Interviewed by Charles Leonard
Published in Playboy South Africa January / February 2012
Andy Kasrils grew up in exile in London, where his mother introduced him to reggae and his friends from the West Indies gave him the nickname “The Admiral.” He joined MK in the Angolan bush, and after returning to South Africa, worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs before ditching any kind of uniform for his passion in music and the movies. For Joburg’s lovers of reggae’s struggle and beat, The Admiral needs no further introduction.
PLAYBOY: How did you discover reggae?
ANDY KASRILS: It was in our house while I was growing up because my mom used to play ska, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. So I knew what it was, though when you hit the teenage years, you never want to just go with what your parents play. During school days, I was busy discovering rebellious things, like a little bit of ganja, so in the late 1970s I was thrown into the world of dub music. It led to a never-ending stream of reggae, the most exciting music I’d ever heard.
PLAYBOY: What role has reggae played in your life?
ANDY KASRILS: Reggae is my holy spirit. Reggae’s got so many different moods. There’s a time when you’re in an illogical mood and you need to hear the dancehall music with all the crazy lyrics it stands for. And then there’s a time for the soulful side of the music, and the lover’s side of the music. So, it is very versatile. It’s always been cutting edge and it’s always been challenging.
PLAYBOY: It must’ve been a mindfuck for a North London, Arsenal-supporting boy to join Umkhonto we Sizwe [MK, the armed wing of the ANC] in the Angolan bush in January 1987?
ANDY KASRILS: Listen it’s a mindfuck being an Arsenal supporter in 2011, trust me… [laughs]. There were times when it [my time in the bush with MK] was difficult, and there were times when it was exhilarating. Like any military training, it is physically tough, demanding. It was like going to a university – it was my university experience. The first morning in the camp I was in, in Caculama, at 4:55am the bell rings and, like in all armies, you pile out into the company or platoon you’re in and you do the morning sport, the exercises. The first 10 – 15 minutes we were basically running and toyi-toying… It was a shock to the system. I always knew where I was going and I had an idea of what it would be like, but waking up that morning and suddenly here we were all running, we were all soldiers, and we were toyi-toying through forest bush. You’re in the platoon doing it and you know all the guys you’re with are the guys you’ve been watching on TV [in the UK] fighting in the townships and now you’re in the army with them. That to me was one of the most overwhelming moments emotionally of the entire couple of years. It was like bang! You’re here now. Suddenly it is real, and you’re very far away from where you come.
PLAYBOY: Did your activist parents put pressure on you to do it?
ANDY KASRILS: No, I think they were okay with my decision. Obviously, as I know from speaking to them subsequently, my mom was a lot more worried than my dad.
PLAYBOY: What drove you to go?
ANDY KASRILS: At that point I’d been working for four years as an ANC printer, doing ANC propaganda, stickers, the ANC newsletter. I came into contact with many young cadres from MK – deployed in the ANC London office or as students and I was very much inspired by them. At the same time I was really into my reggae, the dancehall, the sound system thing which also had a definite militant edge to it. And I wanted to see how far I could take my commitment to working in the ANC. So, it was a mixture of the two. Seriously, you only live once and I wanted to be an MK guerrilla.
PLAYBOY: What was the moment when you decided to permanently settle in SA?
ANDY KASRILS: During the first few years of coming back, I was definitely a “soutpiel.” At first I thought I’d come here for a year to check it out because I was involved in the ANC. But the days turned into months and months into years. I did a few trips to and fro. It was actually in 1999 when I came back from a UK trip and as we were touching down at what’s now OR Tambo airport, I remember thinking, “I’m back, I’m home;” whereas during the previous trips I had that feeling only when I touched down in London. Suddenly it just switched round. And to this day, even coming back from Cape Town, I feel like there’s no place like Gauteng.
PLAYBOY: Were there ever times when you thought, nah, I made a mistake to settle here?
ANDY KASRILS: To this day, no! I love South Africa, I love GP – absolutely never thought twice about it!
