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Lead vocalist Ninja, of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, body surfs over a rowdy crowd as he performs in Toronto on Tuesday, February 14, 2012. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
Lead vocalist Ninja, of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, body surfs over a rowdy crowd as he performs in Toronto on Tuesday, February 14, 2012. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

Music review

South Africa's Die Antwoord: rowdy rappers but sweet, too Add to ...

South Africa’s Die Antwoord is reputedly the most controversial group in rap at the moment, a statement that speaks volumes about how much the genre has mellowed since the days of N.W.A. The trio brought its act to Toronto on Tuesday, playing a sweaty, sold-out show that leavened its attitude with a surprising amount of uplift.

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They bad

Die Antwoord released their latest album, Ten$ion, a week ago, after having been dropped by Interscope records for insisting that the first single be a tune whose title is an Afrikaans obscenity.

Judging from the shout-alongs, the young, heavily male crowd at the Phoenix – a group whose taste tended more to metal T-shirts and the occasional mohawk than hip-hop togs – had already committed much of the album to memory. Whether this cheered the group is hard to say, as tattooed front man Ninja wore a perpetual scowl through the performance, while the muscular DJ Hi-Tek hid his expression behind a vaguely simian mask.

Brought to you by the letter ‘F’

Whether in English or Afrikaans, the members of Die Antwoord love to swear. Ninja and his pixie-voiced sidekick, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, toss the F-word around as casually as teenage girls say “like,” while DJ Hi-Tek, who started the show with DJ Hi-Tek Rulez, articulated his toughness through an unquotable menu of the various ways in which he (or his beats) would violate the listener.

Still, it was hard to get upset by the profanity. Some of it was mere peacock strutting, tough talk for the sake of seeming macho, but mostly it was used for rhythmic emphasis, to lend the raps a verbal kick equivalent to Hi-Tek’s bass-heavy grooves.

Drop that bass

Rap has emphasized the bowel-vibrating power of deep bass since Afrika Bambaataa discovered the Roland 808 drum machine in the early 1980s. Die Antwoord’s sound is similarly bass-heavy, but the beats tend to be faster and less funky than most rap, which puts the group’s sound closer to techno or dubstep than to mainstream hip hop.

At times, as during Baby’s on Fire, Ninja and Yo-Landi underscore the similarity to techno by offering club-style vocal melodies; elsewhere, as on the drum-driven Fatty Boom Boom, they emphasize the rhythmic momentum of the track with rapid-fire rhymes and machine-gun delivery that, even when it obscured the words, increased the music’s impact.

Sexy and they know it

As their F-nocentric lyrics reflect, Die Antwoord like to rap about sex. Ninja – who stripped down to his Dark Side of the Moon silk boxers for the last few numbers – does so in classic hip-hop style, equating virility not only with sexual prowess but also with general alpha male-ness.

Vi$$er, by contrast, treated sexiness as currency, a dialectic she offered both as criticism, on the booty-wagging Rich Bitch, and celebration, as with the breathlessly horny I Fink U Freaky. But where Ninja and Hi-Tek spent most of the set shirtless, Yo-Landi sported her hot-pants and cropped top only when lyrically appropriate; by the show’s end, she was sporting a modest, dress-sized T.

Maybe not so bad

Die Antwoord closed the show with Never Le Nkemise, Pt. 2, which found Ninja insisting, “We make our own rules. We answer to no one. We keep it gangsta.”

If so, they’re pretty sweet for gangstas. When a scuffle broke out during Wat Kyk Jy?, Ninja asked if everyone was all right, then added, un-ironically, “You guys kiss and say, ‘I’m sorry.’” And when Yo-Landi bade the crowd farewell by chirping, “Toronto – be happy!” it didn’t undercut the tough-talk so much as remind us that this was, after all, entertainment. And given the quality of the performance, it would be safe to say that most of the crowd did, in fact, leave happy.

Die Antwoord

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