The South Africa to UK connection: In conversation with Scratchclart and Mxshi Mo
Over the last few years, Gqom and Amapiano have seeped heavily into the UK’s underground music scene. Not only have they worked their way on to dance floors, these South African-born sounds have also directly influenced a wave of UK producers too.
Scratchclart, AKA Scratcha DVA, is one of the foremost artists weaving these inspirations into his own output. In the signature way that British music creators always have done, he draws from these styles but morphs and twists the rhythmic frameworks and distinctive samples into something fresh. The long-standing Hyperdub affiliate is something of a chameleon; with each release he’s channeled a new batch of inspirations and jumping points which stand as a testament to his production abilities.
His latest outing on the label is ‘Afrotech‘, an EP which explores his UK Gqom hybridisation of South African and UK dance music. Amongst the collaborators on the release is Pietermaritzburg-based producer Mxshi Mo, with whom Scratcha connected with over their shared love of Gqom and Amapiano sounds.
Dubbing himself as an outsider, it was Mxshi Mo’s singular take on these styles, namely his debut release for Ahadadream’s More Time Records, that caught Scratcha’s ear. Mxshi’s creations weren’t a carbon copy of the sounds stemming out of Durban or Jo’burg and Pretoria respectively, his distance from these central music hubs has actually become his selling point: it’s what has set him apart from the rest.
In this extended discussion, Mxshi and Scratcha cover a hell of a lot of ground. From the current climate in the Amapiano and Gqom scene to how SA sounds have bled into the UK, as well as a sharing production and creative processes and their musical backgrounds and journeys, the pair connect the dots between their homes and their sounds, making for a conversation that dives deep…
Scratcha: Cool so, got some questions here for you. One for one. Get my journalist hat on. Being a musician from SA who producers Gqom, amapiano and other electronic sounds, in your own unique style as well, which is not the same as everyone else. Because of that, do you find yourself feeling a bit outside of the circle? Because from my understanding Gqom is from Durban and Ami would be Pretoria and Joberg, and you’re from Pietermaritzburg. Do you find yourself a bit outside of the circle when you’re networking?
Mxshi Mo: Yeah I do because there’s an expectation that comes with entering the music scene, especially as an amapiano producer, you have to make what’s popping. The thing is, I’ve never liked that whole concept of riding the wave, so my style is misunderstood.
There’s not much of an art space, because most creatives, as soon as they get the opportunity to go and study in Durban after high school, they move there. As soon as they’ve created a name and a brand for themselves it makes it really hard for them to come back to Pietermaritzburg because there’s not a space.
I’ve always felt like an outsider but I mean I think that’s also just inspired me to not be afraid of being different in a way. I think I made a conscious decision a while back, like look there’s seven billion of us on the planet and if they’re not feeling me here, somewhere out there someone is gonna be feeling them. When I’m making these tunes, I’m dancing my ass off and you know, I’m not crazy, so I was like OK well let’s try and network outside of the norm, because I don’t wanna conform.
I’ve definitely felt like an underdog and an outsider for a while. I mean most creatives from Pietermaritzburg have the same feeling, once they find acceptance wherever they relocate, it makes it very hard for them to come back and contribute to the city.
I feel like I’ve been in a similar situation coming up as well. It can definitely shape your thoughts and that feeling of not wanting to conform as well. If you’re in the mix of where everything is at, you can maybe end up doing the same as everyone else. There’s pros and cons to it.
Mxshi Mo: What is it like to live in the UK yet be influenced by South African music or amapiano music? I’ve noticed there’s a lot of South African elements in your music. What is that like, when you have to package it and present it in a set?
Scratcha: I think for here, in the UK and especially London as well, it’s always been a melting pot. We’re always going to be influenced, and from that make our own creations that are influenced by that — we move forward and make other sounds from sounds that were already there. If you look at house, coming from Chicago, and then we have Garage and UK Garage that formed into grime. We’re always going to do that and it’s always going to happen here.
It doesn’t feel unnatural for me at all. We’ve always done it; I’ve always done it. It would be like saying you weren’t influenced by your parent’s music growing up, you know, it’s hard not to be somehow, even if it’s not direct. Later down the line you’re like “Oh I know this because my mum listened to that or because my dad played that”. So being influenced by something that is not from the UK is no problem for me at all, and it’s not a problem for people here.
