Die Antwoord Walked a Fine Line Between Parody and Poor Taste at House of Blues
Die Antwoord House of Blues, Dallas Saturday, May 31, 2014
No music reflects our ever-fragmenting, post-internet cultural condition quite like hip hop. The last ten years have seen the genre in constant flux, splintering and contorting into some of the most bizarre and fascinating shapes music has ever taken. Case in point, South African rave-rappers Die Antwoord. The trio, consisting of MCs Ninja and Yolandi Visser and producer DJ Hi-Tek, is one of the most alien by-products the internet ever spat out, high/low art as absurd pop entertainment. And as the group rolled into Dallas for an appearance at the House of Blues, those paradoxical characteristics, which raise more questions than answers, hovered overhead.
Understandably, early critical interest in Die Antwoord centered on the question of authenticity. Are they for real? Serious or satire, insulting or ingenious? The group first garnered international attention for their early youtube videos, which served to highlight the band's surreal and oft-exaggerated zef style, an image directly inspired by the South African zef counterculture movement. Roughly five years later and time has shown them to be, above all else, entertaining, certainly more tongue-in-cheek parody than sincere rap crew.
But as the lights dimmed, the curtains remained closed and guttural Gregorian-like chants bellowed from the House of Blues sound system. Eerie and echoic, the cultish moans sustained for what felt like an eternity before elevating into a cacophony of half-screams. Finally (finally!), the curtains began their slow recede, gifting glimpses of a large three-tiered podium etched with orange black-light paint. It was at this time that fog machine clouds slithered from the parting drapery, somehow both negating and strengthening the sauna-like humidity emanating from the restless crowd.
DJ Hi-Tek was the first on stage. He mounted the highest tier of the pyramid-like stage-set before launching into a pre-party banger that loops the mantra, "DJ Hi-Tek will fuck you in the ass." It's an elbow-nudge at the trio's comedic underpinning, delivered like a full-swing gut-punch. Then, Yolandi, followed by Ninja, strolled out from backstage, draped in neon orange-red, hooded sweat suits.
Like her vocal delivery, which is even more fey and shrill live than on record, Yolandi came across chipmunk-like, all stunted steps and jumpy motions. Ninja, on the other hand, was even more the giant he appears on video. He didn't walk, he lumbered. In fact, when not rapping, he prowled the stage, pacing back and forth, face pinched into a stern, overtly theatrical scowl. He's a scarecrow with a giraffe-like lank to his appendages, complete with tattoos and a rat-tail mullet.
The early part of the set was marked by acrobatic stage dives, infectious hype-mongering and costume changes, with Die Antwoord playing through some of their lesser known material. A lengthy but humorous interruption split the show when a rowdy fan was singled out by both security and Ninja, who all but berated the stubbornly aggressive man with shouts of "chill the fuck out," before offering him an olive branch. The man apparently refused, because Ninja asked security to bounce him, with instructions to let him back in if he apologized. Ninja--the gentle giant. Oddly, this was only one of many instances that suggested the crowd Saturday was more tightly wound, or perhaps just more inebriated, than your typical HOB audience.
Having neither the thrill of the opening moments nor the viral video, star-power of the singles yet to come, the show's middle section sagged. The most noteworthy blemish came in the form of new, terribly unremarkable track "Pitbull Terrier," from upcoming album Donker Mag. The song hit, and then unraveled, anticlimactically. It was the least funny, most outlandishly moronic four minutes of the entire evening.
Fortunately, the night's low points were buttressed by a chain of the group's best cuts. In what seemed to be a very short and feverish span, Die Antwoord burned through a string of slightly tweaked renditions of their most famous hits: "Fatty Boom Boom," "Beat Boy," "Evil Boy," I Fink U Freeky," and "Baby's On Fire". The last of those was arguably the highlight of the performance. To throaty chants of "Ninja, Ninja, Ninja," Yolandi and Ninja put on a spectacle of lavish, seizure-like dancing, all of which, of course, was done in the couple's underwear. Yolandi's jailbait sexuality, and Ninja's famed dick-swinging gyrations (in his infamous Pink Floyd boxers) were exhibited in full force. And although, throughout the whole set, Die Antwoord suffered from that vocal indecipherability endemic to most live rap concerts, it didn't really matter; their energy, production and stage presence were just that riveting.
On Saturday, as is the case with their records, it seemed that for every melodic scorcher like "Evil Boy" or "Fatty Boom Boom," there was an off miss like "Cookie Thumper," which reduced Die Antwoord's shtick to it's crudest mechanisms. The result of such tracks were jokes gone sour, songs often just a few clicks shy of musical blackface -- grotesque over simplifications of South African culture.
Still, despite their occasional cultural carelessness, Die Antwoord's style is a joke that typically sees them laughing with, rather than at, their audiences. Which is to say, there's more quality to Die Antwoord than corny. So, it's fitting that Saturday at HOB had far more positive takeaways than negative. From their ornate showmanship to the Chaplin-esque dedication to their personas, the group was thoroughly impressive. But, perhaps most striking of all is how the Die Antwoord project acts as a mirror of sorts, reflecting back whatever features onlookers project upon them. If you see unsmiling obnoxiousness, then that's what they are to you. If you see clever pastiche, then, BINGO, they're geniuses.
After ending their set with a ceremonious kneel that saw the trio and stage-dancers on one knee, the group returned for a one-song encore. Backed by a scattershot of blinding strobes, the trio closed with arguably their most famous single, "Enter the Ninja." As sweat flung from the two harlequin MC's wiry physiques, I couldn't escape Ninja's lines from earlier in the night: "What happened to all the cool rappers from back in the day? Nowadays all these rappers sound exactly the same." Hoax or performance art? Maybe it doesn't matter, when, like Die Antwoord, you've found a sound all your own.
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