Black Coffee interview: Straight Up

Black Coffee spoke to Mark Dale about his musical introductions in South Africa, how his lifestyle as a DJ has shifted and freedom through music.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 27th Mar 2017.
Originally published: 5th May 2016

Black Coffee aka Nkosinathi Maphumulo is the leading light of South Africa's house scene, a now vibrant contributor to global house music in terms of both productions and parties.

He has released five albums in his native South African and multiple international labels have released successful singles from each. He has won several awards as a DJ and now tours internationally, playing a distinct brand of punchy, contemporary house music that is rooted in a soulful sound.

Black Coffee was born in eThekwini, South Africa in 1976 and grew up in Mthatha, Eastern Cape. When he was a teenager he lost the use of his left arm after being hit by a motor vehicle. This did not deter him from pursuing a career in music and DJing, firstly as a member of Afro pop trio Shana.

He released his first solo music in the house music genre just over a decade ago and founded his own label and management company, Soulistic Music, to which next generation DJ/producer talents such as Culoe De Song are signed. Recent single 'Music Is The Answer' (above) proved a smash hit at 2016's Winter Music Conference in Miami and at gigs such as Electric in Brixton, where he held his first sold out London show earlier this year.

We caught up with the shrewd businessman and animated DJ to chat about music, South Africa and Black Coffee's plans for the future.

When you started buying house music in South Africa where did you get the money from to start your collection? Wasn't music expensive? 

It was. It was always expensive to buy for us. I remember records used to start at around 80 Rands and eventually went up to around 110 Rands which, at the time, was about eight or nine pounds. We would save as much as we could and buy as much as we could, always looking for records that would last longer than hit records.

This turned the scene into something unique because everybody was not playing the same thing Depending on how much access you had to the vinyl, all of our music was different. But, yes, it was quite an expensive exercise, an expensive hobby. 

And where did you get the money from? Did you have a part time job?

I worked in a record store, the only job I ever had. Before then I was a student, so it would be money from home or I would save up. At least enough to make sure I would get one or two records. But mostly I would just go and sit around the record store, wait for a sale, stuff that wasn't selling. Then I'd go for that kind of stuff. 

What were the first names of producers you looked out for?

Masters At Work, stuff from Yoruba records, which is Osunlade, stuff from Manoo, Seasons Records, Chez Records, Ibadan Records. All of those labels were quite popular, it was such a weird thing. We felt a connection in these kinds of music, only to find out later where these guys came from We always felt a connection with the rhythm of what they were doing. 

How are your plans going to open an office in New York?

They are still under way. I've basically given myself a year to work on all that stuff. I need to plan what to do with my office back home, I need to find a post for the people who work back there. If I move what's going to happen to them back there. So, we're still working on it.

Do you have any plans to live there permanently?

Well, yes, although my permanent is not permanent per se. It's not even New York even. I like LA, you know, because of the weather, It's similar to South African weather. I'd to go and stay there for five years. Like I was trying to say, if I move office it's because I an moving as well. It's something we are all working on. 

If you move from South Africa is there not a risk you will not be inspired by the same things that influenced your productions back home and your music might change?

No, I don't think so. I don't think my music literally comes from the streets, I think it comes from within, whatever I am inspired to do comes from within. I started this on my own, nobody said, “Do it like this, make music like that.” It was always my direction. Wherever I move it follows me, basically.  

So, it comes from within, it's not inspired by anything outside. I believe it will grow as I grow. It will grow with the places that I'm playing with the fans that I'm exposed to and I think that's the whole idea, to not stay in one place. I'd love for what we do to grow and become on a bigger scale but without becoming compromised. But it will take certain phases for that to happen. 

I read that the first time you played the Winter Music Conference in Miami you played as many parties as possible, doing an hour at each, but last year you just played at one party for eight hours. That's a big change. In what other ways has your lifestyle as a DJ changed since you became very well known?

Oooh, it's changed in so many ways. A simple example, that gig I played alone for eight hours, I was headlining. Before I wasn't even on the flyer or poster. I used to be under “many more” so that was the first time I played a gig in Miami all by myself. In 2016 I played two. I did a Mixmag gig on Friday, I played at Ultra on Sunday. 

The audiences are now much bigger, the name has more weight. We did our first gig at Electric Brixton, London and it sold out. The reach is much wider, the stages are bigger, the fanatics that follow what I do, the numbers are bigger. Those are just some of the things that have changed since I started my career. 

