Early last February, a curious music video began circulating the internet. In it, a skeletal, middle-aged man claiming to be a ninja raps fast and furiously in a muscular South African staccato over a soaring rave beat. The song’s chorus, sung at a ghostly pitch, is a plea for the gold-toothed ninja’s protection, brought to life by an anime Lolita with no discernible eyebrows and a bleach-blond box-cut. Quick cuts to a shriveled thug in baggy hip-hop clothes add to the theatrics of it all. (That “thug,” it turns out, is artist Leon Botha, a progeria survivor.) Across the web, the reaction was the same: Are these guys for real?
The answer is yes, sort of. Ever since the video for “Enter the Ninja” went viral (over five million hits on YouTube and climbing), the group behind it, South African hip-hop artists Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for “The Answer”), has become a cultural sensation. Most internet stars quickly ignite and expire in cyberspace, but Die Antwoord is using the surge of attention to make the unlikely leap from hip-hop sideshow to mainstream success.
In a suite at Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, Ninja, the group’s 45-year-old leader, and his bandmate Yo-Landi Vi$$er sit next to each other on a sofa. (DJ Hi-Tek, who rounds out Die Antwoord’s threesome, does not travel due to a crippling fear of flying.) Ninja greets me with an unexpectedly warm handshake and smile. He is soft-spoken and stutters often, struggling to find words that match his meaning. It’s a far cry from the menacing stage performer who spits crisp lyrics at lightning speed. It’s also jarring to see these two, so kinetic and adrenaline-pumped on screen and on stage, looking so relaxed.
The members of Die Antwoord identify themselves as a “zef ” hiphop group, South African slang for “white trash.” They look the way their music sounds, all hyper-cartoonish flourishes masking a much drearier low-income existence. Vi$$er, constantly twirling her gutter-punk hair, wears red boxers and a baggy T-shirt. Ninja is wearing slippers he might have stolen from a retirement home along with shorts and a matching gray sweatshirt. Both have scraggly tattoos that look homemade, and many of them are. On the top of his left hand, Ninja has five ink dots he says were inspired by his father. “When he worked at the harbor, people used to steal his tools. He marked them with these dots so he’d know which ones were his.” Okay, but why tattoo himself? “It’s cheaper,” he says with a grin.
They speak of “futuristic zef styles” and “flexing on some shit” in foreign lingo that sounds authentic enough to American audiences who haven’t kicked it on the streets of Cape Town. On the internet, however, where borders and oceans evaporate, that authenticity has been questioned. They’ve been described as rap satirists and performance artists, but Vi$$er insists, “We don’t even know what those words mean. People think too much about shit.” Ninja, born Watkin Tudor Jones, has even been compared to Sacha Baron Cohen of Brüno and Borat fame. When asked about the skeptics, Ninja glares, stone-faced. With fire in his eyes, he asks, “What do you think? I’m right in front of your face.” If Ninja is putting on an act, it’s impossible to tell.
The widespread skepticism has a lot to do with Ninja’s well-known history in the South African underground hip-hop scene. He has adopted several personae throughout his career: At the turn of the millennium, he went by Max Normal and fronted the rap collective MaxNormal.tv, of which Vi$$er was also a member. Before forming Die Antwoord, he also collaborated with local artists on an ambitious multimedia project called The Constructus Corporation, which included an 88-page graphic novel. YouTube videos of a pre-Ninja Jones show him as his old alter-egos, dressed in conventional suits and wool-knit cardigans.
The nature of Vi$$er and Ninja’s relationship is similarly muddled. Some reports say they’re married with a daughter. They will neither confirm nor deny this rumor. Instead, they insist their origin story will be revealed in their upcoming feature film, The Answer. To be directed by Ninja (who also helmed “Enter the Ninja”), and set to star all three members, they insist it will be based on a true story, or at least their version of the truth. “The producers wanted to make an American adaptation,” says Ninja. He adds, joking, “Charlize Theron would play Yo-Landi and Bruce Willis would play Ninja.”
According to their website, Ninja taught Vi$$er how to rap, but he says the group’s zef elements are her contribution, and that she is his muse. “I kind of copied her, or was influenced by her,” he says. It’s a surprising admission from a man who seems to be the group’s driving creative force. “In South Africa, zef is like a diss,” Ninja says. “Then we started fucking with it a bit.” The results are elastic songs with lyrics that yoke together English and Afrikaans slang, the majority of which is considered vile in their home country. “Afrikaans is a conservative language,” Ninja says. “But then there is a coarser, often unspoken language. Yo-Landi started swearing jokingly in her lyrics. She began with ‘Wat kyk jy fok jou,’ which means, ‘Look here, fuck you.’ The wild kids up front at our shows started screaming, ‘Yo-Landi! Yo-Landi! Wat kyk jy fok jou!’ It was affectionate. But then everyone else was like, ‘Whoa! What the hell? You can’t say that!’” Vi$$er adds, “It’s not something you package and record. We’re a national embarrassment.”
This is a source of pride for the group. They list with glee the taboo words they’ve turned into “catchphrases,” as they call them. In South Africa, “Your mother’s puss in a fish paste jar” is an insult; for Die Antwoord, it’s a song title. But for all their filthy turns of phrase, Die Antwoord’s notion of zef transcends offensive lyrics and DIY tattoos. “It’s when you don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks,” Ninja says. “But it’s not like a mental person running around nude in the streets. It’s about bringing something new to the party.” If zef is a state of mind, are there any American artists who embody it? “No, zef is South African,” he says bluntly. “Hip-hop is from America, and for a long time we were influenced by the booming New York style of rap and its ‘Yo, yo, yo! Check us fuckin’ out!’ But Yo-Landi was also influenced by rave music. Whereas America is good at stylizing presentation, South Africa is awkward and broken and shy and insecure. We want to represent that.”
They’ll get the opportunity to do just that with the release of their debut album, $O$, out late next month. Following a bidding war between labels, the group signed with Interscope Records, ringmaster of controversial acts like Eminem and Lady Gaga. “All these people were trying to be our friends,” Ninja says. “We got offered more money from other labels, but they had nerdy teams. [Interscope chairman] Jimmy Iovine is not a nerd. It was like two forces merging.” Adds Vi$$er, “He was the only person who was willing to take the risk. No one is allowed to tame our flame.”
Ninja and Vi$$er expect that flame to burn for exactly five albums. The follow-up to $O$, Ten$ion, has already been recorded, and after that Die Antwoord will simultaneously release The Voice, Vi$$er’s solo album, and The Dominator, Ninja’s solo album. “It’s a battle to see who sells more,” Ninja says. Their fifth album is a secret. After that, they’ll stop. This early in the band’s career, there’s no telling what their legacy will be, but Ninja has big dreams: “In South Africa, it’s Nelson Mandela, District 9, and Die Antwoord.”
Photography by Mark Squires.