Meet De Mthuda, the landlord of amapiano

Like most amapiano super producers, De Mthuda hardly ever gives interviews. “Other things are better left unexplained,” says the hitmaker during what’s, well, a rare occurrence as he avails himself to chat about his album The Landlord, two weeks before its release.

Born Mthuthuzeli Gift Khoza in Vosloorus, De Mthuda has been a producer since the mid-2010s. Unlike most of the genre’s first generation of producers, whose origins involve Afro-house, it’s always been piano for him, ever since high-school days. 

“My family allowed me some time to make music, but they ensured school was my top priority,” he recalls. “But when I started making good songs, and money, I lost interest and dropped out in grade 11. I was never really into school: I used to be into drawing, and then I became a dancer, which eventually led me into music.”

He doesn’t recall the exact year of dropping out, but it was many before amapiano went through an ultimate glow-up, circa 2018, transforming its popular practitioners into globetrotters broadcasting their Dubai trips on the Gram.

It’s been three years of churning out fierce hits for De Mthuda — from 2019 amapiano juggernaut Shesha to anthems like John Wick, uMsholozi, LiYoshona and, recently, Emlanjeni. Asked how much his life has changed since his breakthrough, he says, “In all ways, especially financially; now I can even assist at home. And I feel I’m getting the recognition I’ve always felt I deserved [as an artist].”  

A man of a few words

Unlike some of his peers, De Mthuda’s legend was carved strictly through the piano genre. (Photo courtesy of Universal Records)

Two days before the release of The Landlord — highly anticipated not just by amapiano fans but a large portion of the country’s music fans — De Mthuda has nothing much to say to the guests at the album’s listening session at Universal Music’s Rosebank headquarters.

“I don’t even know what this man’s voice sounds like,” says the MC as De Mthuda paces quietly into the auditorium to applause. He’s rocking a black spottie, a long white T-shirt, blue denim jeans and Dolce & Gabbana sneakers. All eyes are on him; a fact that doesn’t seem to excite him much.

Attempts to make him say anything more than the title of his album failed, being simply followed by “Asimameleni” and a few “sho”s.  Asked to explain the album’s title, his response is an elusive “Awume [don’t start],” punctuated by his usual smirk. Asked the same question during our interview, he declined to break down the title, citing “a bit of politics” and adding that he will break it down in due course.

 It’s when he starts playing that, even though not as animated as Uncle Waffles and the like, he looks at ease behind the CDJs, his natural habitat.

A collaborative effort

Sino Msolo appears on five songs, including the single Jola from De Mthuda’s latest album The Landlord. (Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela)

Showcasing songs from The Landlord, De Mthuda is joined on stage by a few vocalists — Sino Msolo, Njelic and Mfundo Moh — making it a night to remember. All featured on songs that appear on the album, they are but a small portion of the personnel that contributed to the making of The Landlord, a largely collaborative effort recorded in three months. “Siyancedisana,” he says between the Zoom call’s digital burps, thanks to my unstable internet connection. “Akulalwa; kuphuma lo, kungena lo estudio (we don’t sleep; it’s one artist after another in the studio).”

One of the country’s most beloved singers, Sir Trill, appears on The Landlord’s lead single Emlanjeni, one of the biggest songs in South Africa currently. Trill sings sincerely about missing the love of his life — tomorrow morning, he states over Rhodes keys and amapiano’s defining lush pads and bass, he will brave storms, cross rivers and walk several kilometres to meet up with her.

Emlanjeni is one of the oldest songs on the album. “We recorded Emlanjeni a long time ago, when we were making songs like John Wick, but to a different beat. We made a new beat for [the album version],” De Mthuda says before stating what a pleasure Sir Trill is to work with. 

“Sir Trill yilezi ezingasogolisi, yilezi ezintswempu,” he says. “He can just listen to a beat and then he goes outside for a bit and comes back with an idea and lays down some parts while continuing to write. Working with him is easy, he’s quick and ushaya kamandi [he sings well].”

Njelic and De Mthuda have become one of amapiano’s most lethal singer-producer pairings. (Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela)

Another major feature on The Landlord is singer Njelic, who De Mthuda has teamed up with on a string of hit singles. The list includes Ebumnandini, LiYoshona, Wamuhle and of course the massive hit Shesha, which launched what is now one of amapiano’s most lethal producer-singer pairings.

When De Mthuda and Njelic recorded Shesha, they had no idea it would become one of the biggest songs of 2019 and a crucial song in amapiano’s trajectory. “Your life can change in an hour,” Njelic said during an interview on Podcast and Chill With MacG in September after revealing that the song, which Njelic and his sister used to sing at street-theatre plays and at home, took just an hour to record at De Mthuda’s studio.

A clip of the two musicians recording Shesha caught the attention of social media users and the song eventually went from a viral hit to a national behemoth. “It all happened so fast,” De Mthuda recalls. A catchy song about preparing to go out and party was always going to resonate, but it’s Njelic’s unique vocal performance that gives it the X-factor. His vocals titillate by giving the impression of being on the verge of breaking, but the singer stays in control, resulting in a pleasant bellow.

