On the musical spectrum, South Africa is probably best known internationally for it’s Kwaito inspired interpretation of House music. But since the turn of the millennium, South African musicians have been reinventing another genre of music in their own image. Mzansi’s finest MC’s who have been pushing S.A Hip Hop to the forefront include; Cassper Nyovest, Nasty C, Du Boiz, AKA, Kwesta, Riky Rick, Emtee, DA L.E.S, Gigi Lamayne, Zakwe, L’Vovo, Nadia Nakai, Zakes Bantwini, Jay Spitter, among others.
Ahead of the One Africa music festival in London earlier this month, we caught up with one the highest paid artists on the South African Hip Hop scene. Cassper Nyovest made his way to Brixton in London for the first time, to meet up and unpack the roots of Hip Hop culture from South Africa to the world.
Starting right at the evolution of South African House music through to the emergence of the Hip-Hop scene, Cassper begins by telling me how it all began, “At the time the most dominant genre was Kwaito music which is authentic South African music. The genre was created in South Africa and it’s more like a Dance genre, it’s mid tempo House. And then Kwaito ended up developing into a very uptempo sound, it moved to Durban and that shit is like 128 BPM, so it was really quick. Then, the authentic original Kwaito sound died and Durban House took over, Durban Kwaito. And then I feel like Kwaito also developed into authentic South African Hip-Hop music – where rappers started rapping on Kwaito sounding beats and the language as well – the vernac[ular] that they used made it more relative to kids in the hood and that’s how it became the most prominent genre right now in my country. People like me telling authentic South African stories.”
Cassper’s search for authenticity in his own sound is what drove him to take a closer look at life itself in South Africa, “the subject matter shifted from South African rappers rapping about what they hear in American music; to South African rappers rapping about their real life. The videos, the visuals, the lingo and the content became so authentic and the kids really related to it and then it became like when Kwaito was born, you know? It became like, the voice of the youth.”
The long shadow cast by commercial American Hip-Hop music would later find it’s way once again into Cassper’s story, but back in 2014 South African Hip-Hop was on a voyage of self-discovery, “it was difficult to find our voice because of how the system is set up in the music industry.”
Alongside being an artist, Cassper as the CEO of his own label Family Tree media, found that learning the game continuously allowed him to also keep pushing the boundaries: “You have these big record labels in America who have the reach, like the biggest reach around the world. Then you have these countries like South Africa who play predominantly American music – so, American Hip-Hop was like the biggest thing in my country. That’s what people are listening to and what people prefer listening to so it was a difficult task until 2014. In our minds we thought that we had to sound like those guys, and rap like those guys for us to be cool.”
But, by ditching the American cliches Cassper uncovered an identity that became immediately familiar to the kids in the ‘hoods’ of South Africa, “Instead of rapping about Lamborghini’s we’d rap about a car called Gusheshe, which is the 325 box shape BMW – the old one. It’s taken from a word in Zulu, basically it means ‘make it quick’ so these cars were used by thieves when they go and, you know. They’d also come back to the hood and spin the cars and celebrate and entertain the crowd. They became very, very popular. So, we started rapping about stuff like that, which was part of our culture and then yeah, that’s how we became prominent.”
With the African music scene now beginning to expand globally, what might seem like a sudden takeover has been building an identity by traversing across the African continent through the relentless pursuit of artists like Cassper touring from country to country. “That’s how I started operating – I started thinking about it like; if my song had to end up in London, is there anything in that sound that says this is not from [London], this is not from America, where is this from? Sometimes it’s the language, sometimes it’s the sound, sometimes it’s the accent that’ll say this dude is definitely from Africa or South Africa. So, travelling played one of the biggest roles and also seeing guys like Wizkid getting so much recognition around the world. [It] made us realise that you could be yourself – true to yourself, and that’s what people actually want you to do.”
