At its best art both reflects and informs culture. It is indicative of its time, demonstrating the cultural underbelly that is slowly subverting the prevailing stasis of normality and highlighting the twisted morality of who we are. At its best art is perverse, and joyously so. At its best, art offends.
In this regard there is no more vital act on the musical landscape than South Africa’s Die Antwoord.
The 21st is so far a century of throw-away, dollar-obsessed trash-fashion and kaleidoscopic retro-cultural vampirism. We eat culture by the sodding pound and shit it out in vicious piles of glowing shallowness that burn like magnesium. We are spiralling towards infinity and oblivion at face-peeling speed, tearing ourselves in two as we race towards the polar terminals of transcendence and destruction.
It is a world where issues of global moral importance are dealt with as pornographically as the celebrity fuck-stories that speedily usurp them in the news; a world where everything moves at such a pace that one could be forgiven for lapsing into paralysis in trying to understand it all, or anything. Too much information and far too quickly.
But it is in that rent, that vortex of the oddments of life that Die Antwoord live. That they thrive.
Die Antwoord is the Zef rap-rave group and contorted love child of rapper/satirist/performance artist Watkin Tudor Jones, AKA Ninja, and singer/rapper/spikey rave-sprite Yolandi Visser, AKA Yo-Landi Vi$$er. Aggressively alluring and hued with corrupt innocence Vi$$er is attractive in a strange, intimidating, sickly-sweet way. She is the ashamed, happy memory of chewing the caked-on MDMA from a soggy lottery ticket at 5.15am on a Saturday Morning. She is Ketamine and Ganja and Psychosis and twisted nursery-rhymes about menstrual cycles. She is everything your Id is screaming out for..
Ninja looks like he sets fire to things with deodorant. He is every person you cross the road to avoid.
Zef is a South African counter culture movement which prides itself on being modern and trashy, little regard is paid to anything revered or acceptable, instead out-of-date or discarded cultural elements are appropriated and enveloped into the scene. It’s the cult of retro hopped up on super strong skunk, warm beer and burnt hotdogs. Psycho-retro. Yo-Landi describes it simply as "associated with people who soup their cars up and rock gold and shit. Zef is, you're poor but you're fancy. You're poor but you're sexy, you've got style".
Using music, music videos, short film and a pounding rhetoric, Die Antwoord take this input, these appropriated compounds and augments them, building something hyper-real, savagely satirical and utterly aggressive. Seriously, some of their stuff is so in your face you’ll feel like you’re choking on it (check out the Fok Julle Naaiers video).
Fok Julle Naaiers (trn: Fuck You All) exemplifies the Die Antwoord philosophy and Zef culture more than any other track. The song is a verbal assault borne of a ferocious bitterness; the beats (provided by the frankly terrifying DJ Hi-Tek) are urgent and combative, channelling early rave sounds and filtering them through a modern, urban-attack sonic environment not unlike early UK Grime. The video is shot in stark black and white and is peppered with remnants of South Africa’s post-apartheid bedrock - vicious young males from a range of cultures with two things seemingly in common; poverty .
March 2011 saw Die Antwoord take on a short-film project with US filmmaker Harmony Korine. Best known for writing Kids, astark, real and utterly gripping New York street-teen drama, Korine’s work is infused at all times with a nihilism that perfectly dovetails with the Die Antwoord philosophy. Between them they turn Umshini Wam into the ADHD destruction dream of every tantruming toddler and a lurid satire of the cultural halitosis and stinking greed of modern culture. Despite their washed-out frustration and 2D morals the film’s message seems to be that Yo-Landi and Ninja save each other. The film is nasty and tacky but also sweet and tender.
This is Die Antwoord in microcosm; perversion vs innocence, antagonism vs playfulness, violence vs posturing, the inner self vs the outer self, the polar terminals of transcendence and destruction.
What’s most intriguing about the group is the cloud of suspicion that surrounds them. Naysayers accuse them of taking the piss, of not being ‘real’ (whatever the fuck that means). They see the rhetoric and presentation as nothing more than gimmickry designed to sell the group. These joyless Naaiers (fuckers) miss the point by a fucking mile. Yes, they have a cartoonish presence and yes that is hard to deal with, to accept as real - particularly in the sterilised, teeth-whitened world of mainstream music - but the point isn’t ‘is it real or not?’ The point is that Die Antwoord is here. And they’ve got a whole lot of nothing to say.
They have described their work as “documentary fiction” and “exaggerated experience” designed for shock value, Ninja explains “People are unconscious and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone. They'll just keep asking, "Is it real? Is it real?"”
Hell fucking yeah! In the face of the supreme vacuum they choose to wade deeper into the swamp, they choose to hold your head under until you start to scratch at their arm to let you up, they choose to see the whites in your goddamned eyes. It’s not just about liking the music or not liking the music (to me it sounds so raw and vital and aggressive that I can’t help but be compelled to keep listening), and it’s not about real vs. not real, it’s ‘do you get it? ‘Or not?’