Interview: Ninja (of Die Antwoord)

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Once in a while, you get the opportunity to speak to somebody truly interesting – whether it’s your well-read Anthropology professor, an estranged uncle who did hard time, or a homeless man who decided to sit next to you on the bus. Whoever the person, and whatever the topic, you emerge having learned something new, or seen something in a new light. The sentiment isn’t always the same, however. You may leave the conversation feeling completely depressed, disgusted, or faithless toward the human race. The inverse is also possible: you may leave the conversation elated, hopeful, or excited.

My conversation with Die Antwoord’s Ninja would fit into the latter category. A person as candid and genuinely amicable as Ninja is hard to find. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Almost Famous advises us not to befriend musicians just because they’re famous: “I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.” But Ninja sort of did that job for me. He was honest, humble, and endearingly self-depreciating. There is an energy and enthusiasm in him that left me with a greater hope for the future of independent music. How could I be unmerciful to someone so (sometimes brutally) honest and genuine?

Our conversation followed no specific trajectory, but we certainly learned some new things about South Africa’s hip hop sensation. We’re talking five future albums, Die Antwoord the action figure, and even Die Antwoord the video game. Basically, they’re taking over.

Before we jump in, I saw you guys at Coachella at your US debut and I was blown away. That said, what did it feel like making such a huge debut on U.S. soil?

Coachella was cool, but it was kind of, like, a bit overwhelming. We’ve gotten a lot better since then. It was like losing your virginity in a weird way. We got all freaked out. I didn’t know if anyone was going to come to the show, you know, if anyone was going to come see us in America for the first time. When we got there, there were so many fucking people!

And then our DJ got all flipped out, ’cause there were so many people, and he got all nervous. And then he was trying to push play on “Ninja”, and there was this four count sort of ring and I was supposed to say “I’m a ninja!” and then it was supposed to cut out. But when I said “I’m a ninja”, the ring kept going. You know when you get punched in the stomach? I pretty much got punched in the stomach at that point pretty hard. And I looked back at him, like, “What the fuck are you doing? There’s like ten thousand million people in front of us.” And I’m just trying to fucking rip it, so I did it again – “I’m a ninja!” and the ring carried on, and the beat still didn’t drop, and then he did it one more time after that. So, it was like getting kicked in the stomach three times before you even start, like, the biggest fight you ever had.

So, that totally fucked me up, and I don’t even remember that show that good. After that show I thought it was the worst show I’d ever done. But then people said it was quite good.

And after that, we just switched modes. The same thing kind of happened during an L.A. show. Our machines kept freezing. But during that time, we’d been having these freak mode concerts, like these techno mosh-pit, hardcore shows. Like, I didn’t know people did that. They don’t freak out like that in South Africa. And people were just freaking out so hard like at a rave at three a.m., in like Serbia, and in Poland, and New York, and fucking Japan, all over the place people were going in freak mode, which was a total trip.

So, in L.A., midway during the show our whole machines just crashed onstage, and I was trying to start the track and I couldn’t. So, I was, like, freaking out. I was dropping the longest fucking a cappella freestyle with no beats for fucking ever, waiting for the beats to come on again. And then they finally came on, and I don’t know, something sort of snapped in my head at that point that if that thing ever happens, I can drop a long-ass a cappella if I need to drop a long-ass a cappella. And then it happened again at HARD NY, we got another technical difficulty. It happens using electronic music, you know? But we got on and the monitors were just so soft I had to stop the show. And at a point like that, like at Coachella or L.A., that’s when you need to be the most all over it. I sort of just learned that when those technical difficulties occur, you need to have this whole arsenal of performance up your sleeve.

So, there’s sort of this big elephant in the room, if you will. A lot of people have questioned your staying power – whether or not you guys are legitimate or just a passing phase? What have you got to say concerning that?

All the music we’d done before Die Antwoord, I wasn’t like personally involved in it. It was all sort of like experimental stuff, where Die Antwoord is hugely personal. And some people are relevant, and some people are irrelevant in your life. You wanna hear the ultimate style? The ultimate style: Only speak to people that listen to you, don’t speak to people that don’t listen to you, and if people don’t get you, pay them no mind. They don’t really exist. If you can master that style you become indestructible. That’s Die Antwoord: the answer. People staying stupid things like that, us having no staying power? It’s because they don’t have any fucking staying power. They’re fucking flies in the breeze.

Since Coachella, you’ve played all kinds of shows, with M.I.A.,  Sleigh Bells, and a slew of other bands. Was there anyone that you particularly enjoyed meeting

Yeah, David Lynch. He’s pretty much like my dad or something.

You guys have a lot of music floating around the internet. Why did you decide to put these exact songs on your major label debut?

The thing is, we’re making new tracks all the time. We’ve got too many tracks to put onto an album. We just  wanted to choose the most concentrated, powerful songs. And they said choose ten, and we were like “Jesus Christ! 10? That’s like choosing between fucking children.” With the songs on the internet and the five on the EP, there are like 23 songs total. But everyone likes different things, so what we did is just choose the most personal tunes. We have a deep, deep affection for these songs.

dieantwoord0 Interview: Ninja (of Die Antwoord)And that completely shines through. I had the chance to listen to the album a few times before speaking with you, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One track that particularly struck me was “She Makes Me A Killer”, where it’s sort of just you telling a story. It actually reminded me a lot of early Eminem.

