Black Coffee’s phenomenal rise to the topWith hardcore creative determination, Black Coffee willed his stellar DJ and production career into being. Now he’s on top of the world, but he’s still dreaming
“It’s the most expensive production car in the world,” someone murmurs reverentially under their breath, as Black Coffee, aka Nkosinathi Maphumulo, admires a white McLaren.
Within seconds, he’s shifted his attention to a black Mercedes-Benz AMG. “This is my dream car,” he gushes over the gleaming beast. He’s one of the most successful DJs and producers in modern music, one of the coolest men on the planet, and he’s jumping around like a teenager.
It’s clear that Black Coffee, this man with fans in their millions, is a fan himself.
So the location for today’s shoot at RACE! – Johannesburg-based importers and customisers of the world’s leading automotive brands – is apt. As he encourages his hosts to start the engine of the AMG and sits grinning in the driver’s seat, it’s clear he’s into this; cars are his thing. Well, cars and music. Black Coffee has built his life on a love of music. Growing up in dusty Mthatha, Eastern Cape, the young Maphumulo refused to have his prospects limited by his modest beginnings.
Aged 14, he permanently injured his left arm on the day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but he didn’t stop dreaming. He imagined his career, his cars, his home, his future life. Through strength of vision and determination, Black Coffee willed himself into being. Then, through talent and strategy, he became one of the world’s most successful dance producers.
Right now, he is probably South Africa’s biggest musical export. His singles routinely hit number one on download site Traxsource, his albums likewise and his world tour is pretty much ongoing. The biggest names in music want to work with him. As the photographer shoots some edgy portraits with Maphumulo’s own black SLS in the background, he can barely contain his enthusiasm. “It’s hard not to turn around and watch,” he chuckles as the driver expertly spins the vehicle across the concrete behind him, plumes of rubber smoke erupting from the wheel cavities.
THE RED BULLETIN: Are you a bit of a piston head?
NKOSINATHI MAPHUMULO: Not really. I love cars, but… it’s the same with music, really. I’ve never been the guy who can tell you the history of a record label, or the history of the producer.
So you’re more of a fan than a fanatic?
Exactly. Even with cars, I won’t be able to tell you details about the engine and all that… As an artist, it’s the design that attracts me, the way a car looks. Then I think, “OK, let’s change the sound. Change the colour. Dechrome it. Get a better exhaust.” Because I don’t want it to feel normal. It must be unique.
Yeah, that’s it!
What was your first car?
A Volkswagen Polo Playa. A 1.4i or something. I was staying in Pretoria and needed to get around to gigs. I truly loved that car. Put mag wheels on it, put a sound system in… But I have always been a Mercedes fan. Getting a Mercedes was always an aspiration for me. It’s such an amazing car to drive, and it’s so underrated. It was always my dream car.
Did your love for cars come later in life, or was it always there?
It was there from when I was a kid. Township kids do that thing where you stand by the road, and as the cars come by, you choose: “That’s mine!” I never limited myself as a kid, despite where I grew up. I always wanted the best things, even though it was unclear how I would get them. As a kid, I used to take a piece of paper and literally draw my dream house, my dream car and my future family, despite having a dream of being a DJ – because at the time, DJs were not known as family people. But I wanted to have a family and be a DJ. Not have a rock star life.
But you do live a rock star life!
So in a way, you designed your life.
That’s exactly what I’m telling kids to do. I’ve been going to high schools lately, speaking to kids about self love, sharing my story. [I say] “Imagine yourself in a couple of years’ time. Fully. Say to yourself: ‘I’m gonna wear these clothes. I’m gonna drive this kind of car.’ These are things you must speak into life now, when you’re in high school, and it will help you get there. Have a clear vision. You need to start attracting these things.”
How did you learn that? We’re assuming that you weren’t surrounded by DJ role models as a child.
This is my childhood: in the Eastern Cape, every morning, at 5am, my grandmother wakes me up. She makes me toast and coffee. I leave while it’s still dark. Alone. I’m 14 years old. I walk, dogs barking, to where the cattle are kept. Get there; milk the cows. Minimum two, sometimes three or four. From there, change and go to school. School comes out at 2pm. I have an hour or so to hang out with other kids. Then I go home, take the buckets, go milk the cows again. Every. Single. Day. That’s all I was exposed to.
How did you build a vision beyond that?
It’s all here. [Taps his head] You don’t need to move somewhere else to think bigger. It’s up to you. If you have nothing, the biggest thing you can do for yourself is to think, “How am I going to get out of here?” Visualise that. Be a dreamer. Create a life. As a kid, I used to daydream about myself being visited by Michael Jackson, eMthatha! At that stage, being a DJ was a dream too, but I used my imagination. I look at my life now, and I’m almost there. Only you can limit yourself.
