The South African rap-rave internet star known as The Ninja grabs my face by the cheeks. He leans forward and stares into my eyes, like a large savannah predator about to inhale a hamster.
"And that's what I did to Jimmy Iovine," he says. "He didn't seem to like it, but nobody told me it wasn't cool to do that. And then I kissed him on each cheek, because we were making a deal like you do with the mafia. Die Antwoord is in business with Interscope now."
It's been just over a month since a friend emailed me a link to their music, and I blogged here on Boing Boing. They had fans before, but what exploded in these past four weeks is the stuff labels and artists dream of: Die Antwoord became a living meme of unprecedented velocity, propelled into global megawebstardom faster than any act I've ever seen. Ninja tells me that in addition to shaking hands with Interscope, District 9 helmer Neill Blomkamp plans to direct Antwoord's next music video, they'll likely be performing at the Coachella festival, and a film is in the works.
I'm in a diner in Hollywood with my friend Sean Bonner early Friday morning, and we're eating breakfast with the Ninja. Between bursts of rapid-fire recollections, he stares at his granola for meditative pause: an Afrikaans astronaut hit by vertigo; a recently broke and obscure artist punched in the face by the the full force of fame.
"I'm not skinny like this by choice," he says, huddled over the table in a Ren and Stimpy hoodie adorned with John Kricfalusi doodles. "We had no money forever. Now, we're flying business class to America, and look at me, I'm eating berries and granola in Hollywood."
He says Die Antwoord is in LA for the first time. He's joined by his creative partner Yolandi Visser (who's sleeping in this morning, upstairs in the hotel), and their "consigliere" Jay.
"When we did the big meeting with Interscope, Jimmy Iovine was telling me all about how badly their business has been harmed by the internet," Ninja says, sipping black coffee. " I can understand that but I said, 'Jimmy, I want to give you a piece of samurai advice: Become the enemy."
The band's forthcoming debut album $O$, streaming in entirety on their website for free, is the first of 5 albums they plan to release. A sort of documentary film is in the works, too. "It's like an hour-long introduction to a music video, like Thriller, only you can eat popcorn while you watch it at the cinema," he says.
After breakfast, they're off to meet one of their creative heroes, director and high weirdness curator David Lynch.
"I used to smoke a lot of weed," Ninja says. "Then I got my hands on a David Lynch Twin Peaks box set, and I watched the whole thing in one sitting, and it blew my mind. Special Agent Dale Cooper said something about pot being bad for you, and that convinced me that maybe I shouldn't smoke pot anymore. All of this now might be a little harder to take if I were."
Die Antwoord have been eagerly courted by many in the Hollywood power elite during this first brief trip to LA.
"I don't understand how it happened any more than they do, but I understand how rare it is," he says. And he's right: labels spend millions of dollars trying to create what happened to them.
Fans have swarmed at every turn during their LA trip: this in a town where more conventional celebrity spottings are commonplace. A brief club appearance—"just me busting out one long rap-rave rhyme," says Ninja—turned into full-on moshpit hysteria, with underground music blogs describing the event as Antwoord's debut US performance, a carefully planned secret show. "It wasn't, this is all crazy," he says.
"The funniest thing has been the people on the internet angry that we were 'fake.' The only people who thought we were some kind of hoax were from the US and the EU. This is just real, it's who we are."
Ninja and Yolandi have long been fans of photographer (and onetime geology student) Roger Ballen, best known for his disturbing black and white portraits of South African mining town residents. When fame hit, they emailed their idol, and he agreed to shoot the $O$ album cover.
"The art you see in our videos, on the clothing, the tattoos, everything -- a lot of that is also inspired by the art of children, and the criminally insane," says Ninja. "They don't have that hard barrier between their conscious and subconscious minds, the creativity and fluid consciousness inspires me."
"We met at a DJ Qbert concert in South Africa and Leon was in the front, rocking out," Ninja recalls. They became friends and creative kindred spirits.
"When you're hanging around him, it's like you're hearing the voice of God, he's so present and immediate," he says.
"He's a beautiful soul," I say. We've swapped a few emails, and I was mesmerized by Botha's YouTube video monologues.
"We all are," says Ninja, "It's just that he's right there on the surface. He, more than anyone else I know, lives in the moment, because he know he could die the next. I mean, we all could die. You could, Xeni, I could take you out right now—BAM!"
His hand becomes a pretend-gun, and he shoots me pretend-dead.
"Haha! Just kidding. But he is aware of death, and of the preciousness of the present. And that's where the creative power is."
"February 3rd was already a date I remembered," he replies. "My younger brother, his nickname was 'Boo,' he committed suicide 7 years ago on that day."
"This the only thing I can do, I can't do anything else," he continues. "It is what I love, and all I have ever wanted to do in my life. Now that all of this—" (he gestures toward Hollywood Boulevard, as a truck carrying leftover Academy Awards props cruises by) "—now that this is happening to us, it's overwhelming because you also realize that it could disappear right away. "
"I don't know what that's going to mean. But for now, I just know that we have a film to make, and albums to record, and shows to play."
"It's not bad."
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Published 2:36 pm Fri, Mar 12, 2010