In the early 2000s Botswana had just launched its first local television station and our music industry was in its infancy.
Record labels such as Eric ‘Ramco’ Ramogobya’s Ramco Loco were trying to bring an urban sound to our airwaves in a bid to modernise an industry ruled by Kwaito and Afro-pop genres. Everyone and their uncle seemed to be dropping out of school to try and make it big.
It was during that time that a young man by the name of Ralph Williams III aka Stagga appeared on the scene and seemingly became an overnight success with It Gets Crazy. The song featured one of South Africa’s finest, Zwai Bala, of the Bala Brothers, and the video was a notch above the rest – shot in Joburg featuring racially ambiguous young women, a convoy of black BMWs and even a damn helicopter.
Stagga seemed to fall off the map and many were left wondering just what happened.
It would be the video that ‘put Botswana on the map’ – or at the very least, on the radar of Joburg’s who’s who. But after a critically acclaimed debut album and a taste of success, Stagga disappeared from the scene and many were left wondering just what happened to the once promising young star.
Over ten years later, Stagga is more Ralph than his rap moniker. He’s a dad, a husband, a businessman and on occasion, a trending topic on Bots Twitter (Botswana Twitter)… usually for all the wrong reasons. Whether it be his on-again, off-again alleged relationship with Nonhle Thema, his penchant for responding to the haters or his seemingly huge ego getting him into trouble, the man still somehow manages to stay on the minds and lips of many, all these years later and while on a whole other continent.
The man, the myth, the ‘Legend’, Stagga let us into his life in one of his only and most intimate interviews to date – discussing everything from his family to making music and money with Bissau Gaobakwe (son of the late ‘Uncle Parks’) and well, being a ‘one-hit wonder’ with an amazing track record.
Let’s take it back to basics: the foundation of the man who’d eventually become Stagga, Ralph Williams III. Your grandparents on your dad’s side were immigrants. Immigrant parents are notorious for being stricter than most for numerous reasons – the main one being that they understand that life isn’t all peaches and cream – and yet your father is apparently an artist and he in turn (I assume) afforded you the same courtesy of letting you become one too. Tell me about your father and his art – and how, if at all, you think your different media and creations are similar/dissimilar.
He does modern art. It’s quite abstract so we’re in completely different fields. However, he gave me my first hip-hop album Paid In Full by Eric B & Rakim when I was 11.
It seems throughout your life you’ve always gotten to experience polar opposites: your dad is Jamaican and your mom Tswana, you lived in Brixton, which you described as ‘the hood’ but went to a private school, your dad was an artist and your mom a physician – how did that duality influence you as a young man?
It’s affected me in positive, and sometimes negative, ways to this day. Overall I feel it’s positive because I’ve got the advantage of knowing two different cultures.
You came to Botswana for the first time at eight, in ‘84. By that age I’m sure you were pretty aware of a vast difference between Britain and Botswana. What did you think? Was it difficult to adjust?
I was petrified of coming to Africa because of what I’d seen on TV. At that time (and up to today) the image you see of Africa over here was negative – mainly images of war, corruption and disease.
I missed a lot about England, but I really liked it.
I thought we’d be living in a hut and didn’t expect any sort of development. The first thing I said to my mum when we got to Botswana was ‘Where are the pavements?’ Naturally I missed a lot about England, but I really liked it. Learning Setswana was the hardest part.
Your mom was a personal physician to former presidents Masire and Mogae. Did you ever meet them? Have any interesting experiences to share regarding them?
Yeah I met them and even made tea for both of them a couple of times. Nothing really interesting but it was exciting to meet them and I was proud to know they were my mum’s patients.
Tell me about your adolescence. How was puberty for a young black man with a British accent navigating Gaborone?
I went to the UK for holiday every 18 months or so from the time I first came to Botswana, to when I went back to live there in ’93. I attended high school at M.A.P (Maru-a-Pula) and l was a boarder there from Form 3. High school was great for me somehow, even though I was short for most of it, I managed to be in with the ‘cool’ crowd. I made my first grand [thousand] in high school selling caps.
I did so well from that that by Form 5 I’d become a loan shark.
I used to buy them locally, but for marketing purposes I said my dad would send me them from England – that enabled me to make 100 per cent profit. A grand in ’93 was a lot of money. I made about five before someone found my source, then I switched to cutting hair at the boarding house and I did so well from that that by Form 5, I’d become a loan shark.
