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Now Hear This: DJ Black Low | Uwami

Tradition dances with technology in the African producer's transfixing creations.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “In many ways, DJ Black Low’s debut album Uwami shows the signs of an artist’s first offering in any musical genre. Showcasing fluency in a broad range of styles and stuffing a number of ideas to the record’s brim is the 20 year-old producer’s attempt to both introduce himself to a wide listenership and stamp a recognizable sound in their minds. In other ways, somewhat out of the young South African producer’s control, Uwami goes against the grain.

The 11-track album comes at a time when South African electronic music is being fundamentally disrupted. Amapiano, the electronic music movement which first gained popularity with a small, core group of followers, now dominates the mainstream. Well-known and pervasive, amapiano borrows from a diverse palette of musical styles which are popular in South Africa’s largely Black townships — jazz, kwaito, dibacardi, deep and Afro house among them.

Instead of pandering to the seemingly insatiable local appetite and growing global penchant for amapiano though, on Uwami DJ Black Low seeks out the limits of the sound du jour and tries to stretch them. Asked how he generates ideas for his songs, Sam Austin Radebe said, “Usually when you make music from the heart, the ideas for making songs come easily. Ideas come from everywhere.” DJ Black Low mainly works in Fruity Loops, the production software, for his instrumentals. But the software doubles as a place for him. “Even when I am sitting and doing nothing,” he says, “I can go in there and be inspired … Some of the songs that I made were modified from old projects of mine.”

On his solo productions, he uses the samples and compositional norms that make amapiano hits the bedrock on which to experiment and improvise. With collaborators, DJ Black Low improvises within the boundaries of listener-friendly grooves. He was discerning when choosing vocalists for the songs on the project. “I am more of a producer, lyrics come from the vocalists that I work with. I usually make a beat and then send it to people that I work with. They write something for the beat and I will decide which lyrics I use on which songs. If the vocals are sharp, I’ll include them.” Vocalists on the record use different South African languages including SePedi, Setswana and isiZulu.

DJ Black Low has four completely solo productions on Uwami, Downfall Revisit, Vula Vala, 60 Days No Sleep and Stiwawa Quitter. In Downfall Revisit he introduces the listener to the high-pitched keyboard melodies which are something of a signature. He is not veering from the amapiano realm, but exploring something distinctly new which for a brief moment exists simultaneously with amapiano. The sound he creates has foundations of what could easily have progressed into captivating amapiano songs on their own. But he uses improvised but structured electronic percussion and distortion sounds to drive the tracks in a particular direction. What remains is something like a deconstructed amapiano.

DJ Black Low showed an early interest in music, particularly in producing. “I’ve liked music a lot from a young age,” he says “I used to produce hip-hop and commercial house before I started producing amapiano. When I started out, I used to listen to a lot of commercial house. I used to DJ at places in my neighborhood, parties and weddings. I wasn’t getting big gigs.”

For a young producer living in the townships of the greater Pitori area of South Africa’s Gauteng province, there were few avenues available for Radebe to pursue a career in music. His trajectory shows the vulnerability of this pursuit. “I had started producing in 2013 and it so happened that I lost my equipment in 2014. I couldn’t afford to buy equipment. In 2017, a friend of mine who had been making music found a job and decided to quit music. He gave me his equipment and I was able to start producing again. That’s when I started getting back to it. I tried to pick up where I had left off, with hip hop and commercial house but I found that amapiano was the popular music. I liked it, so I started producing it.”

Solid for its ability to showcase DJ Black Low’s individual creativity and experimentation, Uwami is a promising debut. Most interesting , though is the producer’s ability to harness his improvisation and experimentation into compelling grooves when he collaborates with others, as he does so readily on this recording.”