In 2017, during his 21st rotation around the sun, DJ Lag was experiencing a moment that every artist dreams of but few ever reach. Gqom, the sound he’d been perfecting for nearly a decade, was finally getting its due recognition from the rest of the world, and he was the face of it. The DJ and producer had come a long way from tinkering on FL Studio at home in Clermont. He’d spent several more years testing out the sound in Durban’s teenage house party circuit, and finally disseminated it in nightclubs all over South Africa.
In July of 2017, he released ‘Trip To New York’, a brief and vivid trio of sgubhu tracks that he had made while on the road. Sgubhu, gqom’s radio-friendly cousin, filters out the menacing undertones of the Durban club genre in favour of something more accessible — with bright melodies, less emphasis on gqom’s characteristic broken beat, and often catchy vocals to tie it all together. The EP was anchored by the title track, an instrumental that builds around a deceptively simple synth pattern that’s impossible not to dance to.
In the midst of the EP’s release, Lag was touring relentlessly, racking up shows and new fans in places further and further from home: Poland, South Korea and the United States are just a few of the many passport stamps he accrued that year. Consequently, he was barely in South Africa, primarily passing through for just a few days to handle visas and the like. In the span of a year, he went from having never left South Africa to adopting London as a second home, a place where he could keep his things as he prepared for more shows in Europe.
The cost of Lag’s mounting success in the West was that he became alienated from the larger gqom scene in South Africa. In 2016, Babe Wodumo’s ‘Wololo’ and Okmalumkoolkat’s ‘GQI’ became gqom’s first radio hits, making the sound mainstream, and its producers — many of whom Lag had come up with — hot commodities. But in an odd twist of fate, Lag’s releases were struggling to make it out of the underground. Massive Q of Rudeboyz, who produced ‘GQI’, told us that “At that time, Lag’s music wasn’t having a huge impact in South Africa. It was a bit hard for him to break through.”
For Lag, the discrepancy between his rising star abroad and his diminishing one at home was difficult to accept. Like Msawawa and Big Nuz, the kwaito stars he’d grown up listening to, he yearned to be a household name in the country. So it came as a surprise when just a few months after its release, ‘Trip To New York’ blew up back home. The only problem was that the song, save for some minor changes, was released under a different name, and DJ Lag’s name was nowhere to be found in the credits.
‘Omunye’ — released by Distruction Boyz and featuring Benny Maverick and Dladla Mshunqisi, as the star single off their debut album ‘Gqom Is The Future’ — was more than just a hit song. It became a cultural moment. Over a nearly identical instrumental of Lag’s track, the local gqom stars amped up the original’s danceability with pithy, party-starting lyrics and adlibs that took the track from already great to explosive.
The music video for ‘Omunye’ has logged tens of millions of views to date, and in early 2018 became the soundtrack to a Black Panther dance challenge on social media. For Distruction Boyz, who had already established themselves as hitmakers by producing Babes Wodumo’s ‘Wololo’, the song launched them to continental heights as they toured all over Africa, widening gqom’s reach and demographic.
In 2018, the song had its victory lap at the 24th annual South African Music Awards, when it picked up Record Of The Year. In a 2019 interview with Afropop Worldwide, Que of Distruction Boyz noted of the hit record, “We commercialized gqom. That was a major, major breakthrough for the gqom movement. Us taking the sound and making it something you can jam to even on a Sunday morning, not just when you’re going out to a party.”
For Lag, the moment was shocking and disappointing. “I’m sure those guys knew the track that I did, because we were friends back then. We used to play the same gigs with each other and we used to do studio sessions together,” he tells us over Skype from Durban. “I think they were just taking advantage of the fact that I was touring a lot so I wasn’t going to notice what was happening in South Africa. I wasn’t that famous in South Africa, not like Distruction Boyz. People thought I planned for that whole thing to happen so that I could get popular.”
Distruction Boyz and their manager DJ Tira claimed they bought the beat from a producer in Cape Town, DJ Mphyd, who at the time denied any wrongdoing. This led to a three-and-a-half-year-long legal battle that ultimately confirmed the copyright violation, and resulted in Lag getting his appropriate credit. Today, Lag doesn’t harbour any bad feelings towards the parties involved and has resumed working with Distruction Boyz and Tira. “Me and the guys were able to squash what was happening and forgive each other. We became friends again and started making music again,” he says.