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The Portfolio: Vulane Mthembu

On 25 January, Durban-based music producer and gaming enthusiast Vulane Mthembu beat 139 people in a Metapop and Native Instruments competition to remix UK jazz and electronic music-producer Kamaal Williams’s single Mr Wu. He speaks to the Mail & Guardian about his approach to remixing. 

What makes Kamaal Williams’s music interesting to remix?

It’s because it’s very innovative: it lends itself to alternative ways of interpreting jazz. He incorporates a lot of electronic music, not necessarily EDM, but more drum ’n bass, grime, two-step garage — genres with a strong underground and long roots in UK black culture. It’s a great combination of jazz, Western styles and African sensibilities.

How did you approach this remix?

Last year I was a runner up in a 500-strong competition to do an Afrobeat remix of Madame Gandhi’s Young Indian. Madame Gandhi has played drums for MIA. That remix was specific to Afrobeat. Kamaal’s Mr Wu track was open to interpretation, so you could remix it however you want. They gave us the length, the stems and what to sample from the original song. 

I went to drum ’n bass and two-step garage. I’ve dabbled in drum ’n bass for a minute. On Manelis’s album, Aircuts, we did a drum ’n bass interpretation of a Splash song. 

I don’t know how popular it is in this country, or how wise a move it would have been were it for a South African artist, but Moses Molelekwa’s Genes and Spirits and Krushed & Sorted’s Cape of Good Dope remain very good examples of what has been done with the sound in South Africa. With Kamaal being a UK artist, I felt that those are sounds that he could relate to. 

Of course, drum ’n bass has eras. I went a bit nostalgic, to the era of LTJ Bukem and Goldie — a time of heavy, heavy breaks and raw sounds, when the samplers were not very developed. There’s lots of dub echoes, drums, saxophones and breaks. I knew that they’d get it.

What were the most difficult parts?

The difficult part is whether the guy is gonna like it or not. You are always tempted to change things. It’s difficult doing something for a competition, because it’s up to judges. You just have to make a dope song but you’re always thinking, “Are they gonna get it?” 

But I went for something that was gonna push their buttons, stand out and be a little different. But too different is alienating — pushing it too far. Also, with Native Instruments being a renowned brand for international producers, the quality coming in is high. You have to worry about that as well. 

What do you think of Kamaal’s approach to remixing?

He’s got a few remix albums. He has even remixed some of his own albums, and has mashed up Wu-Tang in Kamaal Williams vs Wu-Tang Clan — The Return (Snips Re-edits). He’s very much into the culture of remixing and is doing a lot of things that modern jazz musicians wouldn’t. Very quirky remixes. 

What did you win?

The Native Instruments Komplete 13 production suite of instruments and effects. I also won an expression pack from Amp Fiddler. An expression pack converts an artist’s sound into patches.

What are you doing next, musically?

I’m making a project with the jazz and spoken-word band, Helsinki Headnod Convention. It will feature some South African artists. I’m keeping the line-up as a surprise for now.

Listen to Vulane Mthembu’s winning remix here:

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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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