South Africa is bursting at the seams with a tangle of homegrown electronic music. And, while the country has a wealth of deeply danceable music coming out of it, undoubtedly the most wild and uncontainable has to be the sound of gqom. Seeping out of the Durban townships since 2011, gqom has blown up in a big way over the last few years. Initially storming the dancefloors of its home country, the genre is now recognised as an essential part of the underground’s international club scene, embraced across the globe thanks to an energy that’s impossible to deny. Indeed, it’s music that words cant adequately describe; gqom is a sound that can only be experienced viscerally. That’s a sentiment that DJ Lag, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Gqom», seems to agree with when we meet with him to talk at the Radar studios. When asked why he thinks that people from all over – and especially Londoners – feel so drawn to gqom, he’s almost nonplussed: “I don’t know why people like it,” he laughs. “How can I answer that? I think you guys just feel it”. For fans of gqom, Lag will be a familiar name.For any exploration into the world of gqom, he has to be the first port of call. A pioneer of the sound, Lag has been a lynchpin of the scene since its very inception and the Durban native’s releases are now revered internationally thanks to a sound which is unlike any other. Not only that, Lag’s impossible to replicate style of DJing, a blend of masterful effects and breathtaking technical manipulation, sees him tearing up dancefloors from South Africa to Europe and beyond, sending crowds more used to house and techno beats into a frenzy. We caught up with Lag ahead of his headline set at Radar’s third birthday on 26 October in London to get an expert look into what’s going on in the world of gqom.
How did you first get into making music?
I was producing for my cousin. He was a rapper and he was the one got me into making music. He got me the Fruity Loops disc and I started producing beats for him. He stopped rapping but I fell in love with music and I couldn’t stop producing.
What style was the music you were doing back then?
It was township music at first. I stopped that but I continued doing house – I was doing house music for about a year, I think. When I first heard Naked Boyz ‘Ithoyizi’ in 2011, that’s when I told myself I wanted to do something like that broken beat track. Rudeboyz were trying to do the same thing – there were a few of us all in the same thing – we wanted to make tracks in a similar style but we did gqom instead.
You have a very distinct DJing style – how did you get into DJing?
I think it was in 2012. There was a friend of mine who had a sound system – it was just one CDJ with a mixer. Whenever I came home from school it was just practice, practice, practice, practice for like a month. There was a pens down (party) at my school – that’s when they close the school for a month or something – and I was going to be performing there. People already knew my music but I didn’t know how to play so I had to teach myself. Every day, after school, I was teaching myself and, when the day finally came, I was ok. And that’s how I first started DJing. Then there was a guy called Tempo – he’s a good DJ from Claremont and he got me DJing more after that and so my name got bigger and bigger.
The most fruitful years for gqom seemed to be back in 2011/2012. What was your experience of that time?
Gqom was massive – I was part of that growth, too. There were only four producers doing gqom back then: me, Naked Boyz, Rudeboyz and Sbucardo – it was just us and were doing strictly gqom. Then there were other artists starting to come up like Infamous Boyz and Distruction Boyz – there were a lot of groups then. It got really big really quickly. It was massive. You’d just upload your music onto KasiMP3 so it was really easy to get music. Even the guys in London were getting my music like that.
But then the hype died down before it started getting bigger again more recently?
Yeah, in 2014 it started dying because all the big names were saying ‘This music is rubbish, it’s not mastered, you can’t play this anywhere, you can’t play it on the radio’. But now, since like 2015/2016, gqom came back and it’s started to become bigger and bigger again. Now gqom is in the mainstream, but the underground is also getting bigger because all the top producers are in the mainstream.
You mentioned KasiMP3 – how else is gqom distributed?
Even through Spotify posts. I play a track, set it up and share the link. Also, on WhatsApp, there are lots and lots of different groups where they exchange gqom music. You have to give something to get something back – you give someone something and they give you a track you didn’t have before.
Gqom has been gaining popularity outside of South Africa – has the scene felt that and been affected by it?
Yeah. A lot. I was not well known in South Africa but when I started travelling a lot and working with guys from outside of South Africa then people started to hear about me more. It was the same with artists like Okmalumkoolcat.
How has the gqom sound itself changed?
It’s hard to say. As more people start making gqom there’s more variation. Like I said, at one point there were only four people doing it and now suddenly you’ve got a whole lot of music coming. It’s changing because more people are trying to flip it a little bit. Let’s see what happens…
I’ve heard there are a lot of people who were gqom producers before but now they’re making things that sound more like sgubhu. Is that true?
Yeah. I think a lot of people in Durban think that in order to make it in music you have to get into Afrotainment – it’s owned by DJ Tira and it’s the biggest entertainment company in Durban. It books all the big, big artists and DJs, so now, because Afrotainment likes sgubhu, every producer’s aim is to be in Afrotainment. Whatever DJ Tira says, they go and do it.
And for people who don’t know, what’s the difference between sgubhu and gqom?
Sgubhu is 4-beat and made up of more melody while gqom is a lot more hardcore.
I’ve been hearing a lot of stuff recently that has the gqom drum pattern but with more of the sgubhu synthy stuff over the top…
Yeah, that’s the gap. It’s like Distruction Boyz style. It’s the hard drums with euphoria. This is the change now.
So, how has your own sound changed since you started out?
I do both – the traditional style and the new style. I try and balance it. Going forward, I want to start working with some vocalists. That’s the plan. I want to get Drake on it! I’d like to work with Wizkid and Davido – I want to start with the African artists first.