The Rise of Black Coffee: "Music is the ultimate answer to a lot of things"

An unique artist like no other, Black Coffee is getting set to take over dance music
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Masha Lukashenko
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An unique artist like no other, Black Coffee is getting set to take over dance music
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Black Coffee is a name that has skyrocketed in the ranks of dance music's elite over the last few years. Not just a South African pioneer, but a truly innovative artist. Nkosthi Maphumulo has played a key role in the rising music culture in Johannesburg, South Africa. A man of humble beginnings and an approach to music that surpasses any egocentric desires, Black Coffee presents his style straight up, no milk and sugar necessary. We caught up with him before his Time Warp debut and he shed light on some of his smart career moves. 

Showmanship is one thing, but Black Coffee brought out a lost soul through his music that we all have felt as we move on the dance floor. It's the unique addition of South African flair with jazz influences that has molded the artist without actually defining him to a House or Techno genre. Black Coffee discusses his musical outlook, how he has managed to become an internationally renowned artist and what he aims to provide with his music. He's a class act and is surely on his way to the top.

How did you get into dance music, what were your first experiences?

In South Africa we didn't really have a lot of house music for a long time, but we had our local sound and the local bands. One lady that comes to mind is Brenda Fassie. She had a band called Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes and she remains one of the biggest African stars today.

There was a lot of stuff happening musically in South Africa, like compilation records, we used to call them international music. Anything from Shakakaran to music that was upbeat or uptempo, maybe around 100 bpm. It wasn't even really House music, but I think House got into South Africa around '95 - '96, maybe even '97. It was a bit weird, a bit too fast for what we were accustomed to and over time we started choosing the kind we liked. We don't really have a long history of House music. 

I understand that in 2010 you were put in the Guinness Book of World Records for playing the longest DJ set, 60 hours. Has that been influential into the way you play when you DJ, developing your style? 

Not really. But I came out of that experience a better DJ. I played for hours. I started playing at midnight on Thursday and by the time it was Sunday I was definitely a bit better. Although it was my longest practice as a DJ, my style was developed way earlier. I just think doing that exercise made it better. It really had an impact on how I play.  

As you continue to DJ all over the world, has that influenced your style?

I am still learning because I am from a different scene. It's something that I haven't been able to grasp, you know how everyone who came before me, they get me, they understand what I do. So I am still like a kid, I still listen to what everyone's playing and I try to stay in between what I do and what they do. It's not the easiest thing to do. Sometimes I will hear a song and I feel like it's a bit too musical, but then I will find something a bit more dubby and it surprises me. I'm learning as I'm going, but it's one of the most exciting things for me, playing in new places around the world, its always nerve wrecking. This is my fourth time coming to play in Boston and every time I come, I'm not sure who I am playing for, so I always have to have my music ready. 

How has the music scene in South Africa changed since Africa Rising in 2012?

There's more DJs, there's more producers and there's more professional producers. Back then there was still a lot, everyone wanted to DJ, everyone wanted to produce. Things have calmed down a bit. You start seeing people that are more serious, that really want to do this, which makes things better. Some guys would come out with one amazing song and nothing else. Now there are guys who have built careers since then. There’s more direction as well. Producers know there's not only one style of House and that’s not something we had before - back then everyone tried to sound the same. Now people are more open-minded, it’s quite exciting. 

You recently won “Breakthrough DJ of the Year,” did you ever think you’d receive such an award?

No it was quite shocking actually. With my team, we always have things we’re working towards. We have a plan for the year and what we want to do and this wasn’t even on our mind. It just came out of nowhere - I wasn’t expecting a nomination. It was a big thing to be recognized in that space. So when I won, it definitely meant a lot to me.

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On your most recent album, Pieces of Me, who did you enjoy working with?

That album is very special. Today I still don’t know how I finished it. I was traveling, I moved to New York in April, stayed until September, travelled to Europe and didn’t have time to concentrate on the album. So I’d work while on flights, in airports and hotel rooms, everywhere I could find time. When I hear it, the result is such an amazing thing for me, and also seeing the response is special.

We went platinum in 6 weeks, which is very rare in South Africa today. I think we’re going to do double platinum by Christmas. Our target was gold at Christmas, it just surprised us. I worked with so many people, but I make sure it’s the local guys because of how much talent we have here. It's become a hobby for me to find these voices and artists who people don't really know about versus those who are known. On an album I make sure I get under the radar type of guys and when the song comes out it's a new voice and someone they don’t know. There are a lot of new artists that I’m introducing on the album who sound really amazing and it's such a special thing for me. 

What plans do you have for Soulistic Music?

We’re at the crossroads at the moment. There’s a lot of things we’re planning to do. One of them being listening to albums. I leave tomorrow for New York, I have meetings there on Friday. We're planning to open an office in New York and to grow in different ways. We're trying to see if we can find artists we can record back home and bring to the States. Maybe find licensing deals or collaborations. I think at the moment that's the plan.

Could you tell me more about the Black Coffee Foundation?

The foundation is something I thought of creating to help others. Besides the fact that I had a car accident, I also have a friend who was involved in a car accident and we were childhood friends. He is now in a wheelchair and has also become a DJ. For him it’s even harder to do things as a DJ. Even at gigs there’s no help, no ramps in clubs, and it got me thinking, 'what if I started something for people from his viewpoint?' That’s how the idea came about. I launched the foundation in 2010 and we've been doing different things because there’s a lot of needs in my country. It’s proven to be harder to help everyone. So we’ve taken on a scholarship, partnered with a college in Cape Town and Bridges for Music. We give a scholarship to one deserving student and have just had our first graduate. We're doing the process now for next year’s enrollment. 

