What do you get when you add a slam poet to a house beat? Original work in a world of sampling, says Lazarus Mathebula, who became the latest South African included in a Grammy nominated album, through his collaboration with German house duo Booka Shade.
Going by the stage name Lazarusman, he is known for charismatic poetry slams in international house music over the last decade. His recent work with Booka Shade in the “immersive audio album” category is another success story in the world of cinematic electronic music productions.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian over a virtual call on Tuesday, the slam poet-turned-DJ/producer joked that he managed a shortcut to a Grammy nomination through his collaboration with Booka Shade who, after hearing his poetic vocal Dear Future Self for their 2020 album, decided to name and theme the album around it.
“They absolutely loved the vocal … They engineered and did everything … it took them a little while, I think it was over like two months or so. And then they sent me back the demo, but by the time they sent the stock back, they were already at the final stages of completing the album,” he said.
“They decided to theme the whole album around the vocal and then name the album, Dear Future Self after the track, and then, that song sort of opens the album. So the album came out in 2020 and it did relatively well. It contributed a lot to my Spotify numbers, everything went up. They may not be as big in South Africa but I think globally, they still have a very strong following.”
In 2021 Booka Shade took the project a step further by remastering to produce a surround sound quality that qualified the album for the Grammy category.
Although the actual album performers are not considered for the “immersive audio” Grammy – which is meant for immersive audio engineers, immersive audio mastering engineers and immersive audio producers – Mathebula is ecstatic that he was part of the project’s creative direction.
“I guess it’s one way to get a Grammy nomination by inspiring and being part of a body of work, but I do hope that through this journey that I am on, I may one day get my own nomination for my own work. That is the goal,” he told the M&G.
One review said the album was “nothing short of a paradigm shift in demonstrating what surround music is capable of delivering”.
“Dear Future Self is, in my view, the current pinnacle. I’m giving this 10, because it’s as high a score as I can give,” the reviewer added.
Mathebula said he had not realised at the time that the artists were about to create a masterpiece in immersive audio.
“Behind closed curtains and without even me knowing, they began to do a separate project, to turn the album into an immersive album, which I didn’t even know about until I saw … what exactly they were nominated for. But this thing is becoming quite popular now, where people are starting to mix albums the way you would mix movies,” he said.
The East Rand-born artist’s story took an uncommon trajectory – unlike the usual “local to international” path – in that 10 years ago when he worked with German musician and DJ Martin Stimming, South Africans barely recognised his name.
Mathebula first sent a vocal recording to Stimming in 2009 which culminated in his first international release Funk With Me in 2009 on Dynamic Records. Johannesburg’s so-called underground house music scene was part of a well developed club culture at the time which included clubs that were household names for international artists like the LightHouse and 115 in the city centre where Mathebula and Stimming would first perform together in 2010.
At the time, revellers were opting for a less mainstream style of house music, for world sounds that integrated a full spectrum of audio expression and genre.
In South Africa these are the audiences that would remember performances by US DJ and producer Kerrie Chandler at the Nasrec Expo Centre circa 2008, or electronic dance music sensation David Guetta at the Lanseria Airport hanger around 2007.
Mathebula believes the gap between what used to be mainstream and deep house music is beginning to narrow, with South Africa leading global trends.
“My taste in music was always quite underground and also quite European, but the gap between those sounds from a South African perspective has gotten smaller. And we’re actually at a point now where we’re dictating some of the trends within music a lot more,” he says.
“From Amapiano to Gqom, it’s all those things. So I’ve collaborated with more local artists in the past couple of years than ever before, and also the infrastructure is now there, because in the past, I didn’t want to work with people because you work with people, and then your song gets sent as a data file link. There’s nothing that you make from it. So now there’s a few more emerging record labels to work with.”
Mathebula has come a long way from being popular in other countries and unknown at home. And while he has played alongside recognised names and venues in the dance music scene across the world, including the renowned Watergate in Berlin, he says it is starting to make more sense to fill his calendar with local bookings than to travel to Europe.
“House music takes a backseat every now and again, and then comes back and there’s a resurgence all over again. So it is for me one of the most consistent genres because it just keeps changing itself, it doesn’t need to be popular or unpopular. It just stays there and continues to give.”
His success is also inspiring a new generation of poets who see opportunity in branching out into house music from the usual jazz cafe and theatre performances that keep poets locked in financial difficulty.
“I’ve seen more poets emerging now, in the space, which was something very important for me, because I’ve always wanted this. I used to talk about how poets don’t make money in South Africa, unlike in the US,” he laughs.
“So hopefully people can in the future, be full time poets, but be able to also tap into this market, and producers are always hungry for great new work. A lot of the producers have to cut samples of old vocals, you know. How many times have you heard Nina Simone on a song? They clear the sample, and then you put her in a track. And it’s great, but it’s not original.”
The spoken word performer, poet, DJ and producer is planning an album to mark 10 years in the electronic music space and firmly believes 2022 has a lot more pleasant surprises in store.