You are dealing with heaven, while you are walking through hell. When I say heaven, I don’t mean up in the clouds, because heaven is no higher than your head and hell is no lower than your feet.
For a while, during our adolescence in the nineties, it felt like hip-hop could answer all of life’s questions for us. While it evolved spontaneously, it was nurtured by healthy doses of street corner intellect and convergent esoterica to such an extent that relating to hip-hop has often felt like relating to an all-knowing, all-powerful being.
I had these thoughts dancing in my mind when I visited an old acquaintance in a Craighall complex the other day. I remembered once, almost ten years ago, riding wild in the streets of Joburg trying to decipher his copy of Ghostface Killah’s woozy classic Supreme Clientele. Ghostface, a proclaimed adherent of the Five Percent Nation’s beliefs (they believe that Allah is the physical black man – Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head), took language to extreme heights by melding the “supreme alphabet” (a coded language based on ascribing meaning to each letter of the alphabet) to his already heady, psychedelic street poems. That album pretty much cemented his place as one of the culture’s premier lyricists, even though much of his subject matter treads worn ground.
Today, Mfundisi Dlungu is a self-employed architect. When we do reminisce about hip-hop’s importance, it is with the distance and objectivity of hindsight, and arguments about who is the “freshest” are underscored by an existential urgency.
Seated on opposite ends of a work desk in his lounge, Dlungu – an athletic figure in a pale yellow shirt, cream jeans and white cross-trainers – cues tracks on his iPad as we chew the fat on our favourite subject.
“What made me check for it [hip-hop] was that they were saying that Islam was a religion for the black man, and not Christianity,” says Dlungu. Emerging from the kitchen, he places drinks on wooden coasters and continues. “But when I checked both of these religions, neither belonged to us. So how could we, as Africans, lay claim to something that is not ours?”
Dlungu, a “Christian by default” who never goes to church, adds that it was the mixed messages that led him to doubt hip-hop as a catalyst to spiritual awakening.
“Even these cats who were representing that Five Percent thing, they were still about drinking 40 ounces [a measure of beer]. How are you gonna be a Muslim if you’re drinking and fucking whores?” he asks rhetorically. “There wasn’t consistency in what they were saying. In terms of spirituality, the only thing I found in hip-hop was ‘keeping it real’. Do you! That was the only thing more than the religious part of it because that was a mess…”
Today, the idea of keeping it real is something of a laughing stock in hip-hop. It is an antiquated concept based on keeping your subject matter congruous with your daily reality. Nevertheless, it did bestow on Dlungu a strong template for forming his own identity. Today, he still speaks in “golden era” hip-hop slang laced with expletives but without the requisite accent as he dissects the culture’s sinister materialism.
“Who can relate to holding money and just throwing it out there, unless you are a stupid motherfucker,” he says in reference to a standard image in mainstream hip-hop videos. “Even if I was to make my money I still couldn’t relate to that. You can relate to Shaq saying ‘my biological didn’t bother’. It just inspired me to be an individual.”
To emphasise his point about “keeping it real”, Dlungu walks up to his DSTV decoder and cues a track by a Johannesburg group called the Skavenjas featuring Trezpas. From the plasma screen, images of two dreadlocked township friends arguing in dense tsotsitaal about a shared lover, transfix me for a while. The beat is minimalistic, there just to provide a rhythmic guide to this real-time beef. “This is fresh, sbali. Nobody makes hip-hop like this anymore,” he says, exaggerating a little. I guzzle my drink, but before I leave, I borrow a rap magazine from his rack.
Later that day, I pass by Ritual Stores in Newtown, a nerve centre of Joburg’s hip-hop scene, to meet up with Osmic. I find him next door, at club O.S.T., which the nerdy, chubby Osmic co-owns with DJ Kenzhero. He is in a dark office huddled in front of a computer screen, preparing for the upcoming annual Back to the City festival, held outside his club and the adjacent Mary Fitzgerald Square every Freedom Day.
Also raised a Christian, Osmic says hip-hop taught him to “think free and look beyond”. That curiosity led to a passion for astronomy and books, which in turn led to regular classes at the Wits Planetarium.
Osmic was about to enter high school when, in the late nineties, Gandhi Square (formerly Van Der Bijl Square) emerged as an informal crossroads for all things hip-hop, with kids exchanging piece books [books with graffiti-style drawings], beat-boxing and freestyling their journey to adulthood.
Then a wide-eyed 13-year-old, today he has emerged as an all-round entrepreneur. Osmic exudes a focus and business acumen belying his age as he relates how hip-hop led him to a deeper awareness of his surroundings, hence his strategically-placed position in the hip-hop industry. “Hip-hop started from junk. It was not planned. People go to school to learn the trumpet. You don’t have to go to school to learn hip-hop. In fact, when you go to school for it that’s when it isn’t hip-hop. So you’re always searching for more.”
As a scholar and a businessman, he intrinsically embodies Rakim’s outlook of dealing with heaven while walking through hell.
It’s a view Tsakane Muabane echoes when he says that hip-hop was essentially about making a plan – innovation out of necessity. As a photographer and a writer for a leading South African hip-hop magazine, he saw first-hand that its innovative flame is unquenchable, but it only thrives in the culture’s proverbial underground.
