After a decade making waves in electronic music, the Gqom pioneer finally released his blockbuster debut album. He speaks to OkayAfrica about his early life, the album's inspirations and creation, and the possibilities for South African music.
If Gqom were a big house, there’s one man you’d find at its center: Lwazi Asanda Gwala. Known as DJ Lag, the Durban-born polymath is Gqom royalty, responsible more than anyone for taking its hypnotic sound international. Over the past decade, he’s brought the dark South African electronic genre to prestigious festivals and venues across the world.
After three solo EPs, DJ Lag’s debut album, the anticipated Meeting With The King, is finally out. The fourteen-track project demonstrates Lag’s mastery of Gqom, building immersive experiences from simple, hard-hitting kicks, claps and a 125-127BPM beat. Between collaborating with genre-pushing artists and sampling woozy elements of Amapiano, DJ Lag’s vision is recognizably collaborative.
One evening in late January, the 27-year-old veteran spoke to OkayAfrica from his Durban home, surrounded by instruments. Enjoying some well-earned rest, his smile fills the screen, his taut skin resplendent. Most of his projects, he says, were created on the road: on planes and airports, backstage at concerts, inside cars and rented apartments. Then in early 2020 the pandemic broke out and like many artists, he took the chance to create this album, inspired by the familiar allure of being in South Africa and surrounded by family and friends.
“I began with creating with people close to me,” he says, adding that he makes a conscious effort to find the right vocalist for a track, if the need arises. “I sit down and listen to the beat for days before I can hear a voice in my head. That’s how the Amanda Black and Lady Du tracks worked out. I worked on the tracks and sent to them.”
Image courtesy of the artist.
Other songs had different processes. “‘Shululu’ happened in the studio after Lohki was contacting me for months to send him beats,” he says. “I didn’t have a plan before the session but I really like the way the song turned out. 'Shululu' is an expression we used as kids when you get hurt playing around. The track is fun and playful. With Sinjin Hawke we worked on ‘Raptor’ remotely all the way to mastering it.”
Hawke, the Canadian-American DJ who’s produced for Kanye West, in a comment said “there’s something special about the way Lag uses drums. They’re so tough and epic, yet minimal and spacious at the same time.”
Lwazi’s formative years in Clermont, Durban always had connections to music. He danced, and would compete with friends in local halls, soundtracked by house music and Gqom which surfaced before the turn of the 2010s. When DJ Lag ditched hip-hop beats for Gqom, these friends used his beats too.
A cousin inspired his journey. “He was a rapper and I’d always go around with him. He’d tell his friends I was his cousin and was always getting me software to make him beats,” says Lag. His mother gifted him a computer in 2008 and merely six years later, DJ Lag produced “Ice Drop,” off his eponymous first EP, from Goon Club Allstars, a London-based record label who’d been interested in working with Lag since he was in high school. The song has since become a Gqom classic, among the first to have a video. Last year, online outrage trailed the release of “Culture,” a track credited to DJ Megan Ryte, A$AP Ferg and will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas), after South African listeners heard “Ice Drop” all over the beat. Apparently it was jacked, and not long after a settlement was signed.
“I remember the first time people sent me that song, I was walking so I didn’t really hear the similarities,” Lag said in an interview with OkayAfrica last year. “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 & Sinjin Hawke - Raptor www.youtube.com
It wasn’t his first issue with copyright. In 2018, Lag’s “Trip To New York” was lifted to create the Distruction Boyz’s smash hit “Omunye.” After a series of discussions, Lag is now a credited songwriter on the record and has since collaborated with DJ Tira, a Gqom mainstay and known affiliate of the Distruction Boyz.
That same year, Beyoncé performed to "Trip To New York" at the Global Citizen, leading to a DJ Lag collaboration on “MY POWER,” a standout off Black Is King, the American star’s soundtrack for The Lion King film. The album got several nominations at the 63rd Annual Grammys and Lag would witness the event ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center, filled with awe and ambition.
“It’s like the biggest thing for me,” he says of his desire to win a Grammy for Meeting With The King.
DJ Lag has been impacting lives beyond music, and in the process solidifying his legacy as a South African music icon. In 2019, he collaborated with The Boiler Room and Ballantine’s to host Something For Clermont, a biannual event he started to give back to his community.
Last November, he brought stars like Babes Wodumo, DJ Bongz and Mr JazziQ to the White House Café in Clermont, and organized a free workshop a day before, turning his experiences to music business lessons for upcoming artists and producers.
It’s been a long time coming for DJ Lag, who began in those same streets. His previous project, 2019’s UHURU, was titled after the nightclub he used to perform back in the day. Having been around for a decade, Lag’s ‘Gqom King’ title has little to do with ego, but with his efforts in updating the Gqom sound and helping the world connect to its pulsating richness. It’s important to recognize that “Afrobeats” barely recognizes the stunning breadth of South African genres, a number of which are making unique movements towards international acclaim.
When I mention the recent love Amapiano’s been getting, DJ Lag speaks profoundly on its relationship with Gqom. “It’s not a competition between Gqom and Amapiano with a finish line and a winner,” he says.
“We all win if South African music is crossing borders and people are dancing to it all over the world. For example Kabza De Small and Black Motion have released ‘Break’ and it has a lot of similarities with the sound I am doing now. Traditionally, Kabza is piano, Black Motion afro house and I am doing Gqom. The point here is we all win if we stop looking at the differences rather celebrate the similarities and the fact that we are killing it musically and have been for a while.”
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