When Die Antwoord’s video for “Enter the Ninja” went viral in 2010, the South African group rocketed to Internet superstardom largely on the strength of the LOLs generated by their “zef” image—sort of a Bizarro-world mashup of Hype Williams and Gummo. But after landing a million-dollar contract with Interscope and rereleasing their debut, $O$, with the label’s backing, the trio—vocalists Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er and beat maker DJ Hi-Tek—revealed themselves to be cunning pranksters with an intensely strange visual aesthetic, refined on the fringes of the South African art world, that works amazingly well with their manic rave-rap. After Die Antwoord fell out with Interscope, they released Ten$ion on their own Zef Recordz, which due to a bit of contractual judo on the band’s part was not only founded using Interscope money but is also distributed by Interscope’s parent company, Universal. Malcolm McLaren would’ve been impressed. —Miles Raymer
You guys went from obscurity to being kind of a big sensation really quickly. What was that experience like? Have you taken acid before?
Yeah. It was kind of like that, but it doesn’t go away.
Coachella was your first show in the States, right? Yeah yeah yeah. It was fucking traumatic. ‘Cause DJ Hi-Tek got totally fucked up, and when he loaded the beat up he loaded it all incorrectly. He was supposed to drop the beat, and then—and it was in front of 30,000 people, which is like the most amount of people I’ve ever seen. It looked like a CGI-generated audience, it was too many people to comprehend. And then DJ Hi-Tek—just before the beat to “Enter the Ninja” it goes [makes synthesizer sounds], there’s like this arpeggio thing and the beat drops, and he dropped the arpeggio and I was like, I’m going to count to eight. So I go “I’m a ninja!” and it goes [makes the same synthesizer sounds]. Oh Jesus. I turned around and looked at him like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And he was having a panic attack because he’d forgotten to load up the whole track, just the arpeggio. That was Coachella, pretty much.
Tell me about the process behind making Ten$ion. What was going through your head and how was it different from recording the first album? This one was totally fucking different. Die Antwoord tracks, they’re super personal. That’s why it’s called Die Antwoord [“The Answer” in Afrikaans]. It’s a super personal thing. We made so many songs before in different projects and fucked around with all experimental styles, but the thing we got right—and it took me a long time to work out how to do it—is to be super duper personal. All the stuff I did before Die Antwoord I don’t really dig so much. I don’t really have an emotional connection with it. It was kind of a psychedelic thing, making all of the songs up on $O$, and really kind of totally desperate and hungry and totally deranged. We called it $O$ ’cause if it didn’t save our asses we’d be totally fucked. We finished $O$ and nothing happened, and then we started working on a new album in 2008 called Ten$ion before any of this shit went down.
The difference between the first album and this album is that before we didn’t know what was going on but we were just fucking full-blown into it. And then the second album, people like us—like, what the fuck? Why do they like us? We’re fucking with David Lynch at his fucking house. And Harmony Korine and Neill Blomkamp and these people we’ve just been obsessed with. People from the Wu-Tang Clan. We kind of noticed why everyone likes us. It was like, Oh shit, I have a gun and I didn’t know that I had a gun. The Ten$ion album, I knew I had a gun in my hand.
A lot of groups will come up with something unique on their first album and then the second album will be their attempt to cross over a little more. But you guys are still doing your own thing, keeping the African presence there and basically sticking to your guns stylistically. Was there any pressure on you to tone it down and be a little more accessible to Americans? Yeah, yeah, definitely. There was a lot of pressure. That’s why we, like, divorced Interscope. They were like, yo, reach out more. And “reach out” are my two least favorite words. They totally did not know what they had signed. We were, like, flabbergasted because up till we handed in Ten$ion we had never spoken to Interscope. We’d just, like, hang out and they’d take us to fucking restaurants and try to impress us. It was this whole shmoozy fucking trying-to-give-us-the-funnest-time-ever, but then when it came to making music, our agreement was that we would hand in our album and they’d release it. They have nothing to do with making music. They are a label to release the music. That’s what their function is.
Then they started trying to get involved and tell us to change our songs and we were like, “You’re fucking kidding me.” Luckily before we got anything together in America we first got lawyers. So we got Michael Jackson’s fucking law firm and when we put these deals together there was a big-time focus on getting us creative control. All of the agreements were put together like that, so them saying anything to us about the serious stuff was a screaming breach of contract. So it was kind of easy for us to just pull the plug on everything just based on like one e-mail from the label telling us we need to, yeah, do what you said, reach out and suck dick.
Well I’m impressed that you came out of it owning your record. It’s not even that impressive. It’s just obvious. They were offering us a million dollars and we put it all back into videos and a website and recording our new album. We never, ever, ever asked for anything, so we never had to speak to anyone or answer to anyone. Money comes and goes. And it’s cheap to do things in South Africa. It’s like a third-world country. What you can do with ten dollars we can do with one dollar. So it goes a long way. I’m used to being broke. I’ve been broke for like my whole life. So being broke now, or whatever, that’s nothing. It’s easy to run on empty for really long. We don’t stop.
I feel like if you don’t care about money it gives you power over people. Money, it comes. If you’re all desperate for it you’ll never get it, and if you keep on being creative and generative it just comes to you.