/ 11 January 2023

Bringing sounds together: How Kwesta and Kabza De Small formed an unlikely union

Senzo Vilakazi Pr1653 Edit 2
After several years out of the limelight the veteran rapper, born Senzo Brikka Vilakazi, "Kwesta" is preparing to finally drop a new album.

Kwesta is anxious. After several years out of the limelight the veteran rapper, born Senzo Brikka Vilakazi, is preparing to finally drop a new album. His previous effort, 2016’s stellar Dakar II, sparked a three-year period of sheer mainstream dominance as Ngud, Ngiyaz’fela Ngawe and Spirit tore into the charts. Now, after a barren run by his lofty standards, Kwesta is back with a point to prove. 

While the stakes are perhaps higher than ever, he insists his apprehension is nothing new. “It’s always there, you’re always a little anxious,” he says. 

“It comes with it, if you’re gonna do anything that wasn’t there before, that you’re gonna now introduce to people, there’s some nerves to it. There’s some excitement also, like I can’t wait until you hear it. And then there’s also a bit of doubt that always comes into it where you’re like, ‘What if they hear it and don’t like it?’”

What he’s preparing to introduce is indeed something that wasn’t there before. His upcoming album, Speak N Vrostaan, is a collaborative project between the rap star and amapiano’s most prized possession, Kabza de Small

Their unlikely union has raised eyebrows over the past few weeks since they started rolling out the album with the project’s two lead singles, Huzet and Mrholo Wayizolo, in November 2022. 

As Kwesta tells it, Kabza initiated it all after the pair first crossed paths during the heart of the coronavirus lockdown. He recalls how they bumped into each other when they were both booked at Channel O’s Lockdown House Party show. There, they briefly discussed linking up to make music. 

“But everybody does that,” Kwesta quips. “It’s like artists don’t know what to say to each other except that, you know.”

A few weeks later the two connected on social media and met up. “It was really just so dope because we’d never spent time together before really. We realised that we’re almost one in the same in terms of how we act around people in the studio,” says Kwesta

Before they pressed play on any beat, they talked for hours — about the industry, about their journeys and their families. “We realised that our backgrounds and tastes were so similar. By the time we hit the studio, it was a no-brainer. The music almost made itself because we were getting along so well.”

At first, because they didn’t have a particular direction in mind, their sessions started off with Kabza just running through his repertoire of amapiano beats. Most already had vocals from other artists and Kwesta would just add a verse or a hook here and there. 

After a few weeks following a similar routine, they decided that they needed to work on something of their own. But first, they had to decide what type of sound to go for. Because they’d both grown up as fans of kwaito, that was their first point of reference. 

“I appreciate amapiano, he appreciates hip-hop,” explains Kwesta. “But I love hip-hop and he loves amapiano. So we had to find something that we both can love and that’s a mixture of both. Kwaito was the centre of that. 

“It influenced Kabza in terms of what he does and what he’s known for, and also on my side in terms of what I do and what I’m known for. That coming together, it can’t be solely hip-hop and it can’t be solely amapiano. It’s not a remake of all the songs that you know, it’s like a new way to interpret the hood. It’s almost a genre free album that’s mainly kwaito influenced.”

Over the past decade, much of Kwesta’s success has come with his producer, Makwa, who produced or co-produced Ngud, Spirit and Vur Vai. When I ask him how tempting it was to revert to Makwa, given the success they’d had, Kwesta says he was enticed by the prospect of “trying something that we know”. 

He adds: “But I also didn’t want to do what I’d normally do, especially with regards to the sound. In the lyrical content, what I believe in and what I stand for will always be the same. But how I deliver that in the song has to take some sort of reinvention, so I can also challenge myself a little bit.” 

“It was more about challenging myself more than saying I’m tired of this or whatever. And it was the same for uKabza because why not just stick to making traditional amapiano. So we were both sort of challenging ourselves in going let’s see, push push.” 

The process of working with Kabza was decidedly different from what Kwesta had experienced with Makwa. He explains how, initially, Kabza would just make the beats and let him do his thing. Then, over time, he started to suggest things and become more involved in directing the music. 

“Kabza is like a full on producer bro, he’s not a beatmaker who just makes and sends beats. Makwa would also come into the studio all the time and add some influence. He was also tasked with mixing and mastering the project too. There’s still some taste of what I’m known for and some contribution from Makwa.” 

Looking back at his massively successful journey with Makwa, Kwesta explains how when the pair first started working together a number of years ago, he was initially drawn to the sound Makwa had been harnessing with the talented rap duo TLT. 

Over time, he added his own little twist to the sound and, as it was developing, roped in DJ Maphorisa to add some input. The acclaimed amapiano producer added his own little twist and his co-production birthed Ngud, Kwesta’s ground-breaking 2016 hit single featuring Cassper Nyovest. Then came Spirit with American rap star Wale, followed by Vur Vai, both of which followed a similar template. 

Looking back at those moments, Kwesta explains that he felt they’d finally cracked the code and “it stopped feeling like work”. That feeling is part of what inspired him to try something different and challenge himself. 

And it isn’t just Kwesta who challenged himself. Huzet, one of the album’s first releases, is the first time I’ve ever heard Kabza’s vocals feature on a song. Kwesta can’t recall another instance, either. He explains how that unfolded. 

“The beat was playing and I was writing and trying to figure out where to go with the song. He goes out for a cigarette and when he comes back he just starts mumbling (the hook on the song) without the words. And I’m like, ‘wait what?’ But he was just vibing to the song, it wasn’t even something that he was suggesting that we do… And I was like ‘yo man record that’ and he jumped on the mic and recorded that mumbling. 

“Then we sat down and put it into words and it just happened. As soon as that happened that’s when I started saying ‘no ntwana you need to get on the mic more’. Plus his voice is dope. And it doesn’t seem like it was anything new for him because some people speak a certain way and then when they record there’s a fear or lack of confidence. He just went in there and did it, so that was a natural thing.” 

While they came together with the mindset that Kabza would do the beats and Kwesta the vocals they ended up following a similar pattern with some of the songs. 

Kwesta is entering uncharted territory. While he’s had to conjure up comebacks in the past, this is arguably his most daunting undertaking. Local hip-hop is on the back foot as amapiano continues to be the sound of the land. He’s well aware of the weight of expectation, but he’s more excited than nervous. 

“What we made is magical to us. Especially if you hear it altogether as a project, it’s like a trip to the hood and back and I’m pretty content in my being anxious and in my being excited. I’m confident in the product we’ve put together.”

A week after we speak, Kwesta abruptly posts the album tracklist on Instagram and announces that it will drop at midnight. The list of guest appearances balance past and present: Sgubhu S’ka Kabza sees DJ Tira make a rare appearance, while One on One features sprightly amapiano newcomer Toss. 

A week later, at his album launch at Sony Music Africa’s offices, Kwesta confidently engages the guests as he shares his excitement on the new album and runs through the stories behind some of his favourite songs. 

In closing, he remarks, “If you don’t have (the album), go and get it. If you do have it, don’t tell me you don’t like it.”