True Music 10: Johannesburg is Boiler Room & Ballantine’s love letter to sound culture

In its 10th year, Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music reaffirms Johannesburg as a premier destination for sound culture immersion.
  • WriterSam Cole
  • Photography @Atthesessions

The dancefloor’s long, arduous battle with legislation is one the UK knows all too well; many iconic venues, including Manchester’s Sankeys and Printworks London, have fallen victim over the past decade, with the most recent examples symptomatic of lockdown’s tug on the financial viability of music and culture. Johannesburg’s music scene has too felt the economic pressures of lockdown, with several venues across the city silenced. Despite this, the city’s resilient spirit remains untamed, overflowing with a rich amalgamation of sound, proven by the high-octane energy at the heart of Boiler Room and Ballantine’s True Music 10: Johannesburg. 

For the rave-hungry of the world, few institutions are as emblematic of sound culture as Boiler Room. Operating as a haven of diversity, its events have drawn a spotlight on the talents shaping the energy of dancefloors across the globe while providing a space for the next generation to seed the future of music. The symbiosis Boiler Room shares with sound culture is born of a profound love of the dancefloor – the ravers and soundscape curators – and has watered its relationship with Ballantine’s over the past decade. Together, Boiler Room and Ballantine’s have worked tirelessly to curate an annual cross-city events series that champions grassroots music scenes, each a vibrant love letter to the power of dance music.

As I explored the night’s venue of choice, 1FOX, the event’s scale quickly became apparent. A multi-room set-up paved the way for a multi-genre experience; a cultural tapestry that crossed multiple borders while keeping its South African roots watered. In an instant, the lines that stretched around the block filtered into the space and the 10th-anniversary show roared to action. While attendees early flocked to one of the three stages – True Music Allstars, Forward, and Spotlight – my ears were drawn to a sound that had dominated the past week in music: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Not Like Us’. Beneath a flood of orange light, Johannesburg-based DJ, Char, grooved to the track as the crowd chanted its lyrics back at her in unison, setting the night’s energetic tone.

Thanks to Char’s electric blend of crowd-moving hip-hop and trap, the orange-lit Forward stage quickly took on the “Hip-Hop stage” monicker. While certainly the genre’s home for the night, the stage was rich in sonic diversity. From the moment Shannon SP and Jay Music took control of the crowd, the layered basslines of a series of unreleased anthems emanated through the room, welcomed by a constant pulse of dance and outstretched arms. 

Peeling away from the crowd’s infectious energy with great difficulty, I was carried past an important part of True Music 10’s cross-cultural makeup; a micro market inhabited by local brands, forming a creative hub serving an exhibition of something inherent to the city’s natives; their impeccable style. Following the market’s trail led to the True Music Spotlight stage. Characterised by its corrugated iron facade, the room rattled with the sounds of Pona Colada. An amalgamation of girl power bops from Rihanna and Sexxy Red ripped through punchy Gqom like AkiidMusiq’s ‘Rude Boy’.

Gqom, a South African subgenre of House defined by its heavy, Techno-reminiscent bass beats was a mainstay at the stage, ensuring a palpable energy that continued rising in intensity throughout the night. And it was the three-piece act Omagoqa that brought the sound to a fever pitch through a near-constant call-and-response with the sea of ravers. Thanks to Gqom’s heart-thumping basslines and the energy it demands of the crowd, the stage took on Boiler Room’s familial sweat-box atmosphere. 

Without a heavy offering of Amapiano, no showcase of South African music is complete. The sound, reverberating worldwide through artists like Tyla and Uncle Waffles, was a staple of the True Music Allstars stage. While the genre’s breakout success on the global stage speaks for itself, the passionate adoration it receives in South Africa is distinct. As a homegrown product, the sound was on the receiving end of an enormous crowd throughout the night, beckoned forward by the immense star power of DNB Gogo, Tyler ICU, and Shimza.

The Allstars stage possessed a palpable, unwavering intensity akin to a festival mainstage; if you hadn’t found your positioning near the DJs early on, you were forced to the back with little hope of pushing forward. Even at the edge of the action, pockets of dancers hit every beat of every track with very few moments of static. Open to close, the stage served as an unabated showcase, or better yet, spectacle, of the genre’s cultural significance and dancefloor dominance. Here, South Africa’s love of music, its homegrown sounds in particular, was written on the faces of every attendee.

Between the continued ringing of bass between the ears and the audible excitement projecting from the crowd as it dispersed towards after parties, came the night’s close, with silence failing to break through the atmosphere. This undying buzz as intense in the streets of Johannesburg as it is within 1FOX’s walls, speaks to the spirit of South Africa’s music culture with total clarity. The birthplace of sounds that emanate around the globe, it’s a talent-rich land that, despite its sizeable roster of superstars, can be easily overlooked in dance music, but in the 10th year of their joint mission to champion the global movement of sound culture, South African music’s power impossible to ignore. Initiated or not with the unique sounds of Amapiano, Gqom, and Afrotech, the night made one thing clear: Johannesburg deserves top spotting on every dance music event calendar.