Weheartbeat’s niche brand packs a punchy pulse

I had pinky-sworn I’d never go to Kitcheners again. My reasons were not quite political. I just felt I had indulged it enough as a consumer. Last Friday, however, fomo for the beatcentric Weheartbeat and fatigue with music festivals and their marginal programming got the better of me.

My prior knowledge of Eric Lau and Tall Black Guy (the two featured international acts) consisted of their Boiler Room sets. In the case of Tall Black Guy, this gives a fairly accurate impression of the producer as an artist. Lau is an altogether more mercurial figure, one who actively avoids playing his own music during DJ sets. I knew of him marginally, through his association with London’s progressive beat scene.

In case you don’t know, mayhem lives at Kitcheners and, as I was on assignment this time, I was actively courting it. But it wasn’t to be. The dance floor was barricaded by a heaving mass and the bar with people trying to quicken the pace of January. I hung back, gave hearty pounds and tried to drink slowly while the ever-dependable Kid Fonque tried to curb his sense of adventure.

I scanned the crowd; a mix between old Jo’burg hip-hop scenesters, internet age dilettantes and the odd former rapper, who has quit the cyphering life to pursue being a rent-paying creative.

Considering the engines behind Weheartbeat, the crowd made sense: a successful attempt at coralling a sometimes slippery young adult throng, whose musical sensibilities are no longer cohesive but convergent nonetheless.

We were there for what one might generally call “hip-hop”, but not quite.

Tall Black Guy’s MO is to trigger samples and other fragments on Ableton, so his sets play out more like samples reconstructed into new arrangements, a kind of sonic historiography rooted in nonlinear blending.

Eric Lau, who played next, took the party into more of a DJing direction, slightly more taut and uptempo. The dance floor retained its status as an impenetrable, no-go area.

The warmth that Lau says is often missing in the London nightlife overflowed, setting a good tone for a busy year to come from the Weheartbeat collective, led by creative consultant Dominique Soma and videographer and DJ Sims Phakisi.

Although most punters acknowledge Johannesburg’s Weheartbeat as an intimate concert showcase, having brought over the likes of Young Fathers, Freddie Joachim and Tall Black Guy, its tentacles of influence are beginning to spread to other interrelated spheres.

This year, Weheartbeat will curate music, design and audio-visual related content for a Johannesburg-based innovation festival and release a documentary and compilation project that tracks Weheartbeat’s growth over the past four years.

A new web series is also in the works, highlighting the role of often unacknowledged creatives in South Africa’s art scene.

“Artists, designers and photographers contribute so much to the music side of things,” says Phakisi, who works hands-on with many such artists in shaping the visual look and messaging of Weheartbeat. “A lot of information goes out but it’s never about the actual people putting in the ground work and influencing certain things.”

Soma describes the treatment of the series as building “a close-up, kind of day-to-day connection to this person and their everyday lives”.

Much of Weheartbeat’s business model is centred on these close connections. Because, as Soma says, 70% of the company’s projects are self-funded, there is the inevitable reality of running these initiatives outside of industry norms.

London-based producers Tall Black Guy and Eric Lau, for instance, have been based at Soma and Phakisi’s home-cum-office since late December last year when the two were booked to play a run of year-end shows.

Lau emerges from a bedroom during our interview to elaborate on how central relationships are to his own business ethics. “They [Soma and Phakisi] are like family to me now. They have made some mistakes in the past, but we have different strengths and weaknesses so we help each other out.”

Lau will form part of the compilation coming out later this year, which will feature tracks he coproduced with South African artists. On it will also be collaborations between Freddie Joachim and other local artists.

Phakisi and Soma agree that the pressures of running a niche audience business while juggling their own careers (Phakisi works as a videographer in the television and film industry and Soma consults for brands and corporate entities) can place an enormous burden on their personal relationship – but the rewards, characterised by slow but meaningful progress, outstrips the severity of these challenges.

At the pair’s home, a single-edition J Dilla illustration hanging off the wall probably tells you much of what you need to know about the founding principles underpinning Weheartbeat.

Dilla’s floating mug, set to a backdrop of red, white, gold and black geometric shapes, bears graphic designer Sindiso Nyoni’s trademark treatment, in which the finish is grainy, made to mimic an aerosol-like effect or imperfect printing.

The specks of white peaking underneath the black backdrop create the impression that Dilla is floating in space, looking at the duo’s efforts like some omnipotent patron saint.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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