These are the most exciting amapiano producers right now
Amapiano has become a world-conquering genre since emerging in South Africa over a decade ago, with the sound mutating in recent years to solidify its place as an embedded dance music culture. Here, Shiba Melissa Mazaza asks: who are the South African artists carrying the torch for amapiano right now?
Amapiano (also known as ipiano or ’piano) began in the streets of Gauteng, South Africa, in the early 2010s. The now world-conquering sound is a sub-genre of deep house that usually clocks in at around 110bpm, and is typified by extended intros, soaring synth lines built on euphoric chord progressions, chasmic grooves, vibrant shakers and wide, sustained basslines.
Integral to amapiano — a name which combines the isiZulu plural prefix “ama-” with the western word “piano” — are elements of kwaito and diBacardi (also known as iNkwari), two genres that came to prominence through the 1990s. (If you’re not familiar with those, check out this diBacardi mix by the late DJ Spoko or the NTS Radio kwaito mix by RealROZZANO.)
Artists like DJ Maphorisa, Njelic, Mr JazziQ and DBN GOGO have helped develop the form of amapiano that has seen success globally, which is locally referred to as “dust” in South Africa, and known for its bounding percussion, sirens and dark, urgent basslines. Producers like Kabza De Small have also gained popularity with a sound that has become known as “private school” amapiano: notable for its melodic deep house and jazz leanings, which developed from performances where amapiano DJs would play live keys in their sets.
Along with artists such as MFR Souls (who are said to have given the genre its name), Mdu aka TRP was first to infuse the log drum into amapiano productions, an element that had a huge impact on the development of the sound. Kelvin Momo, Gabba Canal, Josiah De Disciple, DJ Stokie and De Mthuda have also made a sizeable impression on contemporary amapiano — all essential listening for anyone wanting to better understand its DNA.
“Piano has always been there, but today it’s been taken over by younger producers who have given it new life,” says Theresho Selesho. He’s a promoter who grew up in Mamelodi and now runs his own parties, catering to house and ’piano lovers — including Tshwanefontein and The Breakfast Club — alongside Katlego Malatji. “Mamelodi has its own sound, and so do Soshanguve and Gomora. They have their own dance moves in each area too. It’s not just in the music, there’s an attitude... it’s like a battle going on to bring different sounds and expressions forward. Today, ’piano sounds more melodic... and if you slow it down, you speak to the more house-centric styles that used to play on Sundays at the jazz clubs happening in my ’hood.”
There are more examples of South Africa’s musical heritage being revisited through amapiano than kwaito and diBacardi. Focalistic and Mas Musiq’s ‘Skelem’ would be anchorless without Selaelo Selota’s ‘Thrrr Pha!’ and M’Du’s ‘Tsiki Tsiki’. Elsewhere, vocalist Daliwonga’s captivating interpretation of the Freddy Gwala-fuelled ‘Gumba Fire’, Scorpion Kings and Mas Musiq’s imaginative take on Kamazu’s ‘Indaba Ka Bani’ and Aymos’ Doc Shebelza-inspired ‘Emcimbini’ also show this history.
Considering the story of amapiano’s development, it’s easy to understand why it happened this way: kwaito, a sound created in South Africa’s politically tempestuous 1980s and 1990s by and for Black citizens, became “the voice of the people”; people who wanted only to be free, and to express themselves. Today, that hope remains in South Africa — but the soundtrack to expressing it has evolved.
’Piano’s continued impact in South Africa warranted the first international Amapiano Conference last year, which featured Afro pioneer Juls, promoter-DJ OneDown from Kenya, Yaba Buluku Boys’ manager George “Geobek” Beke and producer Musa Keys. The global influence of the music is clear to see, too. NTS Radio released the 17-track ‘Amapiano Now’ compilation in July last year to critical acclaim, while artists and producers from as far as Nigeria, London, Japan, Kenya and Dubai are crafting their own take on amapiano.
This can be to the detriment of local producers and artists, though. The success of amapiano has exposed the greater politics around who should be making it, how and to what end. Last year, Ed Sheeran enlisted South African producer Kooldrink for a remix of ‘Bad Habits’, which landed fairly well in South Africa and abroad, along with 2022’s Vigro Deep remix of Amaarae’s ‘Sad Girls Luv Money’. Unfortunately, Jorja Smith and Ghanaian producer GuiltyBeatz‘s contribution in ‘All Of This’ was met with so much derision on social media that they quickly announced a string of follow-up remixes to come from local amapiano pioneers, in a bid to make amends with the South African scene.
“If you look closely, amapiano has changed a lot of lives. It’s really dope to see a genre that enables people to have fun and enrich themselves,” explains Nigel Stockl, an amapiano filmmaker who has worked with DJ Maphorisa and his Blaqboy label. “People don’t really speak about it, but coming from a Black community that comes with a lot of suppression... people are pushing forward, supporting their families, and businesses are being built, off the back of the genre that the ’hood itself created.”
