Sunday, December 2, 2012

What's the Word, Johannesburg

Die Antwoord se rympies sal jou fokken kop skop.... we came, we saw, we skopped fokken gat,” 

Watkins Tudor-Jones aka Ninja of rap/rave provocateurs Die Antwoord calls it "the ultimate style, that ultimate flex and it's fokken South African" Yolandi Visser the better half of Die Antwoord elaborates further "zef is, you're poor but you're fancy. You're poor but you're sexy, you've got style"  South Afrikaan rapper and sometime Die Antwoord collaborator Jack Parow defines zef as "kind of like posh, but the opposite of posh"  Zef is an attitude and a stance that embodies South Africa's uniqueness.

It's a convergence of cultures, languages and musical influences synthesized through the eyes and minds of  Cape Town's mostly white, lower-middle class. The crooked path of enlightenment runs through the heart of Capetown, the heart of South Africa's burgeoning zef inspired rap music scene. Capetown is the birthplace of zef and judging from videos shot in and around the city, it has a white trash appeal that is both Gulf Coast Redneck Riviera and SoCal seaside ghetto.

It's not totally clear if racial harmony is the majority opinion around Capetown's zef devotees. Racial co-existence has been the official party line in South Africa since the end of apartheid, but is it an integral part of the zef philosophy? Die Antwoord preach racial and cultural diversity at every turn, but are they at odds with their fellow Afrikaaners? This could be what feeds the backlash against Die Antwoord, though for the most part it's veiled as slanderous complaints questioning their authenticity and street cred.

Glancing across the U.S. cultural landscape, there's only a few social groups in the U.S. that you could classify as zef (the parameters having been set by Jones, Visser & Parow's definitions)The low rider/cholos in the Western states, possibly the West Coast surf & skate punks, the hyphy scene centered around Oakland, Ca. and of course the Juggalos. Each group has its own ideal of what is posh and "so, so fres"

To be poor is not to be without style, it just means that you take what's at your disposal and create style.

To a certain degree, the British version of zef would be the Chavs, who in turn were the British version of what Americans once referred to as "wiggers" While those terms (Chavs, Wiggers and the Aussie expression, bogan) can all be construed as derogatory  zef by comparison is a positive term.  The American personification of what is zef, would be Vanilla Ice, who is also the   prototype that Waddy Jones molded Ninja around. Mix in a scoop of Robert Van Winkle with a dash of Brian Bosworth and a smidgen of Prime Minister Pete Nice and you have Ninja... the lyrical assassin.

The Chavs, though prone to violence and the subject of ridicule and derision, represent those same ideals. The Chavs cling to what they are... poor working class yobs with a sense of style that sets them apart. The term "chav" has its roots in the Romani word "chavi" meaning child. Popular use of the word to describe a specific working class youth subculture in England began around 2002.  Burberry, the makers of check patterned clothing favored by Chavs, claimed that by 2007, their sales had dropped due to counterfeit versions of their clothing being sold across the U.K. Mainly to chavs with limited income at their disposal.

A Burberry spokesman would later say "I'm proud we had such a democratic appeal" but the clothing line went on the offensive, pulling items such as their iconic checkered hats and footwear off the market to discourage Chavs from buying them. All across Britian an anti-chav backlash started to pick up steam. The term became deeply offensive to some, rejected as "sneering and patronizing  slang sensationalized by the media. It shows the "inbred hatred of the white working class by the middle class", the neo-snobs who maintain their place in British social strata by thumbing their nose at those beneath them.

In perusing through an astonishing number of  anti-chav website that popped up in the U.K., most complaints centered around young chavs loitering at shopping centers  drinking and accosting passersby. The bashing of punk rockers, metal heads and especially goths & emos  seemed to alarm a large portion of non-chav society across England. "the Burberry effect baseball cap placed at a jaunty angle, sometimes called a snidey", "pregnant Chavettes pushing prams to the nearest McDonalds to lounge about while their baby daddys (sic) mill around the entrance glaring about"

"It's that brother from another mother's gwarra, rap-ster met n groot fokken stywe piel

In the States, an approximate equivalent would be the Spanish word "cholo", which applies mostly to urban, low income Mexican Americans with a very definable manner of dress. Cholo has its origins in Mexico where it was used to distinguish culturally marginal mestizos from the ruling criollo class. The first known use of the word in the English language was by Herman Melville in "Moby Dick" to describe a Spanish speaking sailor. The word can be interchangeable with "gang banger" though the use of cholo to identify bangers is dying out.  

