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Black Coffee: Knight of the Raving Wave

The hardest working DJ in the world lives here.

 Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo is a colossal and resilient man at almost two metres tall; a pioneer of the DIY new age movement – he studied music and dropped out, started a band and dropped by the wayside, and finally went solo emerging hot as Black Coffee. His tenacity, and fearlessness ensured he carved a career beyond his wildest imaginations – countless awards and global superstardom status.

 

South Africa is one big house party. From one social extreme to the other within a kilometer; there is an aspirant house music DJ, an ardent fan or an electronic-driven tune blasting in a taxi, tavern or street party. Chances are, Black Coffee is involved in one way or the other in the mix. He is either the producer of the song, the collaborator, the licence holder, the DJ smashing the hit at the club or the fan who nodded at the conception stage of the song. That’s how powerful and widespread the influence of Black Coffee is in the South African and global music scene.

“I just love music. It’s all I know.” A multi-award-winning Producer and DJ, his fingers are deep and pronounced in every pie within the creative and cultural industries; be it film, music production, fashion and entrepreneurship. His feet are constantly in the air or moving across the global dance floors of the US, Europe, the Americas and Asia in tandem with his energetic afro inspired fusion of dance music. Yet, his heart is tucked safely at home. “There is an amazing vibe in South Africa,” he observes. “At times I feel like I am detached from the fan base, and for me it’s important to be accessible, but social media helps me (to close the gap) to reconnect to my roots,” he reassures his fans. His twitter account is abuzz with 2.5 million followers, and the Facebook Page stands at more than two million followers, with Instagram at 1.9 followers; an aggregated social media following that shames all five major recording labels back to the boardroom table. To put his itinerary in perspective, last year in May alone he did 24 shows all outside of South Africa. In 2016, he played at the Ultra Music Festival and Pdiddy’s exclusive UMF after-party, at the Mixmag, before embarking on an extensive five-month international tour that included performances for Coachella, Snowbombing, Elrow, Melt! Festival, South West Four, Sea Dance Festival, Full Moon Festival, Solomun + 1 and add to that, his continued residency at DC10, Circoloco.

In the past two years, he notched a full tour schedule of more than 250 shows a year. 3 “He is one of the hardest working DJs in the world, with a diverse kind of audience,” says his international booking agent David Levy of WME. “We are trying to accommodate all the different growth patterns in his career.” For growth and practical reasons, he sets up home in London, New York and LA in summer – hires a private jet to travel around – and comes back home at least three months in a year to tap into the vibes, energies and the homely spirit. “There is a lot more to be done for the country and continent. That’s why, if anything, I would want to do as much outside to better our scene. We’ve massive talent in Africa, but lack the structures. Everything is mixed up. With structures comes responsibility and measurable goals,” says Black Coffee.

When he is at home, he not only keeps the nation dancing, but continues scouting for new talent, keeping tabs at Soulistic Records and shooting movies. South Africans can’t get enough of him. “Sometimes it is overwhelming. As a person there is so much love that one can take in. Now, if you have the whole nation embracing you and throwing that amount of love – it could be depressing.” A generous spirit coupled with his hunger for success has opened more doors to African musicians than any other artist has managed to achieve, remarks his friend and mentor, Oskido of Kalawa Jazmee Records. “He has made huge sacrifices to be where he is at,” says the man who published and licensed his first three albums.

“Unlike other musicians Coffee has always known what he wants, that’s why he had to take himself out of the comfort zone and start at the bottom in Europe. Now he sits there on top of the game.” It has been a long, daring road getting into the international music touring circuit, but Black Coffee’s ambition that is matched by his creative genius is a drawcard for global recognition. In 2005, when nobody knew him, he bootlegged Simphiwe Dana’s hit-song Ndiredi to the annoyance of Gallo Music executives, but that was too late. He had announced his arrival in the world of music as a solo artist. “It was an honest mistake. It got me into trouble, but the attention around me was so huge.”

When he worked with Hugh Masekela remixing his iconic 1974 song S’timela there was no longer any doub about his massive creative potential. Unlike other DJs, he does not simply mix songs, he re-interprets their previously unimagined musical possibilities, adapting and arranging each work and in the process creating new works with a life of their own. “I believe that music can quietly inspire our people. While you dance, there must be substance in the music. My country still needs those uplifting messages, because we come from a dark past,” says the Durban-born international acclaimed DJ. “What sells me overseas is playing underground local artists. I listen to music every day. Unsigned kids constantly drop music on my e-mail box.” His Afropolitan-inspired signature sound has over the years landed him some dream valuable studio time with a galaxy of stars such as Diddy, Usher, Alicia Keys, Akon, Beyonce, Pharell Williams and David Guetta.

“My collaborations are not about people, but about the voices, textures and energies,” says the 43-year-old musician. Black Coffee’s djing career was influenced by the international dance music scene of the early 90s – Technotronix, Snap, BlackBox, SoulISoul, MC Hammer, Haddaway and other techno-outfits that dominated the former homeland state of Transkei airwaves. At eight years of age, a setback hit him. Dad came home drunk, a storm erupted leading to divorce; and mom parceled him to the former homeland of Transkei. Moving from being a slicky Durban-township boy to being a shepherd, he began living so much inside of himself creating fantasies about being among global-stars of his childhood. On the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was involved in a stampede that resulted in his left hand losing all feeling but music kept him going. “I was that odd kid with few friends, but I always loved music. I was raised by my grandmother, and I literally grew up shepherding and milking cows every morning.” As a teenager (15-year-old) in Mthatha, he started tagging along with his cousin in a mobile disco feeding the souls of the musically frenzied and politically suffocated masses at beauty pageants, weddings and birthday parties. At the time, his skill set was his ability to use a pen to rewind and forward cassettes and help connect the makeshift music system. He would later have his turn on the decks djing kwaito tracks, hip hop and imported classic house tracks. In 1996, he returned back to Durban to take up a place at the then Natal Technikon (now known as Durban University of Technology) studying Music Production, and majoring in Jazz Studies.

“When I got accepted at the music school, I felt something was beginning to happen.” A few months down the line, he dropped out, but not until he had formed a boy band – Shana, with his two college mates. His big break and turning point came in 2003 when he participated in the Red Bull Music Academy in Cape Town, meeting music icons such as Hugh Masekela. “My approach after attending the academy changed. As one part of the Shana trio, I felt there was space for original house music from SA, and I wanted to break the chain.” Black Coffee has not only broken that chain by local musicians of constantly mimicking international sounds, being exploited and beholden to major recording labels, he has transformed the whole industry on its feet. His work ethic and successes overseas have turned him into a conduit of South African music experience to the world, and a conveyor of international cultural experience back to Africa. “I am forever learning, pushing the envelope. I have so many ideas to change where our entertainment business is going. I am opening a music school, because our system is dysfunctional. We want to create careers for people.” Well, if you’re Black Coffee, what’s there to fear.