Nkosinathi Maphumulo, aka Black Coffee, grew up in the city of Durban on the east coast of South Africa, and while studying music at college formed a three-piece soul band named Shana. They recorded a few albums and built a local following before Nkosinathi started messing with primitive computer software and recording his own solo stuff.
This led to a slot at the Red Bull Music Academy in 2003 — “probably the most significant thing to happen to me early on” — and RBMA has continued to play a big role throughout his career, he tells DJ Mag. An ex-girlfriend used to call him Black Coffee — “and I used to call her Brown Sugar” — and when he needed a DJ name for a RBMA form, he wrote it down. “And it's never left me.”
The first track he produced completely alone, 'Happiness', took off after being featured on the Afro-house 'DJs At Work' album (“I was quite impressed with myself and the end result”), and he got involved in the South African soulful house scene. Soon he was working with the famous black South African musician Hugh Masekela, who shot to prominence internationally as an anti-Apartheid activist and musician, reworking 'Stimela' into a righteous, conscious percussive soulful house jam.
“That was an amazing experience,” Black Coffee tells DJ Mag. “I really had no idea what to write or prepare, it was quite daunting. Given the person that he is, I decided to go the route that I did. A song with a big message for the whole continent. It was just him and me in the studio. I broke it down to him how I wanted to approach the song, and in the end it turned out to be quite big.”
Black Coffee released his debut album on his own Soulistic Music label and slotted in as a significant playa in the SA house scene. “When house music started out in Jo’burg, I wasn’t really part of growing the scene though,” he tells DJ Mag. “I was just a DJ buying records from record shops.
I think my main input has been through my music production. I was one of the guys who decided quite early on instead of buying and importing, instead of licensing music from overseas, I’d rather do my own thing. Focus on making my own songs, my own music. And I think that’s where my influence has been most significant.”
Keen to loop in house music producers in South Africa at this point in the interview, Black Coffee bigs up newcomers Nasty Nev, Da Capo, Keys Snow, Mindlo & Essential-I and Sai & Ribatone as well as more established guys such as Black Motion, Afrikan Roots, Uhuru and Dr Duda, who's part of the Mi Casa band. “All of these guys are bringing different elements to the genre that are fresh and unique,” he says.
As his career has progressed, producing albums and singles and winning awards, Black Coffee
ended up performing live at his Africa Rising show at a packed Moses Madhiba Stadium in 2011. “The entire process was special to me,” BC says, “from having the idea and talking about it to working on it; right up to the day it became a reality. On that day I don’t think I was even present. I was floating in space from sheer joy. It remains one of the most important nights and ongoing projects of my musical existence. It was truly amazing.”
In the past few years Black Coffee has been working with soulful house legend Joe Claussell — something of a kindred spirit. “He's definitely one of the guys I resonate with the most,” he says. “He has this way of understanding the music, and I think my understanding is very similar. And he just gets so lost in the music when he is playing.
He hears things that other people would never hear in a song. His sound is different and so versatile. One song might have a very jazzy lounge feel, another could be Afro-driven or really Afrocentric. But that’s Joe Claussell, he just has this incredible and vast knowledge of music.”
When Black Coffee was 13-years-old, as the racist Apartheid system was being dismantled, he lost the use of his left arm. While celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela, a speeding vehicle ran over the crowd, injuring him. But this tragic setback only made him more determined to pursue a career in music, and he founded the Black Coffee Foundation to help other disabled youth wanting to make their way in music.
“The Black Coffee Foundation has an ongoing relationship with Bridges For Music,” he explains. “I’ve been involved with the initiative from the start and take part in many of their workshops and events. We have a scholarship programme that we launched last year with Bridges For Music and SAE in Cape Town, which awards an education in music to a deserving disabled student.”
Black Coffee is currently working on his fifth solo album. His international rep is second to none, with regular gigs in New York, Paris, Greece and London, as well as home in South Africa. “I have tracks from the album that I’ve started playing out,” he says, when we ask if he's coming to the UK soon.
“I’m excited to get to SW4 festival later this year because that’s where I really want to test out these tunes.One of them is really bass-driven and even while I was creating the track, it struck me that SW4 would be ideal for it. So I can’t wait to see the reaction when I play the track there.”
We all need a bit of Black Coffee in our lives.
Catch Black Coffee at SW4 on London's Clapham Common, Saturday 29th August...
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