It's not delay, it's reverb. Spoek is bemused by the suggestion that young musicians who've grown up in the last decade have been lobotomised by YouTube hits, Twitter trends, Facebook likes and SoundCloud shares. Does a splicing together of a borrowed DNA of meta-textual sonic reference points and allusions amount to a recycling of pop's past, where replication has replaced innovation? Sure, bitching referential sonic brews by Lady Gaga (Bowie-Madonna-Manson) and Die Antwoord (Brasse Vannie Kaap-Beavis and Butt-Head-Basquiat-Ballen) might sound hip to postmodern connoisseurs, collectors and tastemaker Web 2.0 trawlers like Diplo, who actually get the original source-material references. But aren't these encoded genre-surfs just fatiguing for the average pop punter?
Spoek pauses. He samples a slice of takeaway pizza. Four Seasons. "For stuff to be over-referential – on the one side it's an educating process because it gives people a wealth of information, but on the other side..." He sighs. It's humid in the Analog Binary Studio, nestled above a gambling joint and barbershop in Rivonia, Johannesburg. He cranks up the breeze on the solitary Boardman's floor fan.
"It's not that I expect people to like my music. I make the music for people to like. My head is to make beautiful things for people to get into. My music is driven to be intricate, a bit challenging – but not arrogantly so. If I can build good, kinda complex, bomb grooves, I'd love that. I might come from that super-hyphenated background [in Sweat.X], but right now my head is to do what Stevie Wonder would do: tell the universal truth. Have some serious humour in there, some serious seriousness, strong character writing, to just be a full songwriter."
Songwriter? Surely in an era where God is a DJ once again (take a bow, Guetta) and the producer his son (stand up Skrillex), "songwriter" might seem like an old-fashioned, even anachronistic title to aspire to? Not for a sonic architect and rhythm scientist like Spoek, for whom songwriting remains the Holy Ghost, the key to resurrecting the poetics of the archive. A space where the sound, rhythm and temporality of digital "storage space" can be reworked until it yields dimensions of intimacy, beauty, even reality. For Spoek, travelling the spaceways isn't some nostalgic impulse. It's a presence.
"It's a different time, you know?" he grins. "I'm of another generation where I have an online music library like Spotify. [Take] someone like Phuzekhemisi, who I like a lot. Phuzekhemisi a.k.a. Zibokwakhe Johnstone Mnyandu. The legendary maskandi troubadour who dragged Zulu pop into the headlines and onto the airwaves with the sociopolitical medicine of his multi-platinum-selling albums Imbizo (1989), Emaphalamende (1993), Impimpi (1995), Ngo 9 (1998) and Phans' Imikhonto (1999).
"His vibe is just really socially challenging," nods Spoek. "I don't even know how I got into him. But it was listening to his stuff on Spotify, where I could just have all his albums to get through and get into. And here's another whole spin on this conversation. I get into rock music. A friend of mine gives me 100 gigabytes of albums. And all of a sudden it's just another whole world. I'm processing this stuff and getting more and more into guitar music. Up to the point where I'm, like, "Fuck! Phuzekhemisi is a guitarist! It's not 'trad' music. It's not 'world' music. It's rock'n'roll! It's rock'n'roll! People don't get that!"
"It's only rock'n'roll, but we love it, yeah!" The mantra of every crate-digger clicking on, typing up and tuning into a wet dream of streaming online audio archives and "free" digital downloads. "It's been exciting for me just to discover a lot of stuff that I didn't know about," nods Spoek. "Stuff like what Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo were doing as Spear and Assegai."
Saxophonist Dudu Pukwana and drummer Louis Moholo. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, the exiled Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath cats were not only pushing the jazz envelope, they were remapping all sorts of sonic borders. On albums such as Zimbabwe (1972) and In the Townships (1973) they shattered stereotypes and sidestepped genre pigeonholing for a freeform funk-rock fusion. Their African acid-rock revolution was never televised at home during apartheid. It's a revolution that progressive rock bands like BLK JKS are only now tuning back into.
"Brotherhood of Breath I grew up with through my dad," says Spoek. "But I didn't hear the kind of acid rock and more funk stuff they were doing. So it's been really interesting discovering their stuff online. A lot of stuff is just a click away these days."
But there's also a whole world of sound that isn't. Which explains why Spoek recently started his own online archive, the Nombolo One Project. Produced in Jo'burg's labs with his homeboys Theo "Mthezo" Tuge and Ayanda "Ayobah" Sithole, the collaborative covers project de-and-reconstructs a playlist of seminal South African hits by Brenda Fassie, Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse, Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya, BOP, Jacknife, Chiskop, Sankomota, Mahlathini, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and more.
For Spoek, these songs aren't just cultural artifacts to be cloned. They're "lost chords", raw original material, primed to be decoded and recoded in an associative montage of meaning, memory and mood to become something new and whole through speculative, collaborative research.
"It's me honing my skills, on holiday in summer in South Africa, collaborating with some of the most exciting artists coming out," he explains. He taps the keyboard of his digital mixing desk. Logic Pro with a pair of V8 speakers perched either side. "The Brother Moves On, The Frown, Dirty Paraffin, BFG are very much doing their own thing. I'm making beats now, so I don't have to rely on anyone, you know? Theo and I are cooking this stuff up, you know? Not that music is disposable, but [the idea] was to expose a lot of people to the music, ego-free. I hope people get to hear it, it's something important".
This is an excerpt of the cover story from the May 2012 issue of Rolling Stone South Africa. To read the rest of this story, subscribe to the magazine here.