DJ’s write our nocturnal soundtracks. Spinning the energy in the room, they ease their audience in; build them up; hold them in suspense. They have us clawing for the next big drop, then reeling from the release. This week, I met with Siyabonga Sibeko (DJ Capital) to talk about the art of the DJ. In the nightclub, there is a dialectic: audience and DJ in communion and conversation. The DJ attunes themselves to the energy of the audience, reading their desire or distaste through their bodily responses, their calls, the extent of draw to the dancefloor. “You can’t really plan a set because you never know what kind of crowd you’re gonna get”, Capital says. “You’ll have 5 big songs that you will play. But for everything else, it’s a ‘feeling’ thing. When I play a song you haven’t heard before, you are going to stand and look at me. You have to find a way to ease them into it”. The task of reading the crowd demands high-level intuition and improvisation. “If the time now is 1.27am”, Capital says, “[Often], I don’t know what I’m playing at 1.30am”. And the audience, too, has ways of asking, thanking, sharing and validating their DJ.
For Capital, music festivals are the epitome of the DJ experience. “You’re this one human being, controlling five to ten thousand people. They’re all looking at you. It’s a crazy feeling.” The tacit conversation between DJ and audience harkens back to an ancient ‘call and response’ tradition: a leader calls out, signaling the song to be sung, and the crowd echoes their response. A DJ spins a track and watches the reverberations through the crows. As with our ancestral forebears, Capital describes this sonic communication as eliciting a type of trans, an out-of-body experience, in which he is as intoxicated by the audience as they are by him. Recalling a recent festival in which he threw his chain into the crowd, Capital says, “Afterwards, I remember asking out loud: ‘what did I just do?’”
Some clubs, Capital says, have lost this energy. “Parties in the North are not really about fun anymore. It’s about how can I stunt on you – more bottles, more ‘chicks’. People get so caught up in that competition that they forget we actually out here to have fun.” Capital prefers the small towns: the audiences who come with the sole purpose of hearing the music, entangling themselves in musical ties with the DJ and others on the dancefloor.
The dialectic between DJ and crowd has been the driving force of Capital’s art. He first tried his hand at DJ’ing — not in a basement studio, or on a friend’s PC, or in his bedroom — but in the club. As a student at Wits, Capital began throwing parties at what was then Keys club: already an architect of ‘the good night out’. One night, when a headline DJ failed to pitch, Capital found himself behind the booth. “I literally ran to my car, where I always had the latest music. Got all my CDs and I just started playing. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just putting a CD in and pressing play. No sense of mixing whatsoever. It was terrible. But luckily I was playing all the right songs. After that I was like, ‘Yo I can actually do this if I actually learn what I’m meant to do’”. From there, Capital was self-taught and dedicated, dropping out of his final year at Wits. “I was so scared to tell my parents I actually wrote them a letter”.
Today, Capital is a three time SA Hip Hop Award nominee and has opened for major international acts: Usher, Wiz Khalifa, Lil John, DJ Drama, Deadmau5 and more. In July 2015, he embarked on a European tour, headlining shows in London and Moscow. He is host of the Capital Rap Up on Touch Central, and presenter of ETV’s Club 808. It’s part of his acknowledgement that a DJ is not simply a music vessel, but a personality, such that music somehow tastes different depending on who’s delivering it. Capital has produced several tracks with some of the country’s best Hip-Hop acts, including Hell of a Life (ft. Reason and AB Crazy), What You Like (ft. Kwesta x Kyle Deutsch) and All to You (ft. Dreamteam). “Hip hop has influenced so much of my life – the way people talk, the way people dress, even hip-hop sports like basketball”, he says.
Few people know just how much DJs, and club culture, have had to do not only with the success of South African Hip Hop, but also its sound. “About 5 years ago, all the [Hip-Hop] DJs and all the artists met at the Radisson in Sandton. We were literally having this huge argument. Rappers were like, ‘Why don’t you DJ’s play our stuff?’ And we were like, ‘Why don’t you give us stuff we can play at the clubs?’ Back and forth, DJ’s and artists. At the end of the night we were like, ‘There’s obviously a problem here. Let’s work together. And that’s when DJs started putting out songs with artists. And that’s literally how South African Hip Hop changed”. It’s not simply that many clubs now sound like hip-hop, hip-hop has increasingly been made to sound like the club.
Despite his own production success, it’s the energy of a live audience that is still primary for Capital. He tells me he once done six gigs in a single night, starting in the late afternoon. “In December, I did three provinces in one day”. There’s a reason Capital defies time and space to play for a crowd.
As author Bill Brewster said, it’s “because DJ’ing is not about choosing a few tunes. It’s about generating shared moods; it’s about understanding the feelings of a group of people and directing them to a better place. In the hands of a master, records create rituals of spiritual communion that can be the most powerful events in people’s lives”.