By way of definition, Kanife, a Muslim MC and sound engineer, offers that the “underground” is the domain of artists existing outside of media control. The media’s control of hip-hop, says Kanife from his spacious, sparsely-furnished Yeoville flat, directly affects its spirituality.
“Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A.) was a prototype for black youth to “act on some gangsta shit.” And when white boys started acting on that gangsta tip, then they brought out Eminem,” he says, pausing to exhale smoke from a joint. “Eminem’s marketing team was bigger than Britney Spears. He had posters all over Yeoville, my man. He was marketed by big corporate companies, for white boys to have a prototype to act like, Eminem is on some white boy shit, like ‘take mushrooms with your girlfriend’ or whatever. Hip-hop has long been used as a tool to control what people spend their money on, what they think and how they act – spiritually and intellectually.”
From his Yeoville flat, Kanife runs a production company named Iapetus Productions (named after Saturn’s unusually orbiting satellite). The internet-savvy crew has put out a string of high quality hip-hop, most notably Bravestarr’s Toy City (which explores man’s relationship with himself and his environment) and Hymphatic Thabs’ Age of Horus.
Typical productions are characterised by pounding basslines, hard drums and industrial-like sound effects sewn together by suspended strings and a constant hollow din which functions as a setting. The achieved effect is of a diminished earth-bound view in favour of a universal vantage point. The lyrics have an equally magnifying effect, re-imagining minds as entire universes.
“It’s the time of silent weapons snipers step inside your mind, make you clones take control and save your soul, yo it’s the time,” raps Thabs on Silent Weapons.
In person, Thabs exhibits a similarly intense personality to the persona of The Hymphatic Thabs. He is an associative thinker who leaves sentences stranded as he grasps at other streaming ideas. For the interview we go to the Melville Koppies, where the diminutive award-winning video editor lights up an emaciated joint before waxing lyrical about hip-hop’s importance to his wellbeing.
“I got into hip-hop through what you would see on the TV and hear on the radio. When you go deeper and start discovering more, the TV type of hip-hop starts becoming more boring and less fulfilling because of its abundance and everything,” he says measuring his words carefully. “You start to want something more sacred. So you go more underground to find hip-hop that gives you some sort of spiritual release. You listen to it and you feel good about yourself, you feel intelligent, worthy of life. So it helped me, through other people finding themselves, work out how it is I find myself and connect with my inner self.
“True spirituality does not follow a linear timeline,” he continues. “It’s not like you begin at a point where you did not know and then end where you know everything. There is a lot of information going into you a lot of the time and a lot of it is new and maybe old. The searching and finding is inner view.” Before we part ways, he tells me that his next album will be a more “chilled” experience titled “Centre of the Universe”.
Like Thabs, Kanife believes that in South Africa’s underground scene, hip-hop’s influence over its listeners has often been militant and spiritual. Overall, he says, it remains broad even though the media has an increasing chokehold over it.
A personification of this dichotomy is Zambian-born MC Zubz. Zubz came up in the underground, but his “more accessible” third album Cochlea – One Last Letta, yielded his most popular hit to date, “Part-time Lover Full-time Freak”. Somewhat of a departure from his more cerebral aesthetic, Zubz maintains that the music has never been at odds with his spirituality, as it is his spirituality that informs it.
As a kid, he remembers being drawn to the imagery of the words more than the notion of being part of a movement. “My ideas about the world and God were not so much shaped in the music. The music automatically became an extension of my ideas and my ideology. My first meeting with God and spirituality was with my mom at home. I was raised in a Christian home, so when the Gospel Gangstas (a Christian rap group) came out and started doing music, I liked it. It even inspired me to be a member of a Christian group when I was young.”
Growing up in Zimbabwe, Zubz saw a lot of friends who renounced Christianity as a direct result of hip-hop and gravitated towards Islam, Sufiism or Bhuddism.
I discovered the culture side of hip-hop later but I think they were introduced to it in its fullness. For them it was about life, perspective and spirituality. At the time in hip-hop, there were a lot of Five Percenter perspectives on Islam. A lot of my friends converted after listening to Wu Tang Clan, and the teachings of Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Zubz remains a Christian today, although he maintains he has shed a lot of “gospel truths” and customised it to make more sense to him.
“I throw things out on the basis of conviction. Like for example, people take it as a literal thing for the Bible to talk about Jews as a chosen people, which I feel doesn’t resonate with the message of the Bible… The idea of hell, for example. We will get to a certain point where it’s a rapture and the apocalypse finally happens. The sky turns red and the bad people go to hell and the good people go to heaven. That idea for me when I was growing up was cast in stone. Like, ‘be good or go to hell.’ But for me now a good life on earth is a heavenly one, and what happens after that is peaceful. So I don’t really see a fiery brimstone hell and I don’t see a beautiful Utopian heaven. I see the future of spirituality becoming very individualistic, customised and tolerant.”
While hip-hop is still capable of forging communion with the higher self, its mainstream-manipulated manifestations have necessitated that I pull it down from its pedestal and see it as a human not immune to failure. As a friend of mine recently put it, my first mistake was separating man from god.