Every manga has a hero, and every hero has a start. In this one, we find our hero slumped against his car, crying like a "little bitch."
"I was right on edge so much, I just burst out crying."
That's where Ninja was 12 years ago, the masculine yang to partner Yolandi's erratic yin. Their band Die Antwoord - the technicolored, twisted, rave-rap trio of dance and destruction - didn't exist. They'd started to make music together, but it didn't have that sauce. He didn't even realize he liked her yet, but he did want to impress her, like all the time.
Yolandi had a crush on battle rapper Sammy Sparks, and one day, as they were hanging around some shop sifting through magazines, Yolandi spotted Sparks' face in the glossy pages. Ninja's insecurities roared. He'd been rhyming for years, but nobody gave a shit to ask his name, let alone print it. Nothing ever made it out of South Africa, he knew, but he couldn't even get out of his own hood, and here was Yolandi, his fierce and frail twin-spirit with the rough and wild hair, gawking over some other, cooler guy. It gnawed at his soul. He sulked out the door.
Yolandi found him gushing, lost and hopeless because of some dumb magazine. Our hero didn't look cool, but she didn't judge. She just cried with him.
"You're the most exciting person I've ever met," she said. "I'm gonna stick with you, and I'm gonna climb with you. Let's climb up the mountain, and let's just jump off the top. If you fly, then I'm gonna fly with you, and if your wings don't work and you fall and land on the bushes, I'll climb down the mountain and I'll fix your wings and help you climb up again."
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That was the prologue, and today is chapter four. Die Antwoord stands at the top of that mountain ready to soar. Ninja, Yolandi, and DJ Hi-Tek blasted through their glass ceiling on a drug-fueled spaceship covered in Zef grafitti. They left South Africa's underground to land among the Los Angeles stars. Still lacking a radio hit (no doubt in large part to a total disregard for censorship), they liken themselves to rats crawling below the underdog's balls. It's a good thing, because rats rule the world, and with the release of Die Antwoord's fourth album, Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid, they're feeling pretty unstoppable.
"I love everything about Die Anwtoord, even when we fuck up, but this album, it's perfect," Ninja beams over the phone. "(Even the title) sounded like a little triumph; not a triumph over anyone or anything to do with the outside world, just this personal, little, beautiful story that goes through all these different twists and turns."
He's excited like a kid on 50 Pixie Stix with a Sharpie ready to draw penises on his teacher's face. He's even more juiced to say the band's fifth and final album is coming along better still, and before this goes any further, Ninja needs to clear the air.
"It's my fault, I just like talking." he says. "I'm just drifting and chatting and shit, which I've found is a huge mistake when you don't know who you're dealing with." As he tells it, he was "dealing" with a writer that turned a two-hour interview into a hype piece about a bogus Die Antwoord breakup. Whatever was said or not said, misrepresented or not, people read it, and Ninja is flustered.
Next year's album will be Die Antwoord's last, but it won't be the last of Die Antwoord. The group will continue to create in musical spheres and otherwise, chasing directorial dreams, releasing a movie, touring, whatever it feels like. Die Antwoord set out to release five albums, and it has to stop there. Five dope albums is tough enough, and Ninja would rather leave the legacy perfect than muck it up with a slow decline.
"Music is the reason I get up in the morning, I fucking love it, but sometimes it's cool to turn something into a limited edition experience," he says. "It's quite magnificent if you can put out five fucking strong albums … We just wanna say 'those are those five Die Antwoord albums, and they never lost their erection.'"
The band made a career off uncompromising uniqueness and will not be tamed for the sake of celebrity. They played Ultra Music Festival in 2015 and came out screaming "fuck you." They answered an invitation to open for Lady Gaga with a music video that portrayed the singer as a roach-infested imbecile. Kanye West had them over to his house, and they posted a video of themselves chillin' in a bathroom talking about how weird he is.
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Not to say they don't like people or pop music. Equally inspired by the likes of Gucci Mane and Aphex Twin, they come off like a mix of Marilyn Manson and Aqua. Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid opens like a discarded scene from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Yolandi's high-pitched whisper coaxing Ninja to the "dark side." "We Have Candy," she says.
It sets the tone as strange and playful as any of its precedents, but these 16-tracks are different. They represent a transformation, a coming of age, two years of Die Antwoord's life compressed into one product. It's the first album Die Antwoord has made while Ninja and Yolandi aren't "together." It's the first album they've made entirely in LA. It's the first album they've made with an unofficial fourth member; the man behind its darkest, grimiest beats, best known for his work with Cypress Hill, "moddafokking" DJ Muggs.
"I was spawned and sculpted out of his music," Ninja says. "He's me and Yolandi's favorite producer in hiphop. We're such fan boys of Muggs', and then he came in very casual and just gave us a room in his studio."
Each track was conceptualized, produced, written, and recorded in that room. Muggs gave Die Antwoord free rein. They painted it in signature black and white scrawl. He made himself part of the crew.