The final scene in Robert Altman's "Prêt-à-Porter" features two minutes of nude models walking the catwalk, as a poke at fashionistas. Zef is essentially a narcissistic concept and the human body is the ultimate canvas. Clad in a pair of boxer shorts adorned with Pink Floyd's Darkside of the Moon album cover, Ninja is practically naked to his audience.  It's not new, Henry Rollins fronted Black Flag, barefooted and menacing, dressed only in gym shorts.  Ninja who judging by appearances is well endowed, bristles at rumors that his endowment is not all real. .

Ninja works hard to project menace, but once DJ Hi-Tek ( he owns a PC Computer and he makes like next level beats) kicks in the bass heavy beats, he transforms into a kinetic, gangly contortionist, all arms, elbows and knees. Yolandi (she spells her last name Vi$$er) with her bowl cut bangs and black contacts that make her look like one of those doe eyed paintings from the 70s (or Roger the Alien from American Dad), is disarmingly sexual. Though at least thirty, "she looks like a diffident, highly sexualized 12 year old" Yolandi rap/sings in an Afrikaaner accented helium whisper, that judging by the lurid comments on YouTube is highly arousing.

She has a potty mouth that would make a good mother wince and a bad mother proud. Die Antwoords' use of profanity in fact, is what first rankled South Africa's mainstream music press. It also earned Die Antwoord their first dose of notoriety (think back to 1990, Broward County, Fla., 2 Live Crew & Luther Campbell)  The presentation is fast paced, as Ninja clocks suckas and spins logic at hyper speed. Ninja & Yolandi are casting into a sea of young disenfranchised white youths that have been waiting around for, (as Ninja puts it) "the next level shit" 

I'm zef like a young Hugh Hef, of yes!... may my enemies live long so they can see me progress

As I alluded to earlier, Die Antwoord gets under the skin of the press. Some factions of the South African press operate under the assumption that "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" Roger Young's review of $O$ opens with vitriol "By most accounts Waddy Jones was always a bit of cunt. And now Ninja, with the fame rushing to his head, is starting to display the same paranoid cuntish tendencies" Young writes for Mahala, a South African music, culture & reality magazine that strives to "represent what's really happening along the fault line"

Represent or just create some static, Young continues, "Witness his FB statuses of late, they read as a desperately insecure little stabs at hardcoreness; which is strange because if $0$ is anything to go by Ninja and crew have nothing to be insecure about" But who can blame them for growing paranoid about wankish cunts like Roger Young, right? "Asshole-ish behaviour is often a necessary function of “the heartlessness of ideas” but how much leeway to be a prick does $O$ give Ninja?" I dunno.... "Blood on the Tracks" gave Bob Dylan a lifetime pass, the same with da' Boss and "Born in the USA"

Young examines “Wat Kyk Jy” a track off the $O$ album, "it's Robin S. on Crack with Ninja doing super laid back and creepy nasal styles. It’s like being an ecstasy dealer in the 90’s and getting caught cutting your pills with speed" his attempt at ironic cultural references fall flat with a resounding thud. Sean Jacobs who writes for the blog "Africa is a Country" chimed in on the controversy surrounding " “Fok Julle Naaiers” "Waddy Jones’ defenders will probably says he was in “character,” the whole thing satire (original video and ‘apology’ alike), and that he is being ironic and deliberate. Perhaps the fact that I am writing about their charade now will also be read as evidence that they’re good" Perhaps too... glamming on to controversy helps Jacob's cause.

