Securing the Future – An Interview With King Adz
During my tenure at SLAMXHYPE, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing numerous personalities whom I greatly respect. These interviews represent my desire to understand what culture means to these people and how it all connects. Out of any other interview, King Adz represents what I love the most, which is the passion to communicate and tell the stories of amazing people.
King Adz is an author and self proclaimed street middleman, that is, a middleman to the streets and the companies he consults on how to identify with the global youth today. As someone who’s been documenting street culture for longer than a lot of kids have been alive, he has a unique view on the culture as a whole. This view has culminated into him authoring 4 books including Street Knowledge and most recently The Stuff You Can’t Bottle.
I had the pleasure of talking to King Adz about selling out, honest content, his favorite cities, and everything in between.
When you say content has to be created in an authentic way, do you think that also has to align with an authentic product?
Fuck yes! Personally I can’t work with brands I don’t get or care about. I hate big nasty brands (Banks, Fast Food, Soft Drinks, Candy…) as much as the next oke, but obvioulsy I have the brands that shaped my cultural DNA. Converse, Stussy, Canon, Lacoste, Sergio Tacchini, Rolex, Vans, MDMA, Sony. But this is just me. I can’t tell anyone to buy or try to convince them they need this shit in their lives. When I work with brands all I can do is to tell my story. If I could just make my films and write my books without doing brand work I’d probably stop tomorrow. Not because of any major ethics but just because it can be a pain in the ass dealing with clients. I fucking hate that word.
But saying that I’ve almost got to a stage where I’ve got some professional mates who just happen to work with brands. These okes get me and my work and like what I do. So it’s only natural when they get me in to help them tell their brand story. I like that. This works. We have fun. I get paid and they schlep their goods. To be honest I’m not sure how long I can keep this up for. I’m 44 this year and I’m still running around like a kid. It’s just that my playgrounds are spots like Sowto or uMlazi or LA or Tel Aviv. So to cut the crap and answer your question, for a brand to be able to work out there, it has to come correct. It has to behave properly and this means treating its customers and their sub-cultures with upmost respect. It has to support both of these things without asking for anything in return. So yes, the product has to be 110% authentic.
With the rise of the Internet, kids can see what things are going on in other parts of the world so easily. Same goes for street culture, do you think this has adversely affected the sacredness of an individual cities cultures, or do you think it’s just harder to find?
The internet is both blessing and a curse. Like all powerful forces it’s good and bad for culture at the same time. I guess this is the true nature of duality. I love it and hate it. I love it as I can clock what’s up with India’s next fashion designer even if they are working out of a shack in a township. All s/he needs is a cheap smart phone and he can get word out there about his or her work. But the one thing that most people forget in all this is that you need talent.
The internet and digital revolution (cheap digital cameras technology etc) has got a lot of folks confused. It don’t mean shit if you shoot a bad photo on the latest camera. Or make a crap film on the most HD of video cameras. It’s just shit in high definition. For me I don’t care if you shoot on a box camera as long as you’ve got the eye. This is the vital ingredient and lot of content out there is irrelevant and just gets in the way of the good stuff. With regards to individual cities cultures I think that there is now a resurgence for what us folks in South Africa call ‘local is lekker’.
We’ve had 10 years of on-line digital culture and we’ve had enough. For me, there is nothing better than an authentic analogue cultural experience – something happening right in front of my eyes (food, music, art, fashion) that I then shoot and run home to talk about digitally. So stuff like this is definitely happening more and more in individual cities.
Out of all your travels, what is your favorite city and why?
Right now my favorite spot in the world is Johannesburg. It has the most amazing energy because of it’s transformation from hell-hole to eclectic hard-working city. An authentic attitude is born out of this environment, which is vital for any kind of powerful culture that actually means something to someone. I include the townships of Soweto and Alexandra as this is where a lot of the original South African street styles (fashion art music film writing style) are born.
A lot of the street culture is commercial free right now. It’s done for the love and that alone. I’m not sure how long this will last as you already have vultures like the Sartorialist swooping into to Jozi last year. He stayed in a very small area shooting the same old people rocking the same old styles that every South African street style blogger has already shot a year before. He then went on the record as saying that South African style ‘Lacks A Certain Amount Of Charm’ and this comes from a man who was parachuted in for like 36 hours by Mercedes Benz fashion week.
This whole episode and attitude embodies everything that has gone wrong with the commercialization and bastardization of our culture. I have so much love for what the South African’s are doing right now because their hearts are true to the original culture they are creating. I’m so proud to be part of that.
Commercialization is definitely a cause for concern for anyone in street culture currently, what do you think it will take for the future generation to stay pure?