How did you get into DJing?
My dad and his brother (Walter) used to DJ in London and they had a sound system called Wizard Sound. My cousin Junior, who’s my Uncle Walter’s son, had his little turntables but he was a dancehall head. I picked up the basics from him. I went to A-Level college at Kingsway College in London and my friend Lascelle taught me how to mix properly when I was 18 or 19.
You studied economics and politics. Did you complete your degree? If so, put it to use?
Dropped out in second year because I’d become the resident DJ at a venue in central London called Back Beat. I was getting £300 per night, two nights a week. I was 21, and this was ’98 so to me it was good money. Plus I had other money coming in at that time from various little hustles. I didn’t become a big superstar DJ though so I went back to school and finished my degree but I’ve never used it.
I read somewhere that you and Bissau used to call Death Row Records and try and get signed. How old were you? Where did you get their number (Wasn’t this before the internet)? What would you say? What was your plan? And most importantly, why weren’t you terrified of Suge Knight?
I went back to live in the UK in ‘93, and sometimes I’d come back to visit twice a year but l made sure it was at least once a year. Bissau and Skizo (affectionately called Daddy Ski by many – he’s a huge house DJ, a legend really) had an idea to bridge the gap between Africa and black America called ‘Ties With My People’. Shau (Bissau) and l used to sneak into Uncle Park’s office late at night to call Death Row daily until eventually they passed us to a guy called Roy Tesfaye.
At that age we weren’t scared of anything.
This was like maybe late ‘97 and I can’t remember exactly how we got the number, but this was way before Google. I was like 20 or 21, Shau is two years older than me and a master of persuasion and one could also say manipulation. At that age we weren’t scared of anything and we just wanted to go over there and get signed. Roy eventually talked to Suge’s wife (who was running the label because Tupac was dead and Suge was in jail) and in turn let Bissau speak to her. They liked our idea for the project so they said come to LA so we could discuss it further but we never made it that far.
How did you end up making music of your own, from DJing?
By 2001 I’d graduated from uni, gotten married and had my first child (my son Leano). I’d given up on DJing or rapping and was living with my wife and child in Atlanta, Georgia. Shau had already started Garona Communications (GC) by the time I got there. One day he called me in ATL and said he had this company and we could finally give the music dream a shot.
I’d never seen money come in as fast as at GC.
I bought a ticket the next day and he came to pick me up from the airport in a new M3, that’s when I was like oh shit this is for real. I’ve been getting money independently since I was 13, but I’d never seen money come in as fast as at GC. I was the public phones assistant manager at the time.
Within three months of being at Garona Communications you apparently left and were able to start your own thing and buy yourself a BMW. What were you doing that allowed you to do all that in just a matter of 90 days, exactly?
Sometimes guys would come in and buy airtime with USD$250k in a gym bag. There was always a LOT of money on us and around us at ALL times. I only worked for GC for three months and, yes, 90 days after I started I got my first new car a 325ci. I wrote it off after four weeks and got my second one (which lasted a bit longer but was also written off) a few months later.
In between crashing Beemers I’d started working on what was meant to be my demo.
I invested money into scratch cards and public phones. In between crashing Beemers I’d started working on what was meant to be my demo which eventually became the Staggalicious EP.
At the beginning of your career you seemed to be shooting in the dark a lot, if the stories out there are to be believed. There’s one about you going to Joburg and trying to reach Magesh of TKZee but him giving you the run around. Did you know him personally? What was your plan should you actually have met him?
The TKZee thing happened after the Death Row thing, so this was round ’99 and again during one of my trips. Shau somehow got Magesh’s number so we drove to Joburg in his V6 with my step-brother at the time, Chilli Moroka. He’s the dopest Motswako (a fusion of hip hop and Tswana rap) emcee you’ve never heard. We were going to try and rap for them and get on. They gave us the run around the whole night and we never met them, but our paths crossed later on in life many times. Zwai Bala and I are friends to this day.
How did work on Staggalicious start? And also, why that name?
