DJ Lag: The gqom whisperer comes home

“I was just trying to create something that sounded like hip-hop, but on a house tempo” is how DJ Lag tried to articulate his sound on our first meeting at his mother’s house in Clermont four years ago.

Dusk was falling on the hills of the township, which is closer to Pinetown than Durban, but the sun was clearly rising for DJ Lag.

In the Chris Saunders photograph that has come to be the living document of that meeting (published in Red Bulletin in 2014), Lag’s head is tilted, his eyes not quite looking at the camera, as if he is scanning the far-away lands that would soon become his stomping grounds.

In 2016, the same photograph would become the cover of DJ Lag’s first official international release for British label Goon Club Allstars, run by DJ and producer Moleskin.

Simply titled DJ Lag, the album was a showcase of the innovative beat structures and the hard-driving pace that the more hardcore DJs were pushing in Durban’s underground clubs. Songs like 16th Step showcased interlocking rhythms while Ice Drop was a properly mixed-down version of that trademark distorted drum sound whose engineering only seemed to enhance its thump and deepen its crests rather than neuter them.

Although this music may have been novel in some corners of the world and, indeed, in parts of South Africa, it was how Durban youth had been “banging” for a good number of years.

For Lag, his elders, so to speak, were the likes of Naked Boyz, who produced the song Ithoyizi, which was featured “on a DJ Cndo compilation in about 2010 or 2011”. And then there was Culoe de Song’s sensibility to tribal house, which was generally to tinker with beat formations.

In some clubs around Durban, early gqom and tribal house were interchangeable in DJ sets, and the antics of Pretoria DJs such as Mujava, Machance and Spoko hovered like a legend.

“Before I started with gqom, I was kind of into tribal house myself,” says Lag, marvelling over Culoe de Song’s unsung influence on some gqom DJs. “He would do things reworking maskandi songs into house.”

As for the Naked Boyz, it was the first time Lag had heard a song that reformed his idea of house by moving it outside of the 4/4 beat structure. Today, he counts Rudeboyz, Sbucardo, Naked Boyz and himself as among the pioneers of that original stripped-down and hollowed-out gqom sound that continues to haunt punters on dancefloors around the world.

As the sound gained international traction, making globetrotters out of the likes of Rudeboyz and Lag, in South Africa it was bubbling towards the mainstream in a somewhat neutered version, symbolised by songs such as Babes Wodumo’s Wololo. This shifting sonic terrain, along with something of a consolidation of mainstream visibility by some powerful alliances, has created a bit of a conundrum for the likes of Lag. For Lag, now represented by booking agent and management group Black Major, the fork is splitting either in the direction of international notoriety (which brings in seasonal, mostly tour-related money) or towards local domination, which can guarantee gigs every weekend in between releases.

“The gqom I release overseas is not really the gqom they play a lot here,” says Lag, looking a little less like the young boy from Clermont who was then on the brink of completing matric. “The music we have been releasing overseas is basically the same gqom we have been releasing here from way back, like 2012, 2013. We are still on that same mission.

“The [local] sound now has synthesisers and basslines. It’s cool. I could do it too, but I try not to focus too much on it. I prefer the old sound.”

As if to prove the staying power of “the old sound”, Lag uses the example of fellow Clermont citizen Griffith Vigo’s killer jam Ree’s Vibe. “That song is from 2011, 2012, but it’s only blowing up now,” he says.

If you listen to many Lag tracks, vocals are brought in as a result of sampling as opposed to in-studio recordings. “When gqom started, vocals were not really the in thing. But, of course, now I am changing that because it [gqom] has started playing on the radio and you need those vocals for airplay.”

During the interview, he says he is going to meet rising star Sho Madjozi a little bit later. He counts her as among the artists he wants to feature on his upcoming full-length album, set for completion sometime in 2019. He mentions his friend Okmalumkoolkat, Babes Wodumo and DJ Tira as artists he would like to collaborate with.

He uses Tira’s name very tentatively, with good reason. In Tira’s capacity as the Distruction Boyz’s business partner, he has been the face of the legal spat between Distruction Boyz and Black Major, Lag’s management company, over the proceeds of and credits for the duo’s biggest song, Omunye, off their platinum 2017 debut album, Gqom Is The Future.

The instrumental, which has glaring similarities to DJ Lag’s single Trip to New York, was apparently acquired from a Cape Town-based producer known as Mphyd, who copied several key elements from Lag’s recording and passed them off as his own.

Lag is hoping the protracted legal battle can soon be resolved, so it can restore his friendship with his homeboys (the Distruction Boyz) and net him a feature from music industry kingmaker Tira.

The irony is that what ended up as a career-defining hit for Distruction Boyz represented DJ Lag’s routine experimentation with various iterations of the gqom sound.

“I had been doing it [experimenting with synthesizer sounds] for quite a while, so that release was me showing that I could do that style.”

The latest example of Lag’s growing sonic vocabulary comes in the form of his collaboration with United Kingdom-based jazz drummer and producer Moses Boyd, titled Drumming, which can be found on his recent EP Stampit, released a few months ago on Goon Club Allstars.

Boyd and Lag met when the former visited Cape Town in 2017. Together, they went on to play in Poland, where they featured on each other’s sets.

He has also produced music for Los Angeles-based singer Kelela and is collaborating with global beats icon M.I.A.

Of Boyd’s dense and rhythmically versatile sound, he says, with cautious admiration: “It isn’t gqom as such, but it works.”

Although Lag listens to a lot of kwaito in his spare time, his listening habits are slowly being overtaken by grime music. “Wiley got me into the sound but Skepta is becoming a firm favourite,” he admits.

Even if his South African breakthrough doesn’t go quite as planned for Lag, his horizon is full of scabrous, icy and dubby beats. He veers from his usual monotone when he discusses baile funk; it has similarities to gqom he finds uncanny and because of that, he envisages a possible collaboration with a Brazilian artist he met recently. He has enjoyed watching grime MCs rock over gqom beats, as Killa P did on a bill they once shared in London (“gqom’s second home”) and loves how his time overseas has blown the door wide open for his DJing skills.

“A lot of DJs there [overseas] use a lot of effects. I found a lot of DJs there using like CDJ 900s. In the clubs I was playing here, we didn’t have any of that. It was mainly CDJ 200s, the small ones. So I have been learning a lot and taught myself how to throw in a lot of effects.”

He has come a long way from the young boy who learnt to mix as an apprentice to a guy called Smiso in the Clermont club called Uhuru. Even as he sits, legs splayed, on a nondescript couch in Sandton, the way Lag sees it, his mission is still to explore the transmutability of gqom to other sounds around the world. As his tour schedule grows with each consecutive year, we may have to start calling him DJ Jetlag.

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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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