I find that it’s a problem for people in SA maybe? I’m hoping it’s something we can overcome because I don’t know whether people in SA can see, especially now with Gqom and Amapiano, can see the comparisons with the music we already have here, like Grime and UK funky. For me if something like UK funky has dipped out… Actually maybe you can tell me about it in relation to Gqom, has Gqom dipped out for a bit?
Mxshi Mo: With our first huge genre, which is Kwaito in the early 90s, that was a subgenre of house, of Chicago house. As record labels started forming in SA, they started training more and more musicians and producers, and that’s how the whole genre spread out. I feel like there’s only a few genres that are originally from SA, like amapiano, but I can still trace elements of Deep House of Afrotech, and sometimes elements of R&B, with artists like Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa.
Scratcha: The reason I wanted to say that was because, well a couple of things actually… It’s funny I was listening to a mix the other day, a FACT mix by Shannen SP, and right at the very end there’s a track she plays that has a little sample, a little chant or something, like ‘woo woo’. I was like hold on a minute, I know this, and it was an old kwaito mix and because I have that sound in a load of my tracks – I sampled it from a gqom track – so it goes from kwaito to gqom to me, here in the UK, and it’s like that’s the progression. But the track that that sound is from in the kwaito track sounds like Chicago house. It’s just Chicago house slowed down, with chants on it. So it’s funny really when people are like “what are you doing? You’re taking our sound” — all sound is for everyone. I know there’s different things to it but I feel like there’s this whole argument happening here which doesn’t need to happen. It didn’t happen when West Coast started doing hip hop. East, West and Southern Hiphop all appreciate each other’s style.
Mxshi Mo: It didn’t. I feel like those kind of arguments aren’t healthy for new genres. Especially for young producers who want to get into subcultures. It would be nice if everyone wanted to just open up and explore. Let the genre expand and see how far we can push it you know?
Scratcha: Exactly. I feel that as well. It seems like, in every genre, not just on your side, it’s the same in grime and all sorts, I feel like it’s maybe the ones who aren’t quite as active who are the most angry about it. Which you know is sometimes understandable as they might not be feeling like they’re getting their things. I feel like the people who are active, like yourself, and the people who are trying out new music, they don’t have a problem with the progression of the sound.
One thing I wanna do just to wrap this one up: so UK Funky is something we’ve loved, and it basically just disappeared. Amapiano is very much in the line of UK Funky, just slower, it’s really just filled the hole of UK Funky. It’s not like we’ve taken anything, it’s just like we used to have something like that, and now it’s back but it’s not from here, it’s not ours, but we’re still gonna enjoy it in the same way. That’s all it is. It’s not that deep, and it’s nice.
Mxshi Mo: It’s amazing. I just wanna see what it’s gonna look like in the next five years.
Scratcha: Yeah for sure. If a camera crew followed you around for the whole day, like from morning, what would they capture on the cam?
Mxshi Mo: Ooooh, pretty boring. I wake up around 6am, first things first, I pray. I’ll put on one of those binaural beats for like 8 minutes. I made a tape basically. I try to remain still, I’ll try to meditate. Then I’ll exercise for like 30 minutes, take a bath, eat. Then I go on the computer and see if there are any projects outstanding that I need to finish, if so I’ll analyse the project, if it’s something I need to do right away then I’ll do it, if not I’ll just practice my piano. Then I’ll watch a few tutorials on sound design, but it just depends. Sometimes it will be tutorials on sound design for a whole month, because I wanna try and learn as much as I can in regards to just making sound, mixing etc. So I get hold of a few tutorials and I spend a month on them. I just don’t wanna end up binging everything.
I run a home studio, I just work from home. It’s just learning, music theory, music production, sound design and actually producing beats. That’s my everyday life. I don’t go out.
Scratcha: Sounds very similar to some of my days bro, except I leave the house to go to the gym, then I come back and do the same as you.
Mxshi Mo: Sometimes I get a coffee, I go for a walk, put my headphones on. I’m a little antisocial. But I greet people on the streets. You know but I don’t like anyone hanging round on the streets outside while I’m working, while I’m creating. I wanna be free. Sometimes it’s not magical, it’s frustrating at times. Sometimes I talk to my PC when the platform’s slowed down, I need to be comfortable at times.