Wat Kyk Jy. ( is the website that lit a fire under the whole zef thing in the first place.  Ninja & Yolandi took their early cues from Wak Kyk Jy. The track is an ode to "die beste Afrikaanse blog en website in die heelal" Wat kyk Jy literally translates to "What are you looking at?" or more specifically (as explained on the website Kameraad Mhambi) "It's the menacing words that you hear when you walk into a bar in Parys Free State and you fix you gaze on one of the patrons for too long. In other words, it's the last words you hear before you hit the floor.

 All my fokken life,  I lived a normal fokken life, till I went and got myself caught up wif da mic

In order to understand what Die Antwoord is, you have to know what Ninja was. The thirty something Watkins Tudor Jones has a convoluted history that stretches back to primal days of South African hip hop music. Jones first surfaced with The Original Evergreen, a rap act with a distinct stoner vibe, noted for sounding just like Cypress Hill. From there Jones segued into Max Normal, a live hip hop act not radically different from The Original Evergreen.

In 2002, he disbanded Max Normal and relocated to Capetown, working with Felix Laband and Yolandi Visser on a project that eventually became The Constructus Corporation. (a proto version of MaxNormal.TV) Along the way Tudor-Jones has adopted and dropped a number of different names and personas such as, WAD:e, Waddy, Yang Weapon, McTotally Rad, The Man Who Never Came Back, Max Normal and most recently Ninja.

Tudor-Jones revived the Max Normal character (he took the name from the Judge Dredd comic) as MaxNormal.TV.a bizarre multi media mix of performance art  channeled through David Byrne, Vince McMahon,Tony Robbins, Mr Rogers and Bob Ross. Joined by Yolandi Visser (in the guise of his personal assistant) Jones dressed in three piece suits, and delivered motivational raps. This also included art lessons (ala Bob Ross of PBS or Mark Mothersbaugh on Yo Gabba Gabba)

As the only holdover from Max Normal in MaxNormal.TV,  Waddy Jones was asked about his former band mates, he explained that Mark Buchanan & Sean Ou Tim were very nice about saying no, while Simon "Sibot" Ringrose was a little nasty. MaxNormal.TV's first album "Good Morning South Africa" was met with "confused and somewhat cautious acclaim" Tudor-Jones downplayed it saying it was a "fun little pop-art experiment"

Vuilgeboosted Gang$ta

Perhaps presaging MaxNormal.TV's eventual transformation to Die Antwoord,  Tudor-Jones added "it's really just an attempt to be coloured, I like coloureds, I want to be coloured"  Jones and the band branched out into stuffed animals, releasing a line of toys called dassies, which resembled a tennis ball with ears, stubby arms & legs. The Oppikoppi Festival chose "dassie" as its mascot in 2007. Tudor-Jones was invited to produce his stuffed animals during the pre-musical performance part of the festival. 

The dassie is a real animal indigenous to South Africa, it's said to resemble a fat cane rat, they are genetically related to the elephant!!!) Even as he stuffed his fat rats, Ninja was already scheming on his new project, which came to be called Die Antwoord (The Answer) which was sure to rake in the euros, dollars or rands. "mad fuckin gangster rap mafia for life" is how Tudor-Jones described it then. 

At the end of Die Antwoord's "Zef Life" video, the interviewer asks Ninja what does Die Antwoord mean? Yolandi gives Ninja a look that says this guys is fokken clueless. Ninja's response "the answer" the interviewer asks "what does that mean" Ninja and Yolandi look at each other like the bloke had just shat his pants. Condescendingly, Ninja tells him "What ever man, fuck" if you have to ask, then you won't get it anway. Die Antwoord evolved out of all of Watkins Tudor-Jones different projects... throw enough shit at the wall and what sticks is bound to be some good shit. 

