/ 11 September 2020

Nostalgia, connection and the nomadic sound of Mx Blouse

Mx Blouse Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Uniquely Mx Blouse: The artist’s debut album is a fusion of sonic influences from throughout their life. (Delwyn Verasamy)

More than a decade ago, a book titled Last Night a DJ Saved My Life piqued my interest. I wanted to become a DJ and a music producer, so it felt like a good idea to familiarise myself with the history of the profession. 

Using interviews with legends like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Paul Oakenfold, Fat Boy Slim and others, former Mixmag editor Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton tracked down the inside story of how the disc jockey shaped modern music. 

The book features first-hand accounts of how disco, hip-hop, house and techno were born. It’s oftentimes an illustration of how misfits got together on the dancefloor to find community and how the music that was the soundtrack to their communion echoes to this day. 

I didn’t go into DJing or music production at the time, but the worlds described in this book, particularly the queer parties at Chicago’s Warehouse, where house music was born, left an indelible mark on me. I was fascinated by how this sound was created in a space in which  black and latinx LGBTQIA+ youth in segregated Chicago came together to find community at a time when they were not free to be anywhere else. 

I was determined to find similar experiences, and perhaps growing up nomadic has a lot to do with it. The varying sonic influences on my debut album Elementality are definitely a product of this.

eSikhawini, a township I grew up in on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast, is where I was initiated into street-corner life, sharing blunts with my mates listening to house music and kwaito from somebody’s Walkman or boombox. Although I left to move to Johannesburg, I recall my late teens eSikhawini, spending weekends with my friends scraping coins together for beer, weed and cigarettes. We would blom in taverns, chugging quarts of Black Label, playing pool; the latest Soul Candi or Mmthi’s Essential Selections releases blaring from the speakers. 

When I was younger, my older cousins bumped everything from TKZee and the Kalawa Jazmee stable but they also had 2Pac, Biggie, Nas, the Soul Food movie soundtrack, Brandy, Boyz II Men and other hip-hop and R&B artists’ albums, mostly on cassette tapes. I remember the voice of Metro FM’s Wilson B Nkosi as the morning alarm every weekday. 

I remember the now late Bob Mabena and Melanie Son on Studio Mix on Friday nights. Get Funky still rings in my ears and I can see the music video, albeit faintly in the eyes of my mind: Mabena, Wendy Mseleku and Doctor Khumalo, the very embodiment of youth.

Mx Blouse’s sound is partly influenced by club hopping and Chicago’s famed Warehouse scene. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Róisín Murphy in a metallic flapper dress and hat, looking like a disco ball in human form in the Moloko Sing It Back video, is a vivid evocation of my childhood, as is Jay Kay from Jamiroquai’s elaborate headgear. Crystal Waters’s 100% Pure Love is a joyful blast to the past.

At my mom’s house in Montclair, Durban, I remember hearing Celine Dion, Babyface, Sade and Incognito, among others. I recall visiting my dad, who lived on what was then called Aliwal Street in the city and being alone at his flat while he was at work, bumping new discoveries from his collection; most seminally for me, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Moving to what was then Johannesburg’s East Rand at the age of 13 to start high school, I remember skipping classes to hang out with my friends in Katlehong, Thokoza and Spruitview, or walking about Jo’burg town witnessing Gandhi Square ciphers before heading to my mom’s workplace in Braamfontein to hitch a ride back home to Alberton. 

In my mid to late teens I remember “parking lot pimping” with my friends on Rivonia Boulevard because a lot of the time our baby faces — particularly mine — made it impossible to get into the clubs. I vaguely remember my sister’s boyfriend sneaking me into Club 115 on Anderson Street for the first time. Vinny Da Vinci had a Thursday night residency there, if I’m not mistaken. 

Not much of that first night is clear to me — just that it was dark and probably mad dingy — but the music was incredible. There were tons of people around: drinking, smoking, dancing, chatting, laughing into the wee hours. It felt hazy and euphoric; it felt like I had just had an experience of what it was like at Chicago’s Warehouse. A communion.

This is a feeling I would become familiar with as a party-loving adult; a joller roughing it out through Jo’burg town, Rosebank’s bottle-service clubs, Cape Town’s Long Street or the legendary Hectic on Hope: a misfit finding like minds in search of a place to belong.

Two years ago, when record producer Papi Moshodi sent me a draft instrumental that would later become Yesterday’s Nostalgia, all these memories came rushing back to me like a sensational weed high. It felt like something I’d heard once before, a long time ago on Studio Mix, Channel O or maybe at a tavern in my late teens. 

It seemed to capture that feeling of late-night club sessions; the street corner sessions with my friends in my teens; smooth dance-music escapades with fairy lights twinkling over the crowd at the Waiting Room in Cape Town; hearing Moloko and watching Studio Mix — a sum of all my sonic experiences, really.

Papi had already named the beat file Yesterday’s Nostalgia and that title felt just right. As I listened to the wobbly, droning synths and repetitive, subtle drum scratch, the hook came to me all at once: “Deep into the night, kuba ngathi lana kukhona thina sodwa …”

The desire for a connection is a theme running through Mx Blouse’s new album (Photo: Brett von Dort)

It sounded like two misfits finding each other in the darkness of a dimly lit dancefloor; the world fading around them as they dance their worries away together. For that moment, this moment is all that matters: “Ujaiva nami, but we don’t touch/ I take you places like I’m Kitty Pryde/ We’re bonding through the music and it’s alright …”

For context, Kitty Pryde is an X-Men character whose powers include making herself and other objects she touches intangible and, therefore, able to walk through walls. I love superheroes and X-Men being a representation of social misfits felt like a good metaphor.

I’ve often found myself in the midst of people who shared the experience of otherness. Whether it was liberal white kids rebelling against their racist upbringings; people growing into their queerness; artists with a wacky dress sense looking to be understood; or people just trying to break free from depression, the dancefloor was where we met, where we found community without judgment.

That desire for connection is a theme throughout the album, which grew into a project about questioning my personal struggles with connection, a possible consequence of my nomadic life experience. I haven’t always drawn on these experiences as an artist, having started my journey as a SoundCloud rapper back in 2016, when I dropped six tracks with a heavy boom-bap influence. 

The one that seemed to stick out — Love Was A Lie — was a dance-oriented track opening with a repetitive blip loop and droning bassline. It was at odds with the rest of the music, but it was the track that Parabyl, who has since produced several tracks for me, mentioned when we spoke about working together.

Soon enough, we were making A Fetish Ain’t Love together, the first song I released experimenting with bringing together rap and house. This is when it dawned on me that I didn’t need to stick to rap, at least not in a sonic sense. I could bring together all the influences of my life experiences to make something that is uniquely Mx Blouse.

I could fuse the kwaito that was the soundtrack of my childhood with my fascination for Lauryn Hill’s lyrical prowess, and the wordplay I witnessed at ciphers passing through Gandhi Square. I didn’t have to abandon my love for Moloko, TKZee or Trompies. With the right production talent, I could bring together these influences, just like my nomadic experience, into something tangible in my search for “elementality” — the basic human desire that is connection, love and community.  

Looking back at my work, the sights and sounds that have shaped my life have, in many ways, been one big Warehouse. The music I have listened to has come together into the soundtrack that is my debut album, Elementality.

It’s been a few weeks since the album came out. A few nights before it did a friend told me he’d just heard the opening track Phuzamanzi on Bill Brewster’s radio show. Brewster later tweeted me: “Great album. Congratulations.” If I needed any validation, acknowledgement by the author of a book that inspired so much of my journey was it.

This article is part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut, which focuses on innovation in all its aspects.