HHP – the motswako legend who was one of a kind

Mo’Molemi, a reclusive contemporary of motswako phenomenon Hip Hop Pantsula (HHP) once wrote about a meeting they had at his North West Bakang farm in the mid-2000s.

Having turned his back on the rap scene, Mo’Molemi was becoming better known for his farming until Jabba showed up with beats he was compiling for an album. They messed around with rifles and smoked under the stars before HHP pulled out his bag of beats. He played a rough beat of Let Me Be, which samples Aretha Franklin’s Walk On By.

“I just burst out with a mean verse,” writes Mo’Molemi. “… botshelo ke sera, don’t be too friendly hao phela … after a long break I was officially back rapping … I’m only one of tens others that you touched with your generosity … and genius … and this is your legacy forever HHP … bosso.”

It was fitting to discover this five-year-old post on the day of HHP’s death. A refrain repeated by his musical associates is that he was the undisputed flag bearer for motswako.

Commonly associated with rap and Setswana, for HHP, also known as Jabba, motswako was not necessarily aligned to musical form and language. It was more an approach to music-making, as Jabba told Tebogo Ditshego and Masechaba Dlengezele in 2010: “Ishmael, I don’t know whether he did gospel, kwaito, R&B, hip-hop, muthaland crunk. He’s somewhere in between. That’s motswako … I liked rap, I liked RnB, I liked choral music. I could merge all these things together.”

The career of Hip Hop Pantsula, who preferred the name Jabba, started out inauspiciously. As part of a teenage group called Verbal Assassins, he had modelled himself on Notorious B.I.G., identifying with his size and his implausible appeal.

Introduced to Chicco in the late 1990s, the group put out the album Party, which sort of fizzled out, but set the stage for the emergence of Hip Hop Pantsula.

“My advice was that the best thing to do is to rap in Setswana because there were very few artists back then doing it,” says Chicco on the night of Jabba’s death. “He took my advice and then things started happening for him.”

Vusi Leeuw, an A&R at EMI/CCP at the time, says he was introduced to Jabba by producer Isaac Mthethwa. Leeuw signed Jabba on the strength of their demo.

“There was something different that I heard,” says Leeuw. “There was Setswana and it was commercial. But it wasn’t until Harambe [his third album] that South Africa picked up on Jabba.”

In the studio, Jabba was known for his efficiency and taking inspiration from wherever it came.

“Initially, he would come to the studio, listen to the beat, come up with a hook and then he would contextualise the verses,” says production associate Thasman. “He went to the States and, when he came back, he was like, ‘The game in the States is on some other level’. From then on, he felt like too much time spent on contextualising was time wasted.”

His new approach to this effect included reacting emotionally to a new beat, as if trying to capture its spirit. He would then spray it with an array of ad-libs “and then when he comes with full verses, you hear the ad-libs starting to make sense”.

Thasman says a song that typified this approach is his latter-day hit Bosso ke Mang.

As for how Jabba adjusted to his declining fortunes in the industry, industry veteran Bradley Williams says: “It’s hard for an artist coming from an era where music is celebrated to [adjust to] where it’s more like a branding and celebrity thing.”

Although on the face of it Jabba may have been antithetical to the spirit behind trap music, he did partake in it, albeit a little cynically, such as on the Ron Epidemic-produced song Pop Mabhodlela. Featuring Tamarsha, the song went on to be added to his 2014 album Motswako High School. “Before Pop Mabhodlela, I was just that kid on Facebook uploading beats,” says Ron. “But after that, I started working with Ambitiouz Entertainment because of it.”

Gone at 38, Jabba leaves behind his son, wife, parents, two sisters and nephew. — Additional reporting by Malcolm Sekgothe

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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