Image by Nacho G Riaza, courtesy of artist.
Interview: DJ Lag is Firm on Taking Gqom To The Rest of the World
With a continual interest in gqom by the West, one of its pioneers, DJ Lag, believes the genre will only get bigger and he hopes to win a Grammy for his upcoming album.
DJ Lag is often credited as being one of the pioneers and early adopters of gqom. While his talent and star power are treasured and celebrated around the world, back in his home country, South Africa, he is sometimes overlooked by the general public.
However, on November 25th, the people of South Africa (and his fans outside of SA) caught a snippet of a song by American deejay, Megan Ryte, and many suggested that it sounded similar to DJ Lag's 2016 single "Ice Drop". Eventually, the song and everything pertaining to it got removed and taken down, including all social media posts.
This is not the first time this happened to the prolific gqom producer and deejay. His 2017 song "Trip To New York" was infringed, according to a "forensic copyright investigation" that was conducted by DJ Mphyd, who then sold the beat to Distruction Boyz (Que and Goldmax) and their business partner at the time, DJ Tira (owner of Afrotainment). This beat eventually became "Omunye", the duo's biggest and most celebrated gqom song. The matter is still ongoing, and Mphyd maintains his claim of being innocent.
Besides those that have manipulated his work without proper credit or due, some have come to him for the real deal, including Beyoncé, who used his 2018 song "Drumming" for her song "My Power" off her The Lion King: The Gift album. Lag also assisted with arranging the Beyoncé and Busiswa vocals on the song.
Gqom has taken different sonic directions since its inception in the townships of Durban. It has birthed a number of styles from the gritty broken-beat styles of uthayela or '3-step' and isgubhu, to the now popular synth-heavy and bassline driven style, made popular by Cape Town producers. Lag, on the other hand, has purposefully chosen to stick to and refine the core gqom sound (uthayela & isgubhu) that's kick-drum driven, has minimal vocalisations and contains vocal samples instead, as showcased in his EPs Uhuru andStampit EP.
"I remember the first gqom track I heard in 2011, it was a Naked Boyz track, before the term 'gqom' was even coined," DJ Lag recalls the early days of the genre, as he speaks to OkayAfrica. "We were all trying to replicate that song, everyone that I speak to says the same thing, even Rude Boyz says they were."
As a deejay, the 24-year old "Gqom King" has played sets at shows and festivals all over the world; all six continents (excluding Antarctica, for obvious reasons), a feat only a few artists, globally, have achieved.
After putting out songs and a number of EPs over the past 8 years, the gqom stalwart is finally gearing up to the release of his debut album. And he is also preparing a festival edition of his event, 'Something for Clermont' - which he started hosting last year in his township of Clermont, Durban.
This interview has been slightly translated and edited for length and clarity.
Gqom has come a long way. When you see people all over the world appreciate and even start to jump on gqom, how does that make you feel?
For me, it makes me very happy! When we started with gqom, we never thought it would be something this big. We thought the songs we were making were just going to be played in the townships [around Durban]. We didn't even think it would get to eGoli (Joburg).
When did it dawn on you that what you guys created has travelled beyond what you all imagined?
I realised it in 2016, when I went on my first European tour. People didn't even know who I was but every time I played a set, they would go crazy. By 2017, everything was easy. I was out of the country almost the entire year, and I went on a solo tour unlike the previous year when I went with Nan Kolé, [founder] of [the Italian label] Gqom Oh!. When I was booked in China and Japan, I saw Chinese and Japanese deejays play gqom sets with my own eyes.
Unfortunately, we still get occurrences like the whole "Culture" and will.i.am situation. Firstly, what was your initial reaction when you heard that song?
I remember the first time people sent me that song, I was walking so I didn't really hear the similarities. After two days, more people sent me the link on Instagram, and they kept mentioning "Ice Drop" so I decided to check it out. From the moment the beat dropped, I immediately called my manager!