In order to safeguard our heritage we need to totally reclaim our culture from the brands and the bullshit mainstream media. I know this sounds like a cliché but it’s the only way we really ensure that what we have created – an authentic street culture, be it fashion, music, art, food, writing, film – stays true to the cause. Firstly, when the interesting stuff happens, culturally, it’s spontaneous. Events happen, you don’t know about them. You luck out and you accidently discover something. Before the internet that was a much more common occurrence because you knew what you liked, you had your fanzines and your peers and you subscribed to maybe a ‘zine that you had to send off for.
Street culture as we know it has come out of this cultural mix. But now-a-days a lot of people live in this on-line dream-bubble, reading watching buying shit off the internet or going to music festivals and big art shows, all under the illusion that they are actually part of something real – a movement perhaps – but what they’re doing, and this is the vital point, is confusing consumption with culture. Just because you rock up there, pay your money, get in, get your sneaker tagged, buy a t-shirt and listen to some piped-in culture, doesn’t even register on the cultural scale.
You may well think that you’re part of the scene but all you’re really doing is consuming something that’s been fed to you. You need to make shit happen yourself. You need to do way more that just read a post or watch a very short video clip. You need to fucking mission and break the law and risk something – anything – to shake yourself out of your sub/urban existence plugged into the internet. You need to dive into the glorious abyss of our street culture and set yourself free…
It doesn’t mean that we stop working with brands, most of us can’t afford to. What I mean is that we should use the money from the brands to do other work that is 100% pure and unadulterated. Whenever I’m on a commercial job I’m actually writing and shooting ten other ideas off the back of it, that maybe one or two will ever see the light of day. It’s this work that is important for our collective cultural heritage, this is in my opinion, the way forwards. The future.
The old saying goes “Experience is another word for mistakes” – out of all the knowledge you’ve gathered ’til this point in your life, what is one thing you know now that you wish you knew earlier?
All great work is born from mistakes. In the commercial world success has many fathers but failure is an orphan, which is such bollocks. I really hate that. One thing I wished I knew is that the people who control the money are unwilling to take risks and have absolutely no faith in the unknown. They always want a sure thing, which means they back shit work. I always come correct and only offer what I believe is the best work possible. There are exceptions to this rule and I’ve been very lucky to have people up there who have absolute faith in what I do. People like Jamie Camplin from Thames & Hudson and Marianne Gunn O’Connor, two of the most visionary people in publishing, who are behind what I do 100%. Irvine Welsh helped me no-end when he stepped up and got behind my book Street Knowledge. It was a pity the publisher didn’t have a clue what it was about and help me promote it. They just walked away.
I wish I had a £100 for every pitch I’d ‘won’ and then it turned out that they just wanted to steal my ideas and give it to the person they always used. I’d have a few quid by now! Sometimes I really wish I knew what I was doing, but then I wake up and realize that the very fact that I’m just floundering around in a sea of amazing global culture, is where the magic comes from.
It seems as soon as anyone really really knows what they’re doing they’re not challenging themselves enough, how do you want to keep challenging yourself?
Everyday I ask myself ‘what am I really doing?’ and the answer is always the same: ‘fuck-knows – but I love it!’ But this is not enough. I am constantly setting myself goals. Previous goals: Create a free-PDF magazine that people actually read. Get published…Get published internationally… Find a producer… Make a documentary… or two… Get on TV… Get a hard-core agent… who really gets me… Work with my heroes…
Whatever it is I have to really believe in what I’m doing. I’d be no good making a doc or writing about Justin Beiber because – no disrespect to the oke – I’m a 44-year-old bloke who pretty much knows what he’s into (what this whole interview is about) and I just don’t get what it is that he is about – even if he looks like he’s dipping into street-style. I don’t think I can ever get what he’s really about.
I met one of my heroes a while ago – the director Tony Kaye. American History X is one of the films that made me want to direct. It came out when I had just started shooting stuff in South Africa and after watching that film I knew it was something I was going to do. Okay so I didn’t know it was documentaries that I should be making, and I only got to that conclusion after shooting stuff with actors, commercials, music videos etc. I was okay at that but the bottom line is that I didn’t give a flying fuck about any of those forms really. It was when I started documenting street culture that it all started coming naturally. I didn’t have to schlep too hard. I knew what I was doing as my cultural DNA just locked into the process and the narratives flowed from my heart. Street ball, Drum N Bass, Street art/style/food… the usual. It was great. I loved it and when I got to construct the films in my edit suite, it was always a joy.
Anyway to cut a long story short and answer your question, when I met Tony Kaye he asked me to write him a film. And so I did. The next challenge for me is to get the film made as I’m not the sort of writer to just hand over the script and let some producer spoilt it with his ‘vision’. The script is a true story about the world’s greatest art smuggler, which I just happen to own the rights to! So I’ve started trying to break into the movie business and with Tony Kaye at my side it’s not an impossible task, but it’s not an easy one either. Like I mentioned earlier this is an industry that hates anything risky or new!
