There has been so much buzz about Black Coffee (Durban-born Nkoshinathi Maphumulo) that when his recent U.S. tour was announced, people were jumping out of their seats to hit up one of the lucky cities of Boston, New York, LA, Atlanta or Chicago to catch his set. I had seen him in Miami the past two years, and the first thing that struck me about him was how he was the exact opposite of what a “superstar” producer would be like. He seemed quiet and unassuming, more of a thoughtful type of guy who liked to stay in the background.
When I finally got to meet Black Coffee in person, it was the afternoon before his Chicago debut at Boom Boom Room. He didn’t go into grandiose stories about being the pioneer that put South Africa on the map of House Music, nor all his struggles to make it big. He simply had a conversation about his music, then politely asked if I was going to catch his gig later that night.
Tell us about your history with House Music in South Africa.
It’s been quite a journey. South Africa is right now one of the dominating countries in House Music. We’ve come a long way. We started in House during the late 1990s and I wasn’t even in the movement yet. I only started being out there after my first release which was in 2005. That’s when I released my first album.
You have worked with a three-person band called Shana and I was wondering if you are you still doing projects together?
To me Shana is like a college, a university. I’m still doing it and we’re going to release an album this year. That’s where I started with production, to learn about music from full vocal arrangements to harmony. It’s a big part of my life and we’re always going to be doing it.
I read in your bio that your first album was created with a very minimal setup, basically just your computer and software. So many aspiring bedroom producers dream of creating hit music with this most elemental of setups but never succeed. What do you think sets you apart?
I think I was fortunate because I had the information and experience. I have three albums and two of them were done like that – on an iMac and a mouse, with no keyboards, nothing. I had the experience and musical background and I knew what I was doing. One of my new artists, Culoe de Song, does his productions like that as well. Even though at the record label we have a studio now, he still prefers making his music with just his computer. It depends on your ear.
That’s quite a feat, having put out three albums in under five years.
The first one was called Black Coffee, and it was mostly remixes. That’s how I started out. I was doing a lot of South African remixes. I won an award for Best Dance Album for that album. Then two years later I released another album (Have Another One), and two years after that I released Home Brewed. This past Saturday I won Best Dance Album again for this latest album and also Best Male Artist Award. This is from SAMA (South African Music Awards), the Grammys of South Africa.
Can you explain to us the sudden rise in the South African House scene? It just seems like it exploded in the last few years and is now a contender as a major hub for House Music.
I think it’s the support that we’re getting from the media. House Music there is mainstream. It’s on high rotation at all the radio stations. I think from 2001 there was a new radio station called YFM…those were the guys who brought Louie Vega to the country for the first time. They were pushing House to a point where all the other radio stations adopted that format, and now it’s major.
What style of House do they favor? Underground or the more commercial kind?
Surprisingly it’s underground. On the radio you obviously get the more vocal stuff. Anything that’s big in the clubs, it’s big on the radio. Like your Dennis Ferrers, your Louie Vegas…
What can you tell us about the scene in other African countries… is the music gaining momentum there as well?
Slowly they are. The other countries are more into Hip-hop and I guess it’s because of television… It’s more MTV, so House there is non-existent but slowly it’s moving up. Swaziland is huge, Namibia, Angola are getting to it, Mozambique is getting to it. They book a lot of European DJs in Botswana and Swaziland.
Would you say there are elements that characterize a South African sound?
I don’t think there are any. When I do songs, I try by all means to do songs that sound universal. When you listen to it…you think maybe it’s Dennis, maybe it’s Kerri Chandler. It isn’t just a sound that you say “Oh this must be African!” That’s my view.
What do you do when you find yourself booked in some of the bigger clubs where the crowd enjoys a more mainstream sound?
I make sure when I go to a place and I’m booked by people that understand the kind of House that I play. I don’t even have those songs, I wouldn’t even know what to do! I’d pack my bag and go to the hotel and sleep!
Your rise to fame has happened in about four, five years? And you were coming up in a time when the music industry and its business models have changed drastically. Tell me what you have learned. A lot of people dream of being where you are. What advice would you give them?
When I started out, no one was doing what I was doing, especially back in South Africa. When I was first talking to all the big guys about doing an album of remixes, they were like “No man, I don’t think that’s going to work.” But I felt it was going to work. Even being here, I’m the first guy from there to cross that line. So it’s a bit hard to call them up and say “So what do I do now? What’s the next step?”
It goes back to just listening to your inner being and knowing what you want. And that goes back to the music itself. When you make a song, make a song that you are inspired to make. Don’t make a song that sounds like someone else. Listen to your own sound and listen to your own dreams. Dream the impossible.
Are there any South African artists that we should look out for? Are you mentoring anyone?
I’ve started a record label called Soulistic Music. When I released my album last year I released one of the artists as well, Culoe de Song. He’s 19 but he’s been touring Europe and had releases for a while. He was just with me in Miami for the conference. There’s another one, Tumelo – he’s a vocalist and we’re doing his album at the moment. Hopefully it will be out on my label at the end of May. So far that’s who I have and that’s who I would like to keep, groom and grow. I don’t want to get a lot of people. That’s a lot of dreams and expectations.
I really enjoyed your video of “Turn Me On.” How important are videos where you are? Is that a major thing where you live like MTV?
Not really. But with me it is. We don’t get as much airplay with videos as we do with music. For me what’s important is to have a video out. Now I mainly make them for YouTube so that the world can see it. People get to see who the artist is, people get to even understand where I come from, they get to see who’s singing, they get to understand more than just hearing the song.
So what we can look forward to from you in the next few months?
I’m releasing a new single on Wednesday with GoGo Music in Germany, it’s called “Gardens of Eden”. The first time I released “Turn Me On” it was with that label. We have a very beautiful relationship and understanding. I love their sound, I love what they do. I couldn’t choose anyone else, especially for that kind of song. And then a week or two from now I’m going to release another single called “Crazy” with a label from France called Foliage.