DJ Lag - 'Ice Drop' (Official Video)www.youtube.com
The song has since been taken down and your team tweeted that "We are handling it...". If you're allowed to speak on it, has that situation been resolved or it's still ongoing?
My manager and the lawyers spoke to them and they confessed to being in the wrong, and they expressed their wish to rectify it. It's getting resolved, we are not quarreling. The song is getting re-released; everything else, I can only reveal at a later stage.
What do such situations and the "My Power" placement tell you about the export potential of gqom, in its purest form, especially in stubborn markets like the US?
I think after two or three years, gqom will be even bigger. I think by then it will be put in the same conversations as techno, and all the other EDM sounds. It has already started; if the likes of Beyoncé can recognise it, it shows that there is something happening there. Even guys like will.i.am are copying it now [laughs]. My wish is to get a Grammy with igqom.
You tour around the world a lot. What are some of the cities you enjoy playing in and why?
I can say it's LA ( Los Angeles). They have these crazy warehouse parties, I played a set there in 2018. Kelela and Diplo came to watch me play. A lot happened that night; that's when my conversation with Diplo began and I ended up releasing my Uhuru EP under his label, Mad Decent. Even Beyoncé's team reached out and invited me to the studio that same weekend.
Gqom has evolved and sounds different from how it used to sound back in the day. Why have you chosen to stick to the core-early gqom sound after all these years?
I think there's a problem of copying from each other, a lot. If you listen to most gqom songs that are out, they sound the same. I saw that happening and decided to go back to the 'old school' gqom sound 'cause that's what made me who I am today. I went back, dropped "Drumming" and that ended up reaching oBeyoncé, to show you that it works. I can do all the different styles of gqom, but I choose to stick to that one.
DJ Lag and Moses Boyd - Drumming (Official Music Video)www.youtube.com
Why do you think gqom had that dip it had in the mainstream in South Africa, a year or 2 years back, to a point where some people claimed "it was dead" or was overtaken by amapiano?
I think it's how trends are. You remember when gqom first became mainstream, it took over. Amapiano has done the same thing, but gqom is still very much alive. If you come to Durban, it's totally different to what is happening in Joburg. Most of our big radio and TV stations are in Joburg, so it's people from there who usually have those opinions. I'm not really fazed by them though, I will keep doing my thing - sneaking up on them from behind.
Does it ever concern you that you may be a lot more celebrated and respected internationally, than back home in South Africa, at least in the mainstream?
I always used to think that I was loved more internationally than here. But after the will.i.am thing, I saw that South Africans really love me. Maybe it's just that they've never shown it before. The amount of support I got during that whole thing showed me that.
With the music, I understand that my songs don't really get played on radio, I tried fighting it until I decided to stop. The people love and listen to my music - my  Spotify streams are at 12 million, and last year they were at 6 million.
Your latest single, Siyagroova features DJ Tira, whom you've been involved in a legal dispute with before, because of the "Trip To New York"/"Omunye" copyright infringement. How did you guys get over that, and how did the conversation of making music together even begin?
Tira was not necessarily at fault in that whole thing. The truth came out in the end, Distruction [Boyz] and him were deceived by Mphyd. We're still waiting for a court date as he is still denying copying my beat.
I met Tira in Joburg about a month or so ago, I was booked at Gugu's (Tira's wife) birthday celebration event. We linked up, grooved and I took his number. When I got back to Durban, I hit him up then we worked on the song. It took us an hour or two to record that song, it was pretty quick.
You're working on your debut album. What can we expect from it, what has been your approach in terms of style and what are you hoping to achieve with it?
For now, people must enjoy the singles. I will drop the album properly next year. I just worked on something with [Mr] JazziQ and Zuma, we're fusing gqom and amapiano [chuckles]. Busiswa, Moonchild [Sanelly], Amanda Black, Riky [Rick], Kamo [Mphela]... are some of the people I've spoken to. And, in terms of styles, I was thinking of mixing all the different styles I've done before; tribal house, s'gubhu and gqom. I just want to bring home a Grammy with the album.
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