By late 2001 we had the money to turn the dream into reality so that’s what we did. Shau paid for the whole thing from GC money. We paid Zwai and Guffy R40k cash to do a four-track demo. Eventually we recorded 10 or 12 tracks and six made it onto the EP. We licensed it to Creative Kingdom Studios, who got picked up by Sony SA, so effectively I was more or less a Sony artist. We got an apartment in Sunninghill and I was really only in Gaborone for gigs.
Our goal was Africa and beyond.
I never even did a launch in Botswana. To be honest we didn’t look at being big in Botswana. Our goal was Africa and beyond. There was nothing even close to what we were doing in terms of quality anywhere in Botswana anyway. You must remember this wasn’t an album produced in someone’s bedroom; it was recorded and mixed at Creative Kingdom studios overlooking Mandela Square in Sandton. I got a two-door coupe while recording my demo. Most established SA artists were broke. When I said ‘different colour Beemers like a box of Smarties’ that’s what it was. We used to drive through Joburg in a convoy of maybe 10 BMW coupes all with Botswana plates.
People thought we were part of some type of mafia. I loved the attention and it gave us a lot of clout in Joburg because there wasn’t another crew like ours. It took about a year from when we finished the CD til we signed a deal. I remember EMI heard it somehow and we went to meet them. I was driving a better Beemer than the guy who tried to sign me.
Fame was all I thought it would be and more. I was literally living a dream.
By the time the video dropped in April ’04 it was already six months since we’d shot it (December ’03). I recorded it around November ’02 and between recording and it coming out we were all over Joburg so people in the industry knew us. Fame was all I thought it would be and more. I was literally living a dream. Anything you’d imagine a guy who’d always wanted to live that life would do, I did, the good the bad and the ugly.
Despite the questionable name choice, your debut album got you a lot of attention and a solid following – everybody agreed that you were a hit maker and talented lyricist. How did you end up opening for Ludacris, Beyonce, Ja Rule and Tyrese?
I’ve opened for a lot of people, even Beyonce in ‘05. Luda and Kelly was for their tour in ‘04 and that was through my work with the late TK. She sang on the first track I ever recorded Too Hot from the Staggalicious EP. I also featured on two tracks from her Black Butterfly album In This Piece and Better Man.
Tyrese (who’s an arsehole by the way) was through my manager at the time.
Karen Stevens used to manage both of us so we ended up touring a lot in ‘04. Tyrese (who’s an arsehole by the way) was through my manager at the time, Sipho Dlamini.
It Gets Crazy and Roll With Me were major hits – they were the ones most people will remember you for. They made you a household name. But then after that, you seemed to drop off the map till you reappeared on Zeus’ Imagination. What happened?
Maybe in Botswana but not in SA. I was doing collaborations and shows (sometimes three a night).
I read somewhere that you performed with Lebo Mathosa. I’ve a bit of a fixation on her – growing up I wanted to be like her. She represented to me, a gorgeous, fearless African woman I hadn’t been exposed to in my life before, as a little girl. What was she like in person?
Never performed with her but met her a few times. First was through Skizo at his first video shoot in ‘97 at Oskido’s house. Second was through Mindlos in ’98 when he took me to do a feature verse on his first album – it was my first time in a real studio and I choked. Thembi (Seete) and I are cool, though, and she used to book me for a lot of shows at Who’s Who Midrand so big ups to her for showing love.
After Staggalicious you recorded a sophomore album which apparently never saw the light of day because Bissau went to jail on a murder charge. Why did that hinder you?
Remedy was meant to be the third single from the re-released Staggalicious EP. The video starts where It Gets Crazy ends and I’m rapping in the chopper flying over Joburg.
Who knows one day it might see the light of day.
Eventually I go to a show and you get to see what’s in the two briefcases from the It Gets Crazy video. There’s even a mini-Hollywood style explosion at the end. That video never aired but Shau has the master somewhere. Who knows, one day it might see the light of day.
When Shau went to jail it fucked us all up. I had offers on the table but I didn’t want to do it without him. We’d achieved a lot up to that point but we were still independent which gave us full creative control. That video cost about R200k. No record label was going to or even able to do that at the time. The SA hip hop scene was completely different. My sophomore album Music For Your Movement (which never came out) was recorded with Grandpa at Mud Hut studios in Gabs.
Bissau is a notorious figure in our city for numerous reasons. Despite the fact that he’s your cousin, weren’t you at all sceptical about working so closely with him on your projects?
