This month’s Carhartt WIP Radio show has been carefully assembled by London-based producer Lauren Duffus, an artist from the NTS Work In Progress Artist Development Program, in collaboration with fellow musicians from the initiative. The mix mirrors the multifarious styles of the 2021 NTS WIP crew, where Duffus weaves her own sounds with that of the UK futuristic-grime producer brbko, in addition to music from Lithuanian composer and singer Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, pop songwriter Piglet, South African duo Queen Black Acid, and LA artist Tweaks.
It’s a journey through grimey, bass-heavy hip hop; slow-mo psychedelic soundscapes; ambient-skewed folk music; catchy, hypnagogic pop, and heavily phased and filtered D’n’B.
To accompany the mix, Carhartt WIP spoke to the artists, touching on their careers to date, and how they’re honing their unique sounds under the mentorship of NTS. Here comes part two, featuring Lesedi Lefifi and Greg Itebogeng aka Queen Black Acid, Tweaks, and brbko.
Queen Black Acid
What does being part of NTS WIP 2021 mean to you?
Lesedi Lefifi: You can make music in a vacuum for so long that you lose all perspective. Doubt inevitably creeps in, leaving you uncertain as to whether your art is “good” or worthwhile. Not that doubt is enough to stop us, but NTS hitting us up was proof that we actually do have something special here. It’s always been special, but it’s quite nice that someone thinks it’s good too. NTS was the only place we knew of where we felt like we fit in. It’s great to feel like part of a global community. I think artists evolve and flourish just by having proximity to like-minded people, and I think this will happen for us. I can't help but look at the NTS WIP class of ‘21 and feel this drive to make music as great as them.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
Greg Itebogeng: My grandmother’s house had an array of instruments in it, from an accordion to an organ. My father and uncles always played records by Max Roach, Art Blakey, Hugh Masekela, Andile Yenana, Miles Davis. They pumped my ears with so many different genres. I’d watch them play keys and bass sometimes, but seeing my dad play drums flipped my world.
LL: My grandmother basically raised me, and she’d sing around the house all the time. On weekends, if the weather permitted, we would sit under the shade of the grapevine, her with her tray, tea and wireless radio, and me with my mat and my toys, and we’d spend afternoons out there. It was like a ritual – the way church is on Sundays. She would sing and tell me stories about history, music, all kinds of stuff. I can very clearly picture an amalgamation of those afternoons – the smells, the light. I think the sun shone differently back then. Her voice is the one I hear in my head when I’m singing, and I think that’s why I don’t really like my singing voice, as it’s not as good as hers. That lady could sing. I think about her everyday.
How did you get into music and performing?
LL: All my friends were learning instruments, but no one wanted to play bass, so I took it up. I tried the band thing a while ago, but at some point I realized that people like Beck, Damon Albarn, and Tim Presley were making music almost completely alone. I spent a few years picking up guitar, drums, keys, but had no clear direction. Then one day, I was walking through Sophiatown and ran into the best drummer in the country, Greg.
GI: I attended a boys high school in the Northern Cape, where every morning, us students would play songs whenever teachers entered or left the assembly hall. There would be woodwind instruments in the front row, brass in the middle and an entire back row of percussionists. I then joined the school band and studied music as a subject, performing as much as I could.
What is your creative process when making a track?
LL: Greg will send over a drum loop, to which I’ll add guitar, bass, synths, keys, and vocals. Then I’ll mix the whole thing, which I hate doing! Usually I'll pitch and speed the drums up or down, then add shit until the song reaches critical mass before stripping it back down into its final version. If there’s lyrics, they come last. The music informs the words. There’s also all kinds of other sorcery and secret spices involved, but that’s sacred knowledge. All the gear and resources we now have thanks to the program means that this process is shifting at a constant pace.
GI: Moving with Lesedi to KwaZulu-Natal and sharing an apartment together has changed the entire process in the best way because he's right there. We go skate, chill at the beach, head home and then put the headphones on.
What's your view on the political and social role of artists today?
LL: Art is very personal. I think insisting that an artist has a responsibility to be more or less political with regards to their art is somewhat unfair and entitled. It’s like telling someone how to keep their house in order. I feel that art exists to elicit thought and feeling, negative or positive, and that as soon as those boxes are checked, it’s fulfilled its purpose. Anything beyond that is great, but hardly necessary. I feel that an artist's role in society is to chronicle and reflect the times they live in. It’s up to the artist about addressing race, nationality, gender, orientation – all that shapes our outlook and experience of the world. These things tend to organically seep into the work of an artist, anyway. At least, that is the case for Queen Black Acid. I see the value and importance in political or philosophical music, but I also see value in catchy hooks, and repetition, and all those hallmarks of “shallow” bangers and club music. If art can reach you and make you feel something, anything at all, then there’s absolutely nothing “shallow” about it. It’s like an ecosystem. We all have our place and our role, and wherever you fall, it might behoove you to occasionally drift toward either end of the “deep” and “shallow” spectrum.
