Black Coffee: “I’m Proud to say I’m a Student of Pretty Much Everything”
Black Coffee: “I’m Proud to say I’m a Student of Pretty Much Everything”February 5, 2021
With his new album, Subconsciously, out today, we caught up with South Africa’s biggest DJ to find out more about working with Pharrell, how he spent his 2020, and his first-ever Ibiza show.
Thinking back to a time when the dance music world outside of Africa didn’t yet know who Black Coffee was feels almost quaint. These days he’s a bonafide rockstar. There’s his smash hit residency at Hï Ibiza (on pause in 2020 due to the COVID crisis). There’s his tour schedule, which normally sees the Durban, South Africa native play more than 250 shows a year at events like Coachella, Tomorrowland, and Ultra South Africa. And even major TV interviews — at the time of writing, Black Coffee (real name Nkosinathi Maphumulo) is the only DJ to be invited on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
But back in 2013, the world was only just waking up to what would be known as the Afro house sound; a style Maphumulo can take huge credit in championing. Eight years later, long after his first fateful gig at Ibiza’s CircoLoco (which helped break him internationally) Maphumulo is releasing his sixth studio album. Called Subconsciously, the LP isn’t necessarily aimed at the dance floor, and features pop royalty like Pharrell, Diplo, and Usher. Working with them was both “surreal” and an “honor,” Maphumulo says in our interview, but no one can say he hasn’t earned it.
Firstly, happy new year. How was your NYE? What did you get up to?
Happy New Year! I spent my NYE performing at a reduced capacity, socially distanced show in Dubai. It was great to get behind the decks again finally after many months of not being able to tour abroad.
Despite all the challenges 2020 presented, how was your year?
The life of a touring DJ can be extremely gruelling. Constant cross-continental travel, perpetual jet lag, late nights and little sleep takes a big toll. Although 2020 has been really tough financially for musicians and DJs with the all live events on pause, it’s allowed me to spend real time at home and to really rest and replenish; something I haven’t been able to do in about five or six years. I got so used to always travelling and being on the go that I forgot how great it is to just be home, to sit and do nothing and listen to your body, to spend real quality time with my kids and reflect inwards and learn more about myself.
2020 was a time of contemplation for many. Do you feel like you learned anything new about yourself or the world last year?
The pause has given me the time and the space to think about many things. When you have the space and time to order your thoughts, you make important realisations. You’re able to see much more clearly and separate the things that really matter to you from the trivial. Although the pandemic has brought much loss and suffering (and still is), it’s been a blessing to have quality time to devote to my kids, to focus fully on my music and spend time working on making the album better and to also put time and effort into Flightmode Digital, my angel investment company. And I feel that being able to reconnect with myself during this time has been invaluable in terms of getting to reflect and re-evaluating my priorities, future plans and ambitions.
What’s kept your spirits up during the lockdowns?
Family. Being able to be home and be a dad to my kids brings me a lot of joy. Music — I’ve had time to listen to a lot of it and work on some new music as well. And making time to count my blessings and show gratitude by giving back through the Global Citizen One World: Together at Home concert and the Covid relief fundraising I was able to do with my Home Brewed live sessions.
Did you write most of Subconsciously last year?
Actually Subconsciously has been a work in progress since before the release of “Drive” with David Guetta ft. Delilah Montague. So it’s been ongoing since 2018.
Tell me about the inspiration for the album. It feels like a departure from your dance floor presence.
Subconsciously is a music project that’s very close to my heart. In the past, I’ve produced predominantly pure house music-focused albums. But over time, as I’ve grown and evolved as a producer and musician, I’m in a space where I want to explore as much music as I can without being stuck in one genre. I’m a music fan first. I listen to and love different styles of music. This album is the first time that I’ve ventured fully outside of house music-only focus on an album. At the same time, it’s been extremely important for me to stay true to my roots and my rhythms and have the people I want to work with on the album.
You collaborated with several major pop stars — Grammy winners like Pharrell Williams, Diplo, Usher and JozzI. Was this something you always wanted to do?
As a young artist/producer setting out on your journey into the music world of course you have dreams and aspirations of who you’d love to work with on a song, but in your mind, you don’t actually believe any of that will come true. Fast forward to today and I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some of the world’s most esteemed and talented music artists. At times it can feel quite surreal. But it’s such an honour to be afforded the opportunity to collaborate creatively with each one of the music artists, songwriters and producers I’ve worked with on this project.
Did you get to work with Pharrell in the studio? If so, what was that like?
I’d first done the song “10 Missed Calls” with Jozzi. I’d been trying to do a song with Pharrell for a while now. When we got the chance to work together in the studio previously, we tried a lot of different things. But it was only after I’d created this song “10 Missed Calls” with Jozzi and upon sending it to Pharrell and him listening to it, his resounding response was, “Okay, this is the one I want to get on.”
The first (and only) time you and I met was in Ibiza in 2013. I interviewed you the day after your debut gig at DC-10 at a beach cafe in Talamanca. That day you said your dream was to eventually host your own party in Ibiza so you could invite all your friends to DJ alongside you, which is of course exactly what you did. Do you remember that show?
Of course I remember! At the time I was a lot less exposed to the international scene. I literally didn’t recognise any of the names on the lineup. I didn’t know what anyone played and had no idea what to expect. I just came as this guy who had been doing what I’d been doing and Seth Troxler (I had no idea who he was at the time) suggested me to get booked and they invited me to come and do my thing. It was eye-opening for sure!
Do you feel like that gig played any significant role in where you are today?
Without question! CircoLoco is a big part of my story on the island. I learned so much playing at DC-10 those first few years in Ibiza. I’m really proud to say I’m a student of pretty much everything. I quickly learned who was who, what they did, how crucial they were to the scene, and what each DJ brought to the table. It was an ongoing learning process that laid the foundation and groundwork which ultimately paved the way to my residency with Hï Ibiza.
Is Ibiza close to your heart these days? And will you be back for your residency next year if safety allows it?
Ibiza is a very special place. The island is very dear to me, as is the team at Hï Ibiza. I really cannot wait to return once things are back to some semblance of normal and we are able to resume live shows. I’ve missed the incredible Saturday nights at Hï very much.
Finally, what’s next for you this year? And what’s your hope for 2021?
Well, as you know, my album Subconsciously drops on February 5th! I’m really happy. It’s been a long time coming with this project which is especially dear to me.
During lockdown I’ve also had time to focus on further development of Gongbox, my streaming platform which has been in the works for a number of years. Gongbox will allow users to create, produce and aggregate content in a single platform including streaming video and music. It’s basically a platform that I’m launching to help the music scene on the African continent. Our market is Africa first before anywhere else. It’s a platform where we want to start telling our own stories, owning our own South African moments. Keep an eye out as we’ll be launching soon!
Beyond that, I think everyone in our industry is praying too that the rollout of COVID vaccines across the globe will be rapid and effective enough for some version of normal life to resume and allow live events to take place again.
Chandler Shortlidge is the Editor of Beatportal. Connect with him on Twitter.