“I never thought our music was played outside of Durban”, says South African producer DJ LAG, an awestruck smile brightening his expression. The 21-year-old is recalling the day he was surprised by a message from a fellow DJ based in London who had just learned about a sound called Gqom. It was somewhere around January 2015 and it marked a truly decisive moment for young Lwazi Asanda Gwala. “I thought I was just creating music for me and my friends, but that made me realise that what I was doing was quite big. So I had to keep pushing and producing more and more tracks.”
LAG is sitting in a shadowy, soulless room in Hackney Wick’s community exhibit warehouse Stour Space. This is the first time the Durban native steps foot in London – in Europe, really. In his bag are a couple of recent performances for crowds in Berlin and Lisbon, a succession of events he didn’t foresee on his early leaps into gqom’s syncopated beats. But now, in the City, LAG is headlining the Gqom Oh! label showcase for the forward-thinking series Clock Strikes 13. And he couldn’t be more ecstatic.
It’s easy to understand DJ LAG’s ceaseless amazement. Not long ago, Gqom (which can be pronounced ‘gome’) was confined to Durban’s townships, where it originated. Its raw and apocalyptical energy was deemed too ghettoish among South Africa’s clubbing circles, eventually keeping its distance from important dancefloors and radio stations. The alternative was to play these chopped percussions and magnetising rhythms in small clubs, home stereos and community block parties on the outskirts of SA’s most relevant port city. However, gqom’s reach has changed considerably in recent times: not only is it resonating worldwide, but it’s finally capturing the attention of South African promoters and artists. “Gqom is getting big”, explains LAG. “People are starting to recognise it. Important names like Big Nuz and Babes Wodumo have been showing interest in our music and the radio hosts now see it as the future.”
A pioneer of the genre, LAG is hailed the king of gqom. Yet, he began his musical career as a hip-hop producer and no aspirations of becoming a DJ. But his line of work shifted as soon as he heard the first bangers from Naked Boyz, a collective also recognised as gqom’s founders. “I saw myself trying to do something like them, although it wasn’t proper gqom. It was more like tribal and also a mixture of hip-hop vibes with house. Still I was producing just for fun, offering beats to DJs and friends on dance crews. They’ve started playing those beats in local clubs and I saw everybody loving what I was doing. So I kept producing these sounds and the music eventually started spreading through the city.”
Gqom’s boom in Durban is kind of an odd story. The city fosters a notorious taxi culture, a highly embraced business that breeds a heated competition among bosses. Driving a successful taxi suggests spending considerable amounts of money customising it, pimping it up. Vans with faded, handmade paintings and silver-shiny thick rims are tempting hooks to lure scores of customers. But the single, most relevant aspect on a taxi is carrying an earth-shaking soundsystem. When gqom, to some extent, blew up in the clubs, particularly in Durban’s South and Central areas, taxi drivers steadily began reverberating its enticing beats on their flashy, A-grade speaker sets. The move proved solid. Those cruising the city’s avenues and boulevards banging the latest gqom tracks, easily increased their passenger quotas, LAG told me. Soon, gqom became a regular sounding pattern among thriving taxi businesses, while the genre’s seeds were sowed daily all over Durban.
When I sat down to chat with LAG, South London’s underground DJ Tash_LC was just opening the evening’s headline on Stour Space’s upper level dance floor, a wooden room with a wall of transparent windows facing the grotesque neighbouring London Stadium and a zigzagging Thames canal. Tash is tonight’s support DJ. Her warm, tropical palette of Afrobeats, Afrohouse and even Lisbon’s signature progressive kuduro (or batida) spills irresistibly throughout the warehouse. Later on, Tash is followed by last-minute guest Moleskin, producer and London’s Goon Club Allstars label co-head. Moleskin has been making a name for himself with his synthy fixes and piercing electronic edits influenced by grime and ghetto house. Meanwhile, he’s no stranger to gqom’s daunting, tribal and minimal aesthetics. His set is dotted by the genre’s broken house beats seemingly influenced by kwaito, UK grime, funky and hip-hop. Truly a one-of-a-kind composition.
“Gqom is unbelievable, something completely different”, describes Nan Kolè. A Rome-native, London-based DJ, Kolè’s the founder of Gqom Oh!, a record label exclusively dedicated to Durban’s emerging sounds. He’s also the guy that contacted DJ LAG in the first place on that distant January 2015, soon after stumbling into a mysterious #gqom hashtag and clicking his way into a whole new matrix. “It was so strange”, he shares, dazedly. “When dubstep and UK funky disappeared, DJs roamed to house music and I began starving for something new and distinctive. In a way, I was getting musically lost. So when this thing comes to me on Facebook, my immediate reaction was, ‘what the ef is this’. It was like grime and techno and all genres fused in one type of sound.”
I ask him what he thought were gqom’s most striking aspects after a first hearing. “One thing that blew my mind was how they arranged the tracks. It was very hypnotic, in crescendo, each sound slowly building up and I felt that energy and its dark atmosphere.” As people are flocking into Stour Space, I follow up: what are the bonds between UK’s and Durban’s underground scenes. “I see something in common between gqom and grime. I mean, artists on both sides of the fence are young and come from specific social contexts where they felt nobody cared about them. So what did they do? Caring about nothing, they went on doing music with friends to express themselves. So these underground scenes actually have something relatable, a human connection of sorts, even if on opposite ends of the world.”
