Black Coffee speaks on nurturing new talent, the South African dance scene, and more [Interview]
The name “Black Coffee” has been one of high interest as of late on the house circuit. Cutting his teeth in the South African underground during his youth, the beloved icon — born Nkosinathi (Nathi) Maphumulo — initially broke into the scene in the early 2000s and worked his way into becoming a household name around just a decade later in 2015 as the “Breakthrough DJ of the Year” at the DJ Awards. A year later, he became the first South African to win a BET award.
Nathi’s continued success comes a large part from his keen talent at dismantling preconceived notions of what himself or others from his region sound like. Instead, his ultimate and unwavering vision is to paint worldly, class imagery with his carefully-crafted sets while also moving people with original productions that he hopes will be carried far into the future. His unrelenting humility and passion also set him apart from the fact, as fans feed off his infection energy worldwide.
The past summer season has been yet another monumental one for Black Coffee, who was chosen to lead one of Hï Ibiza’s first residencies. While one might feel a certain pressure playing a venue that was once the iconic space, Nathi navigated his residency with poise and distinction, enchanting each crowd with his blend of memorable hooks, subdued rhythms, and creative melodic manipulation. Additionally, he curated a caliber roster of artists joining him for his residency which represented the best of fellow South African talent.
Ahead of his next round of tour dates, one of which includes an October 21 show at Brooklyn’s Output (tickets here), Black Coffee took some time to talk more about these artists he nurtures, the South African dance scene, new bodies of work, and more.
You’re wrapping up your first season at Hï right now! How is playing that club? Do you think it can fill the void that Space left?
It’s been such an amazing experience. As a DJ I’ve always envisioned a residency in Ibiza, and to have a club to play at for the city. I never expected it to be on this level. Hï is the ultimate for me. It has been one of the greatest experiences of my career. I’ve learned so much from it!
Do you think it can fill the void that Space left?
Definitely, definitely. The very big room was something that we are always very much aware of. Normally I have my reservations and fears about making it work and every night it would be at full capacity. And between those nights I would do shows outside on the island and because of that now I’ve started seeing the difference and the impact that the residency has because of all these places I go to. Now, most people go to Hï in Ibiza and it has somehow grown my audience as well.
You mentioned fears and reservations, does playing big rooms normally make you nervous?
I get nervous everywhere, because I consider all I do a little bit differently. I always walk into a room to educate people on a different sound. Education is good, but it’s not a pleasant thing at times and I always get nervous at that fact. Whoever’s playing before me, no matter how underground the music is, it’s definitely a sound people in Europe are accustomed to, or anywhere for that matter, and here comes me who’s gonna come with a different sound, blend it with different things. I never take anything for granted or think they [the audience] will know who I am. It’s just going to happen. Whether the venues big or small, it’s the same for me.
Tell us more about the artists you chose to play alongside you? What made them stand out?
These are artists I really respect and most of these guys have been doing it for awhile on the island. The entire idea was when we mold this night we tried to create a certain vibe or sound in the room. For everyone who was chosen they were chosen on what they’re bringing in the room. It was all based on a preset we had. Ok, this is what we’re doing, this is what we want to achieve because Hï is a very big club. We wanted artists that are related musically to what I am doing.
How has the South African scene grown and developed over the years? What do you think is needed to make it into a dance music mecca, or is it already in your opinion?
It still has a very long way to go. Music there is a big thing. Dance music is a huge thing. You go to different parts of Europe and dance music doesn’t exist in communities, only in the night, in the dark, in the clubs. Obviously at the festivals too, which is a seasonal thing, but the difference with South Africa is that it’s constantly there. On the radio, house music is constantly in people’s lives, which is cool, but then there’s no control or there’s no culture. For instance, mostly when people go to South Africa they will send me a message: ‘Hi, I’m in South Africa where do you think I can go for a great night out?’ And I never have that answer. Because we don’t have much of the house music clubbing scene. There’s no structure in that sense. Music is there. It’s everywhere. There are clubs but clubs are just for entertainment. On nights you’ll get a hip-hop DJ or a house DJ or the live act or a live house singer. All of that is there but there’s nothing for the house music scene at all, and I think it starts there — with creating a home. When there’s a home there’s also education and then we can start bringing the same lineup I was having here at Hï, so that the locals will start to get educated on what’s happening internationally. For now, we’re just small and local. We love our local sound and it’s cool but we’re not growing on a bigger scale. We’re still like homegrown so I just feel like we need more clubs that will specialize on the scene and we can start interacting with the world and bringing different people vice versa and local artists will start going out as well. We need to create that cultural exchange of some sort.
