'Eish!' he thinks. 'Thato is one lucky mother fucker!'
Thato, Nathi's best friend and fellow house DJ, got selected to attend the Red Bull Music Academy in Rome. Nathi had to stay behind and cover Thato's gigs for the two weeks he was gone.
And while Nathi is immune to advertising, with very few commercial messages permeating his media-callused consciousness, whenever he thinks of Red Bull he thinks of Thato and he thinks that Thato is one lucky motherfucker.
Like Nathi, Thato Motsepe is 19 years old, studying sound engineering, and is a total vinyl slut. All he wants to do is mix house music in front of a thousand adoring fans, day in and day out. When he's behind the ones and twos he's re-creating the world in an image of groove and harmony. Fine honeys dance close to the speaker stacks and vibe him with meaningful looks and suggestive moves. That's why he's studying sound engineering. Being a DJ is like getting a foot in the door, being a producer is where the money and fame is located. His heroes are YFM's DJ Fresh, Mzekezeke and Oskido. The type of music he plays is manifestly African, house tunes from Randburg to Senegal, Nigeria to New York and Costa Rica. He, like his crew, and the whole of YFM, call it Msanzi House. Unlike the cheesy doef-doef euro-trash house so loved on 5FM, with Msanzi house the tempo has been slowed down to accentuate the hook. The bump and grind are brought to the front. Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, English, Tostsi-taal and some West African vocals are occasionally layered over the top – depending where the music is coming from. The sound is unique and can be blended seamlessly with international deep house and kwaito hits. Sometimes it's hard to know where Msanzi house ends and kwaito begins, especially when you listen to the likes of Brothers Of Peace, Mafikizolo, DJ Cleo and Brown Dash. Thato heard about this gig called the Red Bull Music Academy through a club DJ called Pisce, who worked on the thing last year when it was held in Cape Town. That led to Thato searching out the promotional CD Rom (available free in most good record stores), filling in the questionnaire and creating a mix tape that showcases his unique DJ style and flavour.
He sent it to Red Bull. They receive over two thousand entries from 67 countries. Miraculously, because of the unique style of music he plays and his own mixing and cutting skills, he ended up being chosen. A few months and a passport later he was in Roma. Riding around on the back of Vespas, eating Pizza every night and then either playing his brand of South African house in clubs across the Italian capital, or listening to other talented DJs from around the world play theirs.
Granted, when you put a bunch of vinyl sluts in one place, there is a fair amount of boozing, flirting, snogging and smoking. Inevitably, some sloppy polony sandwiches get made too. But that's the nightlife, and we like to boogie. By midday at the Red Bull Music Academy in Roma, all the students are assembled for the lecture. The Academy is like a floating, global university of dance music. It runs for one month only, split into two, two-week terms. This year it's operating out of an upgraded but derelict (my balls) building that used to house a cultural organisation, down a cobbled alleyway, around the corner from the frequently overlooked and almost forgotten piazza Mattei. Rome is like that, with so much history and culture clogging up the place that big pieces often slip off the radar and become alluring because they are as much forgotten and neglected as they are ancient and amazing. You end up taking thousands of years of history for granted. But I digress. The students, assembled like the UN of DJs, nursing hangovers with cappuccino and Red Bull, feeling awkward in the glare of the midday sunshine, are assembled in the lecture hall. Today's guest lecturer is Bernard Purdie. An old, relaxed looking black dude in a fedora. He's also the most recorded drummer in history having played on most of the albums you love and adore, from Miles Davis to Guru via Joe Cocker. The funny thing about Music Academy lecturers is that you might not recognise who they are, but when you do a bit of research into their backgrounds and twig which projects they have been involved with, you stroke your chin and go, 'wow!'
The style of instruction at the Academy is mostly anecdotal. A big wig like Hugh Masekela, Hip Hop maestro Prince Paul or bass culture expert Dennis Bovell (the guy responsible for all of LKJ's dub sounds) sit down and tell you about how it was for them. How they made it into the game and how to deal with fame. They share their pearls of wisdom and certain tricks of the trade, advice and vital information they have picked up along the way. This is the best kind of learning. Where someone you know, admire and respect tells you how they did it. Mixed up with all this are some very funny stories. It's the music industry and there's still a fair amount of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.
After the lecture, the lecturer is invited to the Academy's music studio. A full on, no holds barred, top of the range recording facility. Students fill in the gaps, playing guitars, bass guitars, beating teaspoons in coffee cups or whatever. Some will add vocals, others beatbox. All of a sudden there's a righteous jam going on. The kids are playing alongside their heroes. It's this organic creative experience that advertising can't even dream about. Everybody's a fanatic. Now that they've made the music, the participants can then be involved in the mixing and mastering process. Later they'll split into smaller groups and isolate themselves in one of the many studios, decked out with turntables, mixing desks, synthesisers, samplers, Apple Macs and Genelec speakers. A tech-head's wet dream of the finest music making equipment. For the rest of the day they'll toy with their creative processes and try and capture their inspiration in sound. Famous DJ producers like Cut Chemist (Chicago), Patrick Pulsinger (Berlin) and Tony Nwachukwu (London) are on hand to solve problems and educate the students about the equipment.
By midnight everyone is hungry, and that's about the time most people in Roma have their suppa. After the staple diet of pizza and wine, there'll be clubbing, boozing and much turntablism. The participants all get to play club gigs, and most everyone comes to watch the get down. People are loose and smiling. The sounds are diverse and sophisticated; as would be expected when a Kazakhstani electro DJ mixes it up with a be-dreadlocked Spanish trancehead and is followed by a Peruvian hip hop DJ. The crowds mash it up. The sun rises slowly over the ancient capital, spilling pink on the cobblestones. A huddle of people all hugging and singing sway in unison up the road that leads back to their hotel.
No one even mentions the energy drink that made it happen. No one asks you to drink it, like it or support it. They resist the urge to smear their branding on everything. They could, but they don't.
Nathi Dlamini is back stretched out on the couch, flipping furiously through the channels so he won't have to watch the adverts. Thato is back from Rome and spends most of his time working on his album, which in Thato's own words is going to be, 'unlike anything you've ever heard before.'
'I learnt more in two weeks than the whole of last year studying sound engineering.'
Nathi knows one thing for sure; he's definitely applying for the Red Bull Music Academy next year.
Find out more www.redbullmusicacademy.com