/ 20 July 2018

The muted thump of Gqom Nation

New wave: Emo Kid is an IT geek from KwaZulu-Natal who is problematising the move towards a mainstream sound in gqom. Photo: Tommaso Cassinis x Crudo Volta
New wave: Emo Kid is an IT geek from KwaZulu-Natal who is problematising the move towards a mainstream sound in gqom. Photo: Tommaso Cassinis x Crudo Volta

In 2017, after watching an EPK named Gqomwave (the title of both Maphorisa’s and Rudeboyz’s releases; you can guess who coined it first), I wrote about how little that mini-documentary told us about gqom’s varied history. Tricks were being played on us, economic alliances being formed, I said. Sadly, in 2018, in the wake of what has been curated into the iTunes playlist Gqom Nation, these sentiments bear repeating.

The playlist shares a name with an MTV Base documentary released earlier this year, which I’m starting to believe is the way that these things are marketed. The top tier of the list is loaded with the usual suspects and by that I mean the people who were jockeying for position as laid out by the Gqomwave mini-documentary, chiefly Tira and Maphorisa. Not far behind is a slew of their cohorts such as Distruction Boyz and Dladla Mshunqishi, Tipcee and Busiswa.

[Kingpin: Maphorisa’s Gqomwave intensified the house music sub-genre’s shift towards kingmaking. Photo: Gallo Images/The Times/Tsheko Kabasia]

But this not a woe-is-gqom story. Scenes are dynamic and exist within larger societal logics, such as the “survival of the fittest” trope. The artists left behind by the gravy train often have to regroup and find ways to hop back on, staffriding on a train that they set in motion in the first place. On gqom Twitter, talk of a proverbial “third hand” is both tongue-in-cheek humour and something of an open secret.

On Monday I logged onto iTunes to go through the list. Although I could immediately recognise the results of kingmaking and the influence of Universal Music’s own “third hand”, there was a certain form of poetry in seeing the names of Sbucardo Da DJ and Emo Kid listed as the initial creators of a track, now licensed to DJ Vetkuk and Mahoota for their upcoming release.

For the record, the credits were not on iTunes but on a YouTube listing of the same song.

Emo Kid, a precocious 24-year-old from eNanda (northwest of Durban) and Sbucardo, a slightly older pioneer from a different part of that area, are not quite in the long paper yet. But they hope to parlay their positions as feeders of the raw sound into some kind of a secure niche, where they are not subsumed by the law of the jungle.

Already, as everything mainstream now fits in it to the four-beat structure (the four-to-the-floor beats mixable with house music), their unique sensibility risks being eroded to lock-in-step with the neutered beats. As they settle into these roles, it means they must also figure out how to play the game of publishing.

Emo Kid should know the game by now. A track he “licensed” (or more accurately sold off for quick cash) went on to create the hit Thandekile for Afrotainment artist Joocy a few years ago. Emo remains a bankable talent, one with an infectious positive attitude and an eye on “total domination”.

Emo Kid, an IT nerd who doubled down on music after failing to secure employment, released the Gqom Tera EP last October. It’s a funky slice of gqom that veers towards the sgubhu side of life, peppered with melodic basslines and bright, chirpy synths.

“That’s where the sound is going,” he says. “Before, say around 2012 and 2013, there was a lot of tribal influences, like chants and dark sounds. Now, there are a lot of electro elements, mostly four-step, but people still regard it as gqom.”

Emo says current trends in gqom have veered him towards a more commercial sound. “As a producer it has affected me. Before it was super raw. If you check a song called Table Funk, it’s like a three-step and full of cut-up sounds. It doesn’t have a bassline, no leads and no synths.”

Both the Gqom Tera EP and Table Funk were released on the European label Gqom Oh!

But besides the ghost production duties of Sbucardo and Emo Kid, Masambeni is interesting in other ways. It’s a halfway meeting of aesthetics, the raw giving life to but not fully yielding to the new. It is sound as alchemy, with DJ Vetkuk and Mahoota probably aiming for a sound that is midway between the sheen of Sandton’s Taboo and the abyss-like vortex of eNanda by night.

For Emo, the movements in sound should not be seen as dichotomous, with one flock pulling the sound one way and another resisting commercialisation.

It’s a little bit more incestuous than that, he argues: “If you look at [Distruction Boyz’s] Omunye, it was taken from Lag. People were surprised that Lag had a track like that, they knew him for [hard] kicks, strings and chants. Evolutions are not deaths. If you look at trap, it wasn’t there before, but the older hip-hop is still there.”

[Rude boy: DJ Tira has emerged as the face of gqom – but it’s been a journey fraught with bloodletting. Photo: Gallo Images/Frennie Shivambu]

On the vocal front too, Masambeni, and in some ways the Gqom Nation playlist as a whole, present us with facts we know and perhaps others that demand closer attention. At the moment, nowhere more than the gqom scene do we see genres folding into each other. Already aware of this, Kwesta emerges as a living beast who was long prepared. Busiswa is a rolling ball of flame who has seemingly morphed her own lexicon in the recognition of this fact.

Skewed as the resources may be (Sbucardo has not one single video showcasing his vast discography for instance), the opening up of the scene presents us with infinite sonic possibilities. Check DJ Lag’s remix of the Moonchild-featuring Down Low (by the New Zealand production outfit Weird Together), or better yet, Patoranking’s Afrobeats-gqom mash up titled Available.

Just as Madanon is still the genre’s go-to guy for those atmospheric one-liners and one-worders, the Rudeboyz are as tightly honed a production machine as you will find in any genre at the moment.

It’s the prevalence of rappers, with Kwesta as something of an exception, that I’m not quite sure about. Though the stylings of the likes of Zulu Makhathini (Uniform ft Tira) and Beast (on SPHEctacular and Dj Naves’s Bhampa ft Beast, Tipcee & Tira) are certainly futuristic, there is something to be said of the poetic minimalism with which the likes of Bhizer inserted themselves into tracks, the execution of that fine, fine balance between hedonism and social commentary.

What the new puppetmasters know but won’t tell is that the secret of gqom, its emotive pulse, always lay in the concept of less is more.