In the list below, we highlight the most exciting South African producers carrying the torch for amapiano right now. It is worth noting that, despite the many female vocalists driving the amapiano scene to new heights (as listed by the author of this piece in a feature for Pan African Music) there is an undeniable gender imbalance on the production side of the sound within its country of origin. As the sound grows exponentially, the hope is that soon more and more producers of all genders will emerge.
The man behind the multi-million streaming ‘Siyathandana’, voiced by Boohle and Cassper Nyovest — along with the Major League DJz co-produced albums ‘Pianochella’ and ‘What’s The Levol’ — Abidoza is one of the most in-demand producers in amapiano. He says he’s a shy person, and often misunderstood; someone who often leans into more instrumentally-focused amapiano rather than dancefloor-ready productions. This year, Abidoza is set to release a full-length album, featuring artists from Nigeria and France. He says he feels they can communicate the sort of message that can change people’s perspectives about life, while creating music that will be the next step in the evolution of amapiano.
A Durban producer who got the opportunity to share his music when UK singer-songwriter Jorja Smith and Ghanaian producer GuiltyBeatz released their controversial take on amapiano, ‘All Of This’. Mpilo “Dankie Fuze” Ngcobo remixed it, winning the approval of amapiano fans across the world when his tweet of the track went viral. Adopting amapiano staples into a swimming groove, with sirens and accurately-tuned log drums, his rework cradles Jorja’s soulful vocal. As well as producing his own music, Dankie Fuze is an audio engineer by day; he recently graduated from the Academy of Sound Engineering in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.
One of the few women leading the new wave of amapiano production, Mandisa “DBN GOGO” Radebe has been producing solo music since 2017, as well as co-producing Lady Du, Unlimited Soul, Focalistic, Mas Musiq and Felo Le Tee. She’s currently touring across the world, with stops in the UK, Botswana and the US. Even though she comes from a more affluent background than most, she’s earned respect coming up through the competitive world of amapiano, becoming one of the most beloved figures in the scene. With her vocals and production on the anthemic ‘French Kiss’, from her ‘Thokoza Cafe’ album, she’s given amapiano fans in Francophone countries a track they can claim — and 2021 would not be the same without her viral Dakiwe challenge. Most recently, she partnered with producers Mellow & Sleazy, and long-time collaborator Dinho, for an Afrotech-inspired evolution on ‘Zwanaka’.
Making a huge impact with Young Stunna’s ‘Bopha’, and Focalistic’s ‘16 Days No Sleep’, along with ‘Trust Fund’ before that — which is yet to be released officially — the innovative Mellow & Sleazy are testing the limits of South Africa’s unique dance cultures. Enlisting the skill of Spitori rapper Ch’cco — whose namesake was an ’80s kwaito star called Chicco, who had a hit called ‘Need Some Money’ — this divisive number has started an interesting debate among amapiano and Bacardi fans (some have described the track as “a bastardisation of Bacardi”). While most who don’t understand Pretoria rap or Bacardi won’t share their enthusiasm, the nostalgic yet brazen approach to creating new waves has landed well in their hometown.
Vocalist-producer and percussionist duo Murumba Pitch are making headway with their luscious productions, best heard on Malumz On Decks’ ‘S’vuthela iNumber’, MFR Souls’ ‘Woza Madala’ and their 2020 album ‘Last Man Standing’. Made up of Emmanuel Mathye and Innocent “Maeywon” Mongolo, from Limpopo and Mpumalanga respectively, the two bring R&B leanings to smooth amapiano productions that combine spirited, organic instrumentals with rounded vocal harmonies.
Releasing a fiery gqom album in ‘The Legendary Edition’, which features artists from across the province, producers of Babes Wodumo’s hit, ‘Intombi Yesgebengu’, Demolition Boiz are part of a new wave of amapiano coming out of KwaZulu Natal, which they’ve collectively called The Natal Piano Movement. On the compilation of the same name, they make an easy shift to the genre on five of its tracks, particularly on the romantic ‘Stay With Me’, featuring vocalist Ennkay, which is currently only available on Audiomack. Fellow Pietermaritzburgers, Sibusisi “Sbuda Man” Sithole (pictured) and vocalist Mluh produce some extraordinary sounds on 'Angbambeki', alongside Andileh, Thoby Dladla, Mphabazi, Thullu M and FishZN. This collective noticed “a gap in the market”, and began to create dark, soulful, seamless blends of gqom, deep house and amapiano.
From the team that brought us AKA and Ami Faku, Vth Season has another rising star in eSwatini-born Nhlonipho. Born in Mankayane, his musical journey began at home where he was inspired by his mother, who, like himself, is a teacher by day — she conducted choirs and taught him choral music from a young age. This is most evident in his affinity for prayer-like textures and vocals on tracks such as ‘Asoze’, alongside Luyolo. His latest single, ‘Uzanini’, from the six-track ‘Life I Got’ album, is a testament to his ability to test the boundaries between amapiano and deep house in a dreamy yet dancefloor-filling manner.
