Nthato James Monde Mokgata, a.k.a. Spoek (“Ghost”) Mathambo, has been around only slightly longer than his out-of-nowhere self-titled debut may suggest. ThoughThe Fader has been hyping him for a few months and a number of blogs found his South African passport a convenient excuse to work the World Cup into their posts this past summer, the truth is that Mokgata has been on the radar since late 2008. I’d suggest two songs that got the wheels turning: CLP’s “Spaceballs,” which appeared on the Supercontinental album for Apparat’s Shitkatapult label, and Djedjotronic’s “Dirty & Hard,” which first appeared on the Modeselektor-curated Body Language Vol. 8. Without these, it’s likely Mokgata would be lumped in with Die Antwoord’s flash-in-the-pan prominence.
Instead, Mshini Wam incorporates elements from two worlds. The obvious first: Yes, he sometimes presents himself in the style of another cultural warrior. Cheap-sounding, buzzing bass-y synth lines; swearing for the sake of attitude; titles like “March for Union Buildings” and “War on Words”; beats on “Gunboat” that actually sound like gunshots and actual gunfire on “AU” alike… It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision M.I.A. influencing Mokgata’s music. Certainly, he’s snagged a lot of cues in crafting his own South African-slanted pan-globalism, something youthful Euros and Stateside electroheads can agree upon during their neon-accented rooftop house parties this summer. It’s tempting to picture the scene as two hipsters turn to each other and agree that “Douche Bag Club” is “totally 2010’s summer jam.” Plus, look at the guy.
What’s less obvious is that those images simplify an album that doesn’t strictly deserve the pigeonhole. This isn’t the same kind of provocation as M.I.A.’s aural aggression: Spartan loops, European techno tricks and sensitivity battle for at least as much playtime as Soweto raps and political prodding. The songs on Mshini Wam are minimal, with synths often secondary to the militant percussion and Mokgata’s voice rising above a mumble only half the time. Those invigorated by lead single “Mshini Wam” (“My Machine,” gun implied) may actually be disappointed by the LP in full. Great first single for the kind of audience that they’re pushing, sure, and there are more than a few moments where the vocal hook of a chorus begs for that kind of attention.
Repeated listens to this album, however, uncover a multi-dimensional approach to both music and lyrics. The beat to “Out the Box” reminds you less of Diplo or Switch than the Ying-Yang Twins, “Control” is a Joy Division cover updated for the Major Lazer crowd, and the sultry delivery on “Thunder” emphasizes a less-is-more approach that is the best among a handful of similar examples (Rubbery minimal synths on “Don’t Mean to Be Rude,” the barely-there whisperings of “Let Them Talk,” “Control”).
Spoek Mathambo’s township tech is at its least engaging when it panders to the target audience. It’s when Mokgata tries something less disposable that things get more interesting. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the closer, “Tonite,” which is both compelling in mood and delivery. “Tonight will be the very last night / The very last night of your life,” he sings, and it sounds that way. Only at the very end of these 14 songs can you be sure that Mshini Wam does not speak entirely to the moment. Mokgata’s ear keeps flickering to the future, and while this debut works as a complement to the recent Shangaan Electro compilation from Honest Jon’s and ethnically aware dance parties, it also works on its own as a document of Mokgata’s potential. Mshini Wam is a great snapshot in terms of electro in 2010. Now let’s see a great snapshot of the artist on his own terms.