In The Landlord, Njelic appears on the song Jaiva, on which he draws the listener in with a melodic neigh that lasts a few bars before breaking into a soliloquy that develops into a chant hook. “UNjelic yilezi ezithanda ukudlala too much,” recalls De Mthuda, “Sometimes he plays around and a song is born. That’s how Jaiva came about.”

Jaiva marked the first time De Mthuda collaborated with Focalistic. The producer had been a fan of the golden boy of amapiano for a while. After Njelic had added his vocals, the producer felt the song needed more than just melodies and he knew Focalistic would be a perfect fit, so he dived into his DMs.

 “He knows how to ride any beat; he’s also a good writer,” says De Mthuda, when asked about the experience of working with Focalistic. In his verse on Jaiva, Pitori Maradona cavorts about De Mthuda’s production, taking necessary pauses between his lines resulting in a catchy exchange between him and the galloping drums.   

Jaiva’s kwaito bounce and a hook that recalls bubblegum both speak to De Mthuda’s versatile palette, which also contains Afro-pop, Afro-jazz, Afro-house and even maskandi. A product of his environment, he mentions his sound was shaped by growing up in Vosloorus, from where the likes of DJ Clock, DJ Cleo and Msheke Lezinto hail. “They made music with elements of kwaito, but it also had soul,” he says. “And growing up, I listened to a lot of kwaito.”  

The Landlord

The Landlord maintains all of amapiano’s characteristics — the lush pads, hurried drums and, of course, the omnipresent log drum, but that soul he speaks of permeates the project. Keys, saxophones and guitars contribute to the musical masterpiece that forms this summer’s soundtrack.

To shape the album sonically, De Mthuda worked with guitarist Sipho Magudulela and producer Da Muziqal Chef, who helped bring some of his ideas to life. “I can say he led me towards a musical sound,” De Mthuda says about Da Muziqal Chef.   

In Roots, the only instrumental song on The Landlord, De Mthuda enlists Magudulela and amapiano producer Sam Deep for a wordless conversation and showcase of raw musicianship. Whereas in other songs the elements of the music are engineered to accommodate vocals, on Roots, loud buzzing synths and extensive guitar solos are encouraged to stand out. The song is a subtle homage to amapiano’s early days when the genre was mostly instrumental. In those days, songs and mixes were shared on Facebook and WhatsApp groups, because they didn’t fit the format of mainstream radio.

Emerging talent

Collaborative effort: Nomfundo Moh joined De Mthuda to perform their track Inkomo Zam. (Photo: Sabelo Mkhabela)

The Landlord reveals an artist with a good ear for talent: the guestlist contains a few emerging voices such as Sino Msolo, the duo Murumba Pitch and Nomfundo Moh. De Mthuda was introduced to the latter by her manager who also resides in Vosloorus. “[Her manager] played me some of her tracks and I liked them. I asked to work with her.”

While browsing through beats during the studio session, Nomfundo Moh’s attention was caught by the instrumental for what’s now the song Inkomo Zam. “I was passing it,” De Mthuda recalls, “When I made the beat, not everyone in the studio was feeling it the way I was. But they get it now.” 

The drums on Inkomo Zam frolic around Magudulela’s Sophiatown-recalling strums as Nomfundo makes it known there’s no way she is paying her own amalobolo. “She wrote the song on the spot,” recalls De Mthuda.

With some songs, De Mthuda says he comes up with the lyrics himself, because he usually has a vision of the final song while making the beat. “But I can’t sing,” he says, “so, I collaborate with artists.” He doesn’t spell it out, but it’s clear through conversing with him and listening to his growing oeuvre that he’s keen on pushing the envelope. 

He mentions he is excited by the incorporation of sounds one doesn’t hear much in the genre, a contributing factor in his music having a high replay value and his albums promising to be timeless classics in the future. His and producer Ntokzin’s 2020 masterpiece Ace of Spades is a modern take on kwaito that largely consists of instrumental tracks among a few embellished by the vocals of Lady Du, MalumNator and Njelic, among others. 

A few days after the release of The Landlord, Ace of Spades won the coveted Album of the Year trophy at the inaugural South African Amapiano Awards held at The Sandton Convention Centre in October. It was unanimously viewed as a well-deserved nod for De Mthuda. 

And, yes, you guessed right; true to his mysterious ways or owing to his busy performance schedule, De Mthuda wasn’t there to accept the award. “I’m sure usegigini, phela uyabookwa loyamuntu [he must be at a gig, he gets a lot of bookings],” said DJ Tira, who was presenting the Album of the Year award on the night, said. 

As a cornerstone of Durban’s house scene, Tira understands. Running a large portion of amapiano’s real estate can’t be as easy as the landlord makes it look. He may be a reclusive and media-shy artist, but De Mthuda has been a consistent hitmaker, who has grown into an icon not just of amapiano, but music overall. It’s what he prioritises at the moment. Asked what he expects from The Landlord, he says, “If the people receive it well and are as excited about it as I am, that would make me happy.” 

De Mthuda’s latest album, The Landlord, is out on all platforms.

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