Dj Kenzhero: The Reluctant King …

Dj Kenzhero seems to defy the gravitational pull of a treacherous and fickle entertainment industry. His presence is so solid that it is difficult to imagine the music scene without him. He seems to occupy an entire league of dj’ing all by himself which, all the while he maintains a mystery that is starkly contrasted by his sets which at times feel like a warm hug from an old friend.

Speaking to Dj Kenzhero, born Kenneth Nzama, in Rockville, Soweto, one gets the sense of a measured mannerism and considered tone in how he carries himself. When he speaks about the roots from which he grew his dj’ing career, he points out how being into hip hop in the early 90’s meant being an ‘outcast’, since it was perceived as trying to copy an America sub-culture without really knowing who you were.  But for him, it was never just about hip hop and it was never about fitting in. He is a self-confessed ‘music-head’ and he touches on how 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s radio did not have distinct genre, ‘you would get Bob Marley next to Snoop Dog next to NWA next to Kenny Rogers. Music back then was packaged as good or bad, not genre. If it was good, it went on radio.’

It is on that sentiment that one begins to understand not just ‘what’ goes into a Dj Kenzhero set, but ‘why’ it goes in; it is either good music or bad music. By the time he started dj’ing in 1999 he had amassed a vast understanding of many different genres of music. It was through this trait that he would build his brand as a multi-genre dj. This approach might have you thinking that listening to him play would be to subject yourself erratic track selections, staccato mixing and a very awkward dance floor. This would have probably been the case if you were listening to a dj whose sole aim was to get you to dance. But Dj Kenzhero doesn’t just want you to dance. He wants to take you somewhere; a proverbial ‘traveling man’, he is no stranger to long journeys. After dropping out of an accounting course in varsity, in 2000 he got an a train, he left the Jozi city lights behind and headed to Cape Town to go pursue music.

It was there that he would enrol into the university of life. He spent most of his time in libraries and record shops, a discipline that would further entrench him in his understanding of music and literature. He describes the music scene in Cape Town at the time as more hard-core with less focus on glam compared to Joburg. When he started dj’ing at joints like Marvel in Long Street, he says he played ‘music that made sense’. This is an important point to note because we’re often led to believe that dj’s are obliged to pound out club bangers ad nauseam; the idea of playing music that makes sense eludes many dj’s.

When you speak to Dj Kenzhero, the notion of ‘sense of self’ is clear and pervasive. You begin to feel that, for him, a devout dedication to his sense of self is the pillar on which his music career rests. We live in a society that worships the cult of youth; much of the entertainment industry seems to be youth oriented. At times the party scene can seem like it’s filled with young’n  who are caught in a disjointed blur of fleeting moments, tequila shots and raging hormones, all hurtling at breakneck speed towards dawn. But Dj Kenzhero is a grown man with a grown man approach to his music. In every sense of the phrase, Dj Kenzhero is an OG. Grootman. Lacking in the lust for the trappings of fame and hype.  He seems like a man who runs on his own time,  for example he once kept a Brenda Fassie vinyl in his dj bag for 2yrs unopened, waiting for the right moment to play it.

Dj Kenzhero’s aversion to mainstream ‘anything’ is quite apparent. He describes himself as a hermit in terms of how he keeps to himself and does not seek out the limelight for its own sake. He speaks of this in a tone that implies that he didn’t last this long in the game by trying to be like someone else. ‘I want to be big the way I want to be big. I don’t want to be Miami big or Avicii or Black Coffee big. I want to be Dj Kenzhero big’, he says. He has built his brand without ever feeling the need to put out singles or merchandise or any other formulaic approaches the dj’s have employed to get their brands out there. ///He has a way of speaking that is sharp, concise and cuts through bullshit. Ironically, he speaks of his sets as ‘a way to remind you of who you are and where you come from’. It is ironic in the sense that his set is actually a channel through which he endeavours to impart to you not only good music, but also his philosophies on life and being true to yourself. This approach also informs you about how he embraces change in the industry. When he talks about how technology has impacted the scene, he implies that no amount of change should change who you are . He steers clear of purists’ lamentation on the supposed death of vinyl. On that he is very dismissive, ‘when I’m listening to a set on the dance floor, I don’t care if you are using vinyl, CD or USB. The crackle of the vinyl doesn’t make people dance. People listen to music. There‘s are two answers that people will give you on the dance floor; shit set or good set.’

