Hip-hop aficionado Lwandile Fikeni has been listening to rappers from Cape Town since he was a teenager. He sat down with Uno July to talk Ill Skillz, what he thinks about the new generation of Cape Town rappers and his upcoming debut solo album Uno n’ Only.
It was my uncle who introduced my brother and me to hip hop back in the mid 90s. He was a student at PE Technikon at the time and each December holiday would bring home cassette upon cassettes of hip hop that he had collected during school term. He brought us 2Pacalypse Now, Pharcyde and that treasure trove, Illmatic, plus countless other gems.
Fast forward to 2015 and hip hop has taken over youth culture in South Africa.
And then one December, he had this tape (dubbed on TDK 90) of a hip-hop group from Cape Town, called Prophets of Da City. It was a lie, we thought. Hip hop was from America. Although we fancied ourselves young emcees (I kept a book of rhymes back in those days) hip hop was still foreign.
That is, until I heard Roots by Prophets of Da City.
Fast forward to 2015 and hip hop has taken over youth culture in South Africa as it has all over the world. In this country it has also changed its forwarding address from the Mother City to the City of Gold, in a similar fashion during the mid 90s that threatened to migrate hip-hop’s headquarters from New York to LA.
To get a sense of the Cape Town hip-hop scene I decided to have a chat with, Uno July, one of Cape Town’s gifted sons from The Native Yards. Born in the Gugulethu of the 80s, Uno July is one half of the legendary Cape Town-based hip hop duo iLL Skillz which he started with his creative partner, Jimmy Flexx, back in 2005. The duo has recorded seven projects together and have shared stages with renowned artists both locally and internationally; names such as Slum Village, Lauryn Hill, Hugh Masekela, Mos Def, AKA, Black Coffee and Reason, spring to mind.
Uno July’s solo career took off with the release of his 2015 debut EP titled Best Kept Secret, whose two singles – Skelem and Chankuras – received much critical acclaim.
Here he is on his hip-hop career and the current rap game in Mother City, 26 years after Prophets of Da City released their debut album Our World.
How did your music career begin?
Naturally, I started as a bedroom rapper. From the age of 17, I was writing rhymes over Madlib, Pete Rock and DJ Premier instrumentals. I used all that time to hone my skills and build my character until I was drawn into the hip-hop culture – in the local scene – when I turned 20.
From there I started attending open mic sessions around park-jam events often held in Gugulethu, this other place that was called The Lounge on Long Street and also running spots on Lower Main Road in Obz back when Observatory became a go-to place. Basically, this was all happening during the early millennium-era, around 2003 to be exact.
How did Ill Skillz come about?
So after two years of being active and getting a head start on rapping on cyphers, jumping on open-mic sessions and recording a few songs on a solo level, I managed to rub shoulders with a lot of other talented rappers in the local scene such as Archetypes and Driemanskap. It was only until I met Jimmy Flexx during late 2004 through the above-mentioned groups that I became enticed by the idea of forming a duo group, taking strong influences from the likes of Blackstar (Mos Def & Talib Kweli), Cannibal Ox and Organized Konfusion, just to name a few.
Master your craft; stay true to yourself but do not ignore your progression.
The light-bulb moment, I recall, was actually when I first met Flexx coming from a party and we sparked cyphers and freestyles like we normally would, but unlike most times I’ve been part of cyphers I was never moved and captivated in the way I was by Jimmy Flexx. Our chemistry sparked naturally and it was a no-brainer to mark that moment as our inception.
What’s the secret to longevity in the hip-hop music scene?
There are many qualities one should maintain, but the main ones that first come to mind are: master your craft; stay true to yourself but do not ignore your progression. Furthermore, I’ve personally realised that growth is inevitable and evolution will naturally require to take its own place within.
One must adapt to times and eras by keeping abreast to new trends and the lifestyle of that time, but in the same breath maintaining one’s core self and knowledge of self because in essence your originality and uniqueness need to significantly shine out.
Tell us about your new EP #BestKeptSecret.
The Best Kept Secret EP has finally lived up to its mandate and position as a catapult for my solo venture by primarily setting a tone for my individual effort. Initially, I started recording the EP aimlessly right after finishing the last Ill Skillz album Notes From The Native Yards, as a result of the creative euphoria that album left me with and the urge of staying sharp artistic-wise while fighting the withdrawals of staying in studio.
I always feel like I should mention also that if it wasn’t for Flexx the EP, and let alone my attempt of going solo, wouldn’t have materialised. He was that one person who insisted on the idea of the EP since he decided on taking the academic route.