With a background in Afro house, which he learnt under the guidance of his father, Mandla “Soa Mattrix” Mashakeni has gained popularity with his creative approach to amapiano — filled with euphoric chord progressions and dynamic house-leaning breakdowns — ever since his debut amapiano EP in 2020, ‘For Your Soul’. The ‘Genius’ EP and ‘Sounds Of Africa’ followed, during South Africa’s lockdown, where Soa unearthed some of his best work, with massive amapiano hits ‘uThando’, with Soulful G, as well as ‘Stoko’ and ‘Emsotra’, featuring Sir Trill. Since then, he’s caught the attention of DJ Maphorisa, who collaborated with the young Diepkloof DJ/producer on ‘Tintswalo’. Soa has also enlisted up-and-coming voices such as Mashudu and Nkosazana Daughter; musically, he’s getting better, brighter and bolder. His next release with Sir Trill and kwaito legend, Mapaputsi, is titled ‘iPhutha’.
Known fondly as “the drunken master”, or “DM”, denoting his ability to produce killer kicks, Stakev has been on the scene for a while as a house artist, and has resurfaced as one to watch for 2022. Best known for his mood-shifting Drunken Master mixes, in particular the PS Collaborations with King Sxova and Papzin, along with the mini mixes with Style O, Stakev has emerged to take his place among the most exciting amapiano producers. He has new music alongside “private school” pioneer Kelvin Momo, after completing his ‘Out Of The Box’ EPs, and a great remix of Joe Goddard’s ‘Gabriel’ with vocalist Lucille Slade. It seems he has a penchant for a great rework — the late kwaito star Mshoza’s ‘Kortes’ was a smash hit in the ’90s, and after her passing last year, Stakev’s tribute kept Mshoza’s iconic lyrics pristine while embracing amapiano’s ability to reanimate a classic. Recently, Stakev has dropped ‘Khumula Gqoka’, and featured on Young Stunna’s stellar ‘Notumato’ album, where he flexes with DJ Maphorisa for an engaging track dubbed ‘Egoli’.
Midrand-hailing producer and DJ Theology Mathebula started making music in 2008, but it wasn’t until the release of a single named ‘Isegazini’, featuring Moonchild Sanelly and Aymos, that he became well-known on the amapiano scene. The track came as part of a campaign for Red Bull Music, which challenged the three artists to create a finished piece of work in just 72 hours. The result is an immaculate, soulful production that set the pace for his journey upward. Aiming to fuse Afropop and Afrotech off the back of ‘90T’ and ‘Ngoxolo’, Theology plans to release his first full-length project in 2022 — featuring vocalists Snova and Lady Du, super-producer Josiah De Disciple, and long-time collaborators Aymos, DuMuziqalstesh and Moonchild Sanelly.
A low-key producer until recently, Tshidiso Mapulane, aka TO Starquality, is responsible for some of amapiano’s most successful productions. With a distinct style most evident in ‘Kumnandi Ebsuku’, ‘Hulumeni’ and ‘Matla’, TO is a soulful musician with a pensive tone. Having worked on most of Aymos’ catalog, as well as projects with DBN GOGO, Madumane (aka DJ Maphorisa), Mas Musiq, Soa Mattrix and Mfundo Da DJ, TO has a penchant for building the artists around him through his Starquality Productions stable. He hopes to focus on his own career as a musician in 2022, in order to explore his own take on amapiano as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer.
One of the most revered producers in gqom and amapiano, Vigro Deep’s passion for music came to light when he was still in school. Dropping out of 10th grade to focus on producing, his shape-shifting approach to music and his ‘Baby Boy’-themed albums catapulted him skyward. Since then, he’s supplied many of the amapiano scene’s most notable tracks. Coming up alongside DJ Lag as part of the gqom scene, and responsible for Focalistic’s ‘Ke Star’ and DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small’s ‘Scorpion Kings’, Vigro questions his musical identity on his lusciously layered single, ‘I Am Vigro Deep’: “If I go deep, will people pray for my downfall or just wait to see if I go bleak?” This is the question on many musicians’ minds in the wake of amapiano’s success. Vigro insinuates that he’s ready to experiment with the genre’s staples to produce something deeper and, quite possibly, dearer to him. However, it seems clear that this won’t be an issue for the Atteridgeville-hailing powerhouse, who is best known for his ability to alchemise any sound he puts his mind to.
Although not strictly a ‘producer’, Xolani Guitars is one of the most coveted guitarists in the amapiano scene, providing breathtaking strings on Babalwa M’s ‘Intro’, Abidoza’s ‘The Last Dance’ and Mas Musiq’s ‘Nguwe’. Featuring heavily in Madumane’s live set, Xolani has a busy performing schedule, where he reminds audiences exactly why the jazz roots of amapiano are so important to the sound. Watch him effortlessly command the music in his guitar solos on Instagram.