Live review: Die Antwoord at the El Rey Theatre
This is usually a silly debate in the artifice-obsessed world of pop music. But Die Antwoord so perfectly upends every au courant collision in urban, electronica and world music today that, well, larger forces seem at play. The band's founder, Ninja (Waddy Jones, a longtime rap-and art-scene veteran in Johannesburg), is a leonine, flat-topped MC covered in crude prison-style tattoos who's frequently onstage in little more than "Dark Side of the Moon" boxer shorts. The band's producer, DJ Hi-Tek, is a rotund and mute beatsmith fond of marijuana-themed bandanas and cutting tracks on his "PC computer" that he uploads to the "interwebs worldwide." And then there's the typographically exquisite creature of Yo-Landi Vi$$er, an age-indeterminate, gutter-mouthed Shiva in gold Lycra and a cascading mullet.
All members are white; all derive their musical signposts from discarded Ibiza trance compilations; all have a vast vocabulary of infectious patois where to be "So zef, so fres" is to occupy a state of post-racial, post-colonial zen bliss. They are rap's opposite -- and the fulfillment of its every possibility. And after their Saturday night set at the El Rey Theater, which was hastily rescheduled after the cancellation of HARD LA, they gave an apropos answer to their most fundamental question. Who knows if they're for "Real," but they did give a riveting performance (or piece of performance art).
Regardless of Die Antwoord's mythology, one fact not up for debate is its members' skills behind a microphone. Like another recently rehabilitated white rapper (that'd be Eminem), Ninja doesn't try to match a stereotypically "black" delivery but instead found his own rhythmically exacting flow that functions as a serving tray for his Afrikaans slang and droll boasting.
Vi$$er plays the role of sneering, unattainable sex kitten, a beloved trope in rap from Salt-N-Pepa to Nicki Minaj. She sees no schism between thrusting a hand up her crop-top and dropping low at Ninja's behest while wearing oversized sweatpants with a vulgar and definitive rejection notice printed across the rear. DJ Hi-Tek, alas, is afraid of flying, so they have a masked stand-in, the sonorously-nicknamed Vuilgeboost, perform in his stead overseas.
It's unfortunate that Die Antwoord's breakthrough single, "Enter The Ninja," veers closest to novelty. While the notorious (and suspiciously glossy) video is a Lynchian pandora's box -- Why is every picture in Vi$$er's apartment a magazine cutout of Ninja? Who is the unnerving little man that pops up between cuts? -- it's also their least satisfying track. Die Antwoord opened with it, and for a brief moment the crowd evinced the very modern pleasure of the Internet coming to visit you in person. But then the show took an intriguing turn. As Die Antwoord unloaded some truly thrilling bangers from their forthcoming album, "$0$," the audience grew uncertain of its obligation to actual, unwinking fandom.
The effervescent singalong "Fish Paste" sports one of the most casually genius, lost-in-translation Oedipal insults in global rap, and the spectacularly profane "Beat Boy" is built on a chilly, crescendoing trail of virtuoso beatboxing. But while their barn-burning 15-minute Coachella set had possibly the best reception of the fest, the El Rey's crowd oscillated between ravenous crowd surfing and confusion that the answer to their "WTF?" take on Die Antwoord wasn't quite what they'd prepared for. To give in to Die Antwoord's deadpan majesty involves suspending some disbelief that this music really is as deliriously fun as it feels like.
Rap has conquered the ethnic music of nearly every culture on earth, and rave sounds have underpinned American pop for the last two years, and global club music for much longer. But Die Antwoord blows both up to such previously unseen caricatures that even pop culture's outsized appetite for the bizarre has trouble processing it. We love to be played with by our artists, but with Die Antwoord it's hard to know who is yanking who's chain.
Fortunately, Die Antwoord allows for any number of takes, and the least fulfilling one may be attempting to pull back the curtain on them. When Ninja's hypnotically vulgar pelvic thrusts collide with Vi$$er's I'll-cut-you grin and a techno beat so massive it can unite continents, cultures and every corner of those aforementioned "interwebs," who needs more of an answer than that?
-- August Brown
Photos, from top: South African rap-rave trio Die Antwoord perform at the El Rey Theater, and Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er get into the music. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times