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Black Coffee expounds upon his vision in the wake of debut Ultra album [Interview]

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By all accounts, it’s been a great year for Black Coffee. Between stops at Coachella and Circoloco, the multitalented producer managed to give a TED talk, get a shoutout from his president, and release a certified platinum LP. That album? The stellar Pieces of Me — previously released via his own Soulistic records and available internationally this week on Ultra Records.

His decade long career has produced a vast body of quality music, but Pieces of Me is easily his best effort yet. The album rocketed to iTunes’ #1 slot on the first day of its release and was certified platinum just a month later. At its core, Pieces of Me embodies producer Nathi Maphumulo’s typical style, only there’s not much typical about it. The entire 12 track LP is a distinguished affair with restrained beats that ring out like a manicured finger tapping the stem of a champagne glass.

In production, Maphumulo scrutinizes each sound. He disassembles the pieces and layers back them on top each other in the freshest way for the greatest impact. It’s a subtle undertaking he reflects carefully in his live performances. Says Maphumulo of his nuanced genius:

“Some people think that if music is noisier and louder it will make a crowd react, but sometimes it’s the subtler things that can really touch you into saying ‘let me play this song again.’ It can be the smallest thing and you’ll play it again.”

Pieces of Me has many such triggers, from the impossibly cool deep house vibes on tracks like “Angelina” and “Love On Fire” to the taut, subterranean kick on “We Dance Again” that pulses like a muscle poised to flex. The album radiates with an intoxicating darkness bubbling just below the surface and offers no respite from the masterful tension. Even at its close, siren Cara Frew’s luxuriant croon cautions: “I’ll find you, whatever it takes.”

As a whole, the album manages to be even greater than the sum of all its magnificent parts. Maphumulo has succeeded in creating a lasting piece of music, deeply deserving of the international attention its Ultra reissue will surely drive.

Black Coffee

Black Coffee, producer Nathi Maphumulo

   Read the full interview from Full Moon Fest below:

Tell me about how you started making music. I know you studied Jazz in school, what was that like?

I got into music very early. Nothing serious, but I remember I was in junior high and for the first time they introduced a music class. They brought in a music teacher and said anyone interested in doing music lessons could join the class. I was in that class until I finished high school, basically. It wasn’t anything intense, it was just music theory, but the fact that I was connected to music… that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be in that space where I was learning something. When I finished high school, I went to college where they were teaching a music course called ‘Light Music’ which is jazz, but so many different things too: music appreciation, film scoring, ear training, composition, arranging, harmony, keyboard technique. In essence, we were taught a wide range. Jazz was just the main performance side. We were taught the jazz scores and the scales. There was even production work which is what I was really interested in.

I heard you received government recognition for your BET award earlier this year.

Yes, from the president. A formal letter! It was quite special. We got a shout out on TV. I don’t remember what was happening, but he mentioned me and I didn’t believe it when someone sent me a video. Then when I went back home, the Department of Arts and Culture hosted a gala event to congratulate me. Quite special. 

Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired the album Pieces of Me?

Traveling. I literally worked everywhere: airports, hotel rooms, cars, long drives—everywhere I could. It took almost a year. Most of the singers are from South Africa so, in between touring when I’d be there, I’d go to the studio to record the vocals then I’d leave and start working on my own to do different versions. It was a back and forth. If I needed something edited, I’d just send the record over. That kind of process. It was fully, fully inspired by traveling.

It sounds so different from everything else that comes out on Ultra, it’s kind of inspiring. Even the performance you gave tonight (at Full Moon Fest), was so different in such a good way.  You can really feel the intention you’ve put into it.

That’s what I want. Ultra is quite big, they have their history of great and amazing things that they’ve done, but we also want to be quite proud of what we’re doing. We want them to get us. I think that’s the reason why we have a deal together. They are like ‘this is cool.’ We don’t want that experience to change our direction and so far, they have been so amazing. I think releasing this album will show them whatever they saw in me. That’s what I want, I don’t really want to follow what everyone else is doing. I want to have my album and my kind of performance. That’s it. Don’t expect me to change. I want to be the Sade of this thing where people know this is it. That’s him. Even 10, 15, 20 years later, saying ‘this is him.’ I want to keep growing an audience so that one day I can say ‘let’s go to Madison Square Garden’ and even then they will know exactly what they are coming for .

It’s funny that you came around to that because one of the main things I wanted to ask you about was the consistency of your sound and vision. It’s so consistent in a very good way. You change and evolve, but it is all so clearly ‘your sound.’ Is that an active process of forward thought and intention or is that just what comes out of you?

No, it’s very well constructed. From the songs I choose to play: they must fall into the vision and the picture of where I want to go. No matter how big the songs are for other people. It’s cool, but it doesn’t fall into my set. For my set I look for certain songs that I can make big even if people don’t know it. Let me make them big in my sets. This is my journey and my approach. There are certain things that trigger something in people. Some people think that if music is noisier and louder it will make a crowd react, but sometimes it’s the subtler things that can really touch you into saying ‘let me play this song again.’ It can be the smallest thing and you’ll play it again.

I had a conversation a few months back with Cassie, she told me about a day when she and her friend were in Miami and they played ‘We Dance Again’ the whole day in the car. The whole day! When it ended, they started it again. The whole day.  It’s not that it’s loud and commercial, it’s just certain things that trigger you. That’s what I’d love to master with music. To do a song with just one line but you can’t stop listening to it. You don’t know why, but you can’t stop.

I mean even in your set just now, with that Gotye track “Somebody That I Used To Know.” That song is infectious in that way. It’s very subtle and understated, but so compelling.

It’s powerful.

