As I walk into Red Bull Studios in the centre of Cape Town, Uno July is writing a verse in the common area, listening to a beat on his Macbook. He’s chilled, wearing white shorts, a matching jacket, slides and socks. El Nino, a member of the crew Driemanskap, is writing a verse for the same track in the corner.
“I haven’t worked with Driemanskap in forever,” says Uno, after we settle down in one of the studios. He’s also expecting Khuli Chana, anytime now. He asks me what I think of Uno n’ Only, the album he just released a week ago. “It’s great,” I say, “I just think 21 tracks is a bit too much.”
“I was trying to hypnotize people,” he responds. “You spend all this time listening to Uno July. And then you feel invested in it. My friends said to cut it down to 16, I was like ‘nah, 21 gun salute.’ Most of my favourite albums – [Kanye West’s] Late Registration and [MF Doom’s] Operation: Doomsday for example – are long.”
Uno July’s solo career is still new. “It’s still processing in my head,” he says. Even though he has done a lot of gigs in both “cool kid” and “real hip-hop” circles – from Ipotsoyi to the backpacker hip hop events of Waiting Room and similar – he says he is still establishing himself as a solo artist, which is partly why the album was released for free.
The rapper, whose career so far spans 12 years, started out in his hood Gugulethu, with the crew Ill Skillz. Along the way, the crew shed some members, but him and rapper Jimmy Flexx remain the core members. The duo is one of the most successful modern rap crews in the Mother City, with travels in Europe and two scorching albums – 2009’s Off The Radar and Notes from the Native Yards from just three years ago – under their belts. Their work together boasts production credits from accomplished South African hip-hop producers like Trompie, Hipe, Planet Earth, PH and Mizi, among many more.
The crew has been innovative, in addition to being prolific. They partnered with Red Bull Studios for their 24-hour projects – Skillz That Pay Da Billz 1 and 2 in 2010 and 2012 respectively – which had guest features from the likes of ProVerb, Rob One, Petite Noir (then known as IAMWAVES), amongst others. Add performances at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival, Back To The City in Jozi and sharing stages with the likes of Yasiin Bey, Kendrick Lamar, Slum Village, and it becomes clear that the crew’s portfolio and stature in the hip hop landscape is both rock solid and hard-earned.
About two years ago, on the crew’s 10th anniversary year, Uno decided he wanted more than being known as half of Ill Skillz. He released a solo EP, Best Kept Secret. In it, he explored soundscapes that are considered out of Ill Skillz’s axes of operation, diverging from their primarily boom bap crew sound. He rapped over heavy synth basslines and 808s and sang over sensual pads, not uncommon in modern rap globally.
However it was on his video single ‘Skelem’, that Uno announced his arrival as a solo rapper. Leading with a synth reminiscent of an 80s Capcom pixelated video game, the song saw Uno “flirting with the mainstream” as he puts it. It was somewhat of a reinvention; Uno, a golden era-inspired rappity rap rapper was rapping in a kwaito-influenced bravado on the bridge and sparse flows on his verses – drill rap style.
The beat to the single, which ended up being the lead single for the album, was produced by up-and-coming producer Psychedelic AK. “I met AK through J-oNE,” he says. “They’re both studying at SAE.” J-oNE was responsible for most of the jazzy production on Ill Skillz’ sophomore album Notes from the Native Yards. The rapper tells me he’s forever on the lookout for new talent. ‘Figure 8’, one of my favourite tracks on the album, he tells me, was produced by two up-and-coming producers DJ Skinniez and Charlie Brown. The song’s filtered high-pitched pads attempt to swallow Uno’s heavily reverbed vocals. He screams eerily on the background, while he raps in a high-pitched yelp – think along the lines of Kendrick Lamar on ‘Hood Politics’.
“I felt inclined to do something culturally relevant,” he says of the track. “I wore my black hoodie and walked around eGugulethu late at night – fearlessly – and wrote the song. I was seeing grungy images. Then I came back home and jotted it down.”
While most of the production on Uno n’ Only is handled by J-oNE and AK, Planet Earth contributes to the drum-heavy ‘G.O.D’, which yearns for a Jimmy Flexx verse. Uno admits he wanted a verse from his long-time partner in rhyme for the track as well as for the nostalgic ‘90s Laaitie’. He also reveals he was meant to have the legendary lyricist Hymphatic Thabs on the track, but he also couldn’t deliver his verse on time. It was the same case with Reason on ‘Native Yards 57’, which was produced by Desert Head, who is better known as half of Christian Tiger School.
Most of the album was recorded at Cape Audio College by engineer Kay Faith, known for her work on rapper E-Jay’s Apartheid EP, as well as working with Brooklyn-born rapper Whosane and Youngsta, amongst others.
The themes Uno explores on the album are as varied as the production. Among self-glorifying bangers, mellow love songs, and hard-hitting rappity rap tunes, Uno sneaks in some personal divulgences, especially on the track ‘Momma Said’, where he gives us a sneak into his family, through his mother.
Even though Uno’s relationship with his father – who was a member of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto Wesizwe – is non-existent (he only met him at 20), he tells me his relationship with his mother is firmly intact. The last time I spoke to Uno, he told me the much promised “the best kept secret”, would be revealed in the album. He reveals today that that best kept secret was his father. “I thought I would expose who he really was [on the album], but I couldn’t.”
He continues to tell me about his mother, “She’s the greatest person, she’s supportive. Well…” he chuckles, “maybe if she didn’t have her business right, she would still be on my case. She still wants me to go back and finish my studies.”
Uno dropped out of a business studies course in CPUT (then-Cape Tech) in the late 2000s. He worked for a corporate after that, until 2009, when Ill Skillz tours started demanding more of his time. “[The company] wouldn’t approve my leave applications,” he says, “I was like ‘you see now there’s a conflict.’ I told my mother I had a plan, I had all this money saved up. She was like ‘you old enough.’ And her situation got better around that time. And so many things started happening with Ill skillz, things that wouldn’t happen if I stuck to the job. Flexx quit [his job] around the same time.”
So, music is all Uno has.
The album’s finally out, so where to from here? “Things are happening right now,” he says. He pauses before continuing, “Gigs are pouring in. I’m going to Joburg for Back To The City (tomorrow, Wednesday 27 April)”
“I’m also going back overseas, to another two continents.” It’s clear that serial collaborator Uno July is used to working hard to get results and is seeing the fruits of his labour in what’s becoming a flourishing solo career.
Uno July is launching his album tonight in Jozi at Antidote in Newtown, with U_Sanele, Slice Frederico, DJ Izandla and Indivisualmax, after a successful launch in Cape Town a few weeks back. All details on Facebook and Twitter.