It is hard to know how to go about judging South African rave-rap crew Die Antwoord with any degree of objectivity. The reputation of the group- MCs Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er and DJ Hi-Tek- represents a perfect storm of postmodern, ironic, hipsterish, online hype-mongering that leaves little room for their album to find a fresh-faced, appreciative audience. The pulsing and aggressive ‘Enter The Ninja’, accompanied by an eye-catching video, was tagged as their ‘breakthrough’ moment, but in this case the breakthrough was into a world in which any attempt to make an earnest hiphop album was doomed from the start. How exactly is a group supposed to go about their business when the first question that anyone asks about them is, “Is this all a joke?” The superficial comedic fix that the online community finds in what is surely a knowingly earnest representation of ‘Zef’ culture (a kind of Afrikaans white trash) cheapens the talent for the genre that manages to shine through on this, their debut album. To illustrate, this quote from Wikipedia: “Die Antwoord appears to some to be a presentation of entertainment personas rather than that of intrinsic and authentic cultural identities”; as if the group could not be both.
If this is a ‘joke’ band, then the gag is told very skillfully, with a great deal of attention paid to matching image and sound. The broad genre of rave-rap fits seems to fit the aesthetic of ‘Zef’ to the ground: implications of trashiness in the thick synths, a compulsive sound and endless displays of filthy braggadocio. It might not seem the most sophisticated sound, but that is surely not the intention, and the coarseness is tempered with rich humour. On ‘Rich Bitch’, Vi$$er paints a picture of a working class idea of having it made: “fokken Nutella on my sarnie”; on ‘My Best Friend’, guest The Flying Dutchman unleashes a lewd anecdote that pokes vicious fun at South African President Jacob Zuma. The aggression of the Ninja character in particular fits the beats to perfection, particularly on ‘Enter The Ninja’ and 8 minute sex-jam ‘Beat Boy’ (where his continual use of the word ‘vagina’ in place of anything more ‘poetic’ is both hilarious and disconcerting).
Sometimes, of course, the conceit fails to hold, as on the limp, minimal, and Autotune enhanced ‘I Don’t Need You’, or the nursery rhyme weed-paean ‘Dagga Puff’. But inconsistency has always been the hallmark of but the very best hiphop albums, and the counterbalancing effect of reggae-flecked jam ‘Wie Maak die Jol Vol’ and the closing title track is more than satisfying.
If anything, the true subtleties of this album are hopelessy lost on someone like me, given the cartoonish representation of Zef that Die Antwoord work with- you get the sense that they are still committed to making music for the South African market, and are content to throw out tongue in cheek cultural references that will be properly assimilated by their audience- and the plain fact that a lot of the rapping is in Afrikaans. Indeed, the sense of arrogance involved in assessing an album that speaks of a culture and in a language that is alien to most of its listeners is another facet of the confused, internet-led response to groups such as this. The spoken word opening track puts across something of the brash cultural politics that Ninja is invested in: “I represent South African culture. In this place you get a lot of different things: blacks, whites, coloureds… I’m like, all these different things, all these different people, fucked into one person. Whatever, man.” It’s not for us to judge the validity of these statements, or the potential for comedy they contain; and our attitude to groups like Die Antwoord is certainly not making it easier for those whose identities they represent to make themselves heard above the din.