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“My Spaceship is Low on Gas”

The opening bars of Dirty Paraffin’s 2009 mixtape found Okmalumkoolkat rapping over a twitchy remix of the Kraftwerk classic “Trans-Europe Express”—“My spaceship is low on gas / I’m low on cash, got more credit on the plastic.” Honestly Koolkat, you had at us at “spaceship.”

When the Johannesburg rapper cropped up again—alongside fellow vocalists Spoek Mathambo and Cape Town duo Ruffest—on Sebenza, the 2012 album from British electronica trio LV, it became clear that the dude has stamina. We wanted to hear a bit from Koolkat himself so we asked FADER‘s African music columnist and owner of Accra, Ghana-based record label Akwaaba Music, Benjamin Lebrave, to track him down and get the 4-1-1.

Cluster Mag takes a look into what Benjamin calls “a hybrid world, grounded in South African city life, but reaching into high tech, psychedelic dimensions.” The rapper and fashion icon tells us “where his music fits in” and drops a few hints about where to track down more South African rap. We learn about the threads that bind Koolkat’s online aesthetics, his fashion eccentricities, and the dark, computer-obsessed imagination that shines through in his rhymes.

Ben tell us, “despite his abundant online presence, little information can be found about who he is and how he creates and navigates his music. I was fortunate to catch Okmalumkoolkat over the phone, in between what seemed like the many bricks of a busy schedule.”

Max Pearl

Benjamin Lebrave: First things first—what music did you grow up on?

Okmalumkoolkat: I grew up dancing in a dance crew in Durban, so I practically grew up listening to a lot of kwaito and house music. The Durban house scene is what basically shaped me as a music lover and creator. My mother listens to Ukhozi FM all day everyday so that opened me up to a lot of different sounds also. It’s one of the biggest radio stations in southern Africa, because it’s very informative, and it’s been around forever as well. They play all types of music, foreign stuff, local old school stuff, the new school stuff, a little bit of rap. The playlist is not so straight, you can come across a lot of surprises there. Radio drama is also something that made my life seem like a movie, thus I can be able to write about it and also add whatever fiction fits the story.

BL: No hip hop?

O: I was exposed to hip hop, but I wasn’t interested. The only rap I listened to was Tupac and The Dogg Pound back then. Tupac was big, because of what he was talking about, Dogg Pound, ’cause of Snoop Dogg, obviously. Other cats were looking at other stuff, but I wasn’t interested in it, ’cause I was listening to more house ’cause of the dancing, you know?

When I got to college in 2004 I got exposed to the likes of MF Doom, J Dilla and Madlib. The group of friends I was hanging out with in college was into that, so automatically I was drawn into it as well. It sharpened my delivery skills I think.

BL: When did you start writing?

O: The poetry I started in high school, in the late 1990s, but I never recited it, I wouldn’t show it to anybody, and I’m even scared to look at the stuff I used to write, you know? And then the raps, I started writing songs in 2008. I started doing it in front of my friends, ’cause I was writing songs now, so I started doing it ’cause songs are for people to hear. So we formed this group called Zulu On My Stereo, with two friends of mine. And then after a while, my one friend just got too involved in his work, so we had to start Dirty Paraffin in 2009 with the other member, Zamani.

BL: What shaped your flow?

O: I don’t know, ’cause I think the journey to me recording my first tracks could have been what shaped it, but I didn’t go out, I didn’t plan to sound like that, it just happened ’cause of the way I speak, and mostly I didn’t have my favorite rappers growing up, ’cause a lot of MCs in the country, and even overseas, they sound like their favorite rappers half the time. No matter how great they become, you always find that actually, “oh this guy has a little bit of Nas in him”, so I don’t have anything that you can compare to, you know? I’m trying to understand how I got there.

I have never thought about how I want to sound. I consume a lot of different music and I’m sure it comes out when I record these songs. The stories really guide the flow and length. As far as hip hop is concerned, I don’t know if I am even doing hip hop. I started out writing poetry and dancing and I strongly believe both of these are very loud communication skills. I guess the aforementioned artists like Madlib really made me view music from another angle.

I guess it’s all about delivery, growing up I was Christian, so the pastors would have crazy deliveries, and you’d have your favorite pastor with the crazy delivery when he preaches, so it could maybe be from there as well. And also the other music I was listening to, the songwriting, the delivery, the story lines, how the stories are delivered, all of that.

BL: Where do you fit in SA?

