Ahead of the release of ‘Hidden Formulas Vol 5: Project Indigo’, producer Arsenic speaks to Helen Herimbi

Arsenic is exactly where I expect to find him: in the studio. He sits in a low chair and a mic stand, computers, monitors and other sound paraphernalia envelope him. Like a music hug.

Ahead of the Cape Town producer’s newest project, Hidden Formulas Vol 5: Project Indigo, Arsenic tells me what it took for him to get here. But first, what in the world is a smoortjie? He laughs when I ask and points to his t-shirt. The words “Kaapstad Smoortjies” are emblazoned on his chest.

“It’s a mixture of onions, tomatoes and other food,” he attempts to explain. “I don’t know what the English version of it is but this shirt is from a show I did with Jitsvinger.”

Arsenic began producing in 2001 and has since worked closely with the likes of Jitsvinger, as well as the people’s champ, YoungstaCPT. His beats have been the soundscape for some of the most lyrically dexterous artists to come out of the Western Cape and the art of collaboration is something this boom bap lover who was known as the Jazzy Mongrel takes seriously.

“With Jitsvinger and Youngsta, I heard them and thought my beats would go nicely with them,” he tells me. “It all started from being a fan of theirs first. With my newer collaborations, I sit down with the artists and speak to them and see where their headspace is so that can influence the beat as well.”

Earlier this year, Arsenic released his first single in three years: Hidden Formula. The track features Mvula Drae on the raps and, while it is not a departure from Arsenic’s style, it has a certain jovial quality to it. It even feels funkier.

“Definitely,” he exclaims in agreement. “I think most of what I do has that boom bap, funk, soul, jazzy influence to it. Strangely enough, that beat was made in 2015 because the mixtape idea is something I had before I got sick.”

“I had actually done another song with Mvula Drae. I mean, the dude was super young then – like 17. When I was checking with him after I came out of the hospital, he was like: ‘Let’s do another track.’ So we did a new track and it ended up being Hidden Formula and we thought it would be cool to have DJ Fingaz do the scratches and cuts.”

The chorus mentions that this track and, by extension, the upcoming mixtape that the track is named after, has a whole lot of Arsenic and a pinch of bars. Arsenic explains: “There are a lot of producers who now take the role of the artists in the sense that their names appear first now when they’re listing songs. Producers are stepping out and are able to stand in the forefront and take that shine. These artists are aiding me in presenting my experiments. Mvula Drae’s intention was to convey a sense of following some sort of formula so that makes sense.”

Arsenic explains his new body of work, Hidden Formulas Vol 5: Project Indigo, released this week: “These mixtapes were supposed to be a snapshot of what I’m working on. Those were the hidden gems. It was a way of me just exposing some of the hidden stuff and more experimental things that I’ve been working on.”

“The indigo project name came because I started exploring the concept of indigo children a few years ago. They are children sent to earth to alter and heighten the vibrational frequency of our planet and expand our consciousness. All of the artists I work with display that ability.”

In 2015, Arsenic had to take a hiatus from the music when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He tells me the medical term and ends the sentence by smiling and saying: “It’s some long-ass name.”

He continues: “I don’t know what the specific cause was, but apparently it’s something that can lie dormant for a while. I’m not sure if that’s what happened with me. It’s a hybrid of a tumour and a cyst and it was expanding and affected the way my brain functions. I lost my short-term memory. I’d continuously ask people where things were and by the fifth time that I was asking, they knew that something was up. It affected my behaviour and I couldn’t function on my own.”

“It’s hard to believe I even went through that. I had … three brain surgeries – which kind of got rid of some of the tumour – then I also had to go for a couple of weeks of radiation as well. I have to go back annually for scans and, according to my last scan in January, there’s no further growth and it’s actually a lot smaller. That was good.”

“Speaking about the tumour is related to my music because, afterwards, I started creating like I never had before. It didn’t feel as if I were competing or trying to keep up with anyone else. It was more about what my limits were and how I could push myself and what challenges I had to go through to become a better producer. I smile a lot more.”

Sample Fridays, where his social media followers select a track for him to sample into a new song, was one of the challenges he began and still does today.

“We become so precious about the things we make that we sleep on stuff,” Arsenic says.

While the tumour put him on pause, Arsenic is now ready to press play.