Summer is festival season, which means a full calendar for an internationally touring DJ like Black Coffee. Over the last few years, the 42-year-old DJ and producer— born Nkosinathi Maphumulo and raised in Umlazi, a township located outside of Durban — has made it his mission to bring South African house music to the rest of the world. His style is powered by a borderless intuition as he slides smoothly between afro, house, and futurist jazz. Black Coffee is as comfortable playing Berlin club mecca Panorama Bar, where he’s a regular, as he is at Coachella or a Milan Fashion Week afterparty.
Cutting his teeth on the South African underground during his youth, the icon initially broke into the scene in the early 2000s and worked his way up to becoming a household name around a decade later. In 2015, he was named as “Breakthrough DJ of the Year” at the DJ Awards. A year later, he became the first South African to win a BET award.
Black Coffee’s continued success comes in large part from his keen talent in dismantling preconceived notions of what himself or others from his region sound like. Instead, his ultimate and unwavering vision is to paint worldly, class imagery with carefully-crafted sets while also moving people with original productions that he hopes will be carried far into the future. His unrelenting humility and passion also set him apart from the fact, as fans feed off his infectious energy worldwide.
In addition to DJing, Black Coffee often turns his hand to production too, releasing Pieces of Me on Soulistic Music in 2015 – a glorious celebration of house music’s diversity, it includes collaborations with Nakhane Toure, Azola, and Portia Monique. You can sense the joy radiating from his productions; a love letter to the empowering spirit of a darkened room and a sound system, it’s quite clearly the product of someone who lives and breathes house music.
When Drake’s More Life playlist dropped in March of 2017, one of the clear highlights was “Get It Together”, a re-work of Black Coffee’s 2008 piano-house track “Superman”, with new vocals by the Toronto rapper and British singer-songwriter Jorja Smith. Most of the time, he’s difficult to pin down. But here, comfortably in the grey area between known and unknown, between new records and weekends performing in Ibiza, we find Black Coffee.
What do you think you do as a producer or DJ that no one else can do? Or that no one else does as well?
I’m sure other people do it too, but as a DJ I’m more about creating an atmosphere, a mood. I like people to experience something deep from one of my sets, whether it’s releasing pain or being in love or feeling amazing and sexy.
You’ve been Black Coffee for about 20 years. There aren’t many musicians who can match your longevity. What are some of the things you’ve learned from that perspective? What have been your biggest challenges?
I’ve learned that humility will take you further than talent. Everything that I do comes from one place, a place of love. People feel and respond to love. There’s a saying along the lines of how people will never forget how you made them feel. I carry that with me whether I’m in the studio or on stage. Growing the Black Coffee name outside of South Africa has been a fulfilling journey, I don’t see it a challenge.
Do you notice any differences in the ways crowds react to your performances in different parts of the world?
Yes, there’s a big difference between countries like Greece, Italy, and South Africa… but one thing that’s always in common is the universal love for music.
In house music’s early days, the DJ was not necessarily the focal point of the party, and at some point that changed. Is that something that you consider when you’re playing? Are you thinking about how you look while you’re performing?
No I don’t, my main focus when I’m there is to just deliver.
With over 20 years and club culture experiences all over the world behind you — does this space still work for you? Is it not thoroughly commercialized?
It’s still as exciting as ever. There are commercialized spaces and as a DJ I have to make a decision and choose whether it’s best to take certain bookings or others, but in general I believe that the more underground, the better the vibe.
What is a song you wish you could play every time you walked into a room?
A remix of Muye I just recently finished.
And a record that changed your life?
“Flight of the Comet” by Larry Heard.
How did you come up with the name Black Coffee?
I was given this name by a friend while we were still students; it had more to do with my skin complexion than anything, but I felt like it would work well as a DJ name, too.
South Africa is said to be the highest consumer, per capita, of electronic music around the world. What are some of the factors for such a growth, as you see it?
There is a culture of house music compilation albums which was even bigger back in the day and this culture was what popularized house music back then. Some of these albums sold over 100k units and the most popular songs out of these played a lot on the radio. Then it eventually gravitated towards local producers creating their own songs and albums.
How has the South African scene grown and developed over the years? What do you think is needed to make it into a house music mecca?
A lot is still lacking to get there. We don’t have full-time promoters and music platforms to sell the music yet. For a place that consumes as much house music as we do, we don’t have enough festivals that are properly curated.
In an ideal world, what would you like to see for the future of nightlife in South Africa?
A multi-racial crowd. A club scene where all types of house genres (ones that make sense to the people) are embraced and represented by certain clubs and venues. DJ’s playing different styles, touring the country and having shows abroad. In exchange, I’d also love for us to keep bringing DJ’s from outside of the country so that we can all learn from each other.
There are seemingly countless subgenres of house and these subgenres often intersect. I’ve seen your sets categorized as Spiritual, Soulful, and Afro among other descriptions. How would you characterize your work? Is there a particular energy or feeling that you aim to convey to your audience?
I’m not big on categorizing house – what’s afro to one person might be tribal to me, for instance. House music has always been about fusing all these things together, so I try to bring together elements of soulful /spiritual /sexy /afro /jazz-y and sometimes classical music to my sets.
Where do you feel most satisfied, in the studio or on stage?
I absolutely love performing.
How did your collaboration with Drake on ‘More Life’ come about? How was that experience working with him?
His management reached out to mine about licensing the song and when we reached an agreement we sent all the music for him to write on. I wasn’t in the studio with him, we did everything remotely on this record, but it was a great honor to be on his project and it definitely exposed the Black Coffee name to a wider audience.
What is your creative process like when working with vocal artists? Do you ever compose lyrics yourself?
Yeah I do, I’ve sung backing vocals on some records but it always depends on who I’m collaborating with and how we’re vibing.
For more of our interviews, revisit our Q&A with 070 Shake, the standout artist on Kanye West’s new album, right here.
- Words: Mariana Carvalho