Johannesburg - The Distruction Boyz have just moved into their new place. Thobani “Que” Mgobhozi and Zipho “Goldmax” Mthembu sit outside their rented duplex in Manor Gardens, a tiny suburb hidden on Durban’s upper east side that you’ll miss if you drive fast enough.
Que, with his signature ear-high dreads, sits on top of a two-tiered wall, wearing shorts, slops, a white watch and a black vest that says Corrupted.
On the lower tier sits Goldmax, wearing black sneakers, jeans and a Vans T-shirt that makes him look more like a skaterboy from the early 2000s than a KwaMashu-born deejay who makes psychedelic township House.
“I’ve noticed that when you get a little bit popular, people start to see you as different and not like them. It’s weird because we just make music and have fun, that’s our job. But we still go through what a lot of people our age go through. We appreciate all the love, and now it’s just taking it day by day,” Goldmax says, with his silver teeth shining through, his eyes a little glazed.
Not far from where we’re chatting, a crate full of bottles lies abandoned. “Those aren’t ours. They’re from the previous tenants,” says Que when he notices me looking at them. It must have been one hectic night.
Where the Distruction Boyz live now is at the threshold, literally and figuratively. Manor Gardens marks the divide between a landless, houseless community of shack-dwellers and the middle class of Durban’s Glenwood suburb. This place is also a testament to how much can change in a year. Not too long ago, Que and Goldmax were making earworms on Fruity Loops recording software in their parents’ backrooms and distributing them to taxi drivers. The tracks could be heard playing incessantly on Durban’s South and North beach routes. Today, they have hit songs and fly off to remote venues to adjudicate the dance electric.
“Performing is the best part of the whole thing. Watching thousands of people recite your song line for line is just intoxicating – it validates the hard work of making songs and coming up with concepts,” says Que.
MUSIC AS AN ANCHOR
Back inside, they show me what the initial workings were of their eagerly anticipated debut album Gqom is the Future. They play a multilayered drum pattern they’ve been working on and loop it, and it soundtracks most of our conversation for the next hour. Occasionally, Que makes some tweaks and Goldmax whispers to him and points at the monitor.
Gqom, as more and more people know by now, is a style of dance music emanating from Durban’s townships, a kind of House-meets-kwaito hybrid.
The Distruction Boyz have a nonchalant, disengaged attitude towards their newly acquired fame that is a little disarming. Whenever I ask about anything aside from the music, they seem to lose interest. According to Que, their unrelenting level of focus on their music comes from a niggling fear of not wanting to be cautionary tales.
Music for them is an anchor in a world that constantly feels adrift.
“People love our music because it’s a tool that allows them to express their joy,” says Que. “I think it’s also been unique for us because you have a lot of stories of parents who don’t support their kids, but our families have been behind us fully and that’s such a blessing. It’s given us the freedom to express ourselves without feeling guilty; like there isn’t a place for this where we come from.”
AROUND THE SCENE
The history and ownership of gqom is contested. Although many people (mistakenly) point to Distruction Boyz as the root of the genre, they’re not keen to take that credit as pioneers including the Naked Boys, the Rudeboyz and DJ Lag have come before them.
The gqom scene is becoming increasingly competitive and, traditionally, there have been two paths. One is to join a boutique music label, get your track on international dance compilations and do the festival circuit while remaining relatively obscure at home in Durban. The other has been to be hyperlocal, making multimixes, adding your own tag to them and playing them at morning bangs and House parties in Durban’s townships.
During the past two years, however, the Distruction Boyz have cultivated a third path for the genre. Theirs is a composite of local pride and national commercial success. They’ve unlocked a formula for transitioning gqom from a Durban street delicacy into a countrywide trend.
The duo is a fine example of one of the central talents that is needed to be a musician in the 21st century – the genius of editing.
“People think that making this type of music is easy because of the repeated elements,” notes Goldmax. “But it has to be layered and fresh, otherwise you’re just repeating things without a purpose and nobody has time for that.”
AT THE TABLE
Beyond being the genre’s poster boys, the duo has become an advocate for this sound. Recently, they claimed a victory by having Apple Music heed their request not to have Gqom is the Future listed as House on the streaming service, but under gqom as a stand-alone genre. According to Goldmax, it’s important for gqom artists to fight for a seat at the table if the music is going to endure.
“A lot of people are already trying to co-opt gqom and appropriate it. So it’s important for us as artists not to allow that and really take ownership of the music because it’s not a passing fad. We need to work to preserve it.”
In the industry, rumours regularly circulate about the supposed cold war between DJ Tira and Mampintsha, who started out as talent (Big Nuz) in Tira’s stable Afrotainment. Apparently it’s fuelled by money issues and the success of Mampintsha’s West Ink Records offshoot (and its star act
Babes Wodumo), as well as Tira’s inability to cash in on it.
When I ask the Distruction Boyz about their relationship with the two men, Goldmax and Que play their cards close to their chests.
“There is no tension. People like to create those stories because it fits their narrative, and that’s fine,” says Goldmax. “We’d worked with Tira before, and he and Mampintsha have been mentoring us in navigating the industry, so it’s really important to have them on our side,” he adds.
TOWARDS THE FUTURE
Gqom is the Future is not an album with any emotional depth. On the 13-track offering, there is no feeble musing about nature, gods, man and the meaning of life. This is peak escapism. It is the summer soundtrack for man-boys desperately holding on to their youth via the music’s intricate thuds and hypnotic slogans.
They’ve packaged the profane. It is the perfect up-tempo album to put on when you need help to get through the day when your colleagues are getting on your nerves on a Tuesday at 11am.
Audacious and all-consuming, Gqom is the Future can best be described as a sweeping brushstroke.
This music, of course, only makes sense on an unnecessarily loud sound system.
It lacks subtlety, but is not without nuance. On cuts like Midnight and 2 O’clock, there are signs of some stylistic departures for the album’s creators. The tracks have a slower tempo and more soulful undertone, charting a new path of experimentation. It’s a strain of gqom that the Distruction Boyz call sgubhu.
“Sgubhu is an extension of gqom. It’s got more complex, shorter sounds and more smaller elements as opposed to just the big drums you usually associate with gqom. But the most important thing, obviously, is the kick,” says Goldmax.
BY THE POOL
On a lazy Sunday at the beach, my fiancée, son and I are exiting one of Durban’s popular public pools when a crowd of youngsters gradually makes their way down the beach.
They dance, chant and ululate as a speaker blasts out rhythmic thuds that are inaudible from a distance.
They make their way to the edge of the pool (by then, there are at least 30 of them) in a tight-knit circle. Around them, tourists and strangers with cameras document the delirious joy and insanity of the crowd.
Distruction Boyz’ breakout hit Omunye bleeds from the speakers. Half the crowd chant along; a circle is formed, and one of the boys enters and begins to dance and gyrate. The energy around the Distruction Boyz and their music, even in their absence, is nothing short of ceremonial.
Hanging out with the duo, however, you notice one thing: everything is still very much a work in progress. They are still tweaking the kinks on this music thing, kicking the tyres and, most importantly, trying to create their own template of what it means to be in the spotlight.