Offically, there are 11 languages in South Africa, vernacular takes on a new dimension when it comes to expressing yourself, “with us, we use a lot of vernac[ular]. I’m Setswana, that’s my first language and we mix it with a lot of English and Zulu as well so these are the predominant languages that we use in my country, and there’s also slang that we use like Gusheshe – a word that was made up in South Africa – you can only find it there.” Cassper continues, “it’s actually very easy [to mix the languages in raps], because my language Setswana, a lot of the words do rhyme with English words, but it might be difficult for people to understand. I for one, don’t put too much of it because I’m trying to appeal to the world, you know? I don’t want to get to a point where it’s unbearable – like, someone in London who can’t speak my language can’t just guess what I’m talking about. So we always try and have a few lines on a verse or chorus or something like that.”
The independent grind itself as an artist is tough enough but as CEO of his own enterprise, I want to know whether independence in South Africa is as common as it is becoming in the UK, “it’s actually not common and that’s one of the reasons it’s so challenging. You are operating in a system that’s dominated by record labels that have the experience, the financial reach and the staff – and the data as well, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about the music industry that they do; that they have in the books. So for us, we’re playing a guessing game, we’re always trying to figure it out, you know? And also, the more successful we are, the bigger of a problem we are to record labels because they deal with millions and millions of dollars. Because they have a pool or catalogue of artists that bring them so much money. You are trying to make ends meet really but when you’re doing better than them, they’re losing so much money.”
It’s very difficult to be independent but at the same time, the rewards are also amazing when it works out. Our biggest tool has been the Internet.
“The tactics are also very dirty. Like, they’ll remove your songs from radio or, you know, buy awards, or sabotage you in so many ways just to get ahead and I think that’s the biggest fight. Right now, one of the biggest fights in my country is probably where people are getting bribed to play songs on radio and TV, and also getting bribed to remove songs from radio and TV. It’s very difficult to be independent but at the same time, the rewards are also amazing when it works out. Our biggest tool has been the Internet. We just put our stuff on the internet man, and word of mouth – all the kids who are around the world, who are from South Africa, who used to live there or visit there or a few months or whatever are the ones who go out there into the world and tell people about our music. Platforms right now, like Spotify or Apple Music have really created a platform where you could have one community around the world and not be signed to a label.”
Cassper Nyovest’s record breaking ‘Fill Up The Dome’ concert in Johannesburg ranks as one of those live moments where the reward was more than worth the effort. “In 2015, a year after I released my first album we took a risk and created a show called Fill Up The Dome. The Dome is a venue in Johannesburg that takes 20,000 people – I took all my money, put it into the show, lost about 3 million Rand that night, but we had 20,000 people in the venue.”
I figured, yo man maybe Kanye did steal my stage but it was like whatever.”
Cassper may not have made bank, but what he wasn’t banking on was a beef with one of the worlds biggest hip hop artists a year later. Kanye’s stage setup had been clocked by DJ Akademiks has having somewhat of a familiar feeling,“The reason why we lost so much money is because we invested in a stage and built a stage that kinda, floated. People had never seen anything like that, right. Because my point was OK, you have 20,000 people – its history. But then what happens 20 minutes into the show? So, we wanted to create a moment – it was called a Cassper moment actually – so we worked the whole show around it and we heard rumours that one of Kanye’s A&R was in the country at that point. We tried to get them to the show, right? And it didn’t happen – we didn’t get him to the show, but it was the biggest thing in the country. I did one night, people wanted me to do two nights – we just did one. Then, um, a year later Kanye dropped his album ‘The Life Of Pablo’, after ‘The Life Of Pablo ‘he went on tour. Then we saw the stage and the first thing I thought was like, ‘No way! That looks exactly like my stage. Exactly the same’.”
