Images by Sabelo Mkhabela
Includes contributions from Sipho Fako
When the Cape Town spaza group Backyard Crew (with members Mashonisa, Pointwo, Kideo and Phoenix) released ‘Sudelela’, their first single in over five years in February, the world stopped for spaza fans. While some of the members have been working on solo projects, fans have been calling for, and eagerly awaiting a Backyard release since their hiatus in 2012.
Sonically, Backyard’s new track ‘Sudelela’ is reminiscent of the late-2000s and early-2010s Backyard Crew.
“We are just going back to spaza as we know it,” says Phoenix, one evening as I interview the crew at Bush Radio. “I know there’s a lot of change. People say you must either evolve or evaporate. At the same time you must not lose yourself.”
The spaza hip-hop sub-genre, which is loosely defined as Cape Town Xhosa rap, has failed to travel beyond the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape, where isiXhosa is widely spoken. Save for artists like Driemanskap, Kanyi, Rattex, Pzho and of course Backyard Crew, there haven’t been a large number of artists who are known and celebrated beyond those two regions.
When spaza was at its peak in the mid-2000s and early-2010s, Backyard Crew was a breath of fresh air. The crew had five members, and also had Pointwo, who rapped in English, as an asset – a feature that wasn’t common practice at the time.
And while most spaza was boom-bap based, Backyard Crew came with a different sound. Mashonisa, the crew’s in-house producer, was, and still remains one of South African hip-hop’s best-kept secrets. To this day, one would be hard-pressed to find a producer who’s adept at brass horns the way he is; menacing yet managing not to sound harsh on the ear, as he keeps the sounds free of unnecessary effects. The Backyard Crew sound is hard to miss and even more difficult to resist.
“I am inspired by Dr. Dre,” Mashonisa told me one afternoon at his studio. While waiting for Kideo to arrive, I watched him make a beat, which would go on to be ‘Izinja’, the follow-up single to ‘Sudelela’. He passionately waxed poetic about his reverence for the West Coast legend, and how happy he was when Dre released Compton last year.
It’s easy to pick up the Dre influence on Mashonisa’s production – those eerie strings and smooth basslines, but Mashonisa totally owns his style. He is one of the few producers who have a distinct signature style, probably why he doesn’t even use a tag.
While their rivals, Driemanskap and Rattex, had the strong and supportive backing of innovative independent label Pioneer Unit after years of independently building their names on the streets, Backyard Crew were doing shit on their own. “We used to print CDs and leave them in trains and next to shopping malls, hoping someone would pick them up and listen to our music,” said Mashonisa.
He explains that he first got into production around 2003. “A friend introduced me to Fruity Loops 3,” he recalled. “I stopped going outside. It was like I was with a jealous girlfriend.” He taught himself how to use the software through trial and error. “Back then, I didn’t even know about YouTube, and I wasn’t close to anyone who was making beats.” Later, Mashonisa met a gospel music producer, who taught him while he observed how he’d put beats and melodies together.
After the formation of Backyard Crew, Mashonisa’s older brother contributed equipment towards the creation of Backyard Studios, where the crew recorded most of their music. The studio became popular in the area, as one of the few in Khayelitsha at the time. Seminal albums by spaza artists like Maxhoseni, Undecided Crew, Lampita Clan, and others, were all recorded at Backyard Studios. Backyard Records, which Backyard Crew is a part of, was also home to up-and-coming artists such as Axo and the late Chankura.
Following the release of an EP in 2005, Backyard Crew managed to travel outside of the Western Cape and create a serious buzz, which led them to dropping their debut album Sebenzel’Eyadini in 2009. They amassed a cult following, and with their video for ‘Baby Girl’ broadcast on a coveted spot on SABC 1, they were poised to be one of the first spaza outfits to break out of Cape Town.
But life had other plans.
On the night of July 29, 2012, on their way to a show, there was a car accident that claimed the lives of two Backyard Records members. Van de Merwe, a Backyard Crew member, and solo artist Chankura died on the spot. The spaza community was devastated at their loss. To this day, the remaining members are still uncomfortable talking about the incident.
The tragedy took a great toll on all of them, causing a prolonged estrangement. Phoenix travelled to the United States, and only began releasing music again two years ago. Since then, he has consistently released singles, the most notable being the brilliant ‘Put’Em Up’.
Mashonisa went back to university. Kideo focused on his solo career. Pointwo hibernated. “I got shattered in another way and I didn’t even feel it properly,” says the rapper during our Bush Radio interview. “I went to see a doctor in Vredehoek, and moved on. I made music, but I didn’t have the fire to promote it because I wasn’t around these guys. We were in the same city but we never got to see each other for four years. Then last year, I started seeing Kideo.
“I drowned myself with work,” he continues, “and then quit because I didn’t wanna be around people. And then I got broke, and people would see me and say I look ashy. I’m not afraid to say these things. [On] the last joint I dropped, I spoke about it. It was just one verse. I got off the bus, and wrote it in my head.”
Backyard is an interesting crew – all four guys have completely different personalities. Pointwo is a nerd – when not discussing Marvel and DC Comics, he’s dissecting Pharoahe Monch and Slaughterhouse lyrics. Phoenix is bubbly and confident. Mashonisa is chilled and soft-spoken – his mood lightens when he’s in front of a computer and keyboard, making beats. Kideo is an oxymoron – on the mic he’s one of the most potent in the country, displaying a personality many rappers would kill for, but in person, he hardly ever says anything – he is always lurking in the background.
The chemistry between the crew members is natural. An intimacy that’s perhaps expected from guys who have known each other for years –Mashonisa and Phoenix, for example, are neighbours and childhood friends.
A lot can, and has happened in five years. Hip-hop is arguably the biggest genre in South Africa. Some rappers are making millions. Trap is the subgenre of choice, a truth that has left a reasonable number of OGs bitter as their efforts get overshadowed by a new generation. It’s an adapt-or-die environment that is unforgiving for many. Tumi Molekane, who updated his style with his last release Stogie T, is one of the few OGs who is still relevant in the mainstream.
I ask the guys, especially Mashonisa, if they will be trapping in the near future. Kideo has also been rapping over trap beats in his solo stuff, and sounding like money, even though most fans refuse to progress with him. Phoenix also seems to be progressing seamlessly – working with young producers during Mashonisa’s hiatus.
Answering my question, Mashonisa starts by acknowledging that “the game has changed,” before telling me he’s not under pressure to fit in. “We had to come through with something to remind ourselves of what we used to do,” he says making reference to the song ‘Sudelela’. The song, even with its catchy Mashonisa hook, and show-stealing verse by Kideo, sounds a tad dated.
“We were just going through our old files, and then we decided to rework and revamp it,” says Mashonisa.
Their latest single sounds like the Backyard fans fell in love with: street rap to the core – nothing you’d hear on Metro FM. The beat pounds. The sinewy keys are subtle yet effective. Phoenix roars on his verse. Mashonisa is still exuding flair on his contribution. Pointwo’s verse displays his wide vocabulary and the technical skills he’s always had.
If ‘Sudelela’ and ‘Izinja’ are snippets of what the crew’s upcoming EP will sound like, then one thing is for sure – old fans who want the old Backyard will be pleased. As for new fans, the Crew might have to do more to appeal to a new and hungrier generation.
Take a listen to a selection of essential tracks by Backyard Crew below: