Photo by Joe Larkin.
Welcome to Major Lazer & Major League DJz' 'Piano Republic'
We spoke to the two powerhouses about their new collaborative album, Piano Republik.
At this juncture in amapiano’s ascending trajectory, international artists embracing and taking a liking to the genre isn’t much of an anomaly. The biggest superstars from Europe and the rest of Africa have jumped on the amapiano bandwagon, so it was only a matter of time before Western artists caught on to the wave, especially those that have shown a keen interest in sounds produced in the continent before. Only a few, however, have put their money where their mouth is by recording or releasing authentic amapiano tracks, and most importantly, collaborating with South African producers on original songs that are not remixes.
Major Lazer is one of those acts. The production/DJ trio made up of Diplo, Walshy Fire, and Ape Drums is no stranger to the exploration of global sounds. While the group’s style is often categorised as electronic dance music, some of their biggest hits and productions are genre-bending, borrowing elements from reggaeton, dancehall, pop, hip-hop, and more. Over the past few years, Major Lazer has experimented with Afrobeats, Afropop, and gqom, working with the artists like Mr Eazi, Burna Boy, DJ Maphorisa, Moonchild Sanelly, and Babes Wodumo. The highly sought-after amapiano sound is the latest musical bug the globe-trotting group has caught onto.
On the other side of the Atlantic, South Africa’s Major League DJz have tirelessly worked hard to position themselves as the international purveyors of amapiano, albeit to some criticism from purists — mostly due to their hip-hop “new age kwaito,” relatively privileged background. Through their Balcony Mix YouTube series and widespread shows, they’ve contributed to amapiano’s global reach, having played at Coachella in 2021 and being billed for this year’s Tomorrowland Festival. The identical twin brother duo of Banele and Bandile Mbere is continuously pushing ‘piano culture forward. They have been a catalyst for the exportation of not only amapiano music but all that the movement encompasses, and have been at the forefront of “amapiano to the world” conversations. Thus, the thought of Major League DJz’s path crossing with that of Major Lazer is not too far-fetched.
Major Lazer & Major League DJz - Koo Koo Fun (feat. Tiwa Savage and DJ Maphorisa)www.youtube.com
The two powerhouses first teamed up for a Balcony Mix Live episode in October 2021. A year after that, the Major League and Major Lazer DJz released their first joint track, the drop of the Tiwa Savage and DJ Maphorisa-featuring dancefloor banger “Koo Koo Fun.” Following that, they went on to drop another collaborative tune with Nigeria’s Joeboy (“Designer”). With the release of “Mamgobhozi,” which remixes “Vul’Indlela” by the legendary Brenda Fassie, the two groups announced their collaborative project, Piano Republik. Other featured artists on the nine-track EP include Ty Dolla $ign, Msaki, Tyla, and Russel Zuma, as well as Gaba Cannal, Yumbs, DJ Rico, Boniface, and LuuDadeejay on co-production. Since joining forces, the two major acts have played back-to-back sets at various events and festivals around the world including Day Zero in Tulum, Mexico.
We caught up with Major Lazer and Major League via Zoom to candidly talk about South African music, amapiano, their creative union, and their collaborative project, Piano Republik.
When did you get introduced to amapiano and how did you get so immersed in the genre?
Walshy Fire (Major Lazer): I would say, for myself, it was probably right before the pandemic so maybe like two or three years ago. I was introduced to it by some friends that I went to Ghana with. They had the ‘Year of Return to Africa’ in 2019. A lot of South Africans came on that trip and that's where I first learned about amapiano. At the time, for me and I want to say for Wes [Diplo] as well, we were still really rocking with gqom music, which was growing and getting big. While I was there and the DJs were playing gqom, the South Africans were saying ‘play some amapiano.’ I wasn't DJing myself but I could see that the DJs would be confused because nothing in amapiano had really drifted outside of South Africa yet. So when my South African friends were asking for amapiano, that's when I asked [what amapiano is], and they started to send me some of the early stuff.
From that trip and your friends putting you on, how then does the idea of making your own amapiano tracks and eventually a project come about?
Walshy Fire: Well, I think after that you start to see amapiano’s potential. You start to get a lot of crossover remixes. Through these, that’s when we start to really hear what amapiano is, for us in America. A remix that began to get very popular is “It Ain't Me” [originally performed by Kygo and Selena Gomez and remixed by Namibia’s DJ Abux and Soulking]. That one really blows up and then everyone starts to make their own remixes. And that’s when you start to realise that there’s a lot of potential with this sound, people are really liking it regardless of where they come from.
I also really begin to enjoy it myself and I think Wes does as well. That’s when we started to link with our usual friends like Maphorisa and some of our friends that we’ve collaborated with over the years in South Africa. That’s when they begin to tell us about the Major League Djz. And when we connected with the Major League, we just started making music, and once you start making music: two, three, four songs, you know, at that point it’s like what are we gon’ do with all this music? I think if you ask Major League they will tell you, it’s something like 30 songs that we tried to get down to a small amount so it’s like a blessing to have such a great moment in music happen and to be a part of it.