His sets are a legendary (or well known) for being an eclectic meal with ingredients from far flung corners of the world. They span decades of artistic expression, crossing genres like jazz, funk, old school R&B as well as modern music. You don’t listen to Dj Kenzhero, in his own words, you ‘experience’ Dj Kenzhero.  I ask him if his use of nostalgia is a conscious decision. Like a true sensei of funk, he schools me on a ‘soft study’ he did about the neurological effects of music as a trigger for memories that your brain has been banking your whole life. Yes children, Dj Kenzhero has scientific research to back up his dj’ing sets. When this science and nostalgia collided during his now famous, Party People gigs, beautiful things happened. The monthly event which also featured on UJ Fm as Party People Radio. He started the event in 2006 after he had moved back to Jhb from Cpt. He tells me how people have hooked up after meeting on the dance floor during his mix, some people even got engaged. ‘I’ve got kids that I have been shown, that I am ‘responsible for”, he says with a smile. How does he do that? When it is said that a dj set is a journey and Dj Kenzhero is driving, you become the destination

When we speak about the music business, he scoffs at the very idea of it. ‘There’s no such thing as a music business. You have to find business in the music. You have to create properties that can exist or run without you having to be physically there. Party People couldn’t exist without me being there.’ He speaks of these lessons as a way of saying that he would not be who he is if he didn’t scrape his knees a few times. He has an acute awareness of the brand that he is and how his brand interacts with other brands. ‘Product placement has always been important in my life. I still turn down a lot of gigs because I feel that I wouldn’t be a good fit and not just because I want to make money’. This type of shrewd business acumen is the kind that sees his brand grow and withstand the tides of fads and trends. But he is appreciative of the entrepreneurial spirit with which today’s dj’s apply  their craft.  He also affords himself the acknowledgement of having played a part in creating such a fertile environment.

In the 16yrs he has been a dj, Dj Kenzhero has shared stages with music royalty like Yasiin Bey, Bahamadia, Dead Prez and Dwele. He has earned his ‘ticket’ to being one of a few dj’s who can ‘play whatever the fuck he wants’ in his set. Yet he dismisses the idea of being referred to as a legend. There’s is a finality to the title that does not sit well with him. ‘I don’t work with end goals because they tend to limit your growth’, he says. He adds that he struggles with the idea of being a mentor because he still considers himself a student of the craft. He tells me that one of his most challenging sets was playing for young students in Braam. Having to play to a much younger crowd who have a ‘short attention’ span, forces one to be on their toes and keep up with and tap into to contemporary trends without necessarily yielding to them. He plays once a month in such gigs just to keep in touch with what is new on the scene.

So, Dj Kenzhero is indeed a king in the truest sense of the word but, you are unlikely to find him sitting on his throne waiting for loyal fans to pile accolades  at his feet. No, Dj Kenzhero’s throne is vacant because he is still building his kingdom.  However what is certain is that in our 60’s we still get together and jam to a Dj Kenzhero set and reminisce about how these are actually the best years of our lives because of the journey that he charts, he takes you back to the moments when you fell in love with music. You remember the day you heard a certain artist or track for the first time. You remember how it made you feel. Then, when you look around you, you find a room full of people going through the same experience. In that moment, you realise that you are sharing in something very special, you are sharing it with total strangers who themselves are baring their moments to you. Then, in that moment, new memories are created. So I guess we can rest assured that Dj Kenzhero won’t leave us, yet, without a dope beat to step to.

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