Luc Veermeer and Sebastiano Zanasi rap in their spare time – but they’re not so good.
Fortunately they make really great beats under the weird (but cool) name Christian Tiger School.
‘We do these small freestyle sessions if things are feeling a bit stagnant,’ says Sebastiano. ‘Don’t get us wrong, we are very bad rappers, but Luc makes a really good trap beat and it’s kind of fun.’
The two guys feature on Spoek Mathambo’s Future Sounds of Mzansi documentary about South Africa’s eclectic electronic music scene, where they admit they wanted to be a rap outfit but had nothing to rap about.
But their beats, which range from boom bap to synth-heavy techno, have seen them perform at festivals like Rocking The Daisies (Cape Town), Primavera Sound (Spain) and SXSW (Texas).
In 2014, the duo signed to legendary American hip-hop label Tommy Boy Records, which has been home to the likes of, among many others, Afrika Bambaataa, Method Man, Queen Latifah, Gucci Mane and De La Soul.
Chrome Tapes, their first full-length album which preceded their first EP The Third Floor, eventually toured London, Paris, Berlin and Milan. But at first it wasn’t that simple, says Sebastiano.
‘One of our favourite labels had approached us and we had gone through the process of making an album (Chrome Tapes) and right at the end it didn’t work out. So we were left with this album… And then we had a show in the States, late 2014, and we met with [Tommy Boy]. Funny because we had had this long conversation with the other label, but with Tommy Boy they just heard the album and [signed us].’
The creative process behind Chrome Tapes was unfettered. ‘There wasn’t a personal or creative dialogue between us. We gave them a finished product,’ says Sebastiano. ‘They didn’t change anything,’ Luc emphasises. ‘They even asked us if there were samples, and I doubt we even answered,’ he says with a chuckle.
Perhaps Tommy Boy Records had the right idea. A deal that would put Christian Tiger School in a box couldn’t work; they enjoy experimenting and drawing inspiration from their large arsenal of influences, which include jazz, soul, Jedi Mind Tricks, TKZee, Radiohead, among others. Luc remembers a family friend introducing him to the hardcore hip-hop group Onyx at the age of 13.
Luc and Sebastiano met via a mutual friend in high school. ‘We were into the same kind of music,’ says Sebastiano. ‘There weren’t too many people we knew that were into the same stuff.’ They both have some music and sound engineering background. ‘I was taking piano lessons in grade three but got bored of it ‘cause I was a kid,’ says Luc. ‘I always struggle with theory because I play stuff by ear. I also went to Cape Audio College but that didn’t go so well.’
Sebastian studied jazz at UCT for two years. ‘But, weirdly enough,’ he says, ‘I felt restricted in a jazz setting – it’s kind of a broad genre to experience.’ His jazz background meant he was more into playing actual keys while Luc was mostly the guy on the computer. ‘But now it’s sort of interchangeable,’ says Sebstiano. ‘He plays more keys. It’s less rigid than “you are on the computer, I’m on the keyboard and whatever happens, happens”.’
The duo is not your average boom-bap outfit.
After throwing a few tracks on SoundCloud, the two released The Third Floor (2012), which was mostly electronic jazz mixed with boom bap. A selection of textured pads and synthesizers cushioned with keys and sampled loops defined the eight-track project. SABC 2, one of their most-loved songs from the project sampled South African Afro-jazz legend Hugh Masekela’s Grazing in the Grass, which Luc says he first heard in his mother’s car.
The guys added a bassline and a boom-bap rhythm to a slowed-down horn section from the tune. A minute deep into SABC 2, the sample gets filtered giving the song a dubstep feel, reminding you that the duo are not your average boom-bap outfit.
Save for a few tracks, Chrome Tapes, released in June 2015, sounds nothing like The Third Floor. The producers traded the boom bap rhythms for skittering drums as heard on the album’s second single Chorisolo. They were listening to a lot of dance music when making the album. They acknowledge the change and say that it’s all part of being Christian Tiger School.
‘As much as I like The Third Floor, I feel like Chrome Tapes sounds a bit more like us.’
‘Even though I love making electronic music mixed with boom bap,’ explains Luc, who goes by the alias DESERT_HEAD, for his solo stuff, ‘it is quite a specific genre. [On Chrome Tapes], we were trying to stuff more genres into the pot. As much as I like The Third Floor, I feel like Chrome Tapes sounds a bit more like us. You could pick up all the influences – stuff we were vibing to [when making] The Third Floor, but on Chrome Tapes it sounds like Christian Tiger School a lot more. We don’t know what’s coming next – we could make… hard… weird… trap.’