Major Lazer & Major League Djz - Mamgobhozi (feat. Brenda Fassie) [Official Audio]www.youtube.com
How did you first connect with Major Lazer? I remember there were claims that the DJ Maphorisa-assisted “Particula” was initially supposed to be your song
Bandile (Major League Djz): We linked up with Wes via DM. He was really interested in the sound and he saw some of the mixes we did. We then linked up the second time we came to L.A. We did a mix with him at his house in Malibu, which was so dope. We then met Walshy and some other producers in the studio as well. Wes had made some amapiano songs already, you know, which he played during the mix, like the Brenda Fassie remix. From there we were like ‘yo, let’s try to do something, put some songs together, and see what happens.’ “Koo Koo Fun” was one of the songs he played on the mix which everyone liked and we were like we should drop it. We worked on it and were like actually maybe we should do an EP, let's work on more songs.
You could have chosen to do amapiano on your own as Major Lazer, and perhaps fuse genre with the other sounds y’all have done. Why was it essential to collaborate with a South African act like the Major League Djz?
Diplo: We’ve been going to South Africa to do shows as Major Lazer for about 5 years. We did a block party one year and that was the year we actually met Maphorisa and he gave us the demo for “Particula.” Maphorisa has always been a DJ that is always putting on. It was him, DJ Fresh, Sun-El [Musician], and some other producers I knew like Black Coffee. I produced on some of his records. The diversity on the South African scene is so crazy. Years later I hit up Maphorisa, who is really bad at texting, but he hits me back (laughs) and [I] asked him what’s going on these days. He sent me Samthing Soweto and I loved that album. I feel like it was kind of like amapiano but folk music, really beautiful and dark. And he was like ‘if you like this album, check out Scorpion Kings’ and all the stuff he was working on and I started getting familiar with it. I didn’t think it was gonna be this massive sound that has [since] taken over Africa.
And then Major League DJz were having these Balcony Mixes and that was the first thing I saw that ‘okay, this music is worldwide,’ because of its reach on YouTube. Major League is like on the pulse with amapiano. They were sending me [songs], saying, ‘this is the new sound, this is the sound from Durban, this is the sound from Nigeria, this is Asake.’ They’re filtering everything coming from the scene, and teaching us, you know, ‘cause they’re living the life. I think also the brothers being partly American makes the collaboration work really well ‘cause they are able to come here and work. Their story is so dope. Everybody we introduce them to fucking loves them and books them. We played in Portland, Oregon and I don’t think they’ve played amapiano ever in that city. We just tryna do our best to preach the gospel of the sound. I just think they were the best guys. Of course, shout out to Maphorisa and all the other young producers that helped us put together some ideas.
The track “Mamgobhozi” is essentially an amapiano remake of “Vulindlela” by the iconic Brenda Fassie. The song is a bonafide South African classic, what kind of impact and legacy does it have in the stateside and diaspora?
Walshy Fire: I was working at a record shop in Brooklyn and that record was a staple. Every DJ was buying and playing it, in much more curated spaces not like your general club though. I remember the video. I remember watching BET and that video would come on. Sonically, her voice sounded like nobody else in the world, she had the most amazingly rare voice. And of course, the production, you know, what that South African sound was at the time. It was extremely dope, and it was extremely unique to anything else that was happening in the world. It was kind of like they were slowing down beats. It was like disco or house music, but they were slowing it down. It was just an amazing song. I’ve been playing it for the last couple of shows and it’s a timeless classic still, it gets a reaction every single time.
Diplo: It’s just that synth intro, it's so epic as far as electronic music is concerned. Growing up in America, you think African music is only a certain way. When we were kids, we watched Coming to America and we knew Paul Simon. We got these bits and pieces, and this song is the first African song I ever heard where I was like ‘damn, this is crazy, this is epic!’ The synth comes on and her voice is so fucking strong. It was one of the first African music videos I saw where the whole culture was shown on the video and we were like ‘damn, Africa got some crazy shit!’ So I researched what kwaito was and was like ‘Woah, they’re playing the records too slow.’ I’ve always been obsessed with how music cultures interacted, and that was like UK Garage slowed down, like something accidental happened, the English sound mixed with the South African voice. Walshy and I are always looking for those moments where mistakes happen and the fusion becomes beautiful. I think South African music is crazy like that. Right now, house producers like Caiiro, Sun-El, and people like Msaki, are so unique. It’s a purely South African thing ‘cause you can’t do that where we’re from. You have something so exciting happening there with all the different cultures mixing.
Major Lazer & Major League Djz - Designer (feat. Joeboy) [Official Video]www.youtube.com
You come from different parts of the world. Why is it important for you to shed the light on burgeoning global music scenes, especially those that are coming out of Africa and the Caribbean?
