Black Coffee on Moving Beyond House Music: 'I Want to Be Able to Have Kanye' on Next Album
South African artist talks BET Award and Drake's support at New York Fashion Week.
The DJ/producer Black Coffee, real name Nkosinathi Maphumulo, is becoming one of South Africa's most famous musicians: His latest album, Pieces Of Me, which came out in his home country last year, was recently released in the U.S. by Ultra Music — a label that has a knack for repackaging dance music from abroad for the cautious listeners that populate America's mainstream.
But creating dance floor mayhem is not the end game for Maphumulo. "I want to be a producer, not a house music producer," he tells Billboard Dance. "My next album, I want to be able to have Kanye, [but] not force Kanye on a house track."
Maphumulo is sitting in the lobby of New York's Gansevoort Hotel, which offers a caricature of high-end downtown uber-chicness. A playlist of '90s R&B, current hip-hop hits, and some Justin Bieber blares; a few patrons play pool on a purple-felted table; many more are drinking beer in the restaurant that opens onto the street. Maphumulo, who is in town for fashion week, is wearing several shades of green, killing the many hours before a 1:30 a.m. DJ set.
In June, he made history as the first South African to ever win a BET Award, taking home the Best International Act: Africa honor. Maphumolo positions this as both a sign of his growing reputation and a reminder of how far he has to go. "It's a great pat on the back," he says. "But honestly, the next BET [win] must be on a Saturday on the main show, not the African category. That's where I need to take the music: I'm not a dark horse, I'm part of the scene."
Maphumolo's aspirations are reflected in his references — the artists he hopes to emulate are not just those who have achieved fame in the world of house music but those, even from other genres and art forms, who have acquired a larger cultural significance. "Look at French Montana," he says. "He's from Morocco, but it doesn't even come up. He's part of the scene." Maphumolo fires off an example from his homeland as well: "Charlize Theron is part of the scene. She's not, 'oh, that South African.'"
Maphumolo has been fighting this battle for a long time. House music began to pick up steam in South Africa after the release of a compilation titled Fresh House Flavor Vol. 1 in 1998. As soon as Maphumolo started to make forays into the genre, he wanted to break into the international circuit. "A lot of DJs were compiling music," he remembers. "But I felt we needed to up our game in production. Instead of sending money overseas, create our own music, license our music. It was a strategy for myself to get into that bigger house world."
Fresh House Flavor Vol. 1 featured underground stalwarts like Glenn Underground and Chez Damier next to acts that enjoyed some mainstream success: Romanthony, who millions would encounter a few years later when he sang lead vocals on Daft Punk's "One More Time," and Mood II Swing, who produced crossover hits for the likes of Ultra Naté. This music helped form Maphumolo's taste — once he got over its speed. "123, 124 [b.p.m.], was too fast," he recalls. "We were used to our own genre of music, Kwaito, which was 105 to 110."
But he came around to the rapid pace, and he maintains unequivocal praise for the vocal house of the mid-to-late '90s, especially the New York duo of Kenny Dope and Louie Vega, who produced as Masters At Work. "They are the university," Maphumolo says. "I don't know any dope DJ who will not mention them [as important]. If you look at their discography, anything you can imagine musically, they took house music there. They did it to the highest quality."
Vega's label, Vega Records, was one of several international labels that ended up licensing a Black Coffee track — for Vega, it was "We Are One," featuring the famous South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Other labels that presented Maphumolo's music before Ultra include Gogo Music (Frankfurt), Kronologik (London), and Real Tone (Paris). The Berlin label Get Physical recently licensed "Buya," a Black Coffee track from the deluxe edition of his 2012 album, and released it with several fresh remixes, including a sterling rework from another South African producer, Da Capo. These various releases helped "create traction" and earned Black Coffee invitations to play in other countries, further raising his profile — and that of South African dance music — abroad.
But Maphumolo feels that there is still new territory for the DJ to reach: Pieces Of Me, his fourth album, opens with a manifesto delivered by the poet Lebo Mashile. "Black Coffee is a wake-up call for all disciples," she declares. "We are international. The planet is our dancefloor." (She composed the spoken word piece on her own after a conversation with Maphumolo.)
Though many of the artists from the dance world who receive mainstream attention make songs at lengths suitable for radio play, Black Coffee makes no concession to pop formatting — every track here stretches past seven minutes. Despite that, Ultra chose to release the record Stateside, perhaps seeing hit potential in a tune like "Come With Me," with its breathless hook and easily hummable guitar riff. Ultra is not the only big player taking note; Apple Music recently drafted Maphumolo to make a mix for Beats 1 Radio, and he contributed an installment in the BBC's Essential Mix series last year.
In order to follow Mashile's mandate, Black Coffee is mulling a change in tactics. "The licensing was more for the underground scene," he suggests. "I'm past that approach now. Obviously if a label wants to license a song, we'll give it to them. But now I want to take the music to a different level in terms of exposure — I want it to be on radio, on TV. That's a different game."
To achieve that level of ubiquity, Maphumolo needs the right track. But he's not necessarily in a hurry to find it. "I have the patience," he notes. "That song must be on my terms. I don't want to drop everything and chase a certain sound and leave the whole legacy that I built."
He feels that he's close to finding that breakthrough single. "When Drake did his first OVO Radio on [Apple Music], the first one ever, the first song he played on the show was my song, which is so big," Maphumolo remembers. "It also shows that the music is not far off. It's not about changing it, it's fine the way it is. It just needs to be out there."