Interview: DJ Spoko

by Adrian Martens

A scorching New York sun towered over Queens’ MoMA PS1 art gallery as performers set up their gear for the first showcase of the incredible “Warm Up 2014” series. Acts included Pantha Du Prince, ad/jus/ted and even a surprise performance from Manhattan native Blood Orange, but the one performance which seemed to captivate the audiences attention (and mine) was that of Atteridgeville-based producer, Marvin Ramalepe (or DJ Spoko).

DJ Spoko
DJ Spoko

“Hello New York, I’m going to turn this place into a township!” exclaimed a voice through PS1’s soundsystem. The exhuberant disc jockey spun music reminiscent of the Shangaan tradition, ranging from Shangaan Electro to Gqom. Trained by Shangaan Electro pioneer Nozinja, Spoko brings an electric South African energy with him onstage.

Before Spoko’s set, this Bacardi House producer was wondering around the halls of PS1 enjoying the artworks. “This one is my favourite,” he said as he pointed toward a self portrait by Austrian painter, Marina Lassnig. Beside Spoko was his friend and cameraman Wills Glasspiegel, who along with True Panther Sounds founder Dean Bein, made sure Spoko’s show was documented. Spoko was happy to do a quick interview with Music In Africa before his set...

How does it feel to bring your music to such an incredible place like New York?

DJ Spoko: I’m living the dream out here man, somebody better not wake me up because it’s just too good!

How did you get into music production?

DJ Spoko: Well, I’m somebody who isn’t scared to try new things. I was interested in music for a while, and when I went down to Soweto, people were telling me there were Shangaanis working on electronic stuff, so I went to check it out. I ended up spending three years of my life there, studying the style of music, sound engineering, and production. It came to the point where other producers were asking me how their music sounded, and since I thought their music was too slow I told them to speed it up so they could sing slower in half time. We made it so we could sing at 90, while the beat stays at 180. That’s why it’s difficult when you mix Bacardi with House music, because Bacardi is only on 123 bpm, but you can’t mix it with house because in reality the beat is going on 246 bpm. We were making this new type of music.

What advice would you give to all the young artists out there making Shangaan music?

DJ Spoko: If you’re real with yourself, you mustn’t worry about the songs that get scrapped or the music you’ve lost along the creative process, just keep making music and build up a fan base. I’ve been doing music for 15 years and I started touring the world like three years ago. I had like 12 years of hardship in the game, but now everything has worked out and I’m playing here in the big city. This guy from the township with all these fans and supporters, its crazy man.

How were you discovered?

DJ Spoko: The guy who was filming me earlier, Wills – visited South Africa to discover the music scene. But when he arrived, he found out about another part of the Shangaan scene, which was where I was involved. When he got back to the US he contacted me about my music. And I was like “Whoa this guy is a friend of Nozinja! How did we not meet?” We spoke via email and I ended up doing a remix of a track by Glasser and sending it to him. Next thing you know I’m doing some remixes for these guys over in France, which is when Dean gave me a shout and told me he wanted to do something with the music. I told him it was hard because here I am in the township, how is this gonna work? I said he should come to South Africa and feel what I feel, and see the Shangaan scene. So he did just that. After that we signed a deal to True Panther Sounds I released my first EP, Ghost Town.

What’s next for DJ Spoko?

DJ Spoko: I’ve got an album coming out under Lit City Trax called War God: it’s about 20 tracks long. It should be out soon but I’m also working on another collaborative EP with Mujava. I’ve also been working with Spoek Mathambo, Andre and Bergie on the Fantasma EP.

How does the audience react to your music in the United States compared to back in South Africa?

DJ Spoko: It’s so much crazier in America man, I make party music and the people here like to have fun! I love South Africa, but it is also time to bring the new sound of Mzanzi to different places.

You’re also in another group with Spoek Mathambo called Fantasma, how did the two of you meet?

DJ Spoko: The first time we met was when Spoek was filming me for his movie, Future Sound of Mzanzi. People were telling me: “There’s this boy! He stole your name!” I said, “No he’s never met me that’s not possible!” So when we met, we spoke about music and then suddenly we’re in this band and now we’ve got a deal over in the UK and a tour soon. I can’t believe it sometimes.

Any last thoughts or shoutouts?

DJ Spoko: Shout out to my main guys Dean, Wills, Spoek, Bergie, Andre, Nozinja, the True Panther Family - and Mzansi!

* Hear DJ Spoko’s new track from the compilation album The Devil’s Rebels below:

 

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