At the start of your career, in South Africa particularly, you were known more as an artist that released albums than an artist that released singles. How have you altered that business model to suit European and American house music audiences?

I actually haven't. I'm still doing the same thing, which is release an album in South Africa, which I did in September and now we're busy with the singles. We were shooting a video yesterday in New York for one of them, we did one in South Africa last month for the track 'We Dance Again' so, I'm still doing it like that. I'm working on bits now that will be for an album later this year and that'll  be the same. For me it's albums then singles.

I've watched you DJ several times. You're very active on the mixer, you always seem to be working it (watch above). What are you actually doing?

For me, I just believe I hear music in a different way and when I play I try and present it in the way I hear it. If I feel there's a part in a song that needs to be highlighted, that many people may not have noticed, I'll try and bring that part out. I'll emphasize that part of the song. If there's a verse that I think is amazing I'll drop the bass so you can hear the singing without it being overshadowed. 

What are your top five house music albums made by artists (not compilations)?

[laughs] I'm terrible when it comes to following the scene like that. The way I listen to music I sometimes fail to hear the lyrics, I'm more of a melody person. I hear the music in the melody rather than in the words. I'm terrible in following who's who. I think it was one of my things, when I started, that I would try and follow the scene, but now I'm in it, I'm not really following anyone. I'm just on my own journey, my own way.

One of my favourite albums, one that I truly cherish, is by Larry Heard. I'm not sure of the title. Another album that inspired me back in the day was the one by T Kolai, which is two guys. I think they only did one album. Then there's Louie Vega's Elements Of Life album. That was so special. His new one I just got, so I'm still going through it. But off the top of my head those are the albums that I think have left a big mark on me. I love the stuff Disclosure are doing. I pre-ordered their album before it came out and it's brilliant.

At music events in South Africa it's sometimes common that you will hear different styles of music played, not just house music. At events like these, when you're not Djing, what kinds of music do you enjoy or dance to?

I'm a house fan, you know. I'm a music fan first, but I'm a house fan. South Africa's really special like that, you can have a gig with a hip hop DJ and a live hip hop act, then a house DJ, back to a hip hop DJ and so on. Right now those are the strongest two genres. We have our own hip hop scene that is quite strong. That's what we're exposed to. But I'm a house fan.

Do you think that the explosion in love from African audiences for imported music styles such as house, hip hop and reggae has damaged people's interest in homegrown or traditional African musical styles?

Erm, it depends. Places are different. For instance, in a place like Nigeria they really cherish and support their own music. I don't think that's ever been a factor or a problem there. In South Africa unfortunately we were quite brainwashed with other genres of music. Only now the hip hop and house music is homegrown and people are really loving it. 

What are the biggest differences in the day to day lives of most South Africans since the fall of apartheid?

Oooh, that's a very hard question. Everything has moved. People have jobs, most of them have businesses. We are really developing. It's totally different. People have careers now, real lives. Things are moving forward. I think people believe more in themselves now than they did before. 

It's been 21 years since the fall of apartheid yet many South Africans still live in poverty and corruption is widespread. Do you think it is understandable when people of African descent, such as African Americans, visit South Africa now and then express outrage at some of the things they've seen and experienced and how it made them feel?

It is understandable, yes, it is. Fully. I'm in the States now, I'm in New York. I've visited Harlem and there are things that have outraged me as well. I think it's part of life, part of society. I think, as a country, one day we will get to a point where things are different, but it's a works in progress.

I don't think there is any country that is perfect. But we are definitely on our way. I think there is so much more confidence in people now than there was before. Apartheid was something that was very cleverly engineered, it really messed up people's way of thinking. Slowly people are now breaking through those boundaries and slowly people are understanding their worth. 

Your work with your band Shana is not as well known as your solo work outside of South Africa. Why did you give so much time to this project when the returns are not as great as with your solo work?

Well, we haven't actually done any work in the longest time. We all have solo careers and it's not just my solo career that is strong now. It has proven a waste of time for all of us to go and work on a project that is not as strong. It's been a while.

If Music Is The Answer what is the question?

Ahahahahaha. I don't think that statement was based on a question like that. I think it was based on whatever you are going through, whatever confusion or turbulence you are going through, music is the answer. It provides you with freedom.

People questioned me why I was going to Greece at the time things were really not going so well there and I said, "Well, I guess that people want to go to the club and forget their problems." That's what music does, it frees you. People go out to be free and music is the answer in that sense. Whatever you are going through music becomes that place of freedom. 

Find upcoming Black Coffee gigs.