Sabelo Mkhabela is an emcee caught in limbo. Currently, he’s a functional writer wading his way through Cape Town alleways with headphones fully locked and loaded. When not contemplating whether or not to drop another mixtape — his music is on Soundcloud — he likes listening to beats of all kinds. Generally, he prefers ones with a boom and a bap and a clack-clack, accompanied warm, woozy synth pads, or abrasive, crackly, cranky snares drums. So we asked him to pick a selection of some beat tapes in his possession and write about them. This article is part of a series on music producers throughout the African continent called #RespecTheProducer. Check out daily updates on tumblr and follow the Instagram account.
Just before meeting with Cape Town hip hop duo Ill Skillz, producer J-oNE did something amazing when he released a beat tape consisting of beats he had made on [the beat-making software] Fruity Loops 9 (FL9). He made all the beats in December 2011 in Pretoria on his little brother’s laptop. “I had no beatmaking equipment at the time so I jumped on my nigglet’s laptop, gathered the few drum samples I had on my external hard drive, installed Fruity Loops 9 and just did what it does,” said the producer in an interview I did with him about two years ago. The tape is packed with soothing Rhodes keys, ambient pads unobtrusively creeping behind warm basslines and varied rhythms. The beats sound full, yet still leave space for vocals. This explains why some of them ended up on Ill Skillz’s Notes from the Native Yards album. “Cyber Lust” with its soaring pads and perennial bassline became “Fuck Your Day Job”. The sax-led “Crate Break 2 – The fancy Name for an Interlude” with its heavy drums and club-ready chants became the banging “2 Dope Boyz”. The organ squelches on “Crate Break – Short Word From Our Sponsors” made for a perfect canvas for Uno and Flexx to throw tirades at the system on “Give Us Free”. On The All Fruity Loops Tape, J-oNE showcased some of the various beatmaking styles he is able to pull off. The warm and damp “The Dilla Joint” – my personal favorite – saw J-oNE recreating Dilla’s neo-soul signature sound backed by those creaking vinyl sounds. He even managed to emulate Dilla’s plodding drums and uniform arrangement giving a Dilla fan like myself goose bumps all over. J-oNE succeeded at merging smooth ambient pads and lively percussion making this a perfect backdrop for dreams and musings.
Namibian producer Becoming Phil is an anomaly on All Sorts Vol. 1. He offers a variety of sounds — familiar and rare samples alike. Sample-spotters will recognize most of the tracks being re-imagined by the producer. Phil’s chops and loops are basic. He excels in blending them with the subtle synthesizers he uses on some of the beats. All Sorts Vol. 1 is a light listen, where the samples lead, Phil prefers his drums smooth. Even when they attempt to thwack, he has a way of keeping them in the background. The tape left me feeling nostalgic. The soundscape consists mostly of breezy production reminiscent of the 90s. A variation in rhythm makes sure you bob head differently to almost every beat. And at 30 tracks, the tape’s guaranteed to have something for everyone.
[Note: The beats were mixed by Nyambz, whom we’ve written about here]
With production credits on one of the most talked about albums of 2014 – AKA’s Levels, Tweezy didn’t need a beat tape to “get his name out there”. He is the man behind AKA’s massive hits like “All Eyes on Me”, “Run Jozi” and what I believe to be one of his best beats, “Sim Dope”. But Tweezy felt like showing the world that he could do more than just make bangers, that’s why he released the God Level EP mid-2014. The tape kicks off with an ear-drum wrecker, “Pata Pata” where the producer samples Miriam Makeba’s tune of the same name. He plugs Mama Afrika’s vocals into a circuit of regular 808s, high-time hi-hats and a low-octave electronic bassline. The beat takes off where “All Eyes on Me” left off; it could be a beat AKA left out. For the first half, Tweezy brings pulverizing basslines and layers an assortment of synthesizers on top of them. It’s a turn up! On the second half, he reveals another side of his we haven’t heard: Mellow keys and subtle electronics which sit on smooth, friendlier basslines. The beats, however soulful, are still catchy. Tweezy’s strongest traits are his basslines – they are full and loud but are not painful at all! Just dense. And firm. His mixing abilities put many vets to shame; all the sounds he uses exist in their own, distinct frequency. It’s no surprise, then, that AKA roped him in for Levels. The rapper needed Tweezy more than Tweezy needed the rapper.
