It took Watkin Tudor Jones and Anri Du Toit, better known as Die Antwoord‘s Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er, a long time to find success. Yet all those years spent beavering away in the South African underground scene has clearly developed a talent for generating cult appeal. Outlandish videos, shock lyricism, twisted sex appeal, a fondness for breaking taboos and even a range of hand-stitched ‘chommie’ toys are all weapons they’ve enthusiastically employed on a meteoric rise that has ensured this Brixton Academy show sold out months ago.
Like many, my knowledge of Die Antwoord’s music stemmed from watching their fascinatingly fucked up videos, such as the Roger Balan-directed ‘I Fink You Freeky’ or the colourful, Gaga-baiting chaos of ‘Fatty Boom Boom’. So I had no idea what to expect from one of their live shows, nor what sort of crowd they’d attract; a fair amount of tattoos and dyed hair was a given, but aside from the not-quite-metallers-ravers-punks-or-crusties-but-would-probably-describe-themselves-as-‘alternative’-in-a-personal-ad brigade, would the tweed jacket and Moleskine notebook of a cultural studies tutor be visible amidst the throng?
After all, as James Stevens suggests in the second part of his self-made documentary on ‘Waddy’ Tudor Jones (which is worth a watch if you want to see how he ended up going zef-side), “perhaps it’s the paradox of a smart person making seemingly low-brow music, but the group have proven irresistible bait to many a critical theorist”. Much like Eminem or Marilyn Manson before them, or even Kanye now, there’s clearly a method and artistic sensibility behind the occasionally monstrous product, but with Die Antwoord there’s also a difficult to penetrate cultural exoticism that, even if it’s largely fictional, is hard to resist.
Judging by some of the more outlandish outfits being sported on the way up Brixton Road, many haven’t tried to resist it either. While there are plenty of Yolandi-style hotpants and the inevitable students in kigus, there are also a few people verging into the realm of cos-play – not least the bloke with all of Ninja’s tattoos temporarily inked onto his body-painted torso. Yet whether dressed-up or dressed-down, one thing seems to unite everyone being frisked at the doors – they’re all up for a party.
Which must be a relief to Zebra Katz, whose fairly simple task is to warm up an already simmering crowd. Rapping over a DJ alongside accomplice Njena Reddd Foxxx, he is slightly hampered by the horribly muddy Academy sound, which, considering the minimalism of his music, is kind of unforgivable on the venue’s part. Luckily his delivery – like a smoother, less bombastic Mykki Blanco – is fine; although it’s the exuberant Reddd Foxxx who really steals the show, totally making the small patch of stage they’ve been allotted her own. And while Zebra Katz’ breakout track ‘Ima Read’ (with its notorious repetition of ‘bitch’ 87 times) sounds a little gimmicky, tracks like ‘Y I Do’ still ring true. While his reliance on trap rhythms might prove a hindrance at some point, for now it’s working pretty well.
By now the crowd is fully hyped, but there’s a bit of a wait yet – thanks to Zebra Katz’ set starting late and the obligatory fifteen minutes of low house lights and weird noises without anything actually happening, Die Antwoord’s eventual appearance is almost an hour late. Not that the crowd are bothered – just the appearance of DJ Hi Tek behind the decks is enough to get people screaming, and when the hooded but unmistakable figure of Yolandi skips onstage those screams become ear-splitting.
They kick off with a righteous run through ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’, the track that precipitated their split from Interscope, partly thanks to a title that roughly translates as the slogan on the t-shirt Yolandi soon reveals: ‘Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck’. Of course, when Ninja follows her lead and discards his hoodie there is no t-shirt underneath – just the familiar sight of his scribbly abdomen, and then, seconds into ‘Wat Kyk Jy?’, the equally familiar sight of him gleefully thrusting his cock at the crowd.
It’s a high-octane start, but as it turns out they haven’t left themselves many more gears to shift through. While Yolandi, Ninja and even Hi-Tek are energetic and expressive enough for their simple set-up to remain entertaining, you’d have thought, seeing as this is one of only two UK shows, that they’d have a few more tricks up their sleeve. Instead we only get the addition of a couple of dancers half-way through and an inflatable version of the comically-endowed fetish figure from the ‘Evil Boy’ video, although he looks a little sad shunted out to the side of the stage despite the comforting presence of his massive member.
A rapturously received ‘Fatty Boom Boom’ is a set highlight, while an unexpected cover of ‘Pitbull Terrier’ from Emir Kusturica’s brilliant film ‘Black Cat White Cat’ is also a good laugh and seems pretty appropriate – with Kusturica sometimes being accused of exploiting gypsy culture in his native Serbia in much the same way that Die Antwoord have been accused of doing so with the township communities of the Cape Flats. Yet the non-appearance of ‘Cookie Thumper’, the video of which was premiered only days earlier, is equally surprising – while it may not be their best song, it’s conspicuous by its absence.
Still, the audience doesn’t seem to care. As ‘Never Le Nkemise 2’ draws a close to Ninja’s machine gun rapping and Yolandi’s piercing delivery (which is even more high-pitched in real life), the performers kneel down in front of the crowd and remain there for a couple of minutes, heads bowed, while cheers wash over them in spittle-flecked waves. An encore of ‘Enter The Ninja’ draws an even louder response, but a single song encore seems a little skimpy considering their set still runs shy of an hour.
Combined with the between song patter being limited to the usual ‘it’s great to be here, London’ inanities, you’re left feeling like this was just one more stop on the tour – job done, move on. Perhaps the many risks that the band have taken during their career have been carefully considered, just as their personas have been expertly cultivated, as there seems little inclination to take too many risks tonight. It’s an energetic, professional performance, but the spectacular visual elements of the band’s videos is frequently lacking (although having a bunch of fan art projected onstage is a nice touch).
They famously turned down the chance to support Lady Gaga on tour, in a canny move that gained them more column inches than the tour itself probably would have done. Yet you wonder whether doing it might at least have given them a few more ideas in terms of staging. It’s not like Die Antwoord need to be shooting fireworks from their tits, but a few more fireworks generally wouldn’t go amiss.
“I feel sorry for people who ask us “is it real?””, is how Ninja once responded to accusations of phoniness. I don’t think many people here tonight really give a shit how real it is to be honest. But if Die Antwoord is just theatre, then maybe there should be a bit more, well, theatre?