You might not have heard of Madcon but you'll definitely know their worldwide smash hit “Beggin'”, which was a Top five hit in the UK and was most recently used in the celeb-filled Adidas advert.
Thsawe Baqwa and Yusef Wolde-Mariam are a Norwegian duo who sat down to talk to Tale Tela about their lastest album CONtraband, which features the likes of Ludacris and Ne-Yo. In this exclusive interview, the guys talk all about their love for Dizzee Rascal and what they really think about the American hip hop scene.
Our readers will be aware of your top five hit ‘Beggin’’, it is one of those hits you can’t get out of your head. Did you anticipate how big a hit it would be?
Tshawe: Not at all, not at all. Apparently it’s still getting airplay today.
Yusef: I think that’s kind of impossible.
Tshawe: You hope for the best cos you can hear potentially not just that song but a lot of other songs that we had but that’s the aspect or the part of the music industry that you have no control over so you just have to see what the people think and thank God the people thought well of it.
Well it’s a great song! It got featured heavily in the Adidas campaign, featuring celebrities like Snoop Dogg and David Beckham. How did you feel about that?
Yusef: I just wish I was in the commercial as well! I don’t understand why we weren’t there! Big Kane, Russell Simmons, that’s my kind of party!
Did you get any freebies at least?
Yusef: I was never invited; I got a pair of free shoes, that was it. Talking about the album, you’ve done some duets and worked with Ludacris and Ne-Yo for this album. How was it working with them?
Talking about the album - you've done some duets and worked with Ludacris and Ne-Yo for your new record. What was it like working with them?
Tshawe: It was a great experience, mostly because personally I know Ludacris’ material so much from way back when. So I was very star-struck the very first time we got to record the song.
Yusef: And I’ve been as big of a Ne-Yo fan, for me it was really cool to have him on the album as well. It’s beautiful, I know all the songs, been on the dance floor, I picked up my wife to a Ne-Yo song. It was called ‘So Sick’.
Tshawe: That’s not romantic that you’re so sick of your wife.
Yusef: That’s not it, that was the dance floor chart! I didn’t know her at that point.
So what inspires you when it comes to writing your album?
Tshawe: The mere fact that there are people out there that are interested in our music, you always hope to get acknowledgement and when you do, that’s inspirational enough. Seriously because putting things into perspective, there’s worse jobs that one could have and we have the opportunity to do what we love but Yusef has this anecdote that he likes to say, what is it?
Yusef: Choose a job that you love and you won’t work a day in your life.
Tshawe: So basically look at your life and you see that there’s not too many things you have to complain about, that’s inspiration enough, trust me.
Do you have a favourite track or is it hard to pick out of all of them?
Tshawe: Yeah but it varies, it varies on the mood and the setting. Right now, I’m very much a fan of two songs, one being ‘Be Mine’ mostly because it sounds like we ‘Hollywoodified’, for lack of a better term, Africa. I kinda like that we modernised the African traditional, stereotypical sounds and ‘Walk out Of The Door’ is another song I like because that’s the most acoustic track we have on the album.
Yusef: That’s my favourite song off the album. A lot of our readers will know Begging but they might not be completely familiar with you music otherwise.
How would you describe your sound to people who are perhaps listening to you for the first time after hearing ‘Beggin’?
Tshawe: Very different from 'Beggin'. Very different from that retri suond we had in our earlier albums.
Yusef: Very different from anything we ever had.
Tshawe: So this time around it's more modern, electro. A little more modern in it's sound. I can see us in Star Trek gear, he's Captain Kirk and I'm spokc, flying to where no man has been before. You know, it's very Hi Technological I feel.
Yusef: But we never get stuck in one specific sound or image. Btu right now that's where we're at.
You guys are very proud of your roots and coming from a predominately white country, do you find they embrace you and understand what you’re trying to do?
Thsawe: Very much so, very much so, very much so. And I guess us and Norway have bridged a gap that has been vacant for such a long time, more so because of Norwegians being, not sceptical but being a little scared of what’s different.
Thsawe: And they don’t really know how to handle that because people saw that we were just positive people, like you don’t have to hold your purse any tighter if we pass you. We can come from a hip hop heritage and still represent something positive was a good learning experience for the Norwegian country so we’ve absolutely been embraced and even more than that.
Do you think it’s harder as hip hop artists get some negative press?
Yusef: Most of the time actually but yeah, it’s been important to represent who we are and you can only express yourself like ‘speak what you know’ and we are positive as people, we try to promote it, we try to focus on it. You know, we catch ourselves every now and then and we try to remind ourselves that life is good, it is what you make it!
Would you guys be interested in doing acting or are you too focussed on the music? Thsawe: Acting, personally I’d like to see if I could act. Cos I’m not sure I could answer that question honestly and say I’m a good actor so I’m curious to see if I am a good actor.
Yusef: Oh yeah, I’ve always admired acting.
Thsawe: You like doing Pilates, you could do that!
Yusef: Yeah but I gained weight after my son came, my wife went slimmer and I gained weight.
Thsawe: You could still do Pilates even though you’re chubby!
Yusef: I also wanna go back to my native country and help, give back, I wanna build schools.
A lot of artists are using their celebrity status to help charities. Is that especially important for you guys?
Thsawe: Absolutely. With our African background and having parents that were very active politically speaking, in both our respective countries. It’s a factor we choose not to ignore but it would almost impossible to ignore because how our parents have educated us about where we’ve come from and how so many people in our countries suffered. We’ve seen it with our own eyes in South Africa because we have family there. And of course we are lucky and privileged and we should do something about that.
You guys had years of hard work and dedication before having a worldwide hit, what do you think of shows like Idol and X Factor where the fame seems to come almost immediately?
Thsawe: Well I shouldn’t really cast a stone at all because one of the reasons or one of the trampolines that helped push our career up was in fact a reality show that I took part in called ‘Skal vi danse’, which is ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in England. I think in some situations for us artists it might be a good idea to do some of these shows if you’re not fully exposed because of exactly that. It’s an arena where you can have the opportunity to expose yourself. Some other arenas might not necessarily be as good for an artist. There’s this curse of being the ‘Idol artist’ that I’ve now seen because not a lot of these artists last and experience longevity in their careers, why I don’t know but it varies I guess.
In Norway they have used original material from the start whereas in England it’s cover versions. Do you think it’s better for a singer to go on with original material and know what kind of artist they want to be from the start?
Thsawe: Yeah I think that’s important that you get to express who you are.
Yusef: I think it’s good if your material is good. I think if not, use covers!
Thsawe: Good point!
What’s next for you guys?
Yusef: Well we have the single ‘Outrun the Sun’ which is released on the 21 March here in the UK, we have the album CONtraband, released on the 2 May in the UK, we’re on the tour now, a Norwegian tour that we’ll take abroad and the festival season and we’ll be back in the UK.