African Dope Records, the seminal South African independent electronic music label, has just released its latest albums. Andy Davis talks to a new crew of ragga MCs on the record label's books.
African Dope Records, the seminal South African independent electronic music label, has just released its latest albums.
Aptly named, African Dope has become a nexus for terminally cool, modern, electronic South African music. Its output covers such diverse genres as electronica, funk, dub, jungle, hip-hop, kwaito, ragga and a whole bunch of stuff that simply defies definition.
Since its inception in 1999 African Dope has been on a mission to promote underground local music with a production standard that is at least equivalent to international imports. The label has embraced such diverse and precocious local talents as Felix Laband, Warrick Sony, Moodphase5ive, Waddy Jones and Marcus Wormstorm, and has empowered many other bedroom producers and MCs to do it themselves.
In 2001 Sony records licensed a compilation from the Dope catalogue and released African Dope Volume I, and in so doing gave a certain industry nod and wink to this small label. African Dope Volume II is currently in the works and scheduled for release via Sony later this year.
The recent African Dope Sound System is the label’s 10th product and represents another milestone. The album is the first compilation of home-grown ragga, dancehall and bashment coming straight from the Rastafarian communities of Guguletu on the Cape Flats.
Ragga and dancehall are modern, more hardcore manifestations of reggae, born in the tenement yards and ghettoes of the Caribbean, and increasingly popular worldwide due to the MTV pop success of artists such as Beanie Man and Sean Paul.
African Dope co-founder and producer Fletcher says he and producer Juan Thyme were working on producing dubs because of their own love for the genre when they came across some of the ragga MCs on the Cape Flats. They made an immediate connection between the music they were producing and the vocal talents of the Guguletu Rastafarian community.
“What it has revealed is the depth of talent that exists out there,” says Fletcher, a dreadlocked white boy.
The artists featured on Sound System fall into two distinct categories. First there’s old-school ragga MCs or DJs — such as Teba (formerly of kwaito group Skeem), Zoro (Zolile Makatinca) and Black Dillinger (Nkululeko Madolo). These guys have been culturally active since the 1980s and toasting ragga since the early 1990s.
Then there are ghetto youth talents such as G (Lungile Buwati), Crosby (Siyasanga Bolani) and JJ (Vusumzi Ngubane) the 17-year-old prodigy of the Gugs dancehall scene.
But why has the musical output of a small island halfway around the world sown the seeds of a culture in the ghettoes of Cape Town? In order to understand that, one must acknowledge the extent of the Rastafarian influence in the townships.
“I [was] in Gugs for many years [when] I linked up with some Rasta people,” says Black Dillinger. “In my area there was one of these Rasta shacks selling fruit and veg — that was when this thing [was] born. I was lucky to be born in the area where there’s Rastafarians around. That’s where we got hooked up with this musical thing.”
Zoro adds: “My musical career started early, going to church and singing with different choirs. In 1989 I got into an accident, where I was shot by [the] police. And, ja, at that point I wasn’t really taking my music as a career, I was only doing it for the love of it.
“But when I came back from the hospital the grace of the most high and the spirit of Rastafari came into me. I guess for me ragga has been a strong influence in my life. A positive way to live and express myself.”
‘You know reggae is nothing new,” says Teba. “It’s songs of freedom. It is songs that liberate us, that motivate us, that make us keep the fire that can purify our thoughts and spirits so our physical existence can withstand this pressure we find ourselves in.”
Zoro continues: “They say that music is the universal language and dancehall music, reggae music, is one of those languages that has been used for years and years by the African people. And here in South Africa, many people have been asking us why do we sing in a Jamaican accent, which always brings me to the question, who is the Jamaican?
“The black brother that is in Jamaica is the same brother who is here in Africa, just taken away. The language that he is using, patois, is what we call broken English. Because we cannot speak like Shakespeare or the queen wants us to speak.”
So what exactly is the message?
“Talking about the social issues, the poverty, the crime, religion,” says Zoro.
“Our music is basically saying that we must liberate ourselves from these circumstances we find ourselves in. We use the music as the instrument to spark that mentality among the ghetto youth,” Teba concludes.
And what do the Guguletu Rastas think about the success of Sean Paul?
“It’s good and bad in a way,” says Zoro. “It brings more ears to the dancehall scene. But it’s bad because it is commercial and that’s what the media wants. They are selling the bling-bling thing. If you come out and talk about champagne and cars and ice, that’s cool.
“But if you want to come and wise up people and teach them about how the government is misusing funds they don’t want to hear the facts, they don’t want the kids to hear about what’s really happening in the world.
“Let’s drink champagne, let’s sniff coke and let’s buy some more stuff we don’t need. So that’s the low and high of Sean Paul. That’s why we choose to keep it real, keep it to the hard stuff.”