Name: Azakiwe Jezile aka Deep Aztec
Nationality: South African
Occupation: Producer, live performer
Current Release: Deep Aztec's debut album Healing Frequencies is out now via MFENGU.
Recommendations: “Pat Metheny Group - A Cathedral In A Suitcase” - This song is soooo beautiful and quite sentimental for me! It reminds me of my childhood, listening to the entire album with both my parents together. Also, Patric Metheny kills that guitar solo.
“The Art of Noise featuring Mahlathini And The Mahotella Queens – Yebo!” - It’s such a good track and, for me, shows how the connection between South African music and electronic music has always been here.
If you enjoyed this Deep Aztec interview, follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Soundcloud to stay up to date on his work.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Music has always been a part of my life.
My parents introduced me to Jazz at an early age, and before I made any music I was first a DJ. I started DJing at the age of 13, and by the age of 16, the passion was getting stronger. I started playing in clubs and enjoyed being a DJ; even though I was underage, I still didn’t care. Haha, all I wanted to do was DJ! I was playing a lot of tribal house at that time, and I was really inspired by the likes of Black Coffee, Culoe De Song, Problemchild and Mushroom Boys, to mention a few. They were making proper BANGERS!
That’s what pushed me even more to make my own music because I was inspired by these guys and by the sound they were making. I must also mention that my stage name at that time was ‘AztecTribalist’, haha.
Of course, as time went by, my influences got more broad, but my sound went back to my roots and became more jazzy and soulful. That was when I changed my name to “Deep Aztec”. I never took the “DJ” title cos I knew I wanted to be more than just a DJ.
This was also the very first time I opened a DAW. I remember opening Reason 5 and accidentally pressing “Tab” on my laptop keyboard, and the rack flipped. I saw all those cables and the dream kinda died on the spot. I had no freaking clue what those cables were! I never knew that I had to patch stuff to get a sound. I eventually opened the DEMO project on Reason, pressed “Tab” again, followed those cables, and saw where they connected. After getting that, I opened a clean project file, patched the ReDrum and started programming my drums. I was terrible at first, but I got better over time. I’ve never looked back since.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Ever since I started producing music, I’ve always strived to re-interpret what my music idols were doing to develop my own voice. At the early stages, I’ve had people telling me I sound like some of my idols. I always took that as a compliment. I believe influences play a major role in shaping the artist. People eventually told me I sound like myself, that I’d found my own voice. My influences were still there, but my voice had gotten stronger.
The deeper I got into electronic music, I fell in love with more gritty electronic sounds yet still carried the elements of my musical influences. I’ve always told myself that I would never imitate my music idols. They are already known for what they do best. I wouldn’t want to look stupid trying to imitate them, and there’s always space for new voices.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Definitely, it does influence my creativity. My new record label, “Mfengu”, is named after my clan (my family lineage). The older I get, the more I get influenced by my identity and take pride in it.
As a creative, I always feel the need to explore beyond what I know. I never want to limit myself. I always want everything I do to come from the heart and resemble who I am.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I would always struggle to finish tracks, and my workflow wasn’t as quick as it currently is. What changed everything for me was when I converted from being just a DJ/producer to a live act. I started looking at my creative process from a live act’s perspective and not just a producer. Now I treat my creative process as a live jam.
There’s a lot of energy and thought put into the creative process, but I still try by all means not to obsess about the sound. I go where the music takes me.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
When I started, I never had a studio or equipment. I had no money to buy jack shit. I only had a laptop that was meant for school work (sorry mom). My goal was to have a studio setup (I prayed and PRAYED). Though for me, not having a studio was never an excuse to stop making music. But back then, the music I made wasn’t as warm as it sounds now because I didn’t have any equipment. Everything I did was onboard. I would DREAM about using hardware gear. I’d even use an extra PC keyboard as my MIDI keyboard (the laptop’s keyboard was already fucked). That limited me a lot. I couldn’t play chord progressions exactly how I wanted. I was never a fan of drawing notes on the piano roll. I was more into playing notes and figuring things out.
When I got my first MIDI keyboard, I started playing more synth parts on my tracks and I was even able to tweak Reason’s stock synths much better (I was no longer using a mouse to tweak the synths!). That motivated me to do more on my productions. I also started playing some drum parts using the MIDI keyboard. After spending more time jamming keys on the MIDI keyboard, I’d always hum melodies but had no recording equipment or the space to record, haha ... another bummer.
I started recording my vocals using my laptop’s microphone (the quality wasn’t great). Eventually I got a soundcard and used a basic, cheap microphone to lay down my vocal ideas. Also, I couldn’t really record using Reason 5 only without having to rewire Reason with Fruity Loops / Cubase. I wasn’t a fan of FL, and I had no idea how to rewire!