That’s one of our best tracks. I just got that tattooed on my leg, actually, “She makes me a killer.” And somebody else said the same thing about that sounding like Eminem. And I had no idea. I think maybe it’s the emotion of the song. I love that song with all my heart and soul. Someone also said it reminds them of Slick Rick, and I love Slick Rick a lot, lot, lot. He’s kind of, like, this badass, but then he acts like a sweetheart. Like he’s got this smooth, easy fucking style like he could be rapping about anal sex, but like, with this sweet old grandpa voice. And he’s the best storyteller in the world. And when I heard that my track sounded like him, I went back and I guess it is sort of Slick Rick-ish in a way. The story, the hooks, the chorus. That chorus style was kind of a big breakthrough for me. I always try and dig into myself and summon the most personal emotion. It makes the track cut a little deeper, in a really nice way.

Signing to Interscope was a gigantic move. That puts you up in the biggest of the big leagues. Your thoughts on that signing?

We really liked them. They’re kinda natural for us. Like, we’re kind of edgy, you know? We’re kind of in to being kind of pushy about breaking through into new dimensions. And there was, like, this bidding war for all the labels. They all came with full fucking force, and we met with all of them. And Interscope was really and truly naturally in tune with our edge. We asked ourselves, “Who’s going to be the perfect extension of our vision?”, and Interscope was kind of obvious.

But we were very, very, very careful about stepping into that dimension. We did not want to disturb that zone we were in. We’re in a very specific, powerful zone. And we needed someone who was going to protect our zone. And, as you can see in the “Evil Boy” video, they stay very true to the original vows of this marriage, which is sort of like “Do what you want, put an Interscope logo on it, and let’s make some fucking money.” That’s our relationship. “Without fucking up our essence, let’s make this big.”

We’re very much a pop group, but we’re a brand new breed of pop. It’s quite a ballsy thing to take this on because it needs to be pure. We’re very pure in our core and this can’t be compromised. Compromise is not in my vocabulary.

Yolandi raps a lot more on this album (which I love, by the way). Has she been polishing her emcee skills over the past few months? Have you been coaching her?

Yeah, I mean, she practices herself, but I kind of trained her how to rhyme. She had, like, a kind of cool fucking flavor in the beginning and her ideas were in freak mode. And her architecture was still young, so I helped her define her architecture. But her, what she brings through, is sort of gushing more and more. And we’re busy on our second album that’s coming out the middle of next year, and Yolandi’s rhyming more and finding that freak zone to get into. Yolandi’s kind of like a free kid. She does quantum leaps. Like all of a sudden she’ll get fucking good at something immediately, and then all of a sudden she’ll quantum leap into a new zone.

 Interview: Ninja (of Die Antwoord)

So we can expect a new album in the coming year?

We’ve got five albums that we’ve planned. The first one’s called $o$, because if we didn’t make it with this album we were gonna be fucked. We put all our personal treasures, our heart and soul into that album and we’re like, “This is going to save us, or, if it doesn’t, then fuck.” It sounds weird saying, but we were in a bit of a hole that we crawled out of with the help of that album.

The second album, we wrote all the choruses before this whole shit blew up last December and started dropping tracks from it. But then we decided to be strategic about it and bring things back. And now we’re starting to flesh things out and fuck around very much with the music. It’s like a turbo boost, almost like the way Enter the Ninja turbo boosted into the “Evil Boy” video. We’ve done that with our album. The second album’s going to be a jump like that.

The third album that’s going to follow after that, we’ve kind of mapped it out into the future, is a Yolandi solo album. It’s called The Voice. That’s gonna be the third Antwoord album. The album after that, the fourth Antwoord album, is a Ninja solo album, it’s called Dominator. That releases at the same time as Yolandi’s album. It’s a competition to see who sells more. And then the fifth album’s a secret.

The pop business is like an Olympic sport. It’s temporary. And when Olympic athletes hit full stride it’s a temporary experience, a limited edition experience. And Die Antwoord is a limited edition experience in that sense. We make pop music, but we’ve entered into this hardcore, extreme attention. This wave has sort of broken open, and is starting to surge. So we’ve got about five years, and we intend to continue expanding this thing that’s exploded on its own as destiny would have it.

And it’s kind of like, pop music is very powerful because it influences millions. Pop music is a heavy force. But the thing is, at the exact moment–2010, with 2011 approaching–the idiots are winning. But Die Antwoord is here. And in the next five years, things are gonna change. And we’re here to usher in the future. You don’t have to be fucking whack to be large.

You are about to embark on a massive world tour through December. How do you prepare for that mentally/musically/physically?

It’s kinda weird. Mentally, it’s fucking easy, because we’re doing the same thing over and over again. But every time we do it, it’s kind of like a bomb that explodes. We do lots of different things, but touring is easy. You just have to be careful with your energy, because every time you hit the stage you’ve got this bomb that’s built and you just want to explode it. You can’t be a pussy about it, you have to be full flex. Our music is incredibly high powered, so it’s very taxing. And we didn’t notice we’d done it, but we’d done almost fifty shows in, like, thirty different cities in a lot of different countries, and you get incredibly fit. The only thing that’s hard about it is coming back to South Africa, and getting back to work.

I directed the “Evil Boy” video along with the cameraman. and every single element you see, all the sculptures, the graffiti, I handmade a lot of that stuff, and worked with a team to bring that to life. And every single idea that we come up with is work. We’ve got a toy line coming out in Japan. We have Die Antwoord action figures that we’re developing. There’s a Die Antwoord videogame we’re developing. Like a million amazing little things are going on, and the difficult thing is keeping all that stuff balanced.

You know how they say you must be careful what you wish for because you might just get it? Now I’m like in a trance. And I just wanna maintain the trance so it stays curious and overwhelming.

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