It’s up to the artist about addressing race, nationality, gender, orientation – all that shapes our outlook and experience of the world.
How much do you think culture shapes creative decisions?
LL: Culture informs perspective, which in turn informs art, and life in general. It shapes creative decisions to a massive degree. If you hail from the West, you will listen to music with a Western ear. The same applies for Indian, African and Asian systems and languages of music. That said, globalization, the internet and social media have led to the development of a global culture where loads of cross-pollination and sharing happens. Our ears are now more collectively global. Like how Afrobeats and Raggaeton both use traditional elements in their sound but both enjoy success that reaches far beyond their regions of origin.
GI: It does have an influence. There are some artists who lean more into folk or country music, because those genres have a big role in their upbringing. It makes sense that they do so, but also for when they don't. Maybe they grow out of it or prefer to express themselves creatively in other creative ways.
What are your thoughts on the accessibility of music today through large streaming platforms?
LL: You can’t argue that it’s much easier to access all the music in the world now. You can hear about an artist and then find every song they’ve ever released in a matter of minutes. You can also circumvent retailers and labels to get music to your fans directly, which is tight. Most of our listeners and supporters are people from outside our country who we wouldn't have been able to reach 15-20 years ago. Also, without the internet I wouldn’t have found NTS and entered us into the WIP programme. I do recall going into CD shops as a kid and just leafing through CD after CD before making my choice; listening to it in the backseat of the car while I read the album sleeve. The CD would be all I had of the artist and I would cherish it. The same goes for vinyl, or any other form of analog, packaged music. Now compare that to just finding someone on a playlist and being like “Hey, I fuck with this.” One is clearly better than the other. At least to me. We’re all just people on playlists now.
GI: We are living in a crazy, amazing era where we can digitally crate-dig. If I want my music heard, there are so many platforms to choose from, I just have to decide what works best for myself and the music. Lesedi and I are still big fans of finding record stores and hard copies because nothing beats finding vinyl. But the internet when used correctly and for the right reasons works, and the NTS WIP program is proof of that.
How much do other art forms influence your sound?
LL: I find it easier to draw inspiration from art forms that are not the one I’m currently working on. So for music inspiration, I look at film, literature, fine art, anything but music. They have a way of capturing vibes in a way that music doesn’t, so I take these moods and translate them. I start with the feeling, then work from there until a song reveals itself. I just want feelings in my head and not other peoples songs. Feeling is very important to us and our music, and I'd say it’s much easier to identify our vibe than it is to identify our genre. Our projects Parable of the Sower and Wretched of the Earth are both thematically based on and named after books by Octavia Butler and Frantz Fanon that had a profound effect on me, and that I re-read right before making those two projects. These were written over 20 years ago and are shockingly prescient.
GI: Visuals play a huge part in a lot of the creations we make and I'm grateful to have Lesedi who shares the same appreciation for many different art forms. Copious amounts of sharing different visuals, fashion, architecture between myself and Lesedi definitely plays a big part in my career and life.I try not to restrict myself to one form of art.
We’re all just people on playlists now.
How much is your music rooted in African music tradition?
GI: Almost everything to be honest. From its infancy as an idea to production, Afrika is the root and center.
LL: Some, none and all of it. We kind of take it for granted because growing up black and African means we just soaked up a lot of music in our environment, in churches, taxis, homes, and parties. So we can effortlessly speak the language of African Music. That said, I want to actively pursue and explore African musical tradition more with Queen Black Acid. Our song Ko Lapeng is a prime example of us trying this. We’ve been listening to a ton of African records from Harare, Dollar Brand and Sir Victor Uwaifo because we absolutely would like to lean more into our traditions and our immediate world for influence.
How has technology impacted your creative process?
LL: Everything you’ve heard from us so far has been made on GarageBand – we’re Ableton boys now though. So yes, devices and the internet have been instrumental in helping us make our art. At some point we had to learn to use whatever we had available, which has made us really low-fuss and resourceful. We could probably make a song with a seashell, some string, and an AA battery if we really had to.
How big of a role do classic song structures and arrangements play in the music you make?