The sound is slightly different from your previous projects. Any reason for this?
It was a very conscious decision not to make another project that sounded like an Ill Skillz product. It had become an exciting stage in my career to seek ways of evolving as an artist and experimenting with art. However, when you finally listen to the end result you discover that I’ve fused my old style with new-age textures, but not overtly.
Take us through the making of your hit single #Skelem.
Purely magical: nothing short of that. It was one of those nights when everything was driven by instinct. I recall earlier that day when I felt this undeniable urge of being in studio and I was literally on the edge of it, not even the load shedding and those cold and rainy Cape Town nights held me back from driving me to that point of finally delivering it.
All I had arrived with when I got to the studio was the first verse and the bridge part which I initially wrote as a chorus. The rest that ended up on the song were just premeditated freestyles which I constructed bar-for-bar. While I was caught under that process I began imagining the impact that the song would cause, but I felt like I should use this platform to also come from an introspective position and speak a little bit of my background and also adding monumental references of the hip-hop culture.
It’s not realistic to be talking about popping bottles and portraying all that generic shit on your first video, c’mon man, get outta here!
The catch is that I level with the average listener and I use that opportunity to lambast all the weird dynamics we come across in our society so that everyone can relate to the song. All in all, I knew that when it would come to conveying the song into visual format like the way the video appears now, it would be artistically-driven and portray my true image around my environment.
How do you find the Cape Town hip-hop scene?
It’s definitely shaping back to life and seemingly enthusiastic because of the breakout of this new-age rap-slash-kwaito scene. But slowly it seems to be deflecting the origins of hip-hop and has become more club and lifestyle oriented, which I don’t have a problem with entirely. But it’s not realistic to be talking about popping bottles and portraying all that generic shit on your first video, c’mon man, get outta here!
Other than myself doing my best to restore the faith back into Cape Town hip-hop scene and taking it nationally and bringing it to the mainstream doors, I’d like to take this opportunity to ask everyone to pay attention to Youngsta’s incredible work rate: he’s prolific and perseveres.
What is Cape Town hip hop doing right… and wrong?
We’re doing fine in terms of using our freedom and applying ourselves to the best of our abilities, by doing it independently and taking it directly to the people. My only concern lies on the self-entitlement these new kids have these days, expecting to blow overnight without paying their dues and honing their craft perfectly.
If we claim that hip hop is the closest thing to black culture then we cannot afford to disregard the socio-economic realities and history of oppression.
Seeing that ‘being cool’ has become the easiest thing to pursue these days and being able to regurgitate old kwaito lines and choruses to gain instant popularity. New-age rap kids are ill-informed, they disregard and disrespect the origins of the hip-hop culture.
Speaking from my position – I’m a product of the struggle – when we speak about the history of our country, especially if you have at least lived during the tail-end of the apartheid era and if by any chance your parents were political freedom fighters, it’s only right for me to preserve that element and reflect it with the same attitude against the status quo and current obstacles I face as a Cape Town-based artist.
If we claim that hip hop is the closest thing to black culture then we cannot afford to disregard the socio-economic realities and history of oppression. Like my man Frank Gibberish said: ‘We are all accountable to our communities.’
Being ignorant and oblivious isn’t helping society at all because in the end we all have black families and friends who are dealing with hardships even decades after claiming our freedom and democracy. That’s just the reality. The whole ‘turn up’ vibe is all fun and stuff but it’ll be all over in a bit.
If a young Capetonian wanted a rap career, how should he or she go about it?
It’s pretty basic. It starts from within: by discovering yourself, your knowledge of self; master your craft; more importantly, study the game’s history; connect your dots by networking with the right people i.e. campus or community radio DJs, bloggers and promoters. Finally, your instincts and passion should drive you.
What’s the best studio and who’s the best producer you’ve worked with in the city?
It’s difficult and a bit unfair to pinpoint one, but I’ve produced my best work at the SAE Institute and Red Bull Studios CPT. I have had special relationships with all the producers that I’ve worked with including J-oNE, Planet Earth, Hipe, PH and Psych AK, creating remarkable and defining moments with each one of them.
What are your future plans with your music?
I wish I could share my inbox with ya’ll to show how far I’ve set my sights. I’m planning to take my art to the global audience. I just want to travel the world and discover my own audience. I want to be in my own little corner. My ultimate plan is to be proactive and have a multicultural portfolio. Art is all I have and there’s so much I want to offer the world.
Uno n’ Only will be released in February.
Find Uno July on SoundCloud