What a time it was to be a rap fan in South Africa. What a difference a decade makes.
It’s 2005, and fresh off of the equally surprising and somehow fully expected success of Skwatta Kamp’s Mkhukhu Funkshen, local rap was finally threatening to explode. All the players were ready. The industry took notice. Prokid, who burst onto radio over the repurposed mariachi horns of his ‘Soweto’ single, was summarily snapped up by Gallo and fast-tracked towards an album release. In the other corner, the far less street and much more conscious rap of Proverb had landed him an album deal on the independent Rage Records. I bought both albums on the same day.
The funny thing about all this is that the whole story now seems a figment of my teen imagination. From the early mixtape days of Maximum Sentence, where I first heard ‘Verb amongst a raft of similarly named underground cohorts, to the Slaghuis battle rap scene that birthed Prokid, none seems to exist. Well, at least not according to the largest archive of human knowledge to have ever existed. Elsewhere in the world, the internet’s promise of instant access to any cultural content has led to bands of teenagers being able to cite both The Beatles and underground rap as sources of inspiration, but almost all of my ‘musical upbringing’ at the time seems not to have happened at all. There are traces here and there: Gallo has recently begun uploading its catalogue to iTunes. Elsewhere, Pitch Black Afro’s Stylin’ Gel (the first local rap album to go platinum) can be found on Virgin Media (like, what?), but still Skwatta’s first two albums remain non entities. Proverb’s album (at the time of writing) has yet to even make it out of purgatory and onto the web. What’s worse is that these were the highest selling rappers of the time, and in the uncommon cases where the music exists, it does so without even a shred of context.
This phenomenon seems to have hit hardest the rap music prior to our current generation of ultra-connected always-online emcees.
While Cape Town’s early adopters of the genre are well recognised and rightfully given the respect due to them, their contemporaries from further north remain largely anonymous. This is especially sad since the lack of content today doesn’t equate to a lack of output at the time – particularly in the Avant-Soundcloud era of the early to mid-2000s. It was a time where global underground mega-labels such as Rawkus had given local imprints such as Outrageous Records a blueprint with which to operate. Their output was relentlessly hard and singularly brilliant. Underscored mostly by the tough-as-nails proto boom-bap production of Optical Illusion’s Tongogara (a.k.a Battle Kat), they announced their arrival to the scene with 2003’s Maximum Sentence mixtape. A quick online search shows only a few Discogs entries about the tape. While this is great to prove that there was once a mixtape called Maximum Sentence, it give you little more info than the cover art. A further search brings up a few forum posts from the now defunct Rage Records site. It’s disheartening to my memories of the era. Although the real threat here is not just to the loss of music in the past, but rather that loss’ effect on the future.
“History is a game of meanings, not a science, and I can’t help but to feel that we’re all playing with one eye blind. Our focus is pristine, but its range is constrained.”
The internet, amongst many other things, flattens time. It exists in a realm beyond time. It is not indexed chronologically or alphanumerically (which implies an understood ordering where one thing comes before the other). It’s a web of red pills, a network of rabbit holes, underlined and rendered in blue text. Whereas, in the old world, influences ran in an ordered fashion, the network’s atemporality avails everything to everyone. All people, theoretically, make all music. What then happens when not all people are on this network? There becomes an asymmetry, where those on the network can borrow from anywhere within their own lineage and beyond, but those who aren’t are forced to look only beyond and across their borders. It is, for me, no coincidence that – after years of soul searching in the quagmire of more “international” aesthetics – UK Grime has found itself and has risen by taking these learnt influences and searching within. “I don’t care what they feel about it”, Grime Artist Skepta said recently in his elucidating interview with the Fader, “Bruv, I put P. Diddy on a fucking grime tune!” Meanwhile, elsewhere on the net, new producers stress themselves over finding the same sounds and samples used by the original grime and 2-step producers way back when.
And here in SA? For rap in particular, the soul searching continues. The successful either crib off of worn tropes from their stateside peers or, more encouragingly, reach further back into the annals of South African music for inspiration. This reaching back has given us gorgeous Dj Mustard style tracks built of Brenda Fassie samples (see AKA’s All Eyez On Me), and the Kwaito Rap resurgence. Even this, though, can be seen as a result of the strange gap between the vinyl and cassette eras and the relatively short lived reign of CD’s. One can only wonder where the music would be now if, in an instant, one could access the catalogued discography of Battle Kat’s production, or, on a whim, delve into the knotty, dense world of The Mad Scientist. History is a game of meanings, not a science, and I can’t help but to feel that we’re all playing with one eye blind. Our focus is pristine, but its range is constrained. One can’t say for sure that music would be better (however you might define that) if these lost artists were on the net, but there would certainly be more variety, both locally and abroad.
“Record labels and the various arms of the music industry aren’t to blame here, we are. When the industry no longer has a moneyed interest in keeping art alive, there is actually no reason for it to do so, and so it doesn’t.”
I often get the same feeling as when news pops up of ancient statues becoming casualties of war in the Middle East. Yes, the music I’m talking about is much newer and has gone with a whimper rather than a bang, but culture is culture nonetheless. Record labels and the various arms of the music industry aren’t to blame here, we are. When the industry no longer has a moneyed interest in keeping art alive, there is no reason for it to do so, and so it doesn’t. The guilty parties in this are the proponents of the culture who claimed to be a part in shaping it: we should be the ones now doing the archiving. Yes, what this entails is the championing of a sort of ethical piracy. The difference being that, whereas the traditional argument against piracy is that “it kills the industry”, here we’re talking about work that the industry itself has forgotten. Things are improving now due to the rapid democratisation of the distribution process online, but this is still post “gap” music being uploaded. It will have influence, but who was it influenced by?
The ghost of the mentioned Outrageous Records can be found online in the form of a neglected Beatport page. Listening to snippets of Zub’s Headphone Music is bittersweet. You can so clearly see the potential for these songs to inspire something even greater than themselves . Right now, in an alternate universe, an 18 year old gangster rap prodigy from Chicago quotes Cape Town’s Mr. Devious with reverence. Soweto producer Dome’s Domestic Violins beat tape series has inspired a new sub culture within the Scandinavian Sad Boys. The East Rand’s Adonis is everyone’s favourite battle rapper, and this article is never written.
Oh what a time that would be to be alive.