“The history of South Africa is: NELSON MANDELA. DISTRICT NINE. DIE ANTWOORD.”
The Cape Town rave-rap trio, Die Antwoord, are masters of the self-aggrandising provocation. Ninja and Yo-Landi VISSer (their DJ, Hi-Tek, who also goes by the typically unassuming name of “God”, tends not to figure) are male and female versions of the same persona, the stereotypical “zef” youth – the South African equivalent of “white trash”. Garish, swaggering, unashamedly vulgar, Die Antwoord – who rack up tens of millions of YouTube views and routinely fill substantial venues – stand out in an increasingly risk-averse music industry, where very little with the whiff of sleaze or menace breaks through. Other contemporary acts deal in the choreographed, sanitised sexuality of the pole dance. They have the sordid quality of the live sex show.
Their music has a thumping, visceral, electronic energy, drawn largely from techno, happy hardcore and its deranged Dutch relative, gabber. The Afrikaner accent is, at the best of times, the aural equivalent of being vigorously cuffed around the head; when Ninja raps at you venomously, you feel like you’re being pummelled with knuckle-dusters. All the while, Yo-Landi flits above, a lewd, bratty Tinkerbell. Their new album, “Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid”, adds to their musical vocabulary the enveloping pulse of trance and the dreamlike ambience of chillwave, somehow managing to make these essentially benign genres sound borderline evil.
Die Antwoord have always followed their own course, artistically and commercially. Once opportunity comes calling, most musicians, however obstreperous, compromise and play by at least some of the rules. But since they formed in 2008, Die Antwoord have become, if anything, more wilfully perverse, more hellbent on pursuing their own, twisted vision. Their debut album, “$O$” (featuring their first viral hit, “Enter the Ninja”) was self-released; the rest (“Ten$ion”, “Donker Mag” and now “Mount Ninji”) have been issued by their own company, Zef Recordz.
Their one dalliance with a major label ended when, by their own account, they returned Interscope’s money when they tried to meddle with “Ten$ion”. Then came the Lady Gaga saga. When she asked Die Antwoord to support her on tour, they reacted with furious incredulity, and went on to spoof her viciously (and wonderfully) in their video for “Fatty Boom Boom”. Picking a fight with a more famous artist is undoubtedly good for publicity. But Gaga’s work, which at its best is extraordinary, feels tame next to Die Antwoord’s shocking, often alarming, output. She raises eyebrows; Die Antwoord burn them off.
Ninja and Yo-Landi were once called Watkin Tudor Jones and Anri du Toit. But like Gaga, they have transformed themselves into characters as a vehicle for their music. They are pranksters, tricksters, a pair of unisex Lokis, the perpetrators of endlessly unfolding double-bluffs. The nature of their relationship, in a ploy they may have picked up from Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes, is deliberately unclear. The facts are irrelevant. They are their own artwork.
Their weapon of choice is video. Die Antwoord are experts in the medium. They have developed a distinct visual language that borrows heavily from the film director and “body horror” master, David Cronenberg, and from South African photographers (notably Roger Ballen, who directed their definitive clip for “I Fink U Freeky”), and graphic artists like Anton Kannemeyer. It is bold, lurid, confrontational. It paints jaw-dropping scenes of sex and, especially, race: in the “Fatty Boom Boom” video, a blacked up Yo-Landi stands beside a black drummer who wears something resembling a tribal Klan outfit.
By masquerading as bogeymen and exalting all that is trashy, Die Antwoord are part of an identifiable pop tradition. Their nearest relations in contemporary music are a group with a very different aesthetic but a similar spirit: a south London rock band Fat White Family, who – like Die Antwoord – take everything polite society hates and fears about a certain demographic, magnify it severalfold, and hurl it right back. It’s what the Sex Pistols did. It’s what heavy metal did. It’s what gangsta rap did. It’s what Eminem did. But it remains radical, and especially so today, when obscurity, rather than notoriety, is the usual reward for such recalcitrance. When marginal acts manage to disrupt the mainstream, they make it a little less wholesome and boring; in that respect, Die Antwoord are doing us all a good turn.
Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid is out now