All but one of the songs of the ten-track album are instrumental. Okmalumkoolkat spits some swaggering raps over some eerie low-creeping pads and an off-beat rhythm on Damn January.
The track may seem like an oddity to you or me, but Luc and Sebastiano had a reason for adding the rapper. ‘We didn’t set out to make a song with vocals,’ says Luc. ‘We just made a song that we wanted on the album but it felt a bit bare, while the other songs just happened to sound nice on their own. This one just felt like it would be accompanied nicely by a rapper.’
Sebastiano adds more detail about how the track came about: ‘Luc had the sample, and as soon as we heard it, we were like “it’s gotta have someone.” And Simiso [Okmalumkoolkat’s birth name] was someone we were really enjoying – he was doing his Dirty Paraffin stuff.’ The rapper was in Cape Town for a show, a day before the Chrome Tapes pre-launch party. ‘I think we had like one to two-and-a-half hours for him to do the vocals,’ says Luc. ‘We didn’t sleep actually. We spent the whole night like, “Take that out, leave that there”.’
The recording session took place in a friend’s studio, the same room in which the music video was filmed. The video’s a beat nerd’s wet dream, showing electronic beatmaking contraptions, while Okmalumkoolkat flexes rapping in his trademark sparse sentences.
The guys go on to tell me about their ‘weird’ encounter with Yasiin Bey.
Christian Tiger School have done a few collaborations in the past. They don’t collaborate much but when they do, it’s usually monumental. In 2013, as part of Okayplayer’s Player Xchange, the duo worked on a song with Philadelphia-born soul singer Bilal and Queens rap duo World’s Fair.
I ask the guys how this collaboration came about, to which Sebastiano answers, ‘I guess in the same way that most things come about. We were in the same place and just asking people. Okayafrica had just been pushing our stuff a lot. We took a risk and went to New York for a month, and struggled for a bit. It was the hardest time of my life.’
The guys go on to tell me about their ‘weird’ encounter with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) who was based in Cape Town until recently. Yasiin, when I interviewed him in 2013, listed Christian Tiger School as one of his favourite South African artists. ‘At one point,’ says Sebastiano, ‘we were in the studio with him – not our studio, not his studio, it was probably the weirdest moment of my life. We were sitting there, there were people who had made stuff, and people filming; there was way too much energy for something to happen.’
‘Maybe it would have worked in another time.’
The environment, they say, wasn’t conducive to making music. They also admit they were star-struck. ‘Maybe it would have worked in another time,’ says Luc, ‘not the first. You are with him for the first time, you don’t wanna experiment, you don’t want to say anything because it’s too weird in the beginning.’
Sebastiano was part of the 2015 Red Bull Music Academy, which took place in Paris. There, he says, he had an opportunity to make a song with renowned American hip-hop producer Just Blaze, and another with Mike Banks, ‘an important name in the Detroit techno scene’. ‘It’s not a hip-hop song,’ he says of his collaboration with Just Blaze. ‘It’s like a roller-rink jam. It’s like Laurel… kind of Shaft official soundtrack.’ Working with both artists, he says, was ‘kind of like a Mos Def situation where you don’t know what to do’.
Christian Tiger School is now working on a new EP, where they will be collaborating with artists of different disciplines. ‘For our next EP, we are working with a bunch of artists, but not musical artists,’ says Sebastiano. ‘We are working with a graduate from the Michaelis School of Arts. The process is like, if me and Luc went to a room to make music and we’d kind of feed off each other – he would make something and I’d be like “Cool, let me do that”. Now it’s just that but with other mediums.’
The multimedia project is hard for the guys to explain because it’s open-ended and they themselves aren’t sure what the final product will be like. The idea of a project of this kind arose from a need to challenge themselves creatively. ‘We were getting comfortable with making music, it wasn’t a challenge [anymore],’ says Sebastiano. ‘The actual creative process of making music is difficult but we always knew we’d go to Luc’s house, he’s got things… it’s too comfortable. We were just like, it’s not gonna happen anymore, let’s get some other people involved. Let’s make this a challenge.’
Luc adds ‘It’s a double-edged sword that we have a short attention span in terms of what we are into – sometimes we get bored too quick for our own good.
‘But it also keeps us on our toes creatively.’
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