Sound of the street

From the Cape Flats to downtown Johannesburg hip-hop is rising on the streets. We look at its evolution and its roots - and at what’s going down in Hollywood

Maria McCloy in Johannesburg

HIP-HOP is worldwide, or so the saying goes. Well it’s true there are rappers all around the globe - stretching from what is generally regarded as its place of origin, the United States of America in the late 1970s, through to Asia, Africa, Europe, Australasia ...

But what’s up in South Africa? Are our hip- hop kids just American clones or are they creating an authentic SA hip-hop style? Do we have a hip-hop history? And if so, why are there so few local hip-hop tracks on the radio?

Discovering that there are two new SA hip- hop CDs out this month - a compilation of Jo’burg rappers called The Muthaload and a debut album from Botswana’s 3rd Mind - was pretty unusual, though there have been sporadic releases of by the likes of Black Noise, Nasty Weather and Original Evergreen. Prophets of da City (POC) were probably the first local crew to record. That was seven years back.

“Its a way of life.” That’s what some people say of hip-hop; a vibrant street culture centered around rap music. POC’s Shaheen says hip-hop is expression involving DJing, B-boying and B-girling (breakdancing),MCing (rap) and graffitti.

Radio and TV have helped spread the word

as artists have steadily been picked up by mainstream media. People worldwide bob their heads to Snoop, Biggie, MCLyte, Dre and the late Tupac. But along with this comes copycat style and slang. Says POC’s manager Lance Stehr, “Everywhere you look, America is the dream for most young South Africans ... now that’s fucked up because if we’re going to succeed in building a hip-hop identity here, the sounds have got to be South African and pertain to whats happening here.”

So why isn’t hip-hop as popular as R’n'B (rhythm and blues) and kwaito (township house music)? “We’ve been pushing hip-hop for the past 8 years,” says Stehr, “if there were a lot of hip-hop artists around back then, hip-hop would have been huge at this stage.” Retarding development was a lack of skilled rappers, DJ’s and producers - combined with a lack of technical equipment. But now that all of this has picked up, he thinks hip-hop will grow.

“Record companies are asleep,” reckons Voice of Soweto DJ Zak Dakile when I join him in the studio. He sees the kids streaming in and calling relentlessly during his Friday afternoon show The Karl Kani Jam Session. During the show people sing or rap on air and get critted by callers. He hears talented kids who should have record deals but are getting ignored. How could anyone with their ear to the ground not notice the huge requests for rap or ignore the fly-girls and boys all over who look like they stepped out of a music video.

The guys on the Muthaload CD say they’d been rapping for ages before this contract. Too many people speak of being pressurised into making kwaito because record execs felt hip-hop will not sell. On air with Dakile, Amu from Muthaload says Papi from Bongo Maffin, for example, has “punked out” by leaving Hip-Hoppers Intimate for the kwaito scene.

Derek Lategan of Cube records says he came up with the Muthaload idea “because no one else was doing it”. Eric Ramogobya realised the same thing in Botswana and formed his own company Eric Ramco records. He saw talent and rather than shifting base to South Africa he has started to build structures where none existed before. He’s begun by recording a three-member hip-hop group,3rd Mind. Their album A Player for Life is distributed by EMI.

Sure, the release of any hip-hop album can be seen as great in Southern Africa’s context, but 3rd Mind’s music is disappointing - it’s painfull to listen to something blatantly “inspired” by America’s Bone Thugs and Harmony, to hear lyrics that sound like a cross between Tupac and Shaquile O’Neal. Why do we have to hear about Nubian Princesses when there are plenty of Sotho and Zulu or whatever ones here? Why do we have to hear about the ‘hood and about nickles and dimes?

Maybe its hard to fully escape the American influence. Shaheen says local rappers and radio DJ’s think being part of hip-hop is about adopting a swaggering “yo what’s up homegirl” kind of stance and accent. Jacknife’s Themba Smuts says he knows guys who are so “fuckin’ good ... because they can do the US thing as good as any US rapper” but he sees this as “totally dissing ourselves”.

After all, like many callers said on the Voice of Soweto show, we have a history of praise singers. Pops Mohommed speaks of traditional Zulu rapping. Indeed, many US rappers see their art as originating from griots (village story tellers and drummers) in West Africa. Shaheen adds there is no reason not to use “Heyta” or “hoezit” in hip-hop and use the cultures of SA.

Many people see hip-hop as poetry because of its message and also the use of rhyme, simile and metaphor. American hip-hoppers have been inspired by poets. Smuts sees a connection between the work of poets like Lesego Rampolokeng, “struggle poetry” and “what guys are doing with hip-hop” Maybe its not a bad idea for SA’s hip-hop heads to go to The Windybrow festival’s Jazzoetry spot which mixes jazz and poetry.

A few days after the radio show I meet up with the Muthaload crew. It sounds odd, but sitting with eight guys who argue about hip-hop is great. They are passionate. They have a variety of styles reflected in their work. America’s influence is definitely there, but there are also original lyrics - including Zulu rap by Loco and Amu.

SA hip-hop is more developed in Cape Town than in Jo’burg; the few good DJs with technichal skils are there; the clubs and platforms to develop talent or be involved in the scene are there. Things have been going down over there longer. As teenagers in the Eighties Shaheen says they used to go to Saturday afternoon sessions where there were rhyming and breaking competitions.

Shaheen says there is SA hip-hop culture which goes beyond fashion and is underground. POC are part of the hip-hop unity movement giving workshops around the Cape. He’s seen amazingly talented kids, girls and boys as young as 10, doing head spins and the like. Rippingtons in Jo’burg seems to be one of few clubs that caters to hip-hop. On Saturday afternoons there are open mike sessions and a mix of DJs. The place is packed with teenagers.

But there’s a problem. The artists on the Muthaload compilation are not impressed by what has been going down with their CD. Firstly, at R90, it’s too expensive. And they’re yet to see it released on tape. Amazingly, for such a breakthrough album, there’s been no TV, posters are scarce and, as the Muthaload collective, they’ve not performed anywhere. They say there were told to organise gigs themselves, that though they had creative freedom in the studio and no imput in the album design or title. They’re not informed of basics like sales.

Tusk is in charge of marketing and distribution. Tusk’s Deon Maas says that within the next three weeks there will be club apperances, TV and hopefully a tour. But lack of radio play can sink an album and Muthaload is not playlisted on Radio Metro or 5fm. Community radio is being supportive but something is wrong when the likes of POC have to go overseas to get acclaim. There they are billed alongside The Fugees, Public Enemy, and Afrika Baambaata .

Thing is, you can’t keep a good thing down forever. What’s clear is that something’s up with hip-hop SA. Stehr and Lategan have both got plans for further compilations - that represent the whole of Southern Africa this time.

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