South African Rap Finds Home in America

Rating: ***1/2 out of 5

Last February, music blogs and news outlets alike began reporting on a South African rap group called Die Antwoord (“The Answer” in Afrikaans) whose otherworldly brand of self-styled “Zef” (“redneck” in Afrikaans) hip-hop had become so instantly popular that the several million visitors who visited its website over the course of a week crashed the server in the process. Questions of the group’s integrity sprung up almost instantly: between a tattooed MC decked only in Pink Floyd boxers calling himself Ninja, an impish mullet-topped hype girl named Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and painter and progeria survivor Leon Botha, how could Die Antwoord amount to anything beyond another product of YouTube sensationalism?

Eventually, the Internet’s time-handy bloodhounds sniffed out the truth: Ninja’s grizzled claim to “represent South African culture” through Zef hip-hop music had less in common with the Dr. Dre-delivered blunt introduction to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (“you are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”) to which it aspired than with Flight Of The Conchords’ oft-repeated stance as “New Zealand’s fourth most popular rap-folk duo.” Essentially District 9’s Tenacious D, Die Antwoord is the brainchild of Watkin Tudor Jones, a seasoned veteran of the South African underground hip-hop scene who recently added “Ninja” as his latest name in a long list of different stage personalities. Real or not, Jones and Yo-Landi inhabit their roles completely, playing insane, balls-to-the-wall live performances on top of recording and releasing an 18-track album. After one look at the video for their first single “Enter The Ninja,” a fantastically bizarre show straight from Basquiat’s nightmares, questions of Die Antwoord’s dedication dissolve. Decked in custom-made black and white sweat suits that match the playfully disturbing doodle-flavored graffiti adorning the walls around him, Ninja trades rapid-fire quips like, “I work my light saber like a wild fucking savage from the dark side danger,” while Yo-Landi’s chipmunk pipes provide the infectiously catchy hook: “I am your butterfly / I need your protection / Be my samurai.” The beat features jittery synths overlaid by a pulsing dub-fueled beat courtesy of DJ Hi-Tek, played in the video by Leon Botha. The result is an overload of oddly compelling, exaggerated otherness that will either leave you with a disturbingly bad taste in your mouth or will pique your guiltier pleasures to the point of overwhelming curiosity. Obviously, I leaned toward the latter.

After a successful U.S. debut performance at last April’s Coachella Music Festival, Die Antwoord went on to sign with Cherrytree Records, a subsidiary of Interscope. The band’s debut album, $O$, released earlier this year for free on the Internet, has been modified and repackaged for its major label release to include new tracks and tighter production. The result, a consistently fun, captivating collection of rave-hop anthems, never loses focus of its tongue-in-cheek concept. It effectively blends the brazen shock value of its lyrics and delivery with surprisingly concise production that is firmly grounded in the nuances of electronic music.

Part of what pulls the listener into Die Antwoord’s cluttered world of frenzied hip-hop rests in the novelty of Ninja and Yo-Landi’s nonsensical wordplay. Typically, foreign MCs trying to find their audience in the U.S. often attempt a haphazard imitation of American flow. Die Antwoord eludes this standard by sounding absolutely nothing like traditional American hip-hop artists. Lines are sampled and reintegrated into the dance-fueled ambiance, shrieks and whispers pepper half-sung quips, and explicit Afrikaans slang is seamlessly interspersed into their heavily accented English with stunning ease. “Wat Kyk Jy” finds Ninja and Yo-Landi trading boasts over a muted trance beat before exploding into a shouted chorus whose tonal refrain sounds like something borrowed from the Immortals’ theme to Mortal Kombat. On “Rich Bitch,” Yo-Landi takes center stage for once, hyping herself while commanding a stomp beat that employs negative space as resourcefully as its eerie bell refrain.

In fact, much of Die Antwoord’s surface appeal lies with the unassumingly talented Visser. At her most unrestrained, she attacks like an acid-tongued harpy, but this fury largely stays in check, breaking free only in the brief space between Ninja’s brash claims. At her most effective, Visser masks her sharp-witted ferocity behind a squeaky-voiced, juvenile innocence that strangely evokes the murderous twins from the Shining. On tamer lines like “Spirits in my room tickle you like a sneaky prawn / fuck a pen and pad, I write my raps with an Ouija board,” Visser abandons typical hip-hop bravado in favor of the monotone delivery of an off-color nursery rhyme. As a result, Yo-Landi evokes more comparisons to Uffie or Peaches than Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliot.

In the end, Die Antwoord may just be an entertainingly danceable freak show intended purely for surface delight, but eclectic production, shameless wordplay, and creative delivery distinguish the band from other rap groups on the scene. Between the beat-boxed introduction to “Beat Boy,” an eight-minute rumination on sexual experimentation that would make the Marquis De Sade blush, and the raw rage of the bestial thump of “Fish Paste,” these songs never stray unfavorably into pretension. Whether you’re amused or disgusted, $O$ nevertheless remains a curiously grotesque product of performance art that can’t be missed.

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