Cape Town-based Driemanskap’s ‘I will make it’ is not new, but the video for the track is. We threw 5 questions to Damian Stephens, founding partner of Pioneer Unit Records, the independent hip hop label to which Driemanskap is signed. He is also a music producer (as Dplanet) and one half of an audiovisual ‘band’ called Pure Solid (the other half is Anne-Sophie Leens, who directed the video above).
How did you end up in Cape Town?
I had an opportunity to come to South Africa shortly after the first democratic elections in 1994. I was inspired by the energy and the feeling that anything was possible. There was an incredible feeling of being part of something historic. I felt that I was on the wrong path in London and South Africa represented an interesting opportunity to re-focus my energy on something more positive. I eventually packed up and re-located in 1996.
I was amazed at the wealth of musical talent and the passion for hip hop culture I found in Cape Town. I was also shocked at the lack of infrastructure and resources available to help musicians develop their talent. Lack of recording facilities, access to sound engineers, rehearsal spaces and music venues with good quality sound systems. Then there’s the lack of support structures in the form of artist managers, promoters, booking agents and so on. There is also very little independent media that is willing to, or capable of, meaningfully covering South African hip hop.
Hearing hip hop done in African languages (primarily Afrikaans and isiXhosa) really excited me. After many years of developing relationships with various Cape Town based artists I decided to start the label. I was absolutely certain that some of these artists had the potential to be developed into world class talent.
We are passionate about developing artists who understand the cultural significance of representing the reality of life in South Africa, rather than aspiring to mimic the music and the lifestyles promoted by major labels from the US. In terms of the pressure for musicians to make hip hop tailored to a mainstream audience, South Africa is no different from anywhere else in the world. However, unlike Europe and the States, very few people have made a long-term investment in developing and promoting music which focuses on the art.
The Cape’s hip hop scene has a long, strong and important tradition (especially when it comes to Afrikaans MC’s). As an English speaking immigrant, how did you relate to this terrain you encountered?
I have always found that hip hop heads anywhere in the world are generally enthusiastic to share their take on the culture. Being around artists and fans, I learned a lot about Cape Town’s hip hop history. It wasn’t like an anthropological study, I just took it all in organically. I spent many years watching artists perform, seeing the crowd reaction and talking to fans about why they like certain artists. You can tell a lot about an artist by their performance, even if you can’t understand the words. If a particular song caught my attention, I would ask the artist what it was about. Direct translations of poetic language are always difficult but having a song deconstructed gives you an amazing insight, as all the cultural references, allegories and metaphors have to be explained.
One thing we in the Cape Town hip hop scene have in our favour is the shared struggle to survive in difficult conditions. We don’t have any superstar artists who would consider themselves above working with us.
On the flip side, I’ve approached quite a few local musicians who, for whatever reason, have either dropped out of projects or taken so long to do anything that I’ve given up. I’m sure this happens everywhere in the world though.
Sometimes it’s actually easier to collaborate with artists from countries with more developed infrastructures and industries – they are more likely to have access to recording facilities and high speed internet for example. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some exceptional artists in Cape Town so I’m not complaining — we make it work!
Pioneer Unit seems to think one of the ways to overcome this infrastructural deficit is to invest heavily in an online presence. How big a gamble is this, especially remembering what you yourself wrote some time ago (in a different context), pointing to “our limited access to affordable, high-speed internet in South Africa.” Which audience do you hope to reach in making intensive use of these social media?
Maintaining an online presence is not a huge investment so we don’t see it as a gamble. There is increasing access to the internet via smart phones. I read recently that there are now up to 6 million active internet users in South Africa (almost double the number in 2007), thanks to the proliferation of smart phones.
We recently created a mobile-friendly version of our website to give cellphone surfers a better experience. There is no doubt these numbers will increase as smart phones become cheaper and people become more aware of the capabilities of their phones.
The label has put out some great videos for Ben Sharpa, Rattex, Jaak, and more recently, Cream:
Some of these are being aired on local and national TV (although it took a while for those channels to pick them up). What has been the response to these ‘spaza hip hop’ videos on a national level?
The video for S’phum’eGugs by Driemanskap was aired on Live, which is a prime time show on the national broadcaster SABC1. It’s probably the single largest viewership of any music program on TV in South Africa. The reaction was amazing. Driemanskap’s Twitter feed went crazy. There were a few common threads through the comments — people were saying it was great to hear ‘real’ hip hop again. They were amazed that isiXhosa could sound so good and they were proud to hear truly South African hip hop. Very few people realised that Driemanskap’s album actually came out two years ago — it was like a major revelation to a lot of people.
Being played on Live was a major breakthrough. Since then our music has been played on YFM and 5FM — two major commercial radio stations. For many years it has felt like we were being completely sidelined by the media. A few months prior to the S’phum’eGugs airing on Live, Metro FM (a national broadcaster) turned down Driemanskap’s music.
Part of the problem is that people are so conditioned to respond to the ubiquitous ‘international’ sound that their ears aren’t tuned into the quality of what we’re producing in South Africa. We’re very slow to appreciate home-grown talent. South African rappers often see adopting an American accent, the swag, the slang, the visual aesthetic and commercial sound, as a way of accessing mainstream media — unfortunately their efforts are often rewarded.
Do we find independent labels in Johannesburg approaching ‘truly South African hip hop’ in a similar way, or is Gauteng another country?
There’s a video being played on TV at the moment featuring a group of South African rappers who are ‘swagged-out’ in typical MTV music video fashion, and using American accents (or ‘twanging’ as it’s called here). Hearing them proclaim that they are, ‘proudly African’, always strikes me as slightly ironic. I am not trying to suggest that they aren’t proudly African, but it raises interesting questions about the nature of African identity in hip hop.
African identity obviously cannot be distilled to such superficial elements as visual styling or accent, but in the broader context of South African music, the wholesale adoption of someone else’s culture (visual aesthetic, accent, slang, fashion, subject matter etc) is unique to South African hip hop. If you listen to a typical hip hop show on one of the major radio broadcasters, it’s hard to keep in mind that so much of the content was created in South Africa as it’s so generically ‘international’. Hip hop is a global culture so there are obviously going to be some elements that are shared everywhere in the world. However, it begs the question at which point an artist’s cultural identity is lost.
We don’t believe that you can create great South African music simply by rapping in indigenous languages. Likewise, we don’t believe that it’s impossible to create culturally relevant music if you rap in English. However, language is undeniably one of the most powerful factors in expressing cultural identity. Driemanskap always struggle to translate their songs into English because their lyrics are so loaded with cultural references. If you limit yourself to using American English, you risk losing the richness of your cultural identity.
The polemic of Johannesburg vs. Cape Town is often used as a lazy way of distinguishing between so-called ‘underground’ and ‘commercial’ music. However, I don’t believe that it’s particularly helpful as an analysis of South African identity in hip hop. There’s culturally relevant hip hop being made all over South Africa.