Cassper didn’t expect anything much to happen next, but things escalated because well it’s Kanye! “One day, he was on stage and then he came out saying that people were stealing his stage designs. That’s when this whole thing blew up, because [people] tried to figure out who he was talking about. One of my pictures went up on a blog where they said maybe Kanye was talking about me. I wasn’t going to say anything until [Kanye] did that. Then I was like, yo that’s weird because I did this a year – a full year – before Kanye. So it’s impossible for me to have stolen his stage. Then the blogs started running it, then they spoke about it on the Breakfast show, Charlamagne and them invited me to come out there and speak about it – I was really busy in my country, I didn’t go at that point. I’m yet to visit.”
There’s no anger of resentment when Cassper recalls the story, he gives the whole thing a ‘shit happens’ shrug and continues, “I’m sure people don’t care about it as much now as they did then, but you know, it’s on the internet. So it’ll live forever. It’s crazy. For me it’s – maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t. Maybe the guy who came up with the idea knew where he stole it from and he didn’t tell [Kanye] like, yo this stage is actually from South Africa. Maybe they thought that South Africa would never hear about it or something but it happened. And the next year, we did 40,000 people in the stadium.”
I ask where he gets the inspiration for such daring stage designs, “funnily enough, Kanye is one of the people that I look at, I’ve been following his career for a long time. Him, Chris Brown, MJ, Madonna – these are the people I watch so for Kanye to bite my stage, that’s crazy because that means – it made me realise how much even the people we look up to are just human beings. Like, we idolise a lot of people and we make them demigods. But, at the end of the day, you’re just as great as the next guy if you just apply yourself, you know?”
Cassper’s latest project is this most ambitious yet. Entitled ‘Thuto’ it went Gold on day one of its release, tracks like ‘Tito Mboweni’ and ‘Destiny’ featuring Goapele have been huge successes online. Cassper doesn’t take himself too seriously, he’s happy to enjoy the freedom and success being an independent artist offers. I ask about the significance of the title ‘Tito Mboweni’, “[He was] the first black governor of the Reserve Bank. So he’s the first black man to have his signature on money – it’s slang for money, his name is slang for money and I’m just talking about how rich I am. It’s just like a very fun, ignorant song where I’m young – I’m 26 – and I’m just having a lot of fun. The song came out at a time where there was so much happening in my country, So much new Hip-Hop acts and we were starting to be seen as – music moves so fast these days, that they were starting to see us as the OG’s. You know, the old guys. Then I just made a fun song saying, yo I’m actually very young and I’m very rich. So, we shot a video for it and the response has been amazing. It was like the first time ever I did a million views in 12 days in my whole career. It’s just fun.”
Cassper remains committed to stretching the boundaries and testing his ability as one of South Africa’s leading Hip-Hop artists. ‘Destiny’, has already made a major impact – his first collaboration with one of the best female vocalists from South Africa. “’Destiny’ is on my new album, which is a very personal album, very mature. To show where my headspace is. Usually, I’m known to make a lot of club records, but I’m actually a very good storyteller. I wanted to showcase that on the album, and we went with a brilliant vocalist by the name of Goapele. She’s got a great catalogue of music I don’t know i you remember Drake’s first mixtape he had that song ‘Closer To My Dreams’? She’s a South African vocalist who lives in California. So, for us, being a great fan of her music is was dope to finally meet her and she did like her first big South African collab. It’s the biggest song on the album right now.”
Before our time is over, I ask Cassper what fans can expect from his latest work, “It’s very honest. I tell stories about how I cheated on my ex-girlfriend, I was in a very public relationship, you know? I admit to cheating on my ex, women have responded to it well because they feel like men never admit their faults. There’s another song, it’s very special on the album where I celebrate my dad and you know, you don’t ever hear rappers talk about their dad in a positive light. It’s always like, my dad was a deadbeat father or he ran away or he used to beat my mum. So I felt like I needed to share my story because I actually had a great dad.”
Hip-Hop in South Africa ditched the cliches and found it’s voice, it’s artists inspire and it’s influence continues to grow but most of all it remains the true voice of the youth.
‘Thuto’ by Cassper Nyovest is available to download on iTunes and stream now.