PLAYBOY: I listened again to the song, “Apartheid Dead,” that you produced with Robert McBride for the crew called MK Platoon and it has really aged exceptionally well. Maybe this is an unfair question: I understand your role in the song, but what on earth did McBride know about music?
ANDY KASRILS: Robert is a reggae man through and through. My parents were and still are friendly with his then wife Paula and during a trip I had here in ’92 I went with them all to his prison release. I was fascinated by the guy: I was MK, he was MK, but not only that, he was an MK hero. Within two minutes of us speaking he asked, “What are you listening to there in the car?” and he thought he could hear reggae coming out of it. I said “reggae” – this was latest dancehall from London – and I gave him the cassette. When we stopped at Shell House (the then ANC headquarters), he said, “I’ve never heard reggae like this before, can you get me more?” Later, after our friendship sparked, I found out that the guy grew up on Bob Marley. So I could see the guy’s into reggae. And reggae is like hip-hop, if you’re into the music you want to be part of it. When the idea sprung up for us to go and persuade the anti-Apartheid movement in the UK to help us through this project, Robert was a big card player, and with him planning to produce on a reggae album, it was massive! So he handled most of the production this side, I recorded the tunes that side and sent them over, then we’d debate as we put it together. So, yes, he genuinely did produce.
PLAYBOY: You’re in entertainment fulltime. Do you miss your office job at Foreign Affairs?
ANDY KASRILS: Not that particular office job… but there’s a lot of security in having an office job and my advice to anyone is: don’t give up the office job easily!
PLAYBOY: You and JahSeed have been doing the YFM show “Raggatak” since 1999. You’ve been moved to a few different slots but the show remains very popular. Is it fair to say there’s no substitute for good radio?
ANDY KASRILS: Absolutely! With radio, things have really changed over the last 10 years. The automation of radio stations has made them sound slicker but the price paid for that has often been a diluting of identity. The reason why we’re still on YFM is not because of our looks… We’re specialist DJs, we’re selecting our music and we’re playing it. And dancehall music is part of a street culture which YFM has always represented. I think this is what keeps us alive as DJs. You can look at guys like Oskido for example, who are the same… Right across the world not only in SA, in-house compilers are choosing everything that gets played 24/7 on the radio and the presenters are playing it. So compilers are essentially the DJs. Presenters are more like continuity announcers on TV. But there are some great presenters out there; it’s just a different skill-set.
PLAYBOY: How do you stay up to date with reggae and dancehall?
ANDY KASRILS: These days it’s easier than ever. The challenge is not just being up-to-date, because everyone is up-to-date. All you have to do is get involved in a couple of download forums and you receive the latest tunes the moment everyone else does. The question then is, so why are you different to them? Live performance is an art on its own. Of course, there is much skill in selecting the tunes. If you’re clever about what’s being said in the music, your positioning of where you play the tunes in the set can be strategic, and you can find ways where new tunes can logically point back to pulling out old gems from the past. You need the knowledge of the music, and that only comes about by listening to it for a long time. Fortunately in reggae there’s a lot of respect for what they call the foundation.
PLAYBOY: How do you compile your playlist for your weekly DJ dancehall session called African Storm at the Bassline Club that you do with JahSeed?
ANDY KASRILS: There are the tunes that become the dancehall anthems that have to be there. Our playlist is slower than a playlist you’d find, say in a UK or Jamaican club. As a result you get guys who are constantly downloading in a frenzy here, saying “C’mon, you need newer, newer,” but then you have people who come to the club more for the fashion experience of the night, the Bacchic experience of the night. You have to balance between the two. I’d say that the playlist is 90% of giving the crowd what they need to hear.
PLAYBOY: It is an understatement to say that you bring the house down when you DJ. How does it make you feel?
ANDY KASRILS: That’s what it’s all about. It’s like a big communal hurrah, you know? You want people going mad – the football match atmosphere is what we strive for.
PLAYBOY: Do you need to smoke weed to enjoy reggae?
ANDY KASRILS: No. Today, neither I nor JahSeed, for example, smoke… Some of the most agile MCs on the mic I know don’t smoke weed. Reggae has this image that it is linked with weed – which is all good, but quite stereotypical.