Weekends are much more relaxed. My buddies come through when they’re not working, we hang out, we’re a small crew. Weekends I chill out and watch movies too. Monday and Friday is just beats and tutorials.
Scratcha: That’s why you’ve got so many tunes bruv. The first tunes I got from you via Ahadadream, I thought wow, you make a lot of music. So yeah shall we keep it moving, let’s keep it moving.
Mxshi Mo: Yeah I have a question. I wanted to ask, are there any musicians in your family, and if so how has that impacted your journey as a creative? Were they supportive?
Scratcha: So when I was younger at primary school, my brother he brought in some DJ decks and he used to have a mix with jungle music. He used to go to all these raves and he’d have all these flyers on the wall, you know because we shared a bedroom. One time I saw a flyer on the wall and I saw someone I knew on the flyer with a mic in their hand. It was actually my niece’s dad, and I was like to my mum “What’s he doing on this poster?” because I didn’t understand what was going on. She was like “Oh because he’s an MC and he raps” and that’s when it clicked for me because it was like someone I know who’s amongst the family can actually be one of these people. That was an eye opener for me, and with my brother having the decks, when he went out I’d have a sneaky mix, and it just snowballed from there. My sister also did used to sing, not professionally but she did sing on a couple of tracks. My dad also played guitar but no-one was doing anything major, apart from my niece’s dad who’s still an active MC today in jungle and drum and bass. Big up MC Navigator.
Scratcha: Lemme get you a question. How’s it been working alongside More Time Records and how did the collab come around?
Mxshi Mo: It’s been amazing working with More Time. They’ve actually pushed me to try things that I haven’t, and to navigate the music industry, because it was my first time working with a label. I’ve always been a lone wolf in a way. Trying to navigate through the music industry is very difficult, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. I feel like they’ve made that clear, and what I like is that they did exactly what they said they would do. And they’re very supportive, they’re very good people. We can talk about other things outside of music; I feel like I’ve always known them, in a way.
How the collaboration came about was… I’m just going to start at the very beginning leading on to how I met More Time Records. What happened was I was browsing through the internet looking for tutorials and I think a few days before, I was searching something on Red Bull to see if they had a Red Bull Academy, and came across those episodes that had hashtag Gqom, they did a small documentary on Gqom, and I saw Gqom was going in the global scene and what DJ Lag and Emo Kid and all the guys from Durban had done with the genre itself.
That ignited something in me to be honest, I started doing my own investigation and was like OK let me follow Lag and see who Lag is following, let me see who is commenting on DJ Lag’s posts. Then I stumbled across a video, Boiler Room, it was DJ Lag In London and Ahad was hosting. I watched that set and Ahad’s face seemed really familiar, I’d seen him commenting on Lag’s stuff on Twitter. So I checked out Ahad and saw he also co-founded More Time Records, and then I went to More Time Records handle and sent them a DM and asked them if they accepted demos from independent artists from SA who are making Gqom, and they were like “Yeah, we do”.
I sent them about three Soundcloud links, and they were like we like these but do you have more? So I sent them the whole folder. I was like yeah might as well, I just wanted the music to get out there because you know it was just sitting there on my computer for like three months while I investigated all of this. It was a process that took me about three months between meeting Ahad and More Time records. I was just browsing and looking for people, following anyone that was a face.
Scratcha: You’re very similar to me in the way that I’ll just find someone’s email and I’ll just send stuff, I’ll find it and send stuff. Have you ever done that with the Durban community? Or are you concentrating on getting your stuff across the water?
Mxshi Mo: At first I used to do that a lot but I realised they’re busy. As soon as they became mainstream, they didn’t really read emails or check inboxes, and I wouldn’t take offence at that you know because I could see their line ups on social media. So I thought, what am I gonna do in the meantime, you know I’m not gonna wait for him to reply to my emails. I got to a point where I got tired of waiting for a reply. That lack of response I wasn’t getting in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world so I thought this is what I’m meant to do.
