Seven Questions w/ Superstar South African DJ/Producer Black Coffee

Though Durban, South Africa born Nkosinathi Innocent Sizwe Maphumulo was involved in music in some way or other since his teen years, he didn’t begin his career as Black Coffee until 2005, at age 29. His introduction to the world under the new nom de guerre was actually a remix of Hugh Masekela’s 1972 hit ‘Stimela’.

Within five years he had started his own record label, performed beside the likes of Little Louie Vega and DJ Spinna, and collab’d for real with Masekela on his third Black Coffee album Home Brewed. His considerable notoriety at home eventually went international, and a 2015 world tour led to 2016 appearances at Coachella and Ultra – and that same year he cracked the Resident Advisor Top 100 DJs list – no small feat, considering the competition.

But with real global mainstream success still somewhat eluding him, he ultimately made a conscious decision to record an album with some of the current pop elite as his musical accomplices. And indeed, 2021’s Subconsciously (released by Ultra Records) took him to a whole other level, with both the scope of its collaborations and its impressive genre hopping.

To be sure, there is much going on: the housey, jazz-inflected ’10 Missed Calls’ w/ Pharrell and Jozzy, the funk-calypso of ‘LaLaLa’ featuring Usher…but the real standout is the dreamy, hypnotic ‘SBCNCSLY’, with an alluringly sensual vocal by rising star Sabrina Claudio. The stylistic adventurousness is so-effortless, you could almost not even notice how many turns the album takes – also because it’s so easy to be caught up in all the hooks.

Last Sunday, April 3, it all culminated in Black Coffee walking away with the Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic album, beating out the considerable likes of Major Lazer and Sylvan Esso.

We caught up with him during the whirlwind, to discuss what it all means.

How did it feel to win your first Grammy award? 

There’s no words that can describe what an honor it is to win a Grammy. To be recognized amongst some of the top artists in the world is a real dream. I hope that this is the first of many to come! 

You’ve been active in music since 1994 – how would you describe your level of recognition in America?

Rome wasn’t built overnight – each day is a constant progression. Each time I release a new tune or perform here in the States, I feel a greater and greater over pouring of love and support. Some of the best moments of my career have been spent here. From sold out shows in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and beyond to studio sessions with some of the best, it will always hold a special place in my heart. 

The music on Subconsciously is not purely house based. What was your concept for the album?

This album is meant to shatter boundaries, make the unthinkable thinkable. Music shouldn’t keep you contained in a box… whatever makes your soul feel good is what I’m after. I want to make music that you can bring your kids to soccer practice with, that you can clean the house to and of course, that you can dance to like no one’s watching. 

It was released last year at the height of the Covid crisis – can you describe what the pandemic was like for you, personally and creatively?

The pandemic worked as a reset. It granted me the time to take a step back and remember what’s most important in life. I had a chance to spend more time back home than I have in years and be there for every possible moment with my children. 

Were you surprised by the huge streaming numbers the album received? 

I’m constantly in awe of the support that I receive across the board and this was no exception. Following the Grammy win, Subconsciously is sitting back at #1 on the US iTunes dance album charts. I hope the shelf-life of my music will always be long. 

Tell us about the collaborations – Pharrell, Usher, Diplo, Sabrina Claudio? 

I was very intentional when making this album and I knew who I wanted to work with and I knew the kind of sound I was going for. For me I wanted this record to gain recognition on a global scale – as an artist from South Africa I’m sometimes not categorized in that world. I can often be put into a box in an African / world music category where we are competing against each other, even though our music is played globally and is played by major radio stations. The artists I worked with are all people I’ve admired and that have inspired me for many years – and having them on the album really helped to push me out of that box. 

Can you elaborate on the work you’re doing with the Black Coffee Foundation?

I’ve recently relaunched the Black Coffee Foundation, which provides ongoing aid, upliftment and opportunity to the underprivileged and differently abled students of South African by means of education based initiatives. It is my goal to give students an equal opportunity at a proper education, and to eventually go on to find work.

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