We talk to the South Africa star DJ about his latest album Subconsciously, growth and everything in between.
It is 1pm on a Saturday afternoon in Johannesburg, South Africa. In a few minutes I will be interviewing the man of the moment, superstar DJ Black Coffee, a day after the release of his much anticipated album Subconsciously. He's in Johannesburg as well, which he calls home although he doesn't happen to be here a lot. Staying on-brand with his global stardom, as we speak there is a billboard of his album cover in the middle of New York's Time Square.
In 2020, the DJ/producer had 48.3 million streams of his music across 92 countries, according to Spotify. He was also scheduled to hold a residency in Ibiza, which was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. The nomad DJ/producer was able to tour for three months last year when Europe opened up slightly, and had some shows in South Africa during the December/January period, when Covid restrictions were eased.
I remember first meeting Black Coffee in 2018 as he was preparing for Music is King, a star-studded concert he'd conceptualized. The powerhouse artist owned the global music and clubbing scene then, a scene that has taken a huge knock due to the times we find ourselves in. Although our last interview was only three years ago, it feels like it was a completely different lifetime. It was a world where I was able to speak to him in person, shake hands and embrace for a photo with no fear or risk of any kind of virus.
Today is different, but it's the same sweet Coffee.
Before I get him on the line for a phone interview I'm taken back to an Instagram post he made last year, thanking Drake for "always sending the elevator back down" in reference to their song "Get it Together," which made the top 100 Billboard charts back in 2017. 'Sending the elevator back down' is the essence of Black Coffee and something you see him act out throughout his career.
Whether it is his curated Africa Is Not A Jungle, a platform/stage which showcases the best in the South African club and underground music scene at festivals, or the way his album not only features heavyweights like Diplo, Usher and Pharrell Williams to name a few, but South African names like Sun-El Musician and Msaki. It is evident that the man is always paying it forward no matter how far he goes.
OkayAfrica talks to Black Coffee about his album, growth and everything in between below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo courtesy of Black Coffee.
You just released Subconsciously and already have a billboard in the middle of Times Square. How does that feel?
It feels amazing. I have been receiving so much support. We have a billboard in Toronto and the airport in London. It's the first album where I am fully aware and know that I am going for a global release. I wanted to exist in as many territories as possible. The presence and just seeing it happen has been quite amazing.
What inspired the title Subconsciously?
I feel so great subconsciously about the single "SBCNCSLY" with Sabrina Claudio. I felt like the single should be the focus point of the album. It just sounded like a Black Coffee song. It reminded me of "Superman" and those songs I did with the vocals. It just came out so beautifully and I felt this is 2020 Black Coffee.
We are living in such a different time due to Covid-19, how has that affected you as the star DJ with such a global presence?
I see my career as something in two vaults. There is me as a producer and me as a performer. The performer was highly affected, we are one year down and we thought 2021 was going to look much better but it doesn't look like it. I had to kind of activate my producer side making sure I finish the album and get all the collaborations I wanted. The pandemic has in that sense kind of helped me push to release the album.
Living in a digital time we are able to send songs and beats to anywhere in the world. Did this make the process of finishing the album easier in a pandemic or did not having the option to be in the studio with each artist harder?
I have been working on the album for a while so I had a chance to be in the studio with Cassie and Pharrell. There were other songs like "You Need Me" and "Lost" where we couldn't be in the studio, so we had to work on the production of the song remotely and it worked out. I actually haven't met most of the people who are on the album like face to face.
Black Coffee ft. Sabrina Claudio - SBCNCSLY (Official Audio) youtu.be
"Drive" came out in 2018 and I remember "LaLaLa" with Usher was recorded during the Global Citizen concert in South Africa. How long did the whole album take?
Yes we actually finished it up then. We had started working on it in LA and just needed to add some vocals so it has been quite a while. "Drive" was kind of the first single to the album followed by everything else with Msaki like "Wish You Were Here." It has taken it's time to come out, since the end of 2018.
In a lot of the songs one can pick up a theme of love. Was that the main subject matter for Subconsciously?
Not really. I am actually happy that that is what comes out. I worked with so many different song writers and kind of allowed everyone to write what they were inspired to write. There was no theme. I just took the songs as they came. For the song "SBCNCSLY," Sabrina Claudio and I were both in the studio and I didn't tell her what to write about. She came with that on her own and in the end that was the method. It's beautiful especially because of everything that's been happening. I had been going through a divorce, I was touring while the album was being made and in the end it didn't come out as an album of someone who was going through a lot. It came out as a very beautiful album and I love that.
Is it hard separating what you're going through with your music because music comes from emotions?