Scratcha: I get that. In a similar way when I was starting up the DRMTRK EPs, which is heavily Gqom inspired, I was only going to send it to SA DJs and producers first, so I got everybody’s email and I sent it to everyone. All the Gqom-Oh producers, and I don’t think I got any answers, maybe one. But to this day I’ve emailed Lag like 20 times and he’s never replied. I feel that Durban and SA community are slack on email, very slack.
Mxshi Mo: It’s a very secretive community. You know, it’s like they don’t wanna tell you which plugins they use, what presets…
Scratcha: That’s strange to me because in my head everybody shares over there because the sounds are very similar. That’s why I said you’ve got a very unique sound that’s outside the box, I feel like a lot of the Durban community shares.
Mxshi Mo: Yeah they do, but it depends who you are. Are you from the same street? Are you from the same neighbourhood? It’s very… it’s like a wolf pack in a way.
Scratcha: You know it could be like that here, especially when it was grime. Well it still is grime but especially in that era where you have the east London sound with the PS kits and the triton sounds, not that anybody couldn’t buy triton but it seemed to be a very east thing, but in South they had their thing there. It was very tribal in a way. No different I guess.
Mxshi Mo: What is the one thing you would save if your studio caught fire?
Scratcha: If I was gonna say one thing it would be my time machine. My time machine back up. That’s it. Nothing else matters. Of course it all matters but I think without my time machine backup I can’t continue and I’d have to start all over again which doesn’t sound good. At least I could get a next laptop and reboot and go. Just to add, I did have a situation where someone set all my records on fire and I had to start again. All my vinyl. It’s not nice.
Mxshi Mo: My dad used to collect vinyl. The O’Jays, South African jazz. It was my Dad who actually got me into music, well indirectly, because every time he dropped me off at school he seemed to have the latest Kwaito hit. At the time I didn’t understand what Kwaito was and I asked and he told me, he told me about different groups. In a way he was educating me. Nothing but jazz on Sunday but Monday to Saturday it was Kwaito. Even the Soul Candi, early Soul Candi stuff, I learnt it from him as well.
Scratcha: Is that Kid Fonque? Soul Candi…
Mxshi Mo: I think it’s a label that he works with a lot. Not a few but a lot of releases with them. So yeah it was my dad really, he wasn’t a musician or anything like that. RIP, he died in 2006.
Scratcha: RIP Dad. With the parents it can be very indirect unless they’re musicians, with my mum she had music on, more music than TV, especially on Sunday. I would wake up and music was on: Reggae, and that’s playing all day. And even after dinner my mum would put on the TV but the radio would still stay on. She’d watch TV and listen to music at the same time, still today, I do that with my Sundays. The radio has to stay on while I watch TV, I can’t help it. That’s what I’ve indirectly got from my mum.
Scratcha: So, next question… I’ve been to SA a couple of times and there’s some good food spots out there. Nando’s is actually from SA right? It’s Portuguese but its from South Africa, I remember having one out there. You get giblets with your meals bruv, it’s mad. They would never sell that here! But what is your favourite south African meal?
Mxshi Mo: South Africa is so rich and cultured, there’s such a diversity. Every tribe has a favourite meal in a way. My tribe is Zulu, our favourite meal is called Phuthu which can either eat it with beef or chicken curry, then there’s Pap and vleis (meat in Afrikaans), which is SAs version or a barbecue.
Scratcha: Yes, because I played at cold turkey and they had a velds when you come in, and you just cook up the meat. You can even bring your own meat. Yeah man, so barbecued meat that’s what you’re going for?
Mxshi Mo: Yes and Pap, you just use flour and dough. You can eat it with your hands, it doesn’t require a knife or fork. Pup and velds. Wherever you go in SA if you ask for that you’ll get that same meal, some places they’ll have some add ons like salad, but the foundations of the meal is universal. It’s really nice.
Scratcha: I’m gonna have to try that when I come back through.
Mxshi Mo: How important is it to maintain a good artist/DJ relationship with regards to collaborations, releases etc? I realised that’s a quality that you have, did you major in communications, or is it just something you picked up along the way? How important is it?
Scratcha: I think it’s important. It’s just the music isn’t it. I love the music. So if the person is making the music that I like I’m gonna communicate with them because I’m a musician right. I know that not everybody is the same, everybody’s different, some people don’t like to communicate, that’s their thing cool. But for me, I have no problem with communicating.
