A much-needed shot of underground hip-hop

2015-03-08 09:15

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Boiler Room, the international underground music movement, is a victim of its own success simply because it’s become so successful it’s pretty much mainstream now. It’s a bit like Okmalumkoolkat, AKA Future Mfana, AKA DJ Zharp Zharp. He’s a man with as many aliases as he has talents. Gone are the days when Okmalumkoolkat was just theunderground rap prince – his contribution is finally being recognised.

I manage to catch up with the graphic artist and DJ, whose real name is Smiso Zwane, and ask him right off the bat how he got his interesting moniker. He says he was influenced by an Ukhozi FM DJ called Kool Kat. “He’s my hero,” says Okmalumkoolkat. “He used to have a call-in section where people could send shoutouts.” Kool Kat and Ukhozi FM were critical to his love of beats from a young age, as he didn’t have a CD or record player of his own. The station was his primary source of music.

Zwane was born and raised in Durban. He came to the city of gold to find some gold. And Jozi seems to have given him some – he’s come quite a long way from when he and his Dirty Paraffin bandmate, Dokta Spizee, were working nine-to-fives to survive while doing music. They eventually released Dirty Paraffin’s Greatest Hits Mixtape Vol 1, giving the public a taste of his talent.

In 2013 he featured on two of the biggest hip-hop singles of the year, Cassper Nyovest’s Gusheshe and Riky Rick’s Amantombazane, as well as the remix featuring Kwesta, Kid X and Ginger Trill. Last year, he collaborated with JR and Spoek Mathambo on the track Bob Mabena. He also worked with Reason, AKA and Tol A$$ Mo on Reason’s Bump The Cheese Up remix. He released a short documentary with clothing label G-Star Raw, which sponsored the filming of his shows in Amsterdam and Vienna.

I ask him where he gets the most love while touring, and he says: “I think for me it’s the same.

“Everywhere I go it’s a new show and I have so much music, so I go on stage thinking I must impress. There’s no thinking, ‘Oh, I’m playing in Cape Town so I can relax.’”

His contribution to pop culture is undeniable. It’s largely through his and the Boyznbucks crew that the word ‘umswenko’ (which loosely translated means “to be very stylish” or at your best) is back. Now we can all be citizens of Mswenkofontein.

And much like Boiler Room, Okmalumkoolkat started out online. “When I started, [doing] music online was the only way. Fast-forward to 2015 and I should have a PR company, because I want to be heard by the masses.” I ask him how Boiler Room happened for him and he says: “Whoa, I honestly have no idea. They just called me and said, ‘We want you to come and play’ and I was like ‘whoa!’”

Music duo
Black Motion

Paying homage

Interestingly, while Boiler Room’s core focus is on underground and emerging artists, it selected some of South Africa’s biggest names for its maiden event here.

Black Coffee, Culoe de Song, DJ Shimza and Black Motion were on the line-up. Nothing emerging about any of them, but there was a fine crop of some great local talent.

Black Motion’s Thabo “Smol” Mabogwane, who is a percussionist and producer, says they were also surprised when the event organisers reached out to them. “Boiler Room came to us. It was just,” he pauses, “weird and amazing. Because, yo, it’s Boiler Room!” Joburg was the first African city on the movement’s list, which includes more than 50 locations since 2010.

Black Motion has just come off an incredible 2014, in which their 2013 hit, Rainbow, featuring Xoli M, earned them huge rotation on radio stations throughout the country. Their album Fortune Teller went gold and earned them three Metro FM Award nominations last year.

But even before that, Black Motion were producing some of South Africa’s most popular hits since 2010, so it’s not surprising Boiler Room called them up. Smol says: “Our most important year was 2010, because that was the year we made our first crossover hit and became known in South Africa.” He’s talking about their massive track Banane Mavoko, produced by the godfather of House, Oskido.

The track was mixed by DJs here and abroad and became a staple on the sets of the likes of DJ Kent and Fresh. “That’s when we introduced ourselves,” Smol says. Black Motion had a great run over the past five years. “We don’t want to be the people of the moment. We want fans to meet our stuff and what we do and what our vision is. And our vision is to change the mind-sets of South Africans. We settle for the music of the moment, the hit for now. And it’s about making a hit and money now. But we are also about the distinct musical heritage Africa has, from our sound to our language and paying homage to the legend that gave us that sound.

“Banane Mavoko was in Shangaan, and all kinds of people loved it, so we just want to stick to our culture and languages.”

I ask Smol how they planned their set for Boiler Room and he says: “We just went to be and do us. We played new music we were working on, because Boiler Room is really all about being yourself.

“So we just wanted to jam, bring a big jam and a lot of us.”

Is hip-hop golden yet?

I ask Okmalumkoolkat how it feels to be part of hip-hop’s golden era, quoting Cassper Nyovest, who I spoke to a week before the Metros, where he cleaned up with the most coveted trophies. He thinks, then says: “I don’t think we are there yet. Hip-hop is on its way. We’re still in bundles – like you can’t attract a stadium full of people with just Koolkat. We’re lying to ourselves if we believe we are. Black Coffee can sell out [a large venue] alone. House music can do it. But hip-hop?...?not yet.”

I ask what he thinks the game needs and he says: “You know, we go to shows and people love us and the music. People are showing up, but we just need to open it up, and I think for that we need support from media and corporations.”

Okmalumkoolkat has just released his first four-track EP, Holy Oxygen, which he worked on with friends from Vienna.

He says of his upcoming plans: “I am probably going to do an album and more gallery work [Okmalumkoolkat is also an artist who has done work for brands such as Nike]. But definitely more music and collaborations with other people on my own songs.”

Whether Okmalumkoolkat can keep that gritty, underground flavour going as he becomes more popular remains to be seen. But for now, much like Boiler Room, he’s enjoying his time in the mainstream sun.

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