Major League DJs find a home in amapiano

We’re cruising down William Nicol towards Sandton Drive in Johannesburg as Banele Mbere, who is driving, blasts Cold Outside by Timaya and BNXN for about the fifth time. It’s an appropriate pick because not only is this Afrobeats anthem by two of Nigeria’s brightest stars addictive but this week has been one of Joburg’s frostiest of the year.

You wouldn’t think it was cold, given that Banele and his brother Bandile are wearing shorts and short-sleeved shirts. Having spent much of the past year in London and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere during winter, they must have experienced much worse. 

I’m tagging along with them while they shop for outfits for the Black Coffee Grammy win celebratory dinner, before we head to their Midrand home. 

Over the past decade, the twins have shown themselves to be skilled chameleons, equipped with an ability to shapeshift to make the most of what’s happening around them. After a successful stint hosting parties, they embarked on their DJ journey in 2009, right after high school. These events evolved into what’s known as Major League Gardens, a name which they adapted after the US arena, Madison Square Gardens. “We wanted to do something that represents us and showcases the things we like, which also builds on the brand,” says Banele. “We wanted events that represent us because events in general are something we can do easily. We decided to do something that’s never been created, which is a social festival.”

Major League Garden is a success, consistently drawing tens of thousands of people to Nasrec, Soweto. After a three-year hiatus because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they’re aiming to do one again in September. 

After working their way up the South African hip-hop ladder by creating alliances with the likes of rap heavy hitters Riky Rick, Cassper Nyovest and Nadia Nakai, they were among most prominent hip-hop DJs in about 2017. A short while later, they realised that the landscape was changing and it was time to switch things up again. 

It was a song they did with Kwesta and Cassper Nyovest in 2018, Sgetit, that set into motion their transition into a genre they’ve called New Age kwaito. Banele says this particular song gave him goose bumps and sparked the idea that would later lead to their transition to amapiano. “I used to tell DJ Maphorisa that we need to do this kind of vibe all the time,” he says. “It didn’t grow that big but it did pretty well. So when amapiano came in I was like, ‘This is the shit that gave me goose bumps, I think we need to stick to this’.” 

Bandile weighs in: “And we’ve always wanted to be in dance music. I’ve always loved dance music. For DJs dance music is the best platform for you to grow. Hip-hop is an artist-based genre, dance music is a DJ best genre so it’s easier for you to grow.” 

The twins have a reputation for their ability to build and maintain strong relationships by making those they encounter feel special. In an interview with Venom and Banques last year, longtime friend and collaborator Nyovest described how, even when they have heated disagreements, the twins always smooth things out. “I love the twins, they’re my guys … they’re the only guys who don’t have a problem with nobody. They make sure that they’re cool with you.”

When we’re at Sandton City’s Gucci store, I ask Banele what Black Coffee’s Grammy win means for dance music and the South African music industry. He says: “It shows you that anything is possible. Your dreams really can come true. And everybody’s watching, don’t think people are not watching.”

We make a stop at Louis Vuitton, where Banele sizes up a few items. Bandile heads off to Al Capone. 

When we join Bandile, he has several clothes lined up. He shows Banele one black shirt he likes before heading to the till to pay. 

With the evening closing in, we gather the shopping bags and head for their home so they can get ready for tonight’s dinner. When we arrive, I notice they live in the same complex as the late Riky Rick. Major League DJz had a great relationship with Riky and his death affected them deeply. “I think we should speak about mental health, it’s very important, just like other diseases,” says Banele as we gather around their kitchen counter for a quick lunch. “South Africa’s mental health level is very high, so there is a problem somewhere. So we just need to sit down and speak about it. A lot of men in this country build up a lot of things and they don’t speak. And also, seeing a therapist is okay. Depression levels shouldn’t be that high in this country, we need to figure it out.”

Bandile and Banele learned to be independent at an early age. Since they were sent to boarding school at the age of 11, they’ve not spent much time at home. It’s this experience that’s helped them during their travels and kept them virtually immune to homesickness. “I’m used to it,” Banele says when I ask him about being away from home. “We went to boarding school from grade five so we know how to deal with it. Unless I’m gone for like, six months. I have my brother, so it’s cool. It does get a bit lonely sometimes though.”

Bandile adds that there’s so much to do when on the road. “Sightseeing and shopping, bro. When I get to a new city, that’s what I like doing; checking the monuments of that city and trying to just meet new promoters and street designers who are doing street fashion.” 

In the culmination of months of hard work and non-stop performances around the world, the twins recently played at one of the world’s top festivals, Coachella. This landmark moment is further evidence that amapiano is now a global genre. I ask Bandile what he thinks it is about the genre that’s made it explode so rapidly around the world. “It’s the dance moves, the culture around it,” he says. “TikTok plays a big role too. During lockdown people were looking for something new, vibrant, smothering they can relate to. And amapiano just took it and ran. So with us touring the world, doing the Balcony Mixes has opened a lot of doors for us because people are familiar with what sound we’re gonna play.” 

The twins have been putting out mixes for a while but they were compelled to make these mixes visual with Balcony Mixes to show the vibe and how they’re DJing to it. When the lockdown first took effect in early 2020, they decided to put out more mixes to capitalise on the fact that people were home with nothing to do. These mixes drew interest from international labels, with several offering them deals. They were particularly drawn by Atlantic Records’ belief in them and the fact that no local artist had ever signed to them. Earlier this year, after months of negotiations, they announced a deal with Atlantic Records. They were convinced this was the best route after meeting Craig Kallman, the head of the label, at his home. 

“He loves what we’re doing with the sound and Balcony Mix as well,” Bandile says. “They see very big potential in what we’re doing and they want to give us a boost.”

Banele adds that the one thing he likes is that the label is strong on marketing. “Right now, I don’t feel like amapiano is being marketed in that way, there’s still a lot of work we need to do. We’re not even close to where Afrobeats is.” 

They also recently delved into non-fungible tokens (NFTs). “We’re just trying to bring a different experience to amapiano,” says Banele. “It’s like a metaverse where you can see different NFTs from Major League. But with the first one we just wanted to do something different. I was in LA last year, and one of my managers was like, ‘Do NFTs, I’ve researched it.’ They did some designs and we’re gonna go sell them at Art Basel. We were like, yeah, that’s crazy, let’s do it. So we made a joint for it, we did the NFT and boom we were like, shit, this thing is moving. Then we did different NFTs for different countries.”

Last year, there was a big debate about amapiano appropriation when British singer Jorja Smith released All of This, an amapiano single in which no South African artists were involved. After seeing the public uproar, Jorja Smith and her team quickly regrouped and released a host of remixes alongside some of the top local producers, including Major League DJz. Bandile recalls how the manager reached out to them and, after doing the remix, they met Smith in Los Angeles and worked on a few more songs with her that are slated for their upcoming album. “People are gonna take the sound because the sound is growing. It’s like people trying to stop us from making Afrobeats. Afrobeats didn’t come from South Africa. You have to allow them to do what they want to do with the sound. Of course they must embrace South Africans, like how we embrace Nigerians and Afrobeats.”

They’ve also got a few songs with the likes of Masego, Ty Dolla Sign and Stefflon Don slated for the album. 

They say there are plenty more A-list surprises on the project. This is their moment. But there’s so much more they still want to do. “I don’t think we’ve made it yet,” says Bandile. “Maybe when we hit the Grammys I’ll be like, ‘Yo, we made it now’. At least a nomination, you know … but we still have a long way to go.”

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