PLAYBOY: The YouTube link advertising your African Storm Dancehall Queen competition is not for the faint-hearted when it comes to slackness, or sexiness. Aren’t you worried you’ll piss off some of your feminist friends?
ANDY KASRILS: I share the view I’ve heard some feminists say, that the dancehall queen image is empowering for a female in these circumstances. Those women who shake it on our stage and dancehall queens in general, in the Caribbean or wherever, are actually the hardest women for a man to get involved with. Firstly, you need balls of steel to approach them because if you get turned down everyone will see. Secondly, those women are very confident. It often surprises me that the most raucous ones are in a suit in an office the next morning. But I guess on Thursday nights (when African Storm Sounds System performs at the Bassline) the wildness comes out.
PLAYBOY: How many movies do you watch a week for your TV show, The Admiral & Akin Go To The Movies?
ANDY KASRILS: Filming has now finished and we are talking to Mzansi Magic about a new series. The Admiral & Akin show was quite different than most, but when I review for 3Talk or in the old days on Phat Joe I’d have to watch two, maybe three cinematic previews per week. Then at the same time, I’d have to watch two or three classic movies on DVD as well because everything is a remake these days and you have to be up on the original. So I’d say in a given week, I’d probably watch six to 10 films… That’s what led me to become a filmmaker. After four-and-a-half years on the Phat Joe show and the amount of films I watched, it got to the point where, because Hollywood movies are so structured and formulaic, I started feeling this rhythm to them and became curious about film and story structure. It’s kind of indoctrinated into me so deeply I feel I’ve got an almost metaphysical feel for films now. Hallelujah!
PLAYBOY: You’re about to make your first feature film. Let’s pretend I’m some heavy-duty big shot producer – sell it to me in 30 seconds?
ANDY KASRILS: I can sell it to you in 10 seconds… I can say to you, the masses still haven’t been to the cinema in SA yet, and I’ve got the script that will bring them there. That’s my pitch! You need to reel the Producer in, but that’s definitely my opening gambit. I’ve just written the script. It’s nearly driven me half-mad, it’s quite intense and it took a year. And this is just the first draft – by the time you get to make a film, you’re on six or 10 drafts. The first one is the big one, though, where you put it all down and you propose to the producer let’s do this, let’s do business here. I do feel confident enough to do that now, to make this social comedy that I have written. No working title… the title that I’ve got is a good one and I don’t want to put it out there yet. But it’s a T-shirt on its own!
PLAYBOY: Your late mom liked reggae – did she get your dad to also like reggae?
ANDY KASRILS: She got him into it. In fact, she took him and some other friends to the Bob Marley Exodus concert in London. My mom’s favourite artists were always Toots & The Maytals. It was so nice that on my dad’s travels as a Cabinet Minister she managed to go with him to see Toots live in the US on one of their trips, which was a very big thing for her. She was also a massive fan in the 80s of Gregory Isaacs. So while I got into reggae and went down a different route when I was with my Jamaican friends, there were a lot of tunes that we all grew up on and it was thanks to my mom. So special, very special.
PLAYBOY: When was it best to carry the Kasrils surname – in 1987 (when you joined MK in the bush), 1994 (when we got liberation) or now?
ANDY KASRILS: In MK everyone had a nom de guerre, so while it was clear that I was an exile kid because I had a London accent, my name was “Mike” and I was unknown, just like everyone else. They really didn’t know, which was a good thing because you don’t want to be in a situation when you’re in the army and you carry one of the army leaders’ names. What was nice when I came here was that even under my dad’s shadow I was able to get my own identity going. To everyone in music here, I am Admiral – which is cool. It was in about 2000 that people started saying, “Do you know that Ronnie Kasrils is the Admiral’s dad?” He jokes about it too, because people come and say, “Is your son really the Admiral?” (laughs). So for both of us it has been sweet because it made a lot easier for both of us to deal with.
PLAYBOY: What else is lined up for 2012?
ANDY KASRILS: The world isn’t ending, so the beat goes on.