Spoek Mathambo rises from the underground

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Spoek Mathambo grew up in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, where his adolescence was defined by the end of apartheid.

Now 27, this South African singer-rapper-producer has emerged as one of the year’s most exciting new artists, with a bold sound bent on stylistic desegregation and an unlikely relationship with an American indie-rock label. Mathambo funnels a dizzying number of influences — both musical and cultural — into “Father Creeper,” due out Tuesday on Seattle’s Sub Pop.

His music is an electro-acoustic melee of swaggering rap verses, scratchy rock guitar, singsong vocal hooks and staticky white noise. One moment he retrofits a Motown-style soul groove with chunky dubstep bass, while in another he threads a trebly African-pop guitar line through skittering percussion seemingly inherited from the dance-music visionary Aphex Twin.


As for the lyrics? “I’m interested in using these very obvious, harsh South African realities to describe less real, less obvious, more fantastical stuff,” says Mathambo, who today splits his time between South Africa, the road and Malmö, Sweden, where his Croatian wife is in graduate school.

On “Father Creeper,” he raps, “Restless natives, they hang from trees, gold ‘round their necks so they can’t breathe / Ancestor bones, they bling up teeth, shine too bright, burn tongues for speak.” In “Let Them Talk,” “the people want their water back.” In “Let Them Talk,” “the people want their water back.” And for “Put Some Red on It,” he moves the action around Africa, to Sierra Leone and Congo, relaying a succession of images from the so-called conflict-diamond trade: “Play me some Tupac, I’ll get in your ride / Snorting gun powder and drinking cane wine.”

After learning to rap at age 10, Mathambo says his storytelling evolved from an early fascination with form (“I’d draw up these huge lists of rhyming words”), through an existential teenage-angst phase to his current style, which he describes as “surreal.” It’s an approach that links him with a wave of edgy African artists, including Seun Kuti, the youngest son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and the Johannesburg rock band BLK JKS.

Born Nthato Mokgata, Mathambo says his tastes have always been far-flung, even when he felt embarrassed by his answer to the question, “What kind of music do you like?”

“Back then you were either a metalhead or a raver or a hip-hop fan,” he says, referring to the late 1990s. “Everybody was in a little tribe. So it used to seem really cheesy to say, ‘I love a lot of stuff’ — like I didn’t have any roots.”

A decade and a half later, what might once have been viewed as a sign of rootlessness has become the norm among young listeners accustomed to discovering music on the Internet. Tribal lines, fiercely policed in the past, have begun to loosen, coaxed into permeability by the kind of instant, comprehensive access offered by the online-streaming service Spotify.

“I’m so excited about the world of information at our fingertips,” Mathambo says. “It’s a beautiful position to be in.”

Jason Kramer of the tastemaking Santa Monica public-radio station KCRW-FM agrees. The DJ has played Mathambo’s music on his show and says he could envision spinning cuts from “Father Creeper” between Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” and something by the early-’80s San Pedro punk band the Minutemen. “Listening to this record is like listening to a conversation where you’re hearing Spoek talk about all these different styles and why he’s into them,” says Kramer. “You’re able to hear what he hears, and it draws you into him.”

Thanks to Sub Pop’s imprimatur, Mathambo stands to entice listeners beyond the devoted African-music community. The label, once associated with Seattle’s grunge scene, has found mainstream success with big-selling records by the Shins and Fleet Foxes; the latter’s “Helplessness Blues” recently earned a Grammy nomination. And though a late-’90s flirtation with rap didn’t quite pan out, Sub Pop is seen today as a credible source of experimental hip-hop: Earlier this year, “Black Up” by Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces finished inside the top 10 of the
Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll.

Sub Pop A&R chief Tony Kiewel bought Mathambo’s smaller-scale 2010 debut, “Mshini Wam,” after reading about it — where else? — on the Internet. He liked the “dichotomy” of the record, he says, the way it juxtaposes songs about the African National Congress with “songs about booty.” Then the exec began exploring the striking videos Mathambo has posted on YouTube, including a haunting black-and-white clip for his version of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.”

Kiewel says he’s attracted to the fearlessness with which Mathambo fuses the disparate components of his music. “I’ll be honest: There are moments where it’s not coming together,” Kiewel admits. “There are some jarring elements where maybe it’s not even on purpose, where maybe you’re hearing the limits of what he’s able to pull off. But that’s exciting to me — that’s punk.”

Indeed, “Father Creeper” exudes a street-level urgency that occasionally recalls music by M.I.A., the controversial British-Sri Lankan artist who’s written vividly about conditions in the developing world. Like Mathambo, M.I.A. first drew notice among plugged-in hipsters, yet there she was last month sharing the stage with Madonna during the Super Bowl halftime show. Such a breakthrough isn’t unimaginable for Mathambo, who will perform later this week at the buzz-building South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

Citing inspirations like Iggy Pop, Prince and Kuti, Mathambo insists he’s ready for the exposure. “The whole idea of underground to me, I’m not interested in that at all,” he says. “I look at this album as the beginning of my career, and I think my career is gonna go far.” He pauses, seemingly searching for a simpler way to explain. “Something is only underground until it’s not. You know what I mean?