Do you feel that a house club would be a good means of cultural exchange or do you feel it could possibly diminish the integrity of music South Africa’s established?
Yeah, I think it will add value. What’s been established there is there. It’s not going anywhere.
We need a place where you wanna go and just listen to house music., you know? A place where you get to hear of new local DJs that you didn’t know existed, along with some international DJs you didn’t know existed as well. In that sense, everyone is growing also. Young kids who DJ, maybe even aren’t producing music at all, they’re just DJs and at this point and there’s no place like that here because the venues are booking established acts for business. So there’s no home for house, but I want to change that.
Would you say then that as a successful DJ, it’s more important than ever to show off budding local talent from the homeland if the chance is given?
Extremely, extremely. This is all I do all the time. The music that I play most of it is music from directly unknown DJs. Some of them have no recording deals or anything. So I’m always looking for stuff to play. Actually, one of the DJs were bringing for the closing, his name is Enoo Napa. He’s like one of those DJs who has been releasing music with no record deal yet, but has literally been dominating my sets this summer. Then I proposed let’s bring him and this is his first trip overseas.
Along the way, I’ve wanted to pick up those young ones that I feel like have potential. But it mustn’t only end with Hï. I was in Berlin playing at Watergate and they have this party called Rise. And it’s literally about playing Afro-House music and they will have South African DJs playing with the locals from Berlin and I was saying to them, ‘I want to be able to take that party to South Africa so we can start doing the same exchange. ‘This month we bring two Germans the following month we take two South Africans to Germany.’
An exchange residency, in a sense.
Yeah! This is how I feel it’s going to go! If we can do it with Rise, we can do it with Djoon in Paris, and someone else in Japan and start doing collaborations. Bringing a Japanese DJ in Angola on Friday, he goes to South Africa on Saturday. For me, I think this is how we can grow the culture. This is how we can expose people to what’s happening in the world. And those elements will grow our city locally as well.
What are three tracks that have played large roles in your rotation at Hï, and what do you think makes them work particularly well on the dance floor?
One has to be a song called “Zow Music” it’s a remix by Lalou, an African producer who lives in Geneva. It’s a European-inspired song with an Afro beat. It works so well with what I do, because that is what I try and look for in my sets. My sets are not pure African tribal,you know. I try and borrow from both European and African worlds to keep it very unique. Because of the sets I’m starting to play with these elements, even back home, the producers are starting to understand the sound that crosses over. Some producers are young and they only know South Africa, their dream is to eventually grow and start doing shows outside and being recognized outside as well. I try and play music that connects those two worlds. This song is one of those songs.
Another one that’s been very strong is by Da Capo called “Resistance,” featuring Renee Thompson. I can’t really explain this one. I think it’s in the vocal approach and how it’s produced, how Da Capo worked his magic on the rhythm of this one.
A third one I can think of is, its a South African song, by Styx & Bones that is remixed by Manu. The song is called “Amasoon?.” The song is also on another level. Manu is originally from South Africa but he lives in France so he understands you know that bridge I was talking about also. Most of the music he creates, its a reflection of who he is, an African man who lives in France. These are the songs that I can say have been very strong on the sets at Hï.
What sorts of things are in line for Black Coffee for end of year/next year?
Because of the tour I’ve been really, really struggling on production work. I think that’s one thing I would like to establish, not given a single, but be to be able to get back into the groove. It’s always a complex thing for me to work in production. But once I start I get into that loop you know. So I’m expected to release a single on Ultra by the end of the year. But first, I mean the goal for me is to get back into production work and start working.
From what I understand, South Africa has so much value in albums themselves, are you still planning to continue creating albums as your body of work?
Yeah! Yeah, I’m working on an album to release possibly February or March next year. So lazily I have I been having ideas down. I think of this one song I did with an artist from London called Tom Misch. Very young, very, very talented kid. We were talking about working and so we went to the studio last month and did something. So far that’s the only song that has direction!
Even last night I was working on it so the whole idea by the end of February or March I release an album.
Sounds like something we can look towards that’ll be intersecting various styles with South Africa.
Yes, but also the world. My idea with this album is I wanna go across all genres. I’ve done a song with Burna Boy from Nigeria and a song with Swizz Beats and that’s the kind of album I want, someone you wouldn’t expect on a Black Coffee album. *Laughs* You know. Like guys from the world, have a Pharrell… if I can find a Pharrell. That’s the kind of an album I want, it’s not just, you know, more, more dance and techno based it’s everything that I’m inspired to do at the moment. Slow-tempo, mid-tempo, up-tempo, doesn’t matter.
Interview conducted by Grace Fleisher