PHFAT has always been a relatively hard-to-describe group. Bassy beat-driven electro hip-hop, I think. Though their Facebook page simply says “RAP MUSIC” – in all caps like that.  Then last year the duo split, with Narch Beats carrying on as an independent producer while Smooth Mike carries on as PHFAT. It’s pretty well established that they/he/it is from Cape Town, at least. And that they’ll be performing at The Republic of Mieliepop this year.

“When PHFAT started we played shows to like five people,” says Smooth Mike. “I always made it my goal to get five fans at those shows. There is something really intimidating about such a small intimate audience. Because if they are actually watching then the focus is incredibly acute.”

“It’s like the difference between a Christmas dinner with your new girlfriend’s parents and a braai with 70 of your friends and some strangers on a beach somewhere. The latter is kinda light and free flowing, the former is hella focused and intense.”

But surely someone called ‘Smooth Mike’ isn’t too intimidated by his girlfriend’s parents?

“It really depends what I’m doing. I’m alright at introducing myself to people and making friends. I’m still shockingly shit at Christmas dinners with a new girlfriend’s parents. I’m also far more comfortable on a stage than I am in an audience.”

“It’s weird. I get hella anxious walking around at shows and being part of a crowd. Not sure why.”

“One on one I generally end up getting pretty deep with conversation. To the point that I can be kinda tiring if you aren’t in the mood to dig in the depths of your own brain. Which is strange to me ‘cos I’m always digging around in my own head and it can be a bit bizarre to people when I do the same thing to them.”

Considering the loud beats and bouncing crowds at shows, PHFAT can be surprisingly sensitive and self-analysing. “The cold honest introspection has become more and more prevalent as I’ve grown up. Music used to be like a defence mechanism for me. These days it’s partially a defence mechanism and kind of a vehicle for vulnerability at the same time. And it can switch at any time. It’s so bizarre.”

Mike laughs. “What does it add? Sincerity. People can tell in four seconds whether someone wants to be on stage. If I don’t feel like being on stage I’ll happily tell an audience because honesty is a lot more enduring than a shitty show.”

Picture by Omri Dahan

Speaking of appearing on stage, I asked Mike how it feels to do it without Narch Beats these days.

“The dynamic hasn’t changed hugely. Desert_Head (who DJ’s with me for pretty much all my shows and also produces with me a fair bit) is pretty comfortable on stage and with the spot light. He even gets his own mic occasionally and I’ve really enjoyed working with him. He deals really well with all the weird shit that happens on stage that can quite easily derail a show if you don’t know what’s up.”

“Off stage I’m working with a bunch of different producers which is a pretty big game changer. It’s also been a big step learning to deal with my kinda more ‘singularised’ vision for PHFAT but I think whatever I release next will be the most coherent and integrated shit that I do. And yes, there are going to be some Narch Beats included.”

Mieliepop Festival 2017

PHFAT doesn’t often play for 5 people any more. “There’s kind of a critical mass for stage sizes. Basically as soon as a crowd is big enough to have it’s own personalty I’m pretty happy. the size of that crowd is related to the size of the space. It’s weird and difficult to explain but each audience has its own rhythm and requirements.”

“That’s why it’s so important for me to work with DJs who know how to read an audience and can adapt the PHFAT catalogue quickly without freaking out when an audience doesn’t immediately take to a set. Mieliepop specifically is dope cos it’s a festival for people who are music fans (as opposed to just looking for a place to socialise), so playing to a discerning crowd means I can try slightly more edgy shit with the show. Honestly, each crowd has its own set of criteria that needs to be met, and I enjoy figuring out each one just about equally.*

“Pretty fucking amped to line up the show for Mieliepop!”

“(But obviously huge 10 000 plus crowds are incredibly rewarding.)”

PHFAT is an “incomparable” hip-hop act from Cape Town. They’ll be at The Republic of Mieliepop, which takes place 17-20 March 2017. Get your festival tickets here, or enter our ticket giveaway (closes 23 Feb).