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Nasty C: ‘You can’t hide from me any more’

How did you get the Def Jam deal? 

Well, I’ve been going to the [United] States a lot to do self-promos, linking up with the artists there and that type of stuff. And I’ve been working with international artists for some time now. I guess all of that combined landed on the right ears. When the people at Def Jam started hearing my name, they did their research and reached out once they knew I was represented by Colin and Yvette [Gayle from Africa Creative Agency]. Everybody knows Colin and Yvette. They’ve been in the game for 25 years, plus. Once Def Jam reached out they set up a bunch of meetings, dinners, studio sessions and now we’re here. 

Dinners? Is that how things get done?

Yeah, that’s the norm. I do a whole lot of dinners with business people from a bunch of different industries. I’ve had dinner with the people from Microsoft a couple times. I even flew to Seattle just to check out their offices. At first it’s not business. It’s just a way to feel each other out and see if there are any opportunities there. It’s very necessary with whatever ventures I get into. It’s like a relationship — we have to get to know each other before we can think of commitment. 

What does this contract between you and Def Jam mean? 

It’s a joint venture between Def Jam and Universal Music. I’m still with Universal, but now you can’t hide from me any more. You get what I mean? I don’t care where you are in the world — my music will get to you. I’m expanding my reach with the right people — the people [who] made our legends who they are right now. These are the people who gave us Method Man & Redman, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Rihanna.

Did Def Jam tell you why they approached you?

I don’t know what exactly it is about me that sparked their interest. I would assume that

we know that the average American is ignorant. They consume whatever is in their country. Whenever they consume something from outside their borders it’s because someone they know embraced it. Think of Afrobeats: Drake and Beyoncé made that move and all of a sudden they were all into this African sound. But even then it was one-dimensional, Afrobeats was the only new-age sound from Africa in their minds. I guess I came in and broke that whole stereotype. When they listen to me they’re like: “No way — this can’t be from Africa.” I get that a lot. People will even say things like: “We get it —  you’re African — but where did you grow up?” 

Is it because of your accent?

That’s always been one of my things. I’ve always been stubborn about the way I rap and the way I make music. I know a lot of people have been trying to get me to change it by saying I need to sound more authentic. I don’t have to sound like anything. This is how I studied music: I was listening to people who spoke like this and rapped like this. That’s the only music I was consuming to get here my whole life. Secondly, it’s accessible. If I was flowing in the way people want me to flow I may have not had this deal. 

How are you feeling about your  upcoming album, Zulu Man With Some Power?

I’m very confident about it. It’s very nice. It’s one of those albums. When I started it out and I had the title, the title came with a lot of pressure, but at the same time it was a responsibility. It’s such a ballsy statement: Zulu man with some power. I had to make sure that the music lives up to that and I think I accomplished that. 

What did you want to do with the album? 

I was with No I.D. when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the album. He’s the executive producer. I was especially thinking about the people who don’t know me. I asked myself how I wanted to introduce myself to a new audience; how would it immediately let them know where I’m from, why am I different and why they should care. No I.D. made me realise that music is more than just jams. It’s a statement. As much as it breaks stereotypes, it’s an opportunity to set them in stone. It felt like he unlocked so many  doors in my mind that I didn’t even know were there. Now I feel like I can’t be out there for a year without people knowing where I’m from anymore. That would suck. I’m letting people know where I’m from using the sound of the music, the very South African adlibs like “hey wena”, and what I decide to show in the videos. My videos are all shot in South Africa, especially in Durban. People are going to see and hear things that resonate with my childhood like ihawu and spears. I’m no longer doing things for the sake of it — it’s deliberate now because there’s a message that I’m trying to get across: South Africa can also look and sound like this.

I get those changes, but what about your approach to writing? 

Uhm, coming into the game I knew I had to prove a point. I had to prove that I can rap toe to toe with the greatest in the country. Now I’m comfortable, [but] that doesn’t mean I’m complacent and not looking to improve. I just know it’s not going to be easy to take me down lyrically. 

How did No I.D. become the executive producer? 

I don’t remember what he was here for, but the first time he came to South Africa, one of the events on his itinerary was meeting me. We were talking about our personal music histories and then it clicked that we like a lot of the same music. Not too long after that we decided to work together. I don’t know who put him on to my music but shout out to them. 

Who else did you work with on this album? 

I also worked with Tellaman, Rowlene and Burna Boy. Production wise there are few guys that I met online on beat forums. Some of them are from the States and the others from the [United Kingdom].

I hear you recorded 46 tracks while making Zulu Man With Some Power, but you shortlisted only 16.

Yeah, it’s true. I stay recording almost every single day. I have a ton of unreleased music. Our biggest challenge right now is that. If we didn’t have that challenge the music would be out already. But that’s how I work. I would rather over-record and have options than just straight up release the first 16 songs. Some of the songs that don’t make the cut will just sit in the archive until they rot, I won’t lie. But I also write for people, so it’s a reference library that I could just go get bars from if you need them. 

We can’t end this conversation before I ask this… 

Ay man, that doesn’t sound good but go ahead. 

What do you think of the state of hip-hop in South Africa? 

Oh, that. I think it’s in an okay space, but it could be in a better place. Right now everything is bubbling. No one is really doing anything memorable. There could be more unity in the game. There are so many talented cats with different flavours — if we got onto a song we could actually make magic. But no, everyone is busy repping their cliques. It’s just stupid. It’s very stupid because some of us have never even met, but there’s a divide. It’s weird. 

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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