It is hard. People deal with things in different ways just in general. Some people were abused growing up and then become abusers. Some people hate abusers then become the opposite so it depends on how you deal with it. It can affect you or it can inspire you.
It seems it has mostly inspired you?
Yes. I love music, I can do all the other things but I think music is my first love and it always takes first place. I allow it to lead; I don't think I am the kind who would write hate songs.
So music is king?
Photo courtesy of Black Coffee.
I find it so interesting when you say the single "SBCNCSLY" reminds you of Black Coffee back then. Would you say your sound has changed from everyone's favourite album, Home Brewed?
Was it something intentional or was it the influencers of becoming the superstar DJ and producer traveling the world almost subconsciously?
It's everything. When I released Home Brewed which was over 10 years ago, I didn't have a salt and pepper beard, and naturally I have grown so much as a human being. I reach different parts of the world. I just felt like I should allow the growth to be natural even in my music. I listen to all kinds of music which is what I want to make as well. Songs that I truly love sometimes are not house songs and I want to get to that space where I grow as a brand and be out of that one genre vault.
My music has changed but the reason I say "SBCNCSLY" is a Black Coffee song is because there are things about me that will never leave me like the roots of who I am musically. That will always remain. The soul is always going to be there just maybe a different tempo but true friends can hear a Black Coffee song despite the tempo or the feature.
In your growth do you believe you have been able to keep the original friends and fans from Home Brewed?
That's the key, that's what I work hard on—to grow with the people. If you were 15 then listening to me, you are 30 now. They have grown musically too in the things that they listen to so I have no choice now. The same people that question the growth and change are the same people that would also complain if I was still making songs like in Home Brewed.
Your love for music has been with you since you were a child. You once spoke about how working as a shepherd growing up in the Eastern Cape you would speak to the cows and yourself about what you wanted. You wanted to become an international star in the music industry even though you could not sing. Has your vision then completely manifested? Is it everything you imagined?
It is way more. As a kid you don't also pray for wisdom. You just want and the wisdom is what carries you through because you are able to start doing things differently. You start diversifying and strategizing. You start planning and growing. That has taken me further than where I thought I would be. I have surpassed everything I thought I wanted. It is real. I take it all in. I have gone further than I thought I would.
Black Coffee & Diplo - Never Gonna Forget feat. Elderbrook (Visualizer) [Ultra Music] youtu.be
What else do you dream of?
I tweeted the other day about how I can't wait to reach my full potential and people were wyling thinking, "Omg what do you even mean? We thought you're done." And you can't blame them. I mean I have only shown them Black Coffee. They look at him and think he has done everything Black Coffee could do but there is also a different side to me. There is a side to me that is interested in other things like the development of tech on the continent and education. There is so much I want to do outside of being a DJ. I want to help the African child and one day be able to leave Africa better than how I found it. There are so many things I am working on that I want to achieve outside of music. I understand that music was given to me as a bridge or propeller to lead me to do other things. There is so much I want to do.
I just saw the post about the bursary fund you started. Why is it so important to keep sending the elevator back down especially in a world where many don't?
It's a journey. It's a journey for all of us. You're not going to figure everything out immediately. It's also so important to fill your cup first so you are able to help. With some people it takes a long time and with others they don't have to wait and just start now. I will open a foundation now. I will start doing whatever I can. It takes time and it also takes a good heart to be able to do things the right way you. You have to be pure about your intentions which is where God comes in.
So you are a spiritual man?
Pretty much so.
Going back to the album what was your favourite track?
It has been SBCNCSLY at some point but they just keep moving. Right now I am listening more to You Need Me which I love. At some point it was Falling and another it was Ready For You. They keep changing.
You have worked with Pharrell, Usher, Cassie and Diplo to name a few. Who else do you still want to work with?
We were doing a song with Kelly Rowland that we never got to finish so I'd love to finish that song with her. I'd like to do a song with Beyoncé, Kwabs from the UK and London Grammar. There are so many people I still want work with. On my next project possibly I want to try my best to tick all these boxes when I do my next album.
Have you started working on it already?
(Laughs) No. I am resting now for a change. I think I will only start working in the second half of the year.
You've grown accustomed to a nomad lifestyle. Is South Africa still home?
Yes South Africa is home. There was a point where I was searching and thinking of living somewhere else but given the responsibility that I have for the continent it wouldn't make sense for me to go. Yes when I have to work I will go and stay somewhere for work but I think my roots are here. There was a point where I thought otherwise in my head but also the difficulty of the kids and their schooling. Even if I decide to have a second home elsewhere, my home will always be here.