When asked to describe the sound of the Gqom subgenre, DJ Lag doesn’t hesitate- ‘it’s raw and hype.’ Since the beginning of this decade, it has become the defining electronic music to come from Durban and it’s surrounding townships, like Lag’s home Clermont. Gqom takes SA production to a new extreme of brooding intensity. It’s powerful enough to command attention when blaring 130 bpm at dangerous volumes on public transport. But it has enough nuance to reward intimate listening on cellphone headphones. Coming from an isiZulua word for drum, Gqom really does sound like a huge monolith being hurled onto a heaving dancefloor. Despite its popularity, it still remains an underground status with little overt media or radio support in South Africa.
But such potency has also given it an international cachet. DJ Lag himself has recently been featured on UK music websites eagerly awaiting the release of his self-titled debut EP. Coming out on the London label Goon Club All Stars, it will be backed up with a tour of Asia and Europe. Ahead of the new release, he has dropped the spine tingling ‘16th Step ‘as a teaser. Like so much Gqom it makes you want to dance, while having an unmistakable menace. The beat sounds like something horrific scratching at your door on a stormy night. Underneath runs a synthesiser reminiscent of a murderous robot haunting you through the flooded streets of future Durban, after the city has been lost to rising sea levels. It builds and builds and then suddenly drops out completely. In a masterful stroke, Lag leaves in a block of absent sound. Just as you think it’s over, it suddenly drives in again, going off into an unexpected but welcome conclusion. The step on this song is that feeling when you are about to fall asleep, but are awaken with a jolt as you imagine losing your footing. A sure-fire way to feel awake.
And he has been honing this craft since a young age. His first introduction to recording was at age 12 when he went with his rapper cousin to a recording studio. Seeing a producer at work making beats immediately hooked him in. It was a few years before he could get his own PC, but as soon as he did he started exploring the possibilities offered by Fruity Loops. His own musical progression is like a Darwinian microcosm of the evolution of Gqom itself. Beginning with hip hop he, then slid into kwaito. He then took a detour into a percussive house style. But hearing Gqom pioneers Naked Boyz for the first time locked him onto the deep new style that was breaking out in KZN around the turn of the decade. Since then, he has built up an impressive back catalogue of production, which keep the drive of Gqom while adding in deeper shades of nuance and sophistication.
His EP comes at an interesting time for the style, as it is also sprouting new offshoots, such as the more pop orientated Gqom trap and it’s house cousin, Sghhubu. In the early days of its coalescing into a distinct style, Gqom was characterized by a certain mystery. Young producers would put up songs fresh from being factory tested at intense backyard parties onto file sharing sites, without clear attribution or titles. This created issues of plagiarism, with rivals claiming credit for others tracks. As a result, artists at the styles forefront like Lag and Rudeboyz are taking control of their public image. It’s also a way to grow the genre by highlighting discographies, which the audience can watch evolve. With his cinematic, emotional style DJ Lag is poised to become an internationally appreciated South African pioneer.