O: I really don’t know where I fit locally, globally and in the universe. I’m more of a creative … a creator, a music artist. If you talk about the music, I wouldn’t be under rapper at all, ’cause from when I started, it was poetry, so if people who write poetry are called poets, and if they end up writing songs, then they’re called songwriters, and if they end up recording music, then they’re called music artists, so I guess I am a music artist.

All I really want to do is communicate these stories that swim in my head and hopefully people will learn a little, understand a little, some may even relate. My whole thing is communication. From what I wear everyday, to what I write in the blog, to my design work, to music: everything is interconnected you know? The blog is like my mood board. Before I had a blogspot account, now I’m on Tumblr. So it’s kind of like what I’m going through or what I really like at that time, or other inspiration, or what can inspire other people to check out the blog. And also what I’m up to, you know? ‘Cause most of the stuff we do as indies is not really supported. Only now are people really jumping onto our stuff. I’m talking about the local media that is.

BL: Speaking of media, how have you been received in SA?

O: The media has been on us – me, Spoek, LV and others – for a while now, people are starting to take note, so it has a place, but I can’t really box it ’cause I don’t even really know what we are making, you know? So we can’t box it and say we are under hip hop, or under kwaito, which is a nice thing, ’cause we’re in 2012, so boxes aren’t really relevant anymore.

BL: How did you start collaborating with so many different producers?

O: I met LV through Spoek Mthambo, while he was on tour in the UK. We then decided to work on projects and we haven’t stopped since. After these projects drop I have a queue of beats from producers from all over the world, I really can’t call them out right now because the projects haven’t been worked on even. Let’s just say 2013 is going to be a good year. I think us and Spoek Mathambo and the likes of Big Fkn Gun are at the forefront of what’s coming out of Africa in the near future. I tend to run away from boxes so I scheme … people can define my music however they feel, really.

BL: I’ve noticed people using terms like futuristic or psychedelic to define your style. Does that make sense to you?

O: I don’t know man, I guess they probably think it’s futuristic ’cause they haven’t heard it before, so it’s from the future. But I don’t even know the right word for what I’m doing. And then I don’t know if I should guess why they call it like that, you know? But psychedelic is probably ’cause my reference style is very wild, it can go from talking about local stuff to eating a steak and kidney pie on the moon, you know? So it’s like reality and fiction all in one, but my life is like that, so maybe it comes from there. Maybe that’s the word for somebody who thinks like that, a psychedelic [laughs].

BL: Hip hop… again. Are you involved in any way with the hip hop scene in South Africa?

O: A couple of cats are calling me to feature on their tracks now, and I’ve already worked with a couple, so I guess there is interaction. They had the South African hip hop awards last week, and they wanted us to present one of the awards, but I turned it down, ’cause they never nominated us for newcomers, and already we are presenting awards, so it doesn’t make sense, you know?

Some of the rappers here, it’s not that they have to sound, but … they sound, they want to sound American, but it doesn’t work. Then you have other rappers who sound too vernacular to even take it abroad. Somebody abroad will take it as a, “hey I want to find out more ’cause I didn’t understand half of it, but I like it”. So those rappers, the guys that keep it real, and keep it vernacular, are the guys who end up maybe at a festival in France, but they are just rappers from South Africa. So people forget about them, ’cause they didn’t hear a thing, they sounded nice but… whereas with what I’m doing, there’s going to be slang that you won’t understand, there’s going to be a Zulu word you won’t understand, there’s going to be a Sotho word that you don’t understand, and then there are a couple of English slangs that are going to throw you in, then you are going to want to find out more, hence this interview. People are going to want to find out more.

BL: What’s your life like these days?

O: I just live my life waiting for cash, ’cause I’ve put out so much product, and I’m still broke, so my life right now is waiting on cash, waiting on more shows, waiting on proper recognition, festivals, you know? It’s that period where I’m just waiting for the step after this, you know? I guess right now SA is picking up, I just did a show last night, I’m playing two more shows next weekend, so I’m a little bit busy in South Africa which is cool, but I don’t know where the big ones are going to come from, is it going to be South By Southwest, or is it going to be one of the big festivals here in South Africa?

And also right now I’m just going through some vision, thinking about playing with a band, trying to get people together, make a big band out of it. And then also, just pushing Dirty Paraffin ’cause that needs to be in the spotlight as well. ‘Cause right now it’s just Okmalumkoolkat, but what happens is people find out about Dirty Paraffin through that, which is positive, you know? But Dirty Paraffin needs to be somewhere. So right now I’d say big underdog years man.