Right away, Spoek Mathambo shoots a hole in my premise. I want to write about the new wave of African hip-hop. I ask him if he considers his new album hip-hop. “Not at all,” he says, pausing a moment to ponder. “It’s informed by the original spirit of hip-hop, how you dig through blues records, funk records, rock records and you make something new. But it’s not hip-hop. Definitely.”
It’s okay. I expected this response. Father Creeper, the South African’s first album for Sub Pop and second overall, is a dark and proggy thing, played on electric guitars and bustling drums. It sounds like the Mars Volta playing Santigold. Mathambo sings on it as much as he raps. It is both irreverent and deeply rooted, both bleak and thrilling, and it sounds entirely new. But to not consider it hip-hop is to sell hip-hop short. Panglobal mish-mashes like “Venison Fingers” are the sort of future-pop that cyberpunk novelists told us we’d all be listening to by now.
Spoek Mathambo (translates as “Ghost of Bones”) is the alter ego of Nthato Mokgata, a former medical school student who cites Philip K. Dick and William Gibson as idols. Mokgata began rapping around the age of ten. In high school, he sang in the school choir and started a hip-hop zine, Levitation, that blossomed into a legitimate magazine. By college, Mokgata was penning intricate conceptual rap stories, inspired by Genesis albums and Kool Keith. In 2010, his out-of-left-field debut, Mshini Wam, blew critics’ hair back.
As sci-fi as it sounds, Father Creeper is largely autobiographical. Mokgata wrote “Stuck Together” in memory of his cousin and earliest rap partner, who committed suicide as a teenager. Tombstones and graves litter the lyric sheet. “Death is ever present, so it’s expressed,” he explains in his intellectual and matter-of-fact way. “It’s a celebration of living through looking at the other side.”
“We Can Work” doubles as a middle finger to the Man and a warning on living an idle life. The song chronicles punching a clock in a failing Indian restaurant. Mokgata loathed the job, which he took after leaving med school. “I remember a strong sense of growing up and seeing my dad super depressed and frustrated by his work,” the 25-year-old says. Hence the bit about “Spitting in your curry goat / Pissing in your poppodoms.” Through all this, he fears living the “never-ending lunch break” of his drunk Uncle Sibo.
Duality runs through all his work. “Put Some Red on It,” seemingly a rant against blood diamonds, is more of a love letter to his wife, Ana Rab, a Swedish rap star, who wrote the track years ago, after watching “that Leonardo DiCaprio movie.” The two met in the back of a car in England, through mutual friends. Mokgata was in the midst of a miserable tour, stressed out and complaining. Rab was eating an ice cream cone. They didn’t get along at first.
When I reach him on the phone, Mokgata is in Sweden. An old childhood friend from choir, Theo Thug, is arriving soon to rehearse for a U.S. tour. Thug helped craft the new album, as did an uncle on Mokgata’s father’s side. “He brings a wisdom and dignity,” Mokgata says. “It’s not just a bunch of young dudes being rowdy and shit.”
This leads into a lengthy discussion of the Father Creeper cover artwork. The painting depicts a male maturation ritual of the Xhosa, his mother’s people. Teenage Xhosa boys are brought into the mountains, where elders pass on knowledge and present physical challenges. Afterward, the newly made men burn all the possessions of their childhood. Mokgata did not undergo the rites. But I would imagine his bonfire would be fueled by hip-hop zines, Genesis LPs and Indian takeout menus.
Spoek Mathambo’s Father Creeper is out March 13 on Sub Pop.
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