It's a blender mix of electro techno beats and old school gangsta rap. Ninja asks that age old question "What happened to all the cool rappers from back in the day?" By going back and rediscovering, a style a music that some had come to regard as trash, Tudor-Jones has hit on a winning formula. "Now all these rappers sound exactly the same, It's like one big inbred fuck-fest" Dregs like Lil Wayne & Kanye West is what passes for rap music now. "Just because the whole world's gone dwanky, Doesn't mean we fuckin' gonna go out like that too"

To defeat the devil, Ninja becomes a devil

The stupidest argument surrounding Die Antwoord is whether or not they're real or legit. I mean who the fuck are they supposed to be,  NWA? For what it's worth, neither Watkins Tudor-Jones or Yolandi Visser have ever attempted to hide or distance themselves from their past,  non-gangsta projects. "Ho$h pagamisa! raak fokken wys (word 2 da streets, wize up!) Fuck crime, these days rhyme fuckin pays" and after all these years, they are getting paid. 

Of course, every rap group worth its salt must have controversy. Die Antwoords' came courtesy of the 'Mother Monster" Peeved that Gaga asked them to open for her during a series of shows in South Africa, Die Antwoord decided to poke fun at her with the video for their hit "Fatty Boom Boom" The zefsploitationist crew dressed up a man as Lady Gaga, put him in a meat dress and had him/her go through a series of grueling adventures (car jacking, giving birth to a prawn and then finally being eaten alive by a lion)

Gaga, who should have better things to do, struck back via Twitter, here's the exchange:

i fink u freaky but you don't have a hit. hundred thousand tIckets sold in SA. #thatmyshit
i guess its not a good idea to tell someone you're a fan. never mind! we get it, you're not a little monster. WE GOT IT.
Never ones to back down from controversy, or schoolyard tactics, Die Antwoord responded:
lady... even tho u r 'larger' than us... we still cooler than u... plus we don't have prawns in our private... 

U won't last 2 minutes in my world bitch

That's quite mild compared to the  accusations of sodomy and other assorted perversions that Dr. Dre, Eazy E & Ice Cube tossed back and forth at each other.  Which brings us to the other controversy surrounding the group... the song  “Fok Julle Naaiers” (fuck ya' all) ends with Ninja summoning forth the hideous DJ Hi Tek from the depths of hell (his arrival is preceded by creaking doors)   "Yo dj hi-tek where u at my nigga?"

DJ Hi Tek, wears a mutant mask that could be fashioned after the face of Mike Tyson.  The "lyrics' are the transcript of Mike's rabid response to a rather stupid reporter who suggested that Tyson should be in a straight jacket.... within earshot of Mike. Needless to say the reporter wilted in face of the onslaught and fled, which was a better fate than what Mike had in mind. Here's Tyson's actual uncensored words:

"White boy, faggot, you can't touch me you're not man enough, I eat your ass all alive, you bitch, can't anybody in here fuck with this, this is the ultimate. Fuck you, you hoe! Come say it to my face, you bitch. Come on you bitch, you're a scared coward, you're not man enough to fuck with me, you can't last two minutes in my world bitch. (At this point the reporter backs away deeper into the crowd) Look you scared now, you hoe. Scared like a little cracker bitch. Scared of the real man! I'll fuck you till you love me."

The song led to accusations of homophobia and the glorification of rape. Interscope, the American label got cold feet. Die Antwoord quickly announced that they were splitting with Interscope.  Ninja explained, "So anyway... Interscope offered us a bunch of money again to release our new album TEN$ION. But this time, they also tried to get involved with our music, to try and make us sound like everyone else out there at the moment"  "So we said: 'U know what, rather hang on to your money, buy yourself something nice...we gonna do our own thing. Bye bye"

"I'd like to set the record straight here once and for all. Number one: DJ Hi-Tek is gay. So there you go. Now you all know. Number two: Dj Hi-Tek says the word faggot doesn't hold any power over him. Hi-Tek says faggot all the time cause he's like, kind of taken that word and made it his bitch. Number three: Just to be fucking clear, the Antwoord is not homophobic…"  If  you consider that it's never been made clear just who DJ Hi-Tek actually is and the general consensus has always been that it's a role played by a revolving cast of DJ's, then Ninja is simply spin doctoring the facts.