Sundays are non-stop action for the "guards" on the hustle for a few rands in the car parks of Jo'burg's Zoo Lake and as soon as I step out of my car with Die Antwoord, one steps into our path. He's about to make his play for how well he's going to look after my car when he stops in his tracks and claps the sides of his legs. "I know you," he tells Ninja and Yo-landi through a toothless grin. "I saw you in the magazine." Later at Moyo, where we're drinking (beer, vodka and a variation of Long Island Tea) and doing Die Antwoord's first ever proper South African interview, we talk about the imminent release of TEN$ION.
The album's got Die Antwoord's global fanbase salivating in anticipation, an indication of how much the group is welcomed internationally as tellers of a new story. Possessed of a defiant punk zeal, they are seen as unapologetic performers whose two-fisted punch impact - especially in their incendiary live performances - is entertainment as thrilling as that of any other duo that comes to mind. yes, the White Stripes included.
It seems as good a moment as any to bring up the South African critics who accuse the group of cultural appropriation (or worse) and spend hours analysing why two white South Africans shouldn't be stepping over the border into Mitchell's Plain or Fietas to mine the lives of those who reside there.
"You know that car guard who was at your car?" Yo-landi says, pretty emphatically. "That's our guy. Talk to the people who actually bump our shit. You'll find them fascinating. They are in every one of our music videos. Come to set and ask them why they like Die Antwoord. It's not a secret."
By this stage, Ninja – a few Moyo speciality cocktails in – can't resist.
"Fuck the no-game-having intellectuals out there, Di," he says, arching his eyebrows. "Our style is straight up Malema versus Zuma... We appeal to the man in the street. We run the exact same campaign as Zuma and Malema do. We make pop music. We don't make intellectual music. Our shit is hostile- takeover shit. What the fuck you going to do about it? Nothing!"
The truth is, Die Antwoord don't give a fuck. Not in a pretend kind of way – they really don't give a fuck. It's sometimes a hard attitude to swallow but it's the by-product of a consuming artistic dedication – their galloping, unfettered talent and ruthless loyalty to their imagination are the sole boundaries. In this, they are squarely in the tradition of Dali, Kraftwerk, Gilbert & George, John and Yoko, and, of course, Eminem.
I know this because Ninja and Yo-landi are close friends of mine and our seven-year-old daughters are best buddies. I've also known Ninja since the Managing Director of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Jay Savage – my daughter's father – first signed him to a publishing deal when he was a teenager. Ninja told Interscope Records, "Jay's the guy who first told me 17 years ago that I was good and so I told my folks, 'There's a guy in an office who thinks I'm good.'" That conversation took place in Los Angeles early in 2010, back in the first flush of the group's now-terminated relationship with the label. Call me biased because of all of this – there's a good chance it's true.
But it's for this reason that I've seen, close-up, how Yo-landi and Ninja push themselves, coaxing every detail – visual, sound, ambience – to perfection before letting it out of their grip. Indeed, Die Antwoord's greatest extravagance remains the work – the rap, the elusive rhyme, the next video, the tour (Ninja promises a "freak-mode experience" for this upcoming one), the exhibition, the movie (there's more than one inked for 2012), the toys, the art. I know, too, that it's really not been that long since Ninja and Yo-landi were living (for 10 years, five of those with daughter Sixteen) in a one-room flat, on the financial knife-edge but not once considering working for quick cash in the artistic-compromise hell of advertising.
If you want to know what it's been like for Ninja and Yo-landi over the past few years, listen to the track on TEN$ION titled "So What?", which is just one on an album chock-full of deeply personal songs. "We break it down and say what's happened since we went from nowhere to where we are now," Ninja says of the track: "Rapped for 20 years, never made a cent/Borrowed money from my mom to pay the rent/Now how'm I gonna get out of this mess/Yo- landi shows me two stripes on the fucking piss-test/Broke-ass Ninja gonna be a daddy/Little baby Ninja gonna need some nappies."
TEN$ION is the album that Die Antwoord have staked everything on.
Because creative control is an absolute for the pair, not to be traded or compromised, they walked away from a million-dollar offer from Interscope. Die Antwoord have now set up a new-style deal to release TEN$ION through their own label, Zef Records, in association with the Good Smile Company (a Japanese company that is also making Die Antwoord toys), and Downtown Records N.Y.C., which is handling the marketing and distribution for the record worldwide, ensuring it gets into the major retail channels. High demand for TEN$ION globally is also seeing gigs stacking up faster than European debt, with Die Antwoord starting their 2012 world tour in the U.S. and Canada before moving to Australia, new Zealand, Europe and Japan.
Russia, Mexico and Israel are among the new territories Die Antwoord are likely to perform in this year.
In making their recent moves, Die Antwoord have been in close contact with their U.S.-based manager, Tony Ciulla, who has shepherded Marilyn Manson's career for over a decade, including through the Columbine blowout. So when Ninja and Yo-landi decided they were not a creative match with Interscope after all, nor willing to put up with any interference in the content of their songs, Ciulla was the one to convey the message to Jimmy Iovine and his team.
So relieved were Ninja and Yo-landi to have cut ties with "Into-Coke Records" as Ninja now calls the label, in reference to allegations that a cocaine ring used its L.A. offices to ship the drug, that in late 2011 they took TEN$ION back to the studio and wrote the final track for the record, "Hey Sexy". The foundation of "Hey Sexy" is a sample of music by British electronic innovator Delia Derbyshire. She was the creator of the electronic recording of Ron Grainer's Doctor Who theme, one of the most recognisable TV themes, and countless other soundscapes. "It's totally mystical," Ninja says. "The sample comes from the '60s. The song's an enchanting, hardcore psychedelic hip-hop freak out."
Like much of TEN$ION, "Hey Sexy" is high-strutting pop. In fact, so hot on pop are Die Antwoord this time around that Ninja sings on "Baby's on Fire". "It's like our 5FM track," he says. "Me just doing the hook – I was busting some Tom Jones shit. Yo-landi's rhyming is so pop, so tight."
But don't be fooled: along with DJ Hi-Tek's beats (his presence more commanding and more fully absorbed than on $O$), TEN$ION's real weapon is Ninja's razor-sharp rapping and Yo-landi's increasingly shrewd and assured delivery – always transversing lyrical territory most contemporary rappers or "stars" won't touch.
"Music used to be about people not giving a fuck," Yo-landi tells me as we get deeper into our interview. "We're taking it back there."
This is an excerpt of the cover story from the February 2012 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. To read the rest of this story, subscribe to the magazine here.