*This article was originally published in the print edition of DRUM.
When one star act after the other left his company, it seemed there’d never be light at the end of the tunnel. But that time has finally come for Ntokozo "K.O" Mdluli – and this year is going to be a big year for the rapper.
K.O is looking forward to being back on top with new music, fashion endorsements, a new company and a new love. And the 29-year-old wants to put the pain of the past behind him.
"Shutting down Cashtime Life felt like I was being forced to walk away from a piece of history," he tells DRUM, referring to the company he started. He was forced to shut down after acts, including Moozlie, KiD X, Maggz, Ma-E, DJ Vigilante and Masandi, all left.
The man responsible for creating Skhanda Republic was gutted.
Then slowly but surely he decided to get back on track and show the hip-hop world what he’s made of. It was his drive to win and his determination to never give up that saw him rise above what was the darkest time of his career, he tells us. His triumphant comeback was the culmination of two years of hard work and hustling, which resulted in the release of his album PTY UnLTD, which features Wizkid, Sjava, DJ Maphorisa and Loki.
His hit single Supa Dupa has already gone gold, and its follow-up, Say You Will featuring Nandi Madida, fast became a radio favourite. His clothing brand, Skhanda World, is selling like hotcakes and he also has a partnership with sportswear brand Asics. K.O is back with a vengeance, and he’s making the most of the lessons he has learnt the past few years. He was painted as the bad guy after Cashtime collapsed, K.O says. But many people played a part in the breakdown of relationships. "I felt after everyone had left I was the one exposed to public scrutiny, which made me look like the bad guy because I was always at the forefront."
He regrets keeping quiet at the time. "And I didn’t manage the scrutiny properly. I didn’t realise that my silence was feeding the gossip. I kick myself for not clearing the air. But we’ve moved on."
At his new company, Skhanda World, things are going to be done very differently. Now, he tells us, he is the president of the company, not the "babysitter".
"This time it will be a lot more formal and a lot more corporate. I will be the president of the machine and unlike Cashtime, people won’t deal with me directly.
"I’m not babysitting anyone. We are offering the platform [to artists] without spoon feeding them," he says. That said, his first love is helping to groom talented newcomers.
"I come from a brotherhood with Teargas [the popular kwaito group, which was made up of K.O, Ntukza and Ma-E] and everything I am is about working and building others as I grow," he says.
"People tell me to focus on myself but my gift is not just rap music. It’s also to create opportunities for young people to change their lives and feed their families."
Cashtime, founded in 2014 by K.O, Thabiso Khati, and Ma-E, signed big-name artists, but things turned sour in 2016. With some of the artists, they didn’t have a creative direction and couldn’t take their relationships forward, and others wanted to explore other opportunities so they let them go, he says. That applies to his business partners too.
"We all just carried on pursuing our individual careers," he says. The entire experience taught K.O that "business is business". Being a solo artist "has been cool", he says, adding that it also made him more money.
"But there was something lacking. I can sell water to a well but I’m a builder. I want to do what I do for myself, for other young artists." For years, fans have been begging for a Teargas reunion, something K.O and the group’s members had quietly been working on behind the scenes.
For his part, K.O says he attempted to resolve the issues between himself and Ntukza. "Unfortunately when we were ready to announce a new album was happening, Ntukza went on a social-media rant about me not posting about his solo album release," K.O says. "But he didn’t call me to tell me about the release. Had he phoned me, I would have gladly posted."
As a result the group stopped work on the album.
"The issue is that Ntukza always felt like he was in my shadow. But we all considered ourselves equals. Teargas did not have a leader – we split the pie equally." Resolving the beef, which he won’t elaborate on, is also on his 2020 to-do list. He does, however, add that he’s "not interested in beefs or anything that does not grow me and my business".
When approached for comment, Ntukza tells DRUM: "People always made derogatory comments, calling K.O the Beyoncé of the group, Ma-E Kelly, and me the Michelle of the group. I produced some of the biggest songs for Teargas.
"I was willing to make peace with K.O but he wanted to go straight to work before even sitting down and discussing what made me unhappy. There is a lot that needs ironing out.
"I was never upset with K.O for not posting about my album release. But as a fellow member of Teargas, it only made sense that you post your colleague’s work."
On the personal front, K.O’s love life is as healthy as his bank balance, he says. "I’m in a happy, healthy relationship. When I decide to make it public it won’t be because I’m seeking relevance – it’ll be because I really want to introduce her to the world."