After his early expeditions into gqom, Kolè mind-drafted plans to collaborate with many of the genre’s producers. “Because they were in a way isolated, the driving force of setting up a label entirely dedicated to their music was that they needed to be known internationally. What they create is really futuristic, so I felt I had to show to the European electronic scene what was happening in Durban.” However, secluded as they were in the disenfranchised townships, the young artists Kolè initially approached swiftly demonstrated skepticism about his real motives. “They didn’t trust me at all. Because gqom was very local, most of them thought I was joking about releasing their music, that I wasn’t for real. I particularly remember this guy from the crew Forgotten Souls whom I chatted with for weeks. His replies were always brief, like snubbing what I was telling him. But then one day, he started asking questions: if I played gqom in Rome, if people knew how to dance to it. That’s when I felt things could come through.”
Gqom Oh! Sampler, a 3-tracked EP issued by mid-2015, was the first release on Gqom Oh!’s imprint. Featuring cuts from notably skilful Citizen Boy and collectives Mafia Boyz and Cruel Boyz, it was a first taste onto the label’s upcoming activities. Earlier this year, the label pressed the double LP named Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol. 1, a broader showcase of Durban’s most blazing producers, such as Dominowe, Emo Kid, Formation Boyz, Julz Da DeeJay and Citizen Boy. But assembling these gqom records was no straightforward task as some of the original projects – especially from older tracks – were long lost. “We had to master from MP3s. I’ve spent days and days in a friend’s studio trying to find the best frequencies to push the beats.”
Nonetheless, as Kolè tells me, the mastering process was in no way comparable to the anguishing, uneasy mission of picking up the tracks. Since its infancy, gqom has been popping up like fireworks on platforms such as kasimp3.co.za, Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Before local clubs or pimped taxi vans, the internet had a pivotal role as a primary distribution tool of gqom music – unsurprising, really, given that it’s an emerging musical current. Still, Kolè found himself trapped in an infinite scroll of possibilities to include in his label’s early records. “There were just so many tracks out there. I had to trust my instincts, picking the most European-dancefloor-like sounds and using my experience as a DJ to imagine what would work out here. Still, the initial selection of the Volume 1 had 35 tracks and I had to squeeze it to 12.” The record, like the debut one, has long been sold out.
As Kolè nurtured a relationship with Durban’s sound makers, he eventually embarked on a trip to meet them personally. His voyage happened this year and gave the Italian DJ something to reflect upon the outlandish creative minds behind gqom’s emergence. “This is all very intuitive and natural, really. They can do a proper banger track in just a few minutes. They don’t think about it. They don’t have lots of samples. They use what they have. Producing for them is like escaping a sort of existential social cage. They kind of create a world they really like. And they do gqom because they like dancing. It’s something engrained in Durban’s culture, almost like breathing. That’s why you can walk around a township and see a family in their house listening to gqom. Their reality and stories really amazed me.” Later on, the journey originated a documentary and a collaborative mixtape with Rome’s community radio Crudo Volta.
As Moleskin keeps on spinning dizzying cuts, I follow the crowd and climb the stairs leading to Stour Space’s dancefloor. I find everybody loosely packed picking their own dancing tempo. As synths stab through the speakers, I spot LAG sitting alone on a puffy black chair, smartphone illuminating a thoughtful expression. I wonder if he’s reading the comments from his hometown people, if they are happy with his tour in Europe or simply the fact that he’s showcasing gqom to unknown crowds. Even more, if he’s proud of all he’s achieved. “There’s a lot of hype in Durban”, says Kolè. “We’ve been posting pictures on social media and there’s a lot of good vibes. There aren’t a lot of South African DJs that can tour overseas, you know. This is like watching a dream unfold. It’s important for them, actually, to see this happening. It motivates the kids back in the townships. That’s why I’ve been seeing a lot of new tracks coming out. They are just producing, producing, producing.” On this note, Kolè’s Gqom Oh! is set to keep pushing for the Durban’s kids. “We’re releasing Dominowe’s first solo EP soon and we’ve also got something special planned for LAG. Then we’ll be working on Sounds of Durban Vol. 2, especially introducing new variations surrounding gqom, like sgubhu and core tribe. We really want to present an overview of Durban’s styles and showcase all of these guys’ sounds.”
A wave of loud cheers breaks in the room as soon as the King of Gqom steps up for his live set. It’s a genuinely special moment, for both the crowd and LAG. Moreover, he’s got some unheard gems to show, coming off his new DJ LAG EP on Goon Club Allstars. As the set unfurls, I feel that LAG found in London an audience seemingly acquainted with gqom, even with himself. At each incredibly heavy beat peppered by a rug of visceral whistles and tribal tones, the crowd replies earnestly, slapping the large booth and howling contagious yeaaahhh’s. Many are snapping photos, flashing the room with bright, speedy lights. Occasional woza, woza (a Zulu expression for come on) shouts by Nan Kolè spark sincere smiles from the DJ.
Playing in London has long been one of LAG’s greatest ambitions, he told me earlier. And as gqom soars its reach, he confesses dreaming about globally reputed artists getting involved with the scene through collaborations and support. But with gqom’s inaugural world tour, the king’s aspirations are out there. “I just want to kill and smash the dancefloor, man. I just want to give the crowd something they won’t forget. Ever.”