And then you had your accident, which surely is even more of a limitation?
It was, but it happened when I was a kid, which helped me. If it had happened later, I could have been too conscious about myself and my thoughts would have affected me. It would have killed me. But because I was still young, I was just this driven kid. You still had that innocent belief that anything is possible.
That innocence got me here today. I had serious nerve damage on my shoulder. I did physiotherapy as a kid… that almost crippled my mind. Because you’re a kid, you have hope: “Last week I went two times, I’m going go three times this week.” Then eventually I realised that it wasn’t helping. One day I told my grandmother that I wanted to stop.
And that was liberating for you?
So much. Because from that point I shut it down. I just forgot that I was injured, started playing with other kids. I remember this particular day… I was running, and I just thought, let me put my hand in my pocket, which was weird at the time. And that was it. My friends looked at my new solution and they were like, “OK!”
Which came first: DJing or producing?
I started DJing first. I’m an old-school DJ. I started DJing on cassettes. You’d go to shows with a pen to rewind and fast-forward the tapes.
But you started producing pretty early…
Yes. My approach was different. I came from an era where compilation albums were big. Local DJs would fight over which songs to license for their compilation albums. Revolution was one of the few dance artists making their own albums. That inspired me. I thought instead of registering my label on Traxsource and trying to introduce myself, and finding songs to license, let me license my songs to them. Let me be this new kid they introduce. By the time I got to my third album, it became the most licensed. International producers will work on maybe two songs a year. I would hold back my album, and release one single on a label, release the next on another label. It was freaking people out – in a year I put out six songs. You Turn Me On was number one for a whole year. The year after, it was Superman. That’s how I got into doing shows overseas.
You started your record label, Soulistic, early on. Is there something that distinguishes the music business from other businesses?
There are so many opportunities in music. You can be a publisher, a management company, you can be a record label and concentrate on album sales. Overseas, merchandise is big. Justin Bieber makes a sweater; he kills it. It’s a unique business.
Many people are bedroom producers, give them some production tips.
Go with your feeling, man. People sometimes get thrown off, trying to follow the new sound. But take Happy by Pharrell Williams. It’s a hit, but it’s not a part of a trend and it’s different to his hip-hop stuff. If you start feeling the funk, go with that funk. When you go with your feeling, it helps you, because that’s what you know.
Do you approach DJing in a similar way?
A DJ is a tastemaker. Without a DJ playing that new song, people will never know it. With DJs, the temptation is to be safe and play the same music because we’re afraid to break new songs. But I like to take risks. Especially at the beginning of a set, when people are paying attention. I use that excitement to educate and introduce new songs. I start with a song people don’t know. I don’t even know where I’m going to go after that. I keep layering it till I get to the song people know. Then you go back to what they don’t know.
You were in the Red Bull Music Academy in 2003. What did that teach you?
It helped me understand music in a different way. It got me thinking a lot about production. I am South African, but I started thinking how to dress this thing up so everyone can understand it.
That’s probably a lesson many South African artists can learn.
You have to ask yourself how far you want to go. It starts with your name. What’s your goal? You might need to change a lot of things.
Speaking of other SA artists, you had an altercation at a show with AKA’s team? Was it about professionalism and punctuality?
It’s not only about that. It’s about respecting other people. If you’re not on time, then wait. Wait for the person who is on time to do their thing. Then have your turn. Being late happens to all of us. But especially when you’re only going to go sleep after the gig, you can wait for the other artist to perform. I literally had a jet waiting and another show back in Jo’burg.
Is there much still to be achieved of the dreams of that kid in Mthatha?
Of course. It’s a pity Michael Jackson is gone.
Is there anyone like him left?
There is. Chris Brown. His approach to music is second to none. What’s next for me is getting a night in Ibiza, a residency, get to name the party, create a brand. When it becomes strong, you tour that name. I’m playing a residency at Shimmy Beach in Cape Town in December. So it’s happening. And when the brand becomes stronger, you can go as far as Vegas. That’s the DJ side. The production side…
Would you change genres?
Listen to my new single, Your Eyes. It’s different. Slower; kind of mid-tempo. I feel I’ve confined myself to one genre too much; musically I want to explore. I don’t want to say I’m just a house-music producer. I’m putting out an EP, and then I’m doing an album next year with Ultra Music. That album is different styles. Obviously house music will be there, but anything that I love will go in there.