Kwaito’s electronic sounds may reign today among South African youth, but back in the ‘80s near the end of the apartheid era there was Bubblegum, a genre that was South Africa’s own take on American funk and disco. Locally the music had a huge following, but because of South Africa’s isolation under UN Nations sanctions, Bubblegum never got the international exposure it deserved. By the early ‘90s, many of the labels and artists had faded into obscurity. That is until now.
Leading the way for South Africa’s Bubblegum revival is DJ Okapi. The 34 year old got his start in the mid-2000s playing at his college radio station and small parties during his university years in Cape Town. Back then his forte was American Soul and funk played from CDs. DJ Okapi discovered Bubblegum when he saved up enough money from gigs to go digging through stacks at second-hand record stores and even private collections. It was then he realized nothing had been done to preserve the music and make it available on the internet.
So in 2009, DJ Okapi launched his website Afrosynth.blogspot.com as a way to preserve and showcase not only his country’s Bubblegum music but also promote African jazz, soul, reggae and hip-hop. Since then, Afrosynth has become one of the top online portals for South African dance music.
After Afrosynth gained worldwide attention, American label Cultures of Soul invited Okapi in 2016 to put together a compilation of South African Bubblegum. “Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 1980-1984” went on to receive rave reviews.
DJ Okapi just finished his first European tour and even performed at ‘Boiler Room.’ Tonight he touches down in Bangkok to do his thing at Studio Lam’s monthly Nite Ride.
Before the I chatted with him about growing up in South Africa in the ‘90s, vinyl culture and his future projects.
Mongkorn: When You were grew up in the ‘90s, was the music that you are into now only heard in the black community? What was it like back then?
Okapi: No. Kwaito in the ‘90s would’ve been primarily consumed by the black majority but not exclusively. There were artists, producers and fans of all races. It was the same for disco/bubblegum in the ‘80s. Both genres defied apartheid-era racial prescriptions and crossed over to a multiracial audience. I like to think that music is one of the few things that unites South Africans of all races and languages. The ‘90s was a time of drastic social change in South Africa and also plenty of optimism because apartheid had finally been defeated. Kwaito was the soundtrack to that.
M: The music you released on your compilation as well as the stuff on your blog is very cool. Reminds me a lot of a label we have here called ZudRangMa. Has the stuff that was released back in the ‘80s and ‘90s grown and adapted into more modern sounds like Kwaito or has it disappeared completely?
O: Thank you. South African music, like all others, has evolved over time. In the ‘80s the sound was disco (Bubblegum), in the ‘90s it was Kwaito. More recently it’s evolved into house. Hip-hop is also very popular. These are all just different phases in South African pop music. The original Bubblegum sound of the ‘80s has sadly largely disappeared as most of it was never released on CD or digital formats, but it certainly has influenced Kwaito and house.
M: What’s the reception by younger audiences been like? Do South Africans get into your style of music a lot or do you still feel it’s a bit niche?
O: Younger audiences in South Africa tend to be a little harder to please because disco and Kwaito is the music their parents listened to, so it’s not cool at all. Most young people in SA expect a DJ to play either house or hip-hop, or American muic, so anything other than that can confuse or even upset people who don’t have an open mind. Other DJs don’t really push this music to the same extent, so it remains a niche in SA. At the moment there is more interest in it in Europe and now in Asia than at home.
M: The label I mentioned earlier ZudRangMa revived the careers of many Thai artists from back in the day. Were there any artists that had their careers revived because of you?
O: In terms of my label it is still very early days, the first releases have not even hit the shelves yet. So it would be an exaggeration to claim that I’ve really been able to revive any careers just yet. But it is something I hope to do. Benjamin Ball was maybe the first guy I managed to track down and get his music licensed internationally, but it’s not like I’ve got him touring again. I’m currently working with my favourite singer from that era, Ntombi Ndaba, so in 2018 a lot of my energy will go towards getting her music out there and maybe even getting her back on stage.
M: You’re still playing your tracks on vinyl, is it hard to find tracks from back in the day on wax?
O: Yes and no. As demand grows, it’s becoming more difficult to find affordable records in good condition. But vinyl is the format that the majority of bubblegum music was released on, along with cassettes. It’s not like you can really find it on CD or online instead. The main reason I opened my store in Johannesburg is to make some of this music more easily available to people, because other record stores in SA stock mainly American music. Kwaito on the other hand came later, in the mid-90s at the very end of the vinyl era in SA, so most of this music is on cassette and CD, not vinyl.
M: What’s vinyl culture in South Africa like? Is there a big digging and collecting scene out there?
O: When South Africa’s vinyl presses shut down around 1994, the vinyl scene changed into an import market for collectors and DJs wanting music from overseas. In the second half of the ‘90s the only SA music pressed on vinyl were white-label promos pressed in Zimbabwe, until that press also shut down. Today like everywhere else vinyl is making a comeback and there are more dealers and vinyl markets around, but it’s relatively small compared to other parts of the world. In a huge city like Johannesburg there are only maybe 4 record stores, Cape Town about the same, Durban even less. Very few South African DJs play records any more, and only a handful of venues still have their own turntables. Also keep in mind that most South Africans are more interested in American or European records, so among the digging community the demand for local and African music is relatively low. But in the past year or two the demand has risen to a point where major labels (Sony and Universal) have started releasing some contemporary local artists on vinyl again.
M: Can you let our readers know any upcoming projects of yours and also any links to some artists, labels or websites that they can check out?
O: Sure… the first few releases on Afrosynth Records are on their way. The first release is a South African disco 12” from 1979 called “Burnin Beat.” The second release is a Kwaito 12” featuring tracks by Volcano and The Beat Gangsters. I’ve done a compilation with Rush Hour in Amsterdam that’s coming out very soon, focusing on the Pantsula sound of the late ‘80s from one particular South African label, Music Team. I’m also working on a comp with Soundway that should be out a few months after that.
Unfortunately artists from the Bubblegum era aren’t really active online but plenty of labels are now venturing into re-issuing old SA music, including Sharp-Flat in Cape Town, Crown Ruler in Australia, Awesome Tapes in the US, Soundway and Strut in the UK, Invisible City in Canada, etc. Another new SA label pressing vinyl is Mushroom Hour.
See DK Okapi tonight at Studio Lam. Doors open at 9pm; cover is 200 baht. The venue is located in Soi Sukhumvit 51, a five-minute walk from BTS Thong Lo.