Do you have any other plans for the future of the foundation?

I have so many plans for it. One thing is to have our own facility. I go to different places and find so many people with different needs. No matter how much I try to cover them, I know I’ll never be able to cover them. So one of my plans is to have our own place to manage and run and house people in whatever way we can.

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Do you believe that music is capable of creating positive change in the world?

Music is the ultimate answer to a lot of things. I think people tend to forget that it connects people and puts them in a common space. People who have seen that positive effect - whether it’s by the default of being famous and having people listen to to what you say or through the messages of the music itself, it’s a powerful tool to touch and change lives. 

People are attracted to the fusion of drums in your sound with some jazz, new instrumentals and diverse vocals. You just seem to do what you do and don't try to fit a certain vibe. What's your goal with your DJ sets?

What I try to do, even for the other party Uhuru, it’s a very Afro-centric Fela Kuti style. When I play for 3 hours, I can’t play that. I think every gig I do I want to be that DJ who, if you were outside having a conversation and at the first song you wanted to come in, you would recognize that a different DJ started playing. I think in every party where I’m playing, I play whatever I play, but this is what I do. It’s never about the other DJs, and what they play, for me it’s the communication with the people on the dancefloor. I’m going to bring me, it’s always going to be me. It starts with the music I get to prepare. If I don’t feel the song when I’m buying it, I’m not putting it on my stick. All the songs on my stick are the one’s I’ve chosen and I’ve listened to. 

I’d say you’ve gained increased exposure in the past few years. What would you say attributed your music reaching this American or European market?

It's strategic. When I was speaking about House music in South Africa, we had no producers, only record stores. So labels in the US were way advanced, way ahead. They have a database and network and fan-base and a norm. We were consumers as well. So their music was on records and online. They would also do singles and in South Africa we’ve never been that - always been album people.

What was your vision for producing your album?

Here it was just designed for clubs. In South Africa there was just the public. If you do a single, and put it on a record, how many people are going to buy it? How many will have the Internet or a credit card? For us, it was old-school 12 track CDs. So, when I released my first track and realized I was behind the House scene, I knew I didn’t have the network or an account on Traxsource to say who I am and I don’t have the database to send the promos to.

I started to license my album as singles and gave one to each label. I was just releasing my music and promoting myself saying, "Here’s Black Coffee.” I had three singles on the top three, but from different labels competing against each other. That created demand on me as an artists. It also just never happened that one person had three tracks in the top 3, others only have 1 single per year, in a year I had 6. All were in the top 10. I was a hot producer with 6 or 7 per year and all number 1 at one time. 2 years later, the same thing happened. One of my songs had 90 remixes because everyone was like “I want to be a part of this.” That was how I got into the network, in US, Germany, London, everywhere - demand was growing.

I remember one time at the Winter Music Conference in Miami I was there at every gig, everyone who emailed me asked me to play, so I had 8 gigs in one day, all for free, to get the music out there and let them see how I play. I would play for an hour, then go to another one, play for another hour, and so on. It was just for people to see me. All strategic. 

When would you say you started being strategic in sending out singles and EP’s?

2008, that was the beginning. Most people before me in South Africa were doing compilation albums. I was one of the few guys who came up with original songs because that was the strategy. If we have artists in this country who can sing, play, let’s do it this way and see what happens. When the album was done I was like “How do I get it to the world?” Even today we don’t have an account on Traxsource because I look at the numbers, the kind of money it makes, is it worth the effort? I’d rather have someone else do all that, export it for me. It also creates relationships between us and labels. 

Tonight, what experience would you like to bring Boston?

I don’t know, I don’t know where I’m going. Last time I was here it was for Uhuru, a very Afro-centric party. So I knew what I was coming to do. Tonight I’m not really sure, I’m prepping to be ready for whatever. As soon as I hear what people are responding to, I'll know where to go. 

Will that be different from where you go at Time Warp?

I think that’s going to be amazing. Time Warp is more a techno festival. I’ve had a lot of friends from New York say, “What are you going to be playing?” There I know what’s up, so I’ll be preparing that music. For me it’s always texture, that’s what touches people more than the beat. The texture and mood. In whatever I do, I love bringing an emotion.

What can fans come to expect from you in the future?

Right now we’re trying to release the Pieces of Me album online. We’ve been turning to different labels and even then I’m like “Do we really need labels? Could we do it ourselves?” We’re at the crossroads, there’s a label who’s made an offer, done contracts, but maybe we do this thing on our own. It will save us a lot of headache. What happens now is we're just plugging this stuff online. We have very strong social media. We have a very big following - and that’s the people I want to sell to. We’re not ready to conquer the world. We want to get in and say, “Our album is out. Now get it internationally.”

On the next album we’re going to find a proper major label. I want to do collaborations with some of America’s biggest artists. I don’t like categorizing music so much, I just believe in the songs. I’d like to do a song with Rihanna or Beyonce, and not a pop song, just use their voice in what I do. Or Pharrell. That’s for me my ultimate dream - to get to that level where I keep doing what I do, doing it on that level and still being authentic. I want to establish myself first, working with Universal Music they don’t get involved - when it’s ready it’s their job to take it to the market. We’ve done that forever, when the sales are that responsive, it’s exciting for everyone. I want to get to the level here in the US where they trust my ear. That’s the dream. 

Follow Black Coffee: Facebook

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