Diggers Directory: DJ Okapi

DJ Okapi

DJ Okapi

Diggers Directory: a mix series that salutes the diggers, record enthusiasts and music lovers. For more in the series, browse through the archive.

South Africa, has always been a country associated with jazz and soul, from the deep afro-centrism of Abdullah Ibrahim’s work to the tranquil harmonies of a capella group Lady Black Mambazo. Yet, over the last decade, record labels have introduced us to the forgotten era of the 80s and 90s, where synthesized, dance floor ready and poppy hooks ruled the day. DJ Okapi has been a local figurehead in this resurgence, as an owner of the Afrosynth blog and record store in Johannesburg, a DJ and curator of the Boogie Breakdown compilation on Cultures of Soul. We spoke to him about his life as a record collector and how he’s been shaped by the music of South Africa. He’s put together a vinyl only mix to accompany.

DJ Okapi plays the Stamp The Wax stage at Dimensions Festival (30th Aug – 3rd Sep).

DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
Actually no, this wasn’t the case for me at all! I never had a turntable at home until I got my own when I was around 20. I grew up in the 90s with CDs and cassettes, vinyl was completely off the radar for me until around the time I started DJing. My older brother and I collected CDs and copied cassettes, and listened to the radio a lot. I spent a lot of time in CD stores listening to all kinds of things. No album was particularly significant, I’d be into something then move onto something else. 

People buy records for a multiple of reasons; they love the analogue sound, the physicality of having something that they can collect and share, or maybe it provides them with a way to build relationships with likeminded people. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?

When I started buying records it was primarily about their price compared to CDs. I was exploring old music and could build my collection faster by buying records for 20 Rand instead of CDs for R100 each.

Then when I started discovering all this amazing local stuff that was only on vinyl, I realized the value of the format. So since then I’ve been concentrating increasingly on buying local and other African music, and less on American music.

There’s an endless amount of music from the past waiting to be rediscovered, so there’s always motivation to keep looking and learning, whether it’s digging for old stuff or buy new re-issues, which are making relatively obscure music from Africa and other parts of the world far more accessible and affordable.

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Where do you store all your records and how do you file them?

I’ve got my own collection at home and my shop Afrosynth Records just around the corner.

At home it’s not very organized. At the moment maybe 80% is South African music, part of which was alphabetized some time ago. I’m always getting new records and there are hundreds in my collection that I still haven’t got around to listening to. So categorizing too can seem a bit futile. Most of it is SA pop music from the 80s, but I keep some of it separate like the local jazz, kwaito, traditional, gospel, etc.

The remaining 20% is split according to genre: other African music (mainly from Zimbabwe and DR Congo), reggae, a shelf for American funk and jazz, some classic rock, some Indian music.

In the shop it’s along similar lines: SA Disco; SA traditional; African; jazz; reggae; funk & soul; pop & rock; also smaller sections for house & hip-hop; Italo; soundtracks; blues; country; spoken word; etc.

What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?

There’s a spot in Johannesburg close to my shop called the Collector’s Treasury that’s fun to check out because of the number of records there, although it’s hard to find a lot of local music there anymore. For the past 2 or 3 years I’m been more concerned with buying up deadstock for my shop and importing new African re-issues from Europe, rather than digging for my own collection. In fact I seem to spend more effort keeping the size of collection down, instead of trying to keep accumulating.

Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?

I can’t say I’ve travelled a huge amount but in South Africa a guy like Laurent at Revolution Records in Cape Town has been doing this for longer than most people. It’s at his store where I found some of my first bubblegum albums while I was living around the corner. Of the newer stores in South Africa, Paul Buttery runs a cool spot in Durban called Khaya Records.

DJs and producers often talk about a number of records that never leave their bag. Do you have any records like this?

I’ve become so focused on playing a specific sound, South African bubblegum and kwaito, that I can’t really keep playing the same songs for long. It would be boring for me and stale for listeners. So I have to rotate the South African stuff regularly and keep pushing new discoveries… If there are two artists whose albums have endured the longest in my record bag it would probably actually be Chic and Rick James!

Is there a record (or records), which you’ve wanted to own but cannot afford or find in print anymore?

No not really… Faced with the overwhelming amount of music out there – or once you start to appreciate how much music you don’t know – then to get hung up about specific albums just puts the blinkers on and cuts you off from the joy of discovering so much other stuff.

Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?

If I’m travelling to a different country it obviously helps to have a local to show you around to save time. Like when I was in Brighton for a day last year I had my DJ friend Manello Funkikora to show me around. But from experience in South Africa it’s mainly been something I’ve done alone.

Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting process, with some many different genres and formats. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after? Is it about patience, diligence and a bit of luck or are you more methodical when you enter a record shop?

If I’m walking into a store I’ll gravitate to the African or ‘world’ section, then the funk and disco, then the reggae, then the bargain bin. It does obviously require some patience to look through a lot of records, one needs to be methodical and not get distracted. There’s probably some luck or a sixth sense involved too.

How big a role does album artwork play in your digging, esp. if you’re not familiar with something you pick up?

When it comes to records you can very often judge it by its cover! That’s if you know roughly what you’re looking for, at least when the price is right. It’s usually worth a listen before paying for something but obviously the cover is the first thing you judge it on, before you can even give it a spin. You should obviously judge an album according to its music and not the cover art, but the cover is full of clues that give context to the music so you do have to pay attention!

Thanks for recording this mix for us. Where and how did you record it and what was the idea behind it?

It’s a pleasure, thanks for asking me. This is a recent live set at Kitchener’s, a popular bar in Johannesburg. It’s a selection of some of the records I’ve discovered quite recently, most of them obscure kwaito and disco from the early 90s.

We asked you to keep the tracklist secret (to get listeners to dig deep for their IDs!) but are there any standouts from the mix you’d like to shout out?

If there’s one song in this mix that was a hit in South Africa back in the day it’s ‘Thobela’ by Boom Shaka. Here’s a TV performance of the song to get a sense of their vibe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ePQ_aNY7K8
It’s a happy song but bittersweet now as the lead singer Lebo Mathosa sadly passed away in 2006.

It’s not just older South African music which have become popular amongst collectors and deejays, but also contemporary style such as Gqom and Shangaan electro.  Yet when it comes to modern South African is still feels like we are scratching the surface. Are their any new artists which you feel we need to listen to?

I’m more interested in the older stuff but of course there are plenty of cool new acts out there. There are big pop acts like Tresor and Beatenberg, then plenty of others doing cool stuff like Johnny Cradle, Samthing Soweto, Alice Phoebe Lou and Sibusile Xaba. In jazz there are some incredible young musicians like Kyle Shepherd, Tumi Mogorosi, Benjamin Jephta, Shane Cooper and others. All of them operate outside the mainstream which is house and hip-hop, where there are plenty of big names making waves all over Africa and the rest of the world, like Black Coffee for example.

Finally. what are your plans for 2017 and beyond?

I’ve got a few more trips to Europe this summer, including some big gigs like Strange Sounds from Beyond in Amsterdam in June, and Dekmantel Selectors and Dimensions in Croatia in August. I’ll also be going to China in September, which will be interesting. I’ve done a compilation with Rush Hour that should be out around September, and I’m working on the first few releases for Afrosynth Records as a label. Beyond that, just looking to grow the shop here in Joburg and to keep sharing South African music with the world.

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