Walshy Fire: To be honest with you, we just love music. I think it’s gonna be difficult to find two guys that love music more than me and Wes. We are constantly learning and discovering. Our ears are always open to new stuff. Our conversations are 90% about music, and I think that’s just how we have been able to be here so long and to be part of so many different things. We wanna see everyone do well, we want their music to be out there. We want to be able to show unity just across the board for a lot of the genres that may have high walls. That's why you see us do things like a 400,000 people show in Cuba or a show in Venezuela, because we understand how important it is to give that to the people. And because it’s important to us, we wanna do our best to continuously give the people the music that we love and it’s been a blessing man.
Do you think collaborations like these are essential in breaking amapiano in the global mainstream market, the way reggaeton, K-pop, and even Afrobeats have done?
Diplo: We are like the vehicle for you guys. We have an international following. We have labels that we trust. We did everything ourselves in the beginning but it’s a different world now. It’s like Major League’s reach on YouTube, they found an audience, honed it, and had it built. There are so many labels in America that do promo or help you buy some space on influencer pages. Or our European label because it’s very good at breaking music in France so we start in these places. It's very strategic. I think a lot of amapiano has been just made for South African audiences and all of a sudden the rest of Africa tuned in to it.
I think honestly the Nigeria fusion has helped a lot because those artists have such a good understanding of the European market and that’s where the diaspora really puts on for the music and that’s like up to all five of us as producers to do that. America is probably the toughest market for us to break because the diaspora is not connected here, it’s only in Canada really that it is there, so our job is to get the white kids into it. Get the people into the dances, and make some parties where people can hear amapiano mixed with other music [they’re familiar with] so they can understand it. It’s something special when you see Major League play for like 2,000 African kids with sunglasses on, in the dark, that’s crazy, right? That’s different from what we do, we do the rave, so together we can find the middle ground and give it every angle and every possible chance to be big. That’s what our job is, we’re good at that, we’re good at A&Ring records. We do pop music, we do underground music. We just love the sound, it’s perfect to us. It’s a fusion of electronic, African psychedelic and some of the music is basically jazz, you know it's just a drum and a horn with no vocals. It’s really all genres in one and that’s what we love.
Who are some of your favorite Amapiano acts?
Walshy Fire: As far as the acts, a lot of the time I’m discovering them as I go. I love what Maphorisa and Kabza [De Small] have done over the years as far as getting the sound to a level where it really was able to garner a good audience in South Africa, in [the rest of] Africa, and then outside of Africa with that Scorpion Kings album and their live sets. And then when Major League came along with their balcony mixes, I think it’s really hard to go around the work that they’ve done. Of course, Uncle Waffles with her performances, and TxC, dem bad! Performances just wicked man, you know! And I think that’s what has been making people watch their YouTube mixes man, this mixture of dancing and music, it’s very unique to what has been happening in other genres where everyone is just pretty much playing it cool, laid back, and chill. Amapiano is knocking down walls, it’s loud, and the bass is insane. Salute to everyone participating, it’s really hard to name a few but obviously, I wanna give flowers to the whole movement.
Amapiano is heavy on crediting the producers and everyone involved in the making of the music. Who are some of the beat makers/producers that contributed to the project?
Bandile: LuuDaDeejay is one of them. Luu worked on and touched most of the songs. There is also a white kid called Dlala Mlungu [now known as Boniface], very new but very technical, on a song called “Designer”. We did a song with Gaba Canal and Russel Zuma, I’ve just put it on the EP, I don’t think Wes is updated there (laughs). It’s very South African, I wanted to add a very South African song to the EP. There are a few songs we did with Ty Dolla $ign. There’s a kid from the East Rand, an upcoming producer that I found on the internet, very dope. Dlala Mlungu also added on the other Ty Dolla $ign record. There’s also a guy called Tumza [D’Kota] who’s part of Kota Embassy. There’s another guy called Michael from Soweto. We mixed the producers around a bit.
Amapiano-influenced songs and collaborative amapiano efforts especially with non-South Africans have not entirely been well received in the country. What are you hoping to achieve with this project?
Bandile: That’s why I needed to add the Gaba Canal and Russel Zuma song onto it. It’s like the Outside EP we did, we added “Bakwa Lah” on it cause I know how the South African ‘piano heads are, they like to criticize. South Africans don’t really want the sound to grow beyond their borders, you know? And that’s what needs to happen, every sound needs to evolve. But there’s always a trick to it, just add [a song that caters to South Africans] and push the project through it, you know. I was telling Wes because I know how it is [chuckles]. Crossing over is 100% what we’re hoping to archive.
You were born in the USA but grew up in SA. And the current members of Major Lazer call Mexico, the States, and Jamaica their home, and all these places are unique and have different cultures, which makes me wonder, what would Piano Republik be like if it was a real place.
Banele (Major League Djz): It would be on an island, full of women, full of good vibes, you know! Black, coloured [South African context], and white people coming together, listening to an African beat. It would never be winter time, just summer vibes, beach houses, and villas. Good times, no one is too cool for anyone, everybody just having a vibe. A place where people can go cool off and dip into their African side of life. That would be the ideal Piano Republik place.
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