Clean Thoughts and Dirty Beats is an on-going series by Hipe. The Cape Town producer releases instrumentals that artists – Cream, Jaak, Rattex, Imbube, Ben Sharpa, The Anvills and more – have jumped on before. The first volume, which hasn’t been followed up in two years, attempts to sum up Hipe’s career. It’s a story for another day if it does succeed in that department. What the compilation does is showcase the producer’s versatility and cements his legacy in the South African hip hop scene. From blunt soul chops to Hipe’s signature horn loops, and the prevalent head-bopping boom bap rhythm, the tape teleports you into the Hyperbolic Chamber (Hipe’s production enclave). What you find there is virtuoso use of the MPD drum machine, Hipe’s beats are purely organic; no PlayStation sounds here! Though boom bap is a wholesale sound, where the only attempts at innovation have been merging the 90s’ style of beatmaking with electronic elements (think Black Milk and 88 Keys), Hipe has mastered his own technique. In his work, you hear a lot of familiar sounds, just sounds you haven’t heard in one beat. Take Jaak’s “Sweet” for example, where Hipe loops accordion riffs over his melodic bassline. He does throw in some exclusive pieces sporadically between the familiar instrumentals, ranging from his interpretation of Nigerian traditional music, to some flirtations with 70s and 80s soul and pop. A lot of regular boom-bap beats (“Bass & Kicks”) show up somewhere along the line. But mostly Hipe keeps things interesting, as each track comes with its own mood, from the ominous “Intergalactic Crew” to the breezy “Ill Vibe Music” by emcee Mingus, and straight street (“Welcome to Khalcha” by Rattex). Not forgetting the skittering drums on “Slew Them” which suite whatever mood you are in. Maybe Hipe’s kind of production is not making waves on mainstream radio stations such as 5FM and YFM. But that doesn’t anyone from appreciating it.
Nigerian emcee and producer Teck-Zilla released Son of Sade in 2014. He released it on his mother’s birthday, whose name is Sade. He sampled Nigerian singer Sade’s songs for all the six beats on the project. Sade’s music is rich. This gave the producer plenty of sounds – keys, saxophones, and of course, her woozy vocals – to chop. Teck is inspired by the golden era of hip hop; it’s written all over his work. He prefers the boom-bap sound, but can also appreciate that we are living in the 21st century. On “Dream Weaver”, he throws thwacking 808s over a saxophone loop and still manages to keep the soul seeping through. Most boom-bap projects tend to fail to keep the listener interested, but Son of Sade is a monolithic offering whose brevity ensures it doesn’t get monotonous. The producer is not a novice. The clarity of his samples and the crispness and accuracy of his drums is impressive. This is the kind of beat tape that has you thinking of flows and concepts. My personal favourite is “Theme to S.O.S”, I even rapped over it.
Mokhele Ntho (also known as Suade Ritchie) is a soft-spoken introvert, the perfect personality for a producer. He’s the kind to spend hours indoors tapping on his Akai MPD26 drum pad, eyes fixed on the computer screen. He lives in his own world; a world that excites him; a world you have to understand, in order to understand him. I met Mokhele while we were both university students. He played me some of his beats in his room in Liesbeeck Gardens one afternoon. He had a story to tell about each and every beat he played. When he shot me a link to BlackWindows.WhiteRoses, I was excited! The brief project is the perfect backdrop for cold winter nights spent alone. The beats have Mokhele’s personality written all over them – the aeriform pads over basslines so healthy and so sure of themselves they seem to have a life of their own. His basslines are my favourite aspect of his production, not to say anything else is any bad. They are highly textured, and it doesn’t take a scrupulous ear to pick up the evidence of the thorough and calculated tweaking that went behind creating them. The project is tied together by a uniform sound yet it doesn’t sound monotonous. It sounds like storytelling without words. The producer made the project in two months, ensuring that each beat led into the next. “I repeatedly played the previous beat I had made over and over before I moved on to next one to maintain consistency between the track in order for the project to have unity and sound like a single project,” he said when I spoke to him. “The way the tracklist is setup is exactly the order of creation, I didn’t follow a selection process – I didn’t make trillions of beats then picked from them.” My personal favourite is “Fear of Dolphins”, the violin towards the end of the beat cuts deep, makes you think about your past, present and future. Mokhele has a way of making soulful sound cool!