Lwazi Asanda Gwala, better known as Durban artist DJ Lag, is a pioneer of the gqom genre: a unique South African style that strips out the 4/4 kicks of house music and replaces them with syncopated rhythms, moody synth strings and a charged atmosphere. Gqom grew in the early 2010s via the blaring soundsystems of Durban taxis and house parties, but has since attained global popularity, with DJ Lag among its leading lights. After releasing EPs on Hyperdub and Goon Club Allstars, he toured the world; his 2017 track ‘Ice Drop’ was ripped off by Will.i.am, but a 2019 production for Beyoncé, ‘My Power’, for the Lion King remake, brought his sound to a wider audience more than ever.
Still, the bristling electronics and stripped down beats of gqom haven’t always translated to mainstream radio play, and in the last few years, another more melodic South African dance genre, amapiano, has threatened to steal gqom’s thunder. Undeterred, on his debut album, DJ Lag breaks bread with the amapiano new school, creating fresh combinations and broadening gqom’s canvas over a generous 15 tracks.
‘Meeting With The King’ features a capacious guestlist of vocalists and production collaborators, and isn’t afraid to experiment or tweak the formula. The opening track, ‘Thongo Lami’ is a stirring start, with its stately house beat, atmospheric effects, lush piano chords and the uplifting vocal of Ndoni. Similarly, ‘Destiny’, with South African superstar Amanda Black, is epic in scope; closer to Black Coffee’s earlier deep house material, and laced with rising synth patterns.
And yet, Lag has lost none of his edge; on ‘Lucifer’, he works with amapiano MC Lady Du, constructing a creeping and sinister beat with rising sirens; it’s like a collision of dubstep and Missy Elliott and Timbaland at their creative zenith.
Perhaps amapiano’s biggest producer, Mr JazziQ teams up with Lag on ‘Khavhude’, a monstrous gqom beat with sparring basslines, giant synths and the late Mpura and Vic Typhoon trading lyrics over the top.
The experimental ‘Something Different’, meanwhile, has a strange, stop-start rhythm, with menacing keys that sound like being chased by a swarm of bees. On ‘No Childs Play (feat. Jackzin & General C’mamane)’, with its pronounced claps, vocal chants and pummelling low-end, Lag proves he’s still committed to the minimalist drum tracks and brooding vibes that featured in his earlier work, though there’s a sharpened production focus here.
The whole record sounds huge. The final tune, ‘DJ Lag’ featuring Babes Wodumo and Mampintsha, is another highlight, with a vocal refrain repeating his name. It’s a song which is surely destined to be chanted back to him by sweaty club audiences in the near future.
On ‘Meeting With The King’, DJ Lag shows the versatility of gqom, and its importance as a unique form of music, rather than simply a sub-genre or passing fad. He also proves it can happily co-exist and cross-pollinate with amapiano and deep house, and hints at myriad new directions the style could head in. It’s the genre’s first landmark artist album, and destined to go down as one of its best.