DJ Lag wasn’t at the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg in December when Beyoncé dropped his track “Trip to New York” into her much-hyped headlining set at the free festival in South Africa. So the shock was palpable for Lag, who was at home in Durban, some 350 miles away, when WhatsApp messages began blowing up his phone.
“‘Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV! Beyoncé’s performing with your track!’” the messages read, as Lag recalled to Billboard on the phone from Cape Town last week. “I said, ‘What? That’s not true.’ But it was true. She had dancers onstage, and she was performing with my track.”
Affectionately dubbed the “gqom prince,” Lag (born Lwazi Asanda Gwala) has taken the minimalist, bass-heavy sound of gqom, born in the taxi-ranks of South African townships, around the world over the past three years. The 23-year-old has collaborated with Skrillex on the Bridges for Music project and performed in New York, South Korea, Poland’s Unsound festival and Sónar Istanbul. He’s also released two EPs on London’s Goon Club Allstars label, and he did a BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix earlier this year.
But none of those successes have compared to the boost he received for being sought out by Beyoncé and included on her The Lion King: The Gift album, which was released July 19, the same day as the live-action Disney film, and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. “It’s opened doors, for sure,” he says.
The day after Queen Bey performed in Johannesburg, Kwasi Fordjour — the creative coordinator at Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s management and entertainment company — contacted Lag to say he’d be coming to Durban. “He told me he was working on a project with Beyoncé and wanted some beats,” Lag says. “They never said what it was for. So I sent them four beats in January, and then they sent a message on WhatsApp saying there were two beats they liked. They didn’t tell me what they were going to use the tracks for, and I didn’t know who else was involved either.”
Lag’s management took over and the deal was struck. The artist flew to Los Angeles to work on some of the voices for the track, but he says he didn’t record Tierra Whack or fellow South African artist Moonchild Sanelly for it. Their voices, he says, were added later.
The first time Lag heard the finished song — “My Power” — was when The Lion King: The Gift was released earlier this month, as Lag was on his way to perform at Sónar in Barcelona. He had just dropped a project of his own: Steam Rooms, an EP with Okzharp, on the Hyperdub label. He says he was happy when he heard the finished version of “My Power.”
“Everybody’s going crazy over it,” he says. “Even the people that don’t respect me, now they respect me!”
The boost he’s received from producing the Beyoncé track has only pushed his star further into orbit. “I can’t talk about it now, but I just got another deal to do a project for another big-name artist too,” he says.
Lag made the song that started it all, “Trip to New York,” back in 2017 while — quite literally — on a trip to New York. “I started making it in South Africa but then did most of it in New York,” he said. He’d been staying with a friend in Brooklyn, after performing as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Warm Up outdoor concert series in the summer. The track, which was released as an EP in July 2017 to fans and subscribers via WhatsApp, in a marketing ploy to build his fanbase in South Africa, became the subject of a plagiarism investigation when it was discovered that Distruction Boyz, a gqom music duo from Durban, had used the beat in their breakout track “Omunye.”
Lag hasn’t been deterred from his mission to take gqom around the world. “I’ve thought about that ever since I started traveling,” he says. “No other gqom producer is traveling like me, doing this like me.” He believes being on The Lion King: The Gift has further cemented his trailblazing status. “When this happened, I thought, ‘I’m the king now.’
“I wish more artists like Beyoncé would want to work with the qgom sound,” he adds. “I saw a video of Pharrell freestyling on gqom. I think it’s going to be the next big thing.”
Lag, who’s from Clermont Township in Durban, looks up to South African dance artist Black Coffee, a globally recognized house DJ. “We’re doing different styles of music, but I want to be like him,” he says. “The way he works, I really like it.”