GI: Having Lesedi as a multi-instrumentalist and producer really helps me ground my drums and percussion. We both learn a lot about structure and arrangement from each other. Also, listening to Harold Budd's compositions has been inspiring: his arrangements and themes remind me how to capture a mood with a certain chord progression, or with short pauses and harmonies.
LL: Until now, I’ve tried to make music as instinctively and organically as I can, and found that traditional song structures can be very limiting and confining, which in fairness might be my fault for slacking on my music theory. But we’ve been trying to challenge ourselves by adhering more to these structures and seeing what happens. We can make dense, swampy music, so we want to try something new. We’re never going to be a commercial radio band, but I do really want to write and arrange music that doesn’t have such a steep and esoteric barrier of entry. The music just pours out a lot of the time, so focusing this outpouring seems like a vital thing for us to do at this point.
What makes a band in your opinion?
GI: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Soya Burgers. Skateboarding and Yahweh (The Almighty).
LL: More than one person making music. And leather pants.
What does being part of NTS WIP 2021 mean to you?
TWEAKS: It changed everything. I’m forever indebted to those n****s.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
TWEAKS: I have this one memory that really sticks out to me. When I was around eight, I had to live with my grandparents in Jamaica during the Iraq war, because my parents were in the military at the time. I was really attached to my mother when I was younger, she was like the sun to me. So when I first got to Jamaica, I was so sad. I remember one day, I was sitting on the kitchen floor while my grandma did the dishes. My Grandmother Winsome had a beautiful voice and I would wake up so many mornings to her singing opera downstairs. She sang in the church and also led the congregation. On this day, I was particularly sad about my mum and I asked my grandma if I could go into the nice dining room, in a part of the house that was forbidden to kids. I remember her looking down at me as she rinsed off soapy residue from the dish in her hand. She could tell that I was really sad. That was the start of me being allowed to go into the forbidden place and lay out on the nice rug and play all her records. She had The Supremes, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, so much Motown, everything. I would come home from school and get to go in there while my grandma made dinner and I would stare at the ceiling listening to music. That memory caused a really tender place in my heart for music because I saw how my otherwise strict grandmother loosened her iron fist. It also was my first memory of recognizing that music was the exception and the respect my grandmother had for it.
What are your favorite NTS Radio shows and why?
TWEAKS:“Breakfast w/ Flo and Michelle's Club Hour. I love “Breakfast w/ Flo” because it’s the perfect start to the day and I also really enjoy hearing Flo’s giggles. I tell her all the time how much her laugh makes me feel all warm inside. “Michelle's Club Hour” has some of the sickest tracks I’ve ever heard and she mixes everything so seamlessly.
How much do other art forms influence your sound?
TWEAKS: A lot. I think most people’s sounds are a collection of the music they digest, their influences growing up, the films they watch, the tiny details that they note in their heads and the loves in their lives that make them feel like they’re living in a dream. Life and art influences it all and I live a good life so I think it translates well.
How important is the link between visuals and your sound?
TWEAKS: It’s everything. There would be no music if it wasn’t for the visuals. I’ve created tracks simply because I need music for a visual I have in my head. Luckily, I can carry a tune and have some production skills so I usually just do it myself. I stay away from calling any of my releases “albums” because they really are like school projects. The visuals, roll out, writing and the story matter just as much as the music.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
brbko: My dad used to collect CDs and he always had the most popping albums playing in his car. Kanye was always a staple but he also played shit like Massive Attack, Kelis, Arctic Monkeys, Mary J Blige, and Shabba Ranks. It definitely impacted the way I listen to and make music. It's made me really appreciate full length projects and given me a wider, more varied palette.
How did you first get into music and performing?
brbko: It started from playing with loops on the app Sony Ericsson MusicDJ, but I would say it really clicked in 2008, when I went with my cousin to a youth space in Downham. They had Mac computers there, so that was the first time I used GarageBand. They had this one loop that was used in Usher’s Love in This Club.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What's your view on the political and social role of artists today?
brbko: I’ll be real, I think it depends on your background. For a lot of artists, their whole existence has been political so they can’t really avoid that. I guess anyone from a marginalized community becomes a voice when visible. But it should be up to them how they use it. I think visibility and representation can be enough. It doesn't matter if your favorite artist is politically correct or socially conscientious, because their existence proves to others that there can be more to this life no matter who you are. For me it’s all about inspiring. That’s the highest act of humanity.
How much do you think creative decisions are shaped by culture?
brbko: Culture is created by culture. If you’re not cultured, then how can you be cultural?