Two years ago, the unique, startling sound of South African industrial-rave trio Die Antwoord — vocalist Ninja, diminutive rapper Yo-Landi Vi$$er and producer DJ Hi-Tek — so impressed Interscope Records, the label flew the group to Los Angeles to ink a million-dollar contract for its kinetic debut, “$O$.”
But the dream deal turned into a nightmare for both parties when the imprint — uneasy with the dirty, Afrikaans-spiced lyrics on the new follow-up, “Ten$ion” — requested more radio-friendly material.
“And we were like, ‘Uh, excuse me? You’re disqualified!’” Ninja says. “We just asked our lawyers to sever the ties. It didn’t seem like the right fit, so we just broke up.”
As ambassadors of South African zef culture — an underground post-apartheid movement that began, the Johannesburg-based Ninja says, “with lo-fi people with no money, living in bad neighborhoods, who made themselves look fancy by whatever means” — the self-reliant combo (who play Noise Pop this week) simply formed their own indie label.
With Zef Recordz, they licensed “Ten$ion” worldwide through a connected distributor and secured financial backing with a Japanese toy company called Good Smile, which underwrites their videos and is releasing a Die Antwoord video game, a full-length anime movie and Ninja/Yo-Landi action figures.
Not bad for starting over from scratch.
“It’s no big deal,” says Ninja, born Watkin Tudor Jones. “It just took a little bit of effort, but now everyone we’re working with, we love, and there’s a good understanding. It’s not just this giant, dull corporation that gives you a big payout in the beginning, and then everything moves in slow motion.”
Die Antwoord is all about speed: On a recent “Late Show With David Letterman” performance of the single “I Fink U Freaky,” the blond-mulleted Vi$$er — sporting black alienlike, eye-covering contact lenses — stood frozen, center stage, chirping the chorus, while a track-suited Ninja tornadoed around her, spitting staccato rhymes to a buzz-sawing Hi-Tek soundscape.
The sound and style boomerang back to zef, a once-derogatory term first reclaimed by Die Antwoord (“The Answer” in Afrikaans) on the breakthrough 2010 video “Zef Side.”
“We took zef as an insult and turned it into our thing,” says the flat-topped, Fu-Manchu-mustached Ninja, who has a 7-year-old daughter with Vi$$er named Sixteen.
“We absorbed it into our music, our look, our style and our attitude. Zef was already there — we just took it and made it our bitch.”
Die Antwoord is also collaborating on a top-secret feature film with their South African chum, “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp.
Don’t understand all the fuss? Tough, says Ninja. “We have our own really strong reality, and it’s more powerful than anything. And if people have boring lives? They shouldn’t take it out on us!”
Where: Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $25 (sold out)
Contact: (888) 929-7849, www.axs.com