For the love of hip-hop

2013-06-12 09:40

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This year’s album of the year at the South African Music Awards was not pop, kwaito, gospel or rock. It was a hip-hop record by Khuli Chana. Is hip-hop finally getting mainstream respect?

‘Thank you for the acknowledgments through awards,’ says Khuli Chana (real name Khulani Morule), ‘but I’m about changing the perception of hip-hop. My job is to change the game.’

Following in Hip Hop Pantsula’s footsteps, Khuli started out as a third of Morafe, flying the flag of motswako – a sub genre of hip-hop that sees rappers mix English and Setswana.

Khuli, a Mafikeng-bred artist, has had a few weeks to let the success of his second solo album, Lost in Time, sink in. He also bagged two other awards in addition to album of the year – male artist of the year and best rap album.

Why has it taken the SAMAs (SA Music Awards) and even the Metro FM Music Awards – where AKA scooped four awards last year – so long to see hip-hop as more than just the underdog of the industry?

Refiloe Ramogase, director of Dream Team SA, the management company behind Khuli Chana, thinks it comes down to good music.

Not since Pitch Black Afro’s debut album, Styling Gel, have hip-hop record sales matched radio airplay or the artist’s media presence.

But what is it that has propelled Khuli to be the rapper who is hailed as having the best album in the country?

Refiloe says that from a radio airplay perspective, ‘hip-hop is only really gaining mainstream momentum now.

It’s a trend that owes a huge debt to the likes of Skwatta Kamp, Amu, Proverb, PRO and HHP’s consistently high-quality music.

These pioneers have contributed to making hip-hop a mainstream sound, resulting in an increasingly large percentage of South Africa’s biggest stations playlisting hip-hop.’

Sizwe Dhlomo, who produces and co-presents YFM’s The Full Clip and is an MTV VJ, says a lot of factors contribute to the rise of hip-hop in South Africa.

‘The first tick in Khuli’s box is that he raps in vernac. The second is that he’s been doing this for a while. There’s a lot to learn – even when people turn you down, you can learn from it. But people don’t pay their dues so much any more. The third tick has to do with management. Morafe made good music, but they weren’t infiltrating the market that Khuli appeals to. You wouldn’t have heard Morafe on 5FM, but Refiloe, who knows what he’s doing, now manages Khuli.’

Simone Harris, editor of HYPE magazine, agrees about management.

‘Khuli invested in himself as a brand. He understood that it’s not just about hip-hop. He sees himself as a musician, not just a hardcore rapper. He caters not only to the hip-hop crowd but also to people who are making the major decisions, characterised by his performing at places like the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.’

The first hip-hop band to get a major record deal was Skwatta Kamp, in 2003. Sipho Sithole, former deputy CEO of Gallo Records, who signed them, says Skwatta Kamp opened the doors for a lot of so-called ‘underground’ rap artists who were obsessed with ‘keeping it real’ and refused to sell out to the major record labels.

‘I appealed to Skwatta Kamp to emerge from the underground and participate in the mainstream economy of music, and to share their beautiful music with South Africa,’ says Sipho. ‘By signing with a major label they could make their music accessible.’

While being careful to not disregard the work being done by independent record companies like Ghetto Ruff and the now defunct Outrageous Records, Skwatta Kamp became a success.

Ten years on, though, the face of South African hip-hop – albeit still a male face – has changed.

The controversial Die Antwoord has become an international sensation while dividing opinions at home.

Afrikaans rap has also come to the fore, thanks in large part to Jack Parow and Bittereinder.

The presence of women in hip-hop is strong, with ProTista and Miss Nthabi scratching the mainstream surface.

Godessa is still the biggest all-female rap group to come out of the country, but they haven’t rapped together for years.

Sizwe says there are male and female rappers who just aren’t good enough.

‘If everybody was talented, it wouldn’t be a competition. I can only think of two female rappers off the top of my head. Kanyi is the best right now, and then Devour Ke Lenyora.’

Race has become less of a factor in hip-hop.

DJ Raiko, who is a part of the Kool Out collective of DJs and event organisers, is Khuli Chana’s DJ and is sought-after for his scratching skills.

Reason is backed by DJ ID (also from Kool Out) who is of Japanese descent, and Zubz has toured with both DJ Hamma and Tha Cutt. South African hip-hop doesn’t look or sound one way.

Mpho ‘37MPH’ Pholo is an award-winning producer whose credits include working on Jozi’s boundary-breaking Muthaland Crunk, producing JR, Mizchif and Reason and scoring the David Kau comedy movie Blitz Patrollie through his Reck Shoppe Tunes label. He’s pleased by the change.

‘I think hip-hop has become really colourful,’ he says. ‘It’s at a point where people are receptive to the music and allow artists to own their space. People know who they are. Look at AKA – he’s known for bling and being a strong, confident rapper, and Reason might be known as a smart guy. As artists, that’s what they choose to portray in their music. JR is always experimenting and that’s dope (cool). Let them. That’s who they are. From producers like the PHFat guys in Cape Town to Ross Jack, who is a good composer and songwriter, there is so much colour.’

Diversity has been a positive attribute of local hip-hop, but one of the negatives has been the shadow cast by the SAMAs honouring Zwai Bala of TKZee fame with best rap song in 2001 for a gospel offering.

‘There was a lack of knowledge about what hip-hop was back then,’ says Khuli. ‘Maybe the only thing the SAMA committee could identify with was Zwai. I remember the song but I don’t remember who he was up against. I don’t think there were any nominees. It might have been a new category.’

Refiloe, who also manages TKZee, believes ‘people should remember that Zwai was part of the the first South African group to blur the line between kwaito and hip-hop.’

Simone says, ‘I think the SAMA committee have since rectified their mistake. Reason opened the awards this year, so there has been a respect for hip-hop.’

Reflecting on his big SAMA wins, Khuli says, ‘Years ago, hip-hop looked mediocre to corporates but now they’re trying to spend money on hip-hop. I represent something bigger than me, which is South African music. I’m preparing myself for a bigger stage – the world stage.’

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