Also the hook in that Purple Rain mix you played. I actually stopped the conversation I was having to try to figure out what it was that I was hearing. So I suppose it’s working! But I think another aspect of your music is your restraint. Your music is very restrained and subtle in a worldly or cultured sense.

That’s beautiful. I’ve been waiting for that line all my life. I’m from a different world where Africa is seen as… people have different ideas about Africa. When I’m starting out, someone books me in Europe as a DJ from Africa. They have an expectation of a certain style. Of how I will look, how I will dress, how I talk to people. For me, it has always been an important part to make this thing cool and to sell it like it’s cool.  When you listen to it, you think it’s beautiful.

What you just said, a few friends in Ibiza said to me something like that. They said ‘your music has so much class’ and I said to them give me your phone and I went to YouTube and showed them ‘Africa Rising.’ It’s a show I did in a stadium with a 24 piece orchestra. A full two hour show.

A clip from the Africa Rising DVD, courtesy of Soulistic  

So these expectations, that people have…. I know you’ve been doing this for a long time. Has it changed over time? Progressed?

No, I’ve never even seen it because I refuse to see the expectations. I refuse to walk in and watch how they look at me. I refuse to be analyzed. With music, with my personality, I just want to blend in. I don’t want to stick out. Musically when I get on stage, I want people to think: ‘this shit is dope, what is this thing?’ It must not be trashy or too much. When you say what you’ve said it means I’m achieving everything I’ve wanted to do. I believe that our music is so beautiful, it just needs to be packaged correctly. Which is why I did the orchestra show. To show how beautiful and classy and worldly it can be.

I think nuance is an important aspect of your music as well. The intro to your live sets, for example, has so many functioning pieces. Even as you introduce the beats, all the elements are still moving it’s like a big machine.

I’m so shocked you’re getting all this. I’m so shocked. That intro is very important to me. I wanted it to be the sort of thing where, you’re doing something else but you stop when you hear it and think ‘That’s different, I’ll take a listen.’ I’m bringing something different.

Are there things that inspire you like that?

Of course, of course, of course. Different people for different things and different labels. There will be times when I think I don’t want to do a song a release it internationally and then a label like Innervisions in Germany will drop a song with a singer from Nigeria and it becomes so big.  No one even knows what the guy is saying and I think ‘okay, they are Germans but they are inspiring me!”

With anyone, I can have a conversation for an hour and I’ll listen to you, but I’ll pick up something that works for me. I’ll just pick up what works for me and take that and make something good of it. I’m inspired by so many things. so many different people. I think the bigger vision is just to show the world how amazing African music really is because they have a different idea of what African music is. From the beginning with [my manager] Lionel, we struggled with promoters for Black Coffee. We had to see all the flyers and posters. They’d put these drums and African masks and we were like… no. Don’t do that. Just don’t do it. From the beginning, we wanted to package it right and then if you have all these funny ‘African’ things, people think ‘Oh it’s going to be ‘African music’ hmm….’

There’s a lot of baggage there.

There have been so many who came before me and took this to a certain level. I’m taking it from where they left off and taking it further.

Have you read How Music Works by David Byrne? He talks about how music develops in different cultures and why it sounds different. Music that evolved to suit the acoustics of a Catholic church sounds different than African tribal music which originated as a way of oral story telling.

I do want that book. I have heard of it recently, but a book I just recently read is called Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s a similar text. He’s a professor who uses music to help people. I was reading this book and I had gotten a random message, years ago. This woman was working in a hospital and said:  “I know you don’t know me, but I love your music. One of the professors from where I work uses your music to heal our patients.” And I thought that was amazing. That’s beautiful! Who is this guy and when I read this book I found out…. wait it’s the guy that wrote the book I’m actually reading. The same guy was actually using my music to heal his patients.

I was so curious about that. People who get in terrible accidents, maybe they’ve been in a coma, and when they come back their whole life and interest in music changes. He even wrote about a guy who’d been in an accident and when he came back he wanted to play piano. He didn’t know a thing about it and he went on to become one of the best piano soloists in the world because whatever the accident had done changed something in his brain.

I was reading about all this and to hear that this guy was using my music… that’s special.

It kind of makes sense in that you must have similar ideas and motives. People often gravitate to those who share their philosophies.

Even earlier today, I was talking to someone who knew a guy who was a designer in Australia who listens to my music when he works. He said ‘the music just has such positive vibes,’ that’s what I want. That’s why there’s a line for me between what I do as a DJ and as a producer… two different things. You can play my music while you’re at home, while you’re happy, you’re cleaning your house. You can play while working. I love to see tweets in South Africa when students are doing exams saying ‘I’m listening to Black Coffee’s music while studying!’ That’s what I want! As much as I enjoy DJing in clubs, I want to create music that can be carried with you and taken home into your household like it’s something you can’t live without.

Clubbing is different. With production, you don’t have to wait until Saturday to hear the work.

Is that why you produce full length albums? That’s not really a popular choice anymore in an industry that’s largely driven by club singles.

That’s what I want to keep doing with Ultra. Producing albums that are stripped down, but then out of the album we do singles. Not the other way around. If I want a good body of work, it’s always much nicer to put out a whole album where you will get the whole vibe versus one song here and one song there. If you listen to the whole album, you get where the artist is. You get where they are and where they are going.

I think it’s just a different kind of music fan that wants that experience of saying “I’m going to spend the next forty five minutes in this mindset” and then choose an album to facilitate their mood.

That is the world I want. I’m very clear about… not everyone is going to get it. I’m comfortable with that, but those who do… I want them to love this music dearly and hold on to it. I don’t even mind when I see people saying ‘play Superman!’ That’s a song that came out in 2009. I don’t even play that anymore, but I think that’s so beautiful. If it’s within my work, it’s never so far off from what I’m doing now.

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