How Black Coffee overcame adversity to become one of the biggest DJs on the planet

How Black Coffee overcame adversity to become one of the biggest DJs on the planet

Far from the crowds of Ibiza’s resorts and the kaleidoscopic whirl of its clubs, on a tranquil outcrop overlooking the …

Far from the crowds of Ibiza’s resorts and the kaleidoscopic whirl of its clubs, on a tranquil outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a man surveys the view. The shimmering blue water stretching to the horizon suggests limitless possibilities, and for the man — DJ, producer, label owner, entrepreneur and philanthropist Black Coffee, real name Nkosinathi Innocent Maphumulo, Nathi for short — those possibilities have a good chance of being realised.

This artist from Durban, South Africa, has become the country’s most globally celebrated electronic musician, playing to capacity crowds at enormous stadiums, DJing everywhere from underground institutions such as Panorama Bar in Berlin to gigantic festivals like Ultra in Miami, and working with R&B megastars Drake and Alicia Keys. Black Coffee is on an ever-upward trajectory, after making a succession of award-winning albums and launching new artists with his Soulistic label.

DJ Mag is here in Ibiza to digest the next chapter in his remarkable story so far. It’s early in the season, the sky is cloudless, and we’ve come to meet him near Cala Llentia, with its hidden gem outdoor sculpture Time And Space, made by Andrew Rogers. Spread out across the cliff-top scene, it’s a rugged patch dotted with ancient swirls of rocks, a Stonehenge-esque circle of standing stones, and wooden door-frames erected in incongruous fashion. It’s like a strange mirage; a cross between a Neolithic monument and something out of a Spaghetti western.

Maphumulo’s latest big venture brings him here for a second season of the Black Coffee club-night, on Saturdays at Hï: an event at which he hopes to build on last summer’s success and up the ante, with new visuals, production, special guests, and a refinement of his unique sound signature.

“This year we have truly amazing visuals,” Maphumulo says. “We’re creating a mood. Last year we came and plugged in, just played the music, now we’re trying to create an experience on the night with a futuristic, Afro-techy sound. It has all these elements where you can get lost in the music. On Saturdays, the vibe is different.”

For those experiencing Black Coffee’s DJ sets and singular style for the first time, he might seem to have come from nowhere; but his rise has been the result of many years of hard work, dedication and self-belief, overcoming considerable hardships that may have dissuaded others from pursuing a career in music.


How Black Coffee overcame adversity to become one of the biggest DJs on the planet


When we meet, Maphumulo has just flown in from Paris, where he’s attended some high-profile fashion shows. In his relaxed and thoughtful way, he opens up about his gradual, but unstoppable ascension. Into music as a child, Black Coffee liked dancing to local disco and pop, plus international hits from Soul II Soul and Technotronic. He was inducted into DJing while he was still a kid, as part of his cousin’s mobile disco crew.

“He and his friends had a mobile disco soundsystem,” Maphumulo says. “When they were not working, he’d connect it up in his flat and play music. I was curious and would go through the cassettes. Every now and then he’d take me with him, to do the day parties, the beauty pageants, graduation parties. We were using cassette decks then. That’s how it started.”

In parallel to his burgeoning interest in playing dance music, as a teenager he formed the group Shana with Mnqobi Mdabe and Thandukwazi Sikhosana, a group influenced by South African musical traditions as much as contemporary electronic sounds. Though they were signed to the Melt 2000 label, they had little success.

“It wasn’t pop at all,” he says. “It was considered more underground than anything. Radio wouldn’t touch us. We struggled getting played, we struggled getting on commercial shows. It was far from house, too. We never had a song that was faster than 115bpm. It was grooves, yes, but it was very African inspired, quite ethnic.”

His springboard to fame was in 2003 when, after studying jazz at Durban University Of Technology and continuing to DJ, Black Coffee got the chance to attend Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) inwith legendary, late South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

“I wanted to work with someone who was very open-minded, who wanted change and growth,” he says. “The very first time I was in a room with Hugh Masekela, it was at Red Bull. At the time I didn’t even think I’d work with him. I saw the excitement in the room. Guys that were there, mostly not even from my country, knew more about him than I did. Some even came with records they wanted him to sign. That’s why that trip for me changed everything, because when I came back I knew what I wanted to do — including having him on my album.”