Meet DJ Lag, the 'gqom king' at dance music's forefront
Ahead of the release of his debut album, Meeting With The King, gqom poster boy DJ Lag tells us about the roots of the genre, his rise to stardom, and finding new creative energy in lockdown
A dark, hypnotic brand of dance music, gqom emerged from South Africa in the mid-2010s and quickly became a global phenomenon. Affectionately described as sounding like “being suspended over the gravitational field of a black hole” by Hyperdub founder Kode9, gqom tracks have since racked up millions of YouTube streams and made their way into many DJ sets across the world.
At the forefront of this meteoric rise is Lwazi Asanda Gwala, the self-styled ‘gqom king’ better known as DJ Lag. An artist responsible for both the formation of gqom and arguably its finest track, Ice Drop, Gwala is the foremost global ambassador of the movement, regularly performing at notable clubs and festivals and even producing a track for Beyoncé. We caught up with him ahead of the release of his debut album and largest body of work to date, Meeting With The King.
The Skinny: You started releasing music as recently as 2016. What came before that? What was your gateway into music?
DJ Lag: I started in hip-hop. I was a dancer long before I started producing. Then when my mum got me a computer, that was when I started teaching myself how to produce. The first software I had was Fruity Loops. My cousin was a rapper, so I began producing hip-hop beats for him. There also used to be dance crews in Durban who wanted new music to dance to, and basically the first track I made that was kind of broken beat ended up starting gqom. The track was Ithoyizi by Naked Boyz. It was uploaded to [file sharing site] kasimp3 and people downloaded it for free. It became a banger; a huge, huge track.
It must’ve been crazy seeing this music you were making receiving love from all over the world and being booked to play at so many clubs and festivals?
Yeah it was crazy. Moleskin from Goon Club made me believe in being an international artist. I remember I was still in high school and he would send me messages on Facebook telling me he wanted to release my music. I wasn’t trusting him at first, as I thought maybe he’s a Facebook scammer. It took me like two years to believe him and send him some music, and that’s when Ice Drop got released properly. A lot of people don’t know that Ice Drop is an old track – like 2013 I think.
Is it still the case that gqom is better appreciated overseas or are the South African people now beginning to support the scene as well?
Now it’s coming back. I remember when I was playing a lot of shows in Europe, but it was hard for me to get shows back home. Now gqom is starting to come back again and I’m getting like three shows a night [in South Africa].
It also seemed like the South African people had your back with the whole will.i.am plagiarism thing? [will.i.am paid Lag a settlement last year after making unauthorised use of Ice Drop on a track he produced]
Yeah, I was shocked to see that as I’d always thought that South African people didn’t know who I was. But when that happened I realised that people in my home country really supported me. I just couldn’t see it before.
Has that situation been fixed now?
Yeah, we fixed it last year. It was a crazy situation. People started sending me links to the music video, and when I saw it I was like ‘yo, what is this now?’
Your new album features what you describe as gqom 2.0. What is gqom 2.0?
It’s something people in South Africa say a lot. Like if something is the best, they add ‘2.0’ at the end. I’ve loved amapiano [a South African house sub-genre] since its rise in 2018 so I wanted to include that sound on the album.
The album is also characterised by lots of collaborations with fellow South African artists. It almost seems like a celebration of the country’s music scene.
Yeah, I wanted to include some South African flavour but there are also international influences. I wanted a mix of both on the album.
The pandemic gave you lots more time to make music. Would you say the album is a product of the pandemic?
Yeah. Prior to the pandemic I had like four years of regular travelling, so this was the first time I got to sit down in the studio and just make music without getting distracted by anything else. I needed that. I also got to spend time with my family and spend time with my son, who barely knew who I was.
You’re known as the ‘gqom king’. What’s next for the scene and the movement? How do you see it developing over the next few years?
Let’s just wait and see, man. I don’t know what the other gqom guys are planning but I’m sure we’re gonna push it further and release more projects.
Meeting with the King is released in February 2022 via Black Major