as a particularly discerning and positive dance band. Since then they have released three albums, all of which have been huge. Their sound is strictly feel-good, eclectic dance anthems; the base is house but layered and textured with great vocal arrangements and a huge variety of influences, ranging from bhangra to samba and live African percussion. They also attract a diverse and integrated crowd, which must have been a key motivator for their inclusion in the British Council’s D+10 celebrations.
“Our music has always celebrated diversity,” says Ratcliff on his cellphone from a studio in South London. “So I guess we’re kind of an appropriate band. We’re relevant to today, our music is of now, of the moment. It’s a positive, optimistic sound, I suppose.”
“We’ve heard things about big trance DJs going over to South Africa and we could have earned a lot of money,” adds Buxton. “It didn’t seem like a nice way to go over there, just to cream a few pounds and come back again, and just perform for the elite, I suppose. So when we were invited to be part of the 10 years of democracy celebration, we were very proud to be asked.
“I really hope we get a mixed crowd,” says Buxton. “Obviously that’s going to be very difficult, because all the people who … get to hear about us are pretty much like ourselves. It would be good if we could do some sort of free gig while we’re there.”
The British Council’s D+10 celebrations present an interesting axis of politics and partying. “I feel it’s kind of the British government giving something back,” says Ratcliff. “Back in history so many things were taken from so many countries, so it’s quite nice to be giving something back.”
Even though dance music is not the most political form of expression?
“For me there has always been a message in everything we do,” Buxton continues. “The problem with dance music is people have always seen it as … very superficial. But the reason I got into house music in the first place was that I saw it as quite a deep feeling.”
“The truth is, whether this is tasteless or not, I make music … because it makes me happy,” says Ratcliff. “It also gives me a lot of pleasure that other people enjoy it as well.
“To go back to what you said about dance music not being political; when I started it was very political. Especially when you had the rave scene over here. It was illegal to dance all night and people had to go off and express themselves. It had something revolutionary about it as well. It gave a sense of unity. And that’s disappeared now because dance music has been appropriated by the mainstream … But any form of art is political, it is always expressing a point of view. Like we said before, we’re multicultural and we encourage people to keep dreaming and believing in themselves and pushing forward the human spirit.”
So if you’re playing and you look up from the stage and see Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in the crowd, what track would you drop to get them moving? Buxton ponders. “I think older people generally like the softer, more feel-good tracks, or something with a young girl being slightly flirtatious on stage [he laughs].”
As a live act, what can we expect?
“Look, it’s not DJing at all,” says Buxton. “That’s really dreary. Our music is mostly songs, we’ve got about six singers with us, a visual show, a lights show, a live drummer, I think we’re going to have a percussionist from South Africa with us. It’s multimedia really.”
“We’re less of a dance band in the DJ sense and more of a band really,” adds Ratcliff.
What image comes to mind when you think about South Africa?
“I only know what I’ve seen over the years on TV,” says Buxton philosophically. “The townships and fighting, and then I’ve seen footage of the trance parties, so in a way I have seen these little pieces, but I don’t really know how it all fits together.”
“I know it may be a cliché,” admits Ratcliff, “but I just think of sunshine.”
Basement Jaxx play at Cape Town’s Bellville Velodrome on October 14 and at Gallagher Estate in Johannesburg on October 15. Book at Computicket.