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I felt that my ideas weren’t expressed in full when I used Reason 5. That all changed after I did an electronic music production short course at SAE (Cape Town campus). I got introduced to this crazy DAW, Ableton! It wasn’t as easy to navigate on Ableton at first as compared to Reason. I kept jumping back and forth between Reason 5 and Ableton until I got more comfortable with Ableton. Now I could record audio, and I wasn’t just dealing with MIDI notes (YEEES)!
With Ableton, I started exploring and recording my own sounds and vocals. It motivated me to do more, record more of my own vocals, to get more stuck in. My technical abilities have gotten more advanced ever since then. Whenever I was in a studio with real synths, I’d record the parts and take the project home to finish arranging.
Now I have a home studio with my girlfriend with just what we need besides a drum machine (shit is expensive haha). Hopefully I will get one soon and use it for my live performances and not just use Ableton when performing live. To be honest though, I’m not really fussy about gear. I always make what I can get my hands on work for me.
Expanding my knowledge through DAWs and just being in other peoples studios, and now having my own has broadened my horizons. Now the music I make has the exact feel I’ve always wanted to achieve.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I mostly treat collabs as a jam session. I prefer to jam the idea to keep the energy in the room going so that ideas flow easily and aren’t forced. Then I start arranging and eliminating what we don’t like from the jam. I don’t like talking about ideas at all, haha. I’m a doer.
When it comes to collabs with artists that aren’t in my area, like with L Speaks and Rona Ray (both feature on my album), it’s a different story. Sometimes I’d just send a track, and within hours I have vocals to work with. Other times there’s a bit more of a back and forth, but the energy and connection are always there.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
The first thing I do when I wake up is my morning exercise. I always make sure I exercise before doing anything work related. It clears my mind. I feed our cats, and then I make coffee for my girlfriend and myself. I always have my wake & bake with my cup of coffee while I chat with my girlfriend and wait for her to be fully awake (I’m the early riser). Then I go to the studio, do my admin until the afternoon, and that’s when I start making music.
Pretty much everything I do is connected, and I don’t need to leave the house unless I need food, cigarettes or going for a walk with my girlfriend. That is part of my normal daily routine. My girlfriend is also an artist, and her daily routine is the same. We just have different times where we take breaks and sometimes take time out together. Our studio is our home. I’m very fortunate to be with someone that understands the life of an artist.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My breakthrough moment in my career was when I played my first international show in Berlin in late 2019. I’d never left South Africa, and I‘d always wanted to go to Berlin and experience the party scene. My only exposure to the international scene was through pictures, and shitty cellphone videos friends would send. 2019 was finally my time to experience it first hand! It’s crazy how thoughts become things and when you believe in your vision, they can become a reality.
I’ve always felt like an outcast in the electronic music scene in South Africa. Since I started making music, most artists I have followed are based in Berlin, and to me, it was more of a good plan to go there and no longer feel like a misfit. It was great.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’m a very happy/colourful person. I always make it a point to share love and positivity as much as possible with everyone I encounter. Every piece of music portrays that too.
My ideal state of mind is in tune with myself and my body. My morning exercise and going to bed early keep me grounded (it took me a long time to learn this). Not enough sleep is probably my biggest distraction.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
YES! I legit experienced this feeling when I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” & “Life” by Saba for the first time ever! The production was on another level to a point I nearly shed a tear! Both these songs still stir up my emotions. We NEED music in our everyday life, PERIOD!
I honestly can’t imagine how life would be without music! We’d be just drowning in our thoughts. Earth without art is just “eh”. That alone says it all!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Before you part-take in any cultural exchange, you need to respect the culture and those that paved the way for the culture. Appropriation is when you don’t acknowledge the origin of something culturally significant or use it in an inappropriate/disrespectful way. Be inspired but don’t imitate.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I can listen to a song I made a year ago, or even longer, and it will literally take me right back to the moment I made it. I’ll feel the same emotions I was feeling that day. I can see how blue the sky was and can smell the air. Our senses are so powerful and inspiring.
For me, our senses are our connection between the present and our past.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I try to avoid politics in general because my whole upbringing and family life have always been so political. It’s draining. Obviously, I can’t avoid it entirely because that is life, but when it comes to my art and staying true to myself, I tend to gravitate more towards my emotions instead of trying to make a statement. I want my music to bring light into people’s lives, and I want people to feel good.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
In my culture, music is part of expressing who we are. There's always singing at each and every ceremony, be it a wedding, a funeral, or even a protest.
Even when my people fought Apartheid in South Africa, we would (and still do) sing songs of liberation to express how we were feeling about being oppressed by the Apartheid regime. That shows music speaks when words fail.