It’s three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon and the rain, which started off as a gentle pitter patter, has progressed to a pounding downpour. ZainEbrahim and Sean Nel, the DJ duo that make up Hugs On Drugs, have forsaken their classes for the day in favour of staying at home to write beats in their pyjamas.
Sean, wearing a long multi-coloured, chequered gown and Zain, in his navy blue boxers, are debating with friend and fellow musician, Barend van der Walt, about the track that they are working on. It includes vocals that sound like something out of an African tribal song. When asked about it, Zain laughs. “We like to call it ‘Ethiopian children expressing their hunger’,” he says of the slyly humorous title.
Zain and Sean met through a mutual friend at Tuks. “I had just gotten car sound and [was] sort of into DJing but just at home. Then I met Zain at this girl’s house and he was like, ‘Hey man, let me put the auxiliary into your car and play some tunes on my laptop’,” explains Sean.
Zain had started making music in grade six when he began rapping with his cousin. “No one was making beats for us so we decided that we needed to start making [them],” he says.
When the two musos’ paths crossed, Zain was already making a name for himself as Phizicist, while Sean had just gotten into DJing thanks to a friend’s forgotten CDJs. He knew that he had to perfect his own set as King Rat before he and Zain could collaborate. “I had to play catch up with the DJing stuff, get to a level where I knew we could jam together,” says Sean. “DJing is not just playing songs that you think are cool. There’s so much more to it. Dubstep has at least 20 subgenres, drum and bass as well. Your knowledge of the music has to be really good.”
Fast forward through countless hours of practice, and Hugs On Drugs was born. The pair have had to find a way to stick out amongst the glut of copycat artists in an industry where every second producer is making music that sounds like international dubstep sensation, Skrillex.
“The originality has kind of died with the new guys,” says Zain contemplatively. The solution? “Now it’s become about a combination of genres. You combine Dutch house, moombahton or Dutch house and kuduro. It’s about taking elements from each genre and putting them together into one song,” says Sean.
Hugs On Drugs must be on the right track because the duo has gained support from industry bigwigs such as Griet and Dubstep SA, regularly playing at their events. Their favourite set so far has been Town Hall’s second birthday celebration. “The set that we played was probably the best one we’ve ever done. Everything was just working,” says Sean. “We came up with the first three songs that we were going to play. After that, we just went for it,” adds Zain. They both agree that the crowd’s response that night was mind-blowing. “We always talk about the fact that when you mix, you listen to the same songs all the time and when you produce, you listen to your music millions of times but it never takes away from the feeling when you are standing on the stage and you’re looking down and people are losing their sh*t,” explains Sean. “Even if you have heard that song five million times and you are so over it, when you see it going down in front of people, it’s like hearing it for the first time,” he says.
In 2011, Zain and Sean were part of the initiative that started Tomorrow Never Happened, a project that hosts parties in and around Pretoria. “My friend Stuart and I wanted to throw a birthday party together but we had no name for our party,” says Zain. Sean explains that the name Tomorrow Never Happened came up in a brainstorming session. “It’s a cool play on words, it’s interesting and it represents the party scene,” he says. After the raging success of the first Tomorrow Never Happened party, which was held at Pretoria’s premier live music venue, Arcade Empire, they decided that they wanted to expand the brand and take it further. In the beginning, the team consisted of eight people but “as time progressed, people just didn’t want to do stuff,” says Sean. “We ended up doing pretty much everything.”
While the two are chatting away, it is evident that they are brimming with enthusiasm for the music that they make and are just as passionate about the issues that come up in the industry that they find themselves a part of. How do they handle criticism from people who claim that electronic music isn’t real music? “The argument that we get from bands is that we don’t play instruments,” vents Zain, clearly irked. “In bands you’re just the guy that plays the instrument. As a producer, you are now the guy that makes the sound that an instrument makes, plays the instrument, and then mixes it down,” he says. “They are kind of naïve about it, or ignorant. It’s not like we walk around telling people that band music is bad. We listen to bands all the time. We don’t sit at home and listen to electronic music 24/7. We listen to bands just as much,” adds Sean. How about the increasing number of bands who are turning to electronic music to spice up their sound? “There are a lot of bands that are very open to electronic music. It depends on the way that they do it though, on their intentions. Did they do it because they honestly thought it was going to be a better sound or did they do it because it is commercially viable?” he says.
What’s in store for Hugs On Drugs in the future? “Keep on playing,” says Zain. “And finish our studies,” he adds jokingly. “Hard work and producing as much as possible,” says Sean.
And with that, it’s straight back to the Ethiopian kids expressing their hunger.
Photo: Eleanor Harding