The competition whet DJ Hi-Tek's ambitions. Every time Muggs handed the rappers a set of beats, DJ Hi-Tek would come in hot and fast with his own super-charged techno explosion. He started calling himself God. Muggs started calling himself The Black Goat. It was a friendly-spirited but ferocious scene.
"(Muggs) started pushing us to write much faster," Ninja says. "Muggs pumps out shit really fast, but God will take a beat, make it, and then refine it like this German engineer in a fucking high-end sci-fi. Muggs is like this heavy-handed retarded kid banging on a piano. He really raps it out hard and fast."
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For the first time, Die Antwoord was surrounded by beats of every shade. God's high-energy blasts inspired heightened moments of romance and playfulness on tracks like "Banana Brain," "Daddy," and "Wings On My Penis." At the same time, the group had its chance to try trap on for size. The beats got darker, the mood in the room shifted, and somehow, The Black Goat got Yolandi to soften.
"It was fucking the most beautiful stuff that I've ever heard her do," Ninja says. "Sometimes she'd write a chorus and start crying afterward."
Yolandi is vulnerable on "Alien" and "Darkling." She opens up about her battles with depression, bullying, her fatherless childhood. She's still ready to punch a "pous" in his "fokken" balls, but she's evolved.
"Yolandi is for me the star of the show. She's like the lightning in the crew, and we're like the thunder behind her," Ninja says. "She's innocent and honestly like this retarded genius almost, which is so nice because she doesn't know what she's doing. It's fucking fascinating … she's just surprising and twisted. She's just this fucking free spirit that I dig guiding."
While recording, Yolandi took the moniker "Da Nice Time Kid" after a real wicked South African street gang.
"She's soft, but then she's quite like a little fierce thing," Ninja says. "We're all scared of her. We all work for da nice time kid, and I try to just make sure she has a nice time, and then everything's fucking awesome."
Ninja, too, felt himself growing with newfound strength. Fans will notice a softening of the rapper's hard accent. Yolandi and Muggs told him to keep it going, but Ninja dared to let go. "Ninja" was a character he created, a way to boost his confidence and become more powerful, like when a manga hero climbs into a mecha suit. You fuse with it, you feel a surge of power, but after a while, you know it has to end.
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"I just wanna hear my own voice," Ninja says. "I wanted to take the suit off, and then when I climbed out of the mecha, something had happened. I've changed inside."
He adopted the name "Mount Ninji," a play on a nickname Aphex Twin gave him as a joke. It evokes strength and assuredness. He no longer needs a super suit to deliver deadly rhymes. He's Die Antwoord's rock, and Yolandi is the spontaneous nymph. He is strong, and she is fierce. He is calculated, while she is unbridled. It's a dynamic so key to Die Antwoord's majesty, but it almost destroyed them.
That moment outside the store, the two of them crying in each other's arms, it sparked a romance deep and rough as the sea. Imagine falling in love with someone, creating a band, having a baby, and hitting the road, all the while launching toward some kind of underground superstardom.
"It's like a high pressure zone all the time," Ninja remembers. The inevitable moment came when they had to choose love or the band. Only one could survive. The choice was easy.
"We're both married to Die Antwoord," Ninja says. "It's our everything."
"Banana Brain" is a love song, but you won't hear the cliché poetry of storybook love that never dies. It's really an ode to a "super best friend," someone who gets you on a level that goes beyond the physical, someone who is beautiful because they've seen you at your worst and somehow, despite it all, knows how to bring out your best.
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"We're in love with the music," Ninja says. "It's just all personal to us, that's why this album is a beautiful thing, but it's a lot of like, fucking weird pain and suffering, twists and things you have to work out in your mind, stuff you have to go through to get to a space. But now, it definitely feels like we've passed that test, and we're ready for the final one. It feels like fucking showtime. There's five lanes on the highway, and we stared off at lane one, lane two, lane three. We're in lane four now, and this is shit turbo-boosted, fucking nitrous, fucking everything's tricked the fuck out in this illegal fucking Zef-mobile, and we're about to drop a gear and go waaaaah, just switch lanes. We're in the fifth lane, that fast lane, it doesn't have a speed limit, and that's what we're about to go into."
The band teamed up with friend and designer Ashley Wood to construct a special run of Mount Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid action figures. Muggs hooked the group up with a weed deal, and fans can look forward to Zef-brand strains, vapes, and THC candies. With the album officially out, the band readies for a North American tour, all the while holding down at Muggs' studio, writing the fifth and penultimate chapter in a never-ending story. Chapter four was hard, but it's finally over. Die Antwoord climbed, jumped, and there's nothing left but to fly.
"I don't know if I'll ever make a single as good as this one now that I just made," Ninja says. "I was like 'oh fuck, I think we made like the best, biggest song we've ever made.' It's from this next album were gonna drop next year, it's so fucking good. I'm singing it every day, smiling like a retard driving down the street on the way to the studio … I'm fucking excited, like aahhh, but I'm also digging the day to day shit, you know? Patience. Patience, like the stalker."