People like DJ EZ, one of the best DJs ever, I’ve been listening to him since I was a kid playing Garage music. UK Garage was massive here, but as Grime was becoming the thing of the streets and the youth, Garage was still there but it was becoming more of an older man’s thing. Grime sort of came around because people were trying to make Garage and didn’t have the facilities to make it at that level, and you end up having Grime. But someone like EZ, he still kept connected with the youth, and he kept his connections with his peer group whilst keeping connections with these young people making a new sound. He still does it today, he might not do it directly but you can see by his tracklists – he doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what age you are: you’re making good music, he’s playing it. I’ve always felt like that with my radio show, it doesn’t matter, if their music is good and I’m inspired by it then I’ll have a conversation with you. Why not? We’re all musicians innit.
Mxshi Mo: You’re good at it. I’ve picked up a few things from you with regards to that. Like when I started I was really antisocial but I realised I needed to open up more, the minute I started to work with Ahad. I had no choice but to open up. You know it’s easy to get criticism from your peers, you can accept that, but to actually get criticism from abroad, from other people from different cultures, environments, it’s scary in a way. But I think it’s very important, you need to be able to be vulnerable at times.
Scratcha: And it’s just staying in people’s minds as well because there’s so much music out there, there’s so many musicians and so many people doing similar things. I think if you’re communicating with a group of people then you might be in their mind to be selected for a set or something. But then the antisocialness does work for some other people. It kind of depends doesn’t it.
Scratcha: From my understanding you’re a musician working with a heavy visual impairment, can you discuss how it effects your day-to-day and how it effects your workflow, if it does at all?
Mxshi Mo: It does effect my day-to-day a lot because I have to take breaks in between to rest my eyes. Workflow-wise at the beginning it was very hard but now it’s easy because of Apple and their accessibility features. Technology is keeping up with us: the visually impaired. I try not to think about it a lot, I wish it wasn’t there so my workflow could be a little faster, it’s just those little things. I had to learn many DAWS, I had to go through like five DAWS to find the one that worked for me; I came back to Fruity Loops. I also had to learn all the keyboard shortcuts. In a way it’s been an amazing journey to be honest.
Mxshi Mo: How would you describe your sound or style of music to an 8-year old?
Scratcha: Damn, you know I read these questions but I didn’t think about the answers (laughs). I’m one of those guys who will get into an Uber and the guy will be like “so what do you do?” and I’ll be like “I work with computers”. I can’t be bothered to explain what it is. For one I don’t exactly know how to explain it and I cannot be asked to talk about music.
I’ve been making music quite a while, and I’ve definitely been influenced by lots of different things and it shows in my sounds right? So for me to describe my music it’s hard because I will probably only be describing one thing. You could listen to one album and another album and it’s like two different books – it’s two different stories. I don’t know if I’d be able to describe it but I’d be able to describe each individual project easily. Maybe, but not to an 8 year old, but I’d say it’s pretty diverse. You know what I’m saying because you make loads of different things too.
Mxshi Mo: Yeah that’s why I asked you. I’ve got a nephew and he’s turning nine in October. He was like “yeah so what do you do in front of that computer?” and I was like “I make beats” and he said “what are beats?”. I was like woah man, I don’t know what to say, it just opens up a lot of stuff I won’t have an answer for.
Scratcha: Being known to make Gqom and Amapiano, do you have any thoughts on the decline of popularity for gqom while Ami seems to be rising?
Mxshi Mo: I think it’s tribal, it’s the Gqom tribe not wanting to embrace the Amapiano tribe, there’s that separation, and in a way it caused a decline because everybody was expecting those genres to come together but that didn’t happen. Artists that were forefronting the Gqom sound were kind of throwing shade at the Amapiano crew. What I like the most is that Amapiano still prevailed through the shade, they were like “OK we’re not going to comment, we’re just going to stay in the studio and make music while you guys tweet about it”. At the end of the day it’s music and the masses like it, I kind of feel like if the Gqom guys and the amapiano guys come together…
Scratcha: Well that’s what I’m saying. It’s weird for me because myself and other UK DJs will happily play Gqom and amapiano in the same sets. I remember having an interview with someone from an SA publication when I did my last EP – it was influenced by Gqom and Amapiano again – and he’d be like “wait, what you play Gqom and amapiano together?” and I was like why would you not? It’s weird that you’ve got these two amazing sounds coming out of SA but they can’t live together.