Shau is a genius. Why would I be sceptical about working with a genius?
You’ve kept it pretty low key that you’re married and a dad at that. When you first rose to fame your marriage apparently went south. Fame tests relationships more than most average experiences. What happened at that point in time?
I won’t talk about my marriage because for most of my music career my then wife and l were separated but we’re together now.
Drugs are easily accessible to those who know where to get them. Do you have any experience regarding drugs? I’m sure it must have been tempting during this point in your life.
Many but I won’t go into that. My advice is to stay away from drugs.
In 2005 you left Botswana and went back to UK. I read somewhere that you felt all kinds of broken. What steps did you take to put yourself back together and how did you decide to start a property business?
I’ve always been a hustler not a rapper. Music was just another hustle to me. Property was a no brainer.
Was the music dream at that point in time dead?
It was dead to me as a career choice but I never stopped recording for fun.
How did you end up collaborating with Zeus on his debut track Imagination? (Your verse was legendary btw). The patois was a side many people hadn’t heard, I think. What inspired you to take that route/tone on the song?
Skizo called me up and said come and do your thing. I’ve known and respected him for a while. He put me in his music video in ‘97 and I even recorded a demo at his studio in 2000. In ‘99 he gave me the best advice I’ve heard in music after I spit a verse for him for the first time.
‘No one really remembers the verse after the first listen’.
He said ‘Where’s the hook? No one really remembers the verse after the first listen, they remember the hook, that’s why it’s called the hook. Focus on the hook.’
Since then you’ve also featured on Dj Fauz’s The Commission where you took a moment to address the fact that many people consider you a one-hit wonder and an overrated part of our music history. First, how do you pick and choose whose tracks to appear on? I’m sure you get your fair share of requests you ignore/decline.
If I like the artist or song or both I’ll collab. I’ve got many unreleased songs with a lot of artists that were popping in SA at the time. I’ve even got an unreleased mixtape with Scar called The Squadron.
Second, let’s address the one-hit wonder thing. A lot of people, especially on social media, are never shy to mock you for apparently being one because It Gets Crazy happens to be the one thing you’ve done that they know/acknowledge (Thank you BTV, for playing it once a day, every day, forever). Sometimes you respond, other times you don’t. How do you feel about the constant stream of bullshit tweets you get?
I’ve got very thick skin. I’ve never really let what others think or say about me get to me. One, because they don’t pay me and two, because most of them are youngsters who don’t know my history.
Speaking of social media, I have to ask, since you’re married, is it right to assume that whatever you apparently had with Nonhle Thema wasn’t real, because you’re married and she had a baby and got married apparently in the middle of what you two had? Was it just for show, or pure speculation? Or do we have the whole thing wrong?
Never assume anything. No, it wasn’t for show or anything like that.
I don’t kiss and tell because I’m not a moist nigga.
I’ve known her since ’03, she’s a very misunderstood person but a lovely soul and I don’t kiss and tell because I’m not a moist nigga.
Speaking of second chances, will we ever get another album?
No plans to but you never know. My younger brother Joe Fox is releasing an album so check his out. He was featured on A$AP Rocky’s sophomore album A.L.L.A.
In an interview you once said hip-hop artists and therefore music has no export value in Botswana. Do you still feel the same?
I didn’t quite say that, what I said was the quality of hip hop in Botswana wasn’t export quality. Yes, I do feel like that about 99 per cent of it. That’s why since me, Zeus is the only artist who has followed and got to any kind of level.
I think I read somewhere a while ago that you built and donated a house to someone in need, or something of the sort. Am I right? What was that about?
It was built by the John Carroll Foundation and I just pitched in where I could. You must give back when and where you can. I’ve been given many opportunities in my life, that’s why now I do a bit of artist management. Give someone else a chance if that’s what they want (send beats or demo songs to firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter @StaggaSays).
Do you think there’s been growth in our entertainment industry since you were hot and heavy in it? How long and what steps do you think might be necessary to create an entertainment industry that allows one in our country to live off their talent?
There’s been a lot of growth. I’m proud of everyone in every genre who’s doing it because it’s not an easy way to make a living. A lot has to be done – maybe I should do a seminar on your last question.
Follow Stagga on Twitter @StaggaSays