Setting the pace from South Africa to Europe, the DJ charts his own course.
In March 2017, barely one year after releasing Views, a maximalist ode to his hometown Toronto, Drake shared More Life, his most eclectic non-album project. The release, marketed as a playlist, spanned the breadth of the Black world’s sonic references, taking on influences from the sun-washed grooves of the Caribbean, the earthy grime of Black Britain, and the balmy salve of afro-fusion. But some of the most hauntingly piercing moments on More Life owed the strength of their form to the charged-up electronic thrums of house music.
On “Get It Together,” More Life’s fifth track, Drake and British singer, Jorja Smith, go to work over a revamped, sped-up remix of “Superman,” paying direct homage to the four-on-the-floor and disco hybrid of its source material and Bucie’s immaculate songwriting. Still, the fingerprints of Superman’s owner, the man they call Black Coffee, born Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo, are all over the song; unavoidably so on the beat that so eclectically fused deep house with flush keyboard chords and the flair of wavy drumlines. For Black Coffee, it was a deeply satisfying moment. In an interview with DJ Mag, talking about the song, he said: “It was good, it introduced my name to a wider audience. We didn’t have to sit down in the studio, they took a song I had made nearly 10 years ago and sang over it. It did give me more exposure to some extent.”
That high of “Get It Together’s” success all tied into the upward trajectory of Black Coffee in the mid-to-closing stages of the 2010s as he rose from being one of South Africa’s foremost music innovators to acclaim as an in-demand international performer, disc-jockeying everywhere: from underground raves in Amsterdam and Berlin to plush nightclubs in Austria and Ibiza. But the Black Coffee story started far away from the bright lights of Europe or the stratospheric highs of collaborating with heavyweights like Drake, Alicia Keys, or David Guetta.
Black Coffee’s story, like many before him, originated from the townships.
Born in Umlazi, a township located south-west of Durban, Black Coffee had a chaotic spell of moving around as a young adult, at one point moving to Umtata, the hometown of legendary anti-apartheid figure, Nelson Mandela. But his love for music was a steady anchor, being introduced to DJ-ing as a child by an older cousin. As a young adult, Nkosinathi formed a group, SHANA, with his classmates, Mnqobi Mdabe and Thandukwazi Sikhosana, at the Durban Institute of Technology where he studied Jazz. Influenced by traditional South African rhythm and global electronic sound, the group tried to create a fusion of both influences that wasn’t commercially viable in South Africa at the time, leading, ultimately, to the group’s demise.
But Black Coffee’s sun was just rising. In 2003, he got a chance to attend the prestigious Red Bull Music Academy with legendary South African trumpeter, Hugh Masakela. Black Coffee regards it as a pivotal moment for his musical career. “That trip for me changed everything, because when I came back I knew what I wanted to do — including having him on my album,” he told DJ Mag. Two years after meeting the icon, his remix of Masakela’s “Stimela,” catapulted him to national attention. His eponymous debut album, released later that year, established him as an artist to look out for; produced primarily with computer software, Black Coffee melded the intricate heaves of jazz with the locomotion of dance music, effectively creating a brand of deep house that skewered to the left of conventional African melodies but retained a ready-to-dance identity. Also, the album won the Best Urban Dance Album category at the South Africa Music Award (SAMA), setting him on the way for future success.
In Black Coffee’s hand though, house was constantly being tinkered with for improvisations that could accentuate its vocal ambit. The success of his debut was followed by Have Another One in 2007 entrenching the DJ/producer’s innovative jazz-inflected house music as a standard in South Africa. Songs like “Izizwe” featuring the iconic Busi Mhlongo and “Even Though,” later licensed by French label, Real Tone, showed the range of Coffee’s talent. Home Brewed, Black Coffee’s third album, spread its wing beyond the tonal signatures familiar with South African audiences, winning him the coveted Best Male Artist award at the South African Music Awards.
By the time Black Coffee’s fourth album, aptly titled Africa Rising, dropped, the continent was already in the midst of a rush for its sonic talent and the DJ was one of a few premier acts flying South Africa’s flag. Upon release, Africa Rising was a critical and commercial success in South Africa; importantly, being signed to his own label gave Coffee the choice to license his music across the world in a push for his international break. Additionally, Africa Rising’s elegiac feel, again, broadened the scope of house music in South Africa, speaking about its impact in an interview with Magnetic Magazine, he said,
“Producers know there's not only one style of House and that’s not something we had before – back then everyone tried to sound the same. Now people are more open-minded, it’s quite exciting. ”
With the eyes of the world on Africa, Black Coffee’s career has blossomed, winning the Breakthrough DJ Award in 2015 in the same year as his last album, Pieces of Me. The momentum from that success led to another win at the BET Awards in 2016, this time carting away the Best International Act award after a year when his music, praised for its fusions and vibrancy, traveled all over the world culminating in that feature on More Life.
By now, his legacy as the flag-bearer of South African electronic music is sealed and his music is only set to go afar as he continues to experiment with the house he helped build. “I was made in South Africa and I built my following there and when I started doing stuff in Europe, it was mainly to grow,” he told Deep House Amsterdam in an interview.
“At the time, I would do gigs for free or for next to nothing but there was a bigger picture. This is what is happening now. The next plan is to be more in America and the world, while only doing the big shows in South Africa.”