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Baker's Dozen

Beat Codes: Spoek Mathambo's Favourite Albums
Lior Phillips , August 30th, 2017 12:23

Spoek Mathambo gives Lior Phillips a tour of his record collection, crossing continents between the music of his South African homeland, American rap, and British new wave


The Coup - Steal This Album
This is kind of a weird album that most people don't know. The group has been going for a long time but they still remain quite cult-ish. If we talk about Ice Cube, that's a rap superstar. If we talk about Dizzee Rascal, that's a rap superstar. But The Coup is pretty cult and they also have a strong socialist message with really intelligent writing, a great sense of storytelling, and incredible sense of humor.

I got it when I was in high school. A friend of mine, Barry, bought it. It was at the time when you went to a CD store and there weren't many options so we had to decide. I bought another CD, he bought this one, and I think he won.

'Breathing Apparatus' is about a gunshot victim who has no health insurance.

The 'Pizza Man' skit and 'The Repo Man', it's all steeped in reality. For the people that he's trying to represent, that is the reality. If you get into an accident, if you get shot, what's your medical aid situation? I loved the reality of it because so much hip-hop and rap is written from a real aspirational, fantastical, fake perspective, and I liked that he brought it down to speaking as the underdog but not necessarily glorifying poverty. He was describing it in really rich language, really engaged writing. That's the funny thing with rap and hip-hop: because there's a code and a language to it, a lot of people have the same way of speaking, but sometimes that language forces you to dumb yourself down. A lot of people won't find it attractive to listen to you sounding like a Cambridge professor in trap and hip-hop. What I love about The Coup is that as much as he stays within the language and the codes of rap, he still really delves into vocabulary and subject matter to deal with ideas like, "What are national monuments and why are they there?", "What's up with all these shops that give you credit for things that they know you can't afford and then sends someone to repossess them?" I grew up on a heavy diet of American rap, and just to hear their stories, I began to understand how to express frustration, how to express anger, how to make politics "cool."

For a long time, South African rap suffered from a huge identity crisis. Producers, a lot of them, would rather sample American soul music than sample local music. Rappers would rather use the linguistic tropes from America than local ones. It's been a difficult thing to navigate, but as far as content, there's always been conscious rappers in South Africa of varying popularity. I think The Coup had confidence that was so conceptually sound, but South African artists at the time were still a bit insecure. Even in other genres, recent years have been a huge leap of confidence for South African artists. From the 90s, I think a lot of people thought South African things were quite lame. If you listened to rock, you were thinking, "South African rock is so lame."

South African rock was so lame! Come on! In the 90s the white rockers, the Afrikaans, were given all the air time and they sang in English. Armed with the same melodies, it wasn't particularly inspiring or hooky, and it was very stylized on what was happening internationally. There was not much variation.

[Laughs] I think South Africa in general has struggled to have a real patriotism and confidence to say, "This is our flag, it is beautiful. This is our team." We don't have that shirt-grabbing, hold-your-heart-and-cry-when-you-sing-the-national-anthem patriotism across the board. When I was growing up I would prefer to listen to a lot of American rap rather than South African kwaito. Now, being older, experiencing more of the world, and having a broader perspective, I'm enjoying listening to kwaito so much. I'm learning from it so much. It just sucks that that kind of insecurity was there.