I’m writing a new book about how to connect to those who refuse to buy into brands, to follow my youth advertising book (out in UK and South Africa right now, in US in May). I’m also helping brands connect to the youth, mainly in Africa as this has become my remit. African Youth. This niche is something I absolutely love and respect and enjoy the challenge (working in Africa can sometimes be completely mental). But then again that’s a challenge!
What are the challenges of working in Africa as opposed to anywhere else?
The infrastructure and the social attitudes are different. But this is what attracts me. There is also a fair bit of corruption, which is the same as the rest of the world but in Africa it’s more visible – just anther production cost. In the west we just hide it. There is also a problem with actually getting the older established cultural heroes to help the youth. I ran a workshop/brunch thing in Jo’burg last time I was there and it was all about encouraging the talent to get their name out there. One of the talents was chatting to me and paid his respects as I was all about helping him. I didn’t see him as a threat, but this was how – according to this 18 year old – the established local talent would see him. They didn’t see him as someone to help, but someone to keep down. I just don’t get this as half of my life is spent helping the fresh-to-death talents get up!
The other huge challenge is to get these international corporate brands to understand the African Youth. These companies and brands are all white-owned and here begins the rub. The mass-market in the African continent is the black youth. I don’t have to spell it out…
In a deeper sense, what is it about Africa that you love the most?
What I love about Africa the most is that it has a whole world of influences, cultural or sociological, that are completely alien to me. It’s the process of discovery each and every day.
I fell in love with the red earth on my very first visit. And when I began to get my head around how things went down I realised the scope of the cultural possibilities, and how they could play out and connect to the other youth around the world. The people – both black and white – are the warmest, most talented, and ALIVE you will ever meet. Africa has so much going for it and the world has to see it in this way. It’s so advanced in many ways but there is this misconception that it’s backward. That’s just the colonial hype in order to keep the exploitation going. I say fuck that – Africa shines every time.
We’ve talked about content being king in present day, but do you ever think it is content overload currently? Too many stories being told?
For sure there is a glut of fake-assed content out there, which just clogs it up and makes it harder for the real to break through. There is definitely a ‘real’ and ‘fake’. Real is when someone like a 19-year old street-style hustler from Nairobi captures a moment of his/her life and then posts it somewhere, that’s the stuff you can’t bottle. Fake is when Facebook tries to feed you ‘trending’ articles that are just so irrelevant, irreverent and so annoyingly out of touch with what is actually going on in your life. You’d think with all this technology they’d be able to aim that shit a bit better. But I think this is where it all falls down.
Sub-cultures are not something you can use an algorithm to try and predict or track or analyze; they are fluid movements of cultural DNA and style and art and instinct and passion, and this makes it so much more complex than mining data from a gazillion posts and hoping to get some live market insights.
I often get asked to predict what the youth will be into next week from some huge company that wants to create content that is just a stairway to selling something shit. These requests I turn my back on. There are a million stories out there and some of them are interesting. Most are just the same old same old bought this eat this fucked that, which are not what it’s about, really. Those are the cloggers.
Currently, street culture is so fragile, any hint of commercialism seems to muddle it. Do you think it’s more important that these stories be experienced in person rather than be told?
I think that street culture in general is in a very interesting spot right now. It’s old enough to carry some respect with other cultures, albeit begrudgely (check spelling), but it’s still fresh and energetic to come up with the goods. I think that experience is everything. This is when the formation of your cultural DNA happens. You don’t get that off a screen. It’s only by getting your hands dirty that you can feel what it’s actually like to be an active part of something cultural. I’m not knocking the brand involvement here as this has become an intrinsic element of what is thought of as ‘street culture’. A huge part of our culture revolves around certain brands. It always has done and will continue to do so, but it is important to regulate how much influence these brands have on what we think say do wear write paint design.
You need a strong hand when dealing with brands as we often rely on their money; their patronage, but they need our culture and loyalty more. Without either if those things these brands are history.
A lot of said brands are full fledged businesses now, do you think it’s possible to ride the line between making money and staying street? Or do you think they’ve carved their mark out and deserve their success.
Some of the enterprises that have been born from the street – Patta, A-life, aNYthing, Supreme, Shut – I have the utmost respect and a lot of love for, and are a vital and intrinsic part of our culture. the fact that they sell product is irrelevant. One of my current projects is helping a young fashion label/designer called Tempracha grow from the streets of a township called uMlazi near Durban, onto a global stage and marketplace. This is the power and strength of street knowledge in full effect. Culture coming out of a township in South Africa is the real-deal Holyfield. This much I know.
The very fact that I am sat in a moving car writing this on a smart phone, listening to roots rock reggae – ‘Late Night Blues’ by Don Carlos, wearing LTD edition denim Halfcabs, a blue Lacoste tennis jumper whilst watching the fuckers in their suits crawl past while the bass shakes the Benz at 7am, tells me that I’m doing something right. But also how much I’m controlled by brands!
All Photos by King Adz