Mxshi Mo: You know and they aren’t even similar in terms of tempo. Gqom is definitely fast-paced, and when it comes to the SA market Gqom is catered more to people who have a dancing background and the youth — anyone below 18 is heavily influenced by Gqom. Then I think anyone above 18 is heavily influenced by Amapiano but they do have their favourite Gqom songs. If you were to drop one in the middle of an Amapiano set, all hell would break loose, but there’s still those songs that cut through the noise even though we have Amapiano on the rise.
Scratcha: For me, someone who is supporting Gqom, there’s even been a decline in what’s being released. I feel like there’s Griffit Vigo, there’s less Citizen Boy, there’s less of the people I love. I know what it’s like, it can be similar in grime where something else might come along, like when UK Funky became a thing, grime kind of took a backseat. Grime producers were playing UK Funky and making UK Funky and other grime DJs saw that and stopped making grime. There’s actually people who do like it, you’ve just got to make it.
Mxshi Mo: I also think the Gqom guys, they come from an era where, yes it is DIY, but when it comes to social media and networking, I’d say that the Gqom guys are more production-based — they’re more into making the actual sound than networking and getting the music out there. Whereas the amapiano guys are more into networking and they know how to meet the criteria; they know how to have that radio-finished and polished sound.
There’s a lot of Gqom sounds that don’t end up on radio, but there’s a lot of cheesy amapiano sounds that do because they sound like the next big thing. I think also it’s the mindset: the Gqom guys need to start using social media and collaborating more with other artists outside of the Gqom community. That’s what the amapiano guys did, including a lot of people who were session musicians and session singers, because there’s a lot of live instruments lately on amapiano songs, whereas I’m yet to hear a real bass guitar on a Gqom tune.
Scratcha: There is one. There’s the one that Lag did with Moses Boyd that ended up becoming the Beyonce track. ‘My Power’ it’s called. That originally started from a London-based drummer called Moses Boyd who produced the live drum beat and Lag kind of produced on top of that. Big up Moses Boyd. The original tune is called ‘The Drumming’.
Mxshi Mo: What I wanted to find out is do you design your own sounds or do you design your own patches and presets?
Scratcha: Both: if there’s a preset I like, I’ll use it. I’ll try not to use presets that are heavily used except, more recently, I’m using a log drum in all sorts of things because I like the sound of it. I like using patches too: I will use a synth and twist it up until I get the sound that I like. You know what, until a few years ago, I wasn’t even saving my sounds, and that’s probably why one project wouldn’t sound like another. Now I save the sounds so I can always go back to that bass sound or another sound, so now there’s more continuity between projects. I do like to do that more than using presets.
Scratcha: Name one plugin or VST you can’t live without.
Mxshi Mo: I was going to say Analogue Lab 4 but it’s very heavy on CPU so I have to bounce a lot of stuff. I’d say Serum, simply because it’s easier for me to make my own sounds. I can make my own kicks now, my own snares, and I make my own 808s, my own pads…
Scratcha: I do like Serum. I’ve only been using it less than a year, maybe six months. So, I think we’re wrapped now…
Mxshi Mo: I think I have one more question actually. Do you intentionally produce all your tunes in the minor key, if so why is that?
Scratcha: It’s not intentional. I do produce intentionally sometimes and sometimes I just go with the flow. I think it’s where I feel most comfortable. Maybe I should come out of that comfortability. It’s just how I like it though. It’s like, you know, you might like to put ketchup on your food or mayonnaise, I just like to be here. It’s funny you pointed that out to me though because I’d never really noticed it. Maybe I should stop and challenge myself: try out a major key and try happy it up.
It might be from my jungle and drum and bass days, I like the darker sounds. But I do also like a lot of soulful, happy music. I think over the years I’ve learnt to try and mesh the two together, like the collaborations we’ve done. We’ve got one with SOLA we’ve been working on, the singer, and I worked on your Polotics beat – which is dark as hell – and then I put the chords on there, and then we got the singer in there, but then I needed that dark lead to come back in. I like that combination of bittersweet. I think that really works — that’s where I’m at.