It’s no surprise we on the rise / been on the grind since ‘05 / birds of the same feather flock together to the sky – Uno, ‘Confusion’
When they founded Ill Skillz in 2005, Uno July and Lukhona Sitole couldn’t have anticipated that, just one year shy of a decade later, they would’ve experienced the departure of three crew members. Their deejay, Nick Knucklez, relocated to a different country and their fourth member Macho left some time later. DJ ID (short for Intelligent Dezign), joined the group for a stint, but then he too migrated to a different city.
With time, Uno (July) and Jimmy Flexx (Sitole) solidified the working partnership they’d struck with Pumlani Mtiti and Sibusiso Dlamini, known collectively as the jazz outfit Ological Studies. They performed their free-form blend of jazz and hip-hop in front of moderately-sized audiences around Cape Town.
That they’d one day showcase their music at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival was, if anything, a mere pipe dream at that point.
Akio Kawahito (DJ ID) is an International Relations graduate who left his job at the Hague to get involved with Conscious Connectionz, a grassroots community development program which used hip-hop to rehabilitate at-risk youth in Cape Town. When the recession hit in 2008, ID decided to pursue the craft of deejaying full-time.
He started doing the odd club gig with Ill Skillz in Cape Town, becoming an official member in 2009. As a trio, their profile rose somewhat: they (Uno and Flexx, specifically) were the original brand ambassadors for the urban clothing label Head Honcho. they produced outstanding videos on minimal budget and they extended their footprint beyond Cape Town to cities such as Johannesburg and London. Having ID on board proved to have multiple benefits, partly because of his affiliation to Kool Out Live, the independent events company he’d helped found in 2008 and now runs, along with partners, in Johannesburg.
While still situated in Cape Town, Kool Out regularly promoted events which featured reputable non-mainstream hip-hop artists, mostly from Europe and America. Inevitably, Ill Skillz would be on the bill, an opportunity which afforded them the ability to build a larger, more varied following. Cross-continental satellite television stations such as MTV Base and Channel 0 took notice, the group’s profile rising to the point where even the fashion publication Elle did a double-page spread on them, while Rolling Stone South Africa Magazine gave them a multiple-page feature.
However, without ID’s constant presence to help fortify the unit and collectively negotiate their moves through the maze that is independent musicianship, Ill Skillz’s momentum slowed down considerably. Life also happened; Uno moved back to the hood in Gugulethu, the place that gave him life, music, and taught him the value of resilience.
Notes From The Native Yards (or NFTNY), Ill Skillz’s most recent album, is their musical joy-ride through the good, the bad, and the nostalgic. It’s also their most focused effort to date. The album is their fifth release in a discography which includes an LP (Off The Radar in 2009) and three EPs – Another Day Another Rhyme (2005); Skillz That Pay Da Billz (2010); and Skillz That Pay Da Billz II (2012).
NFTNY draws liberally from an impressive range of influences: 90s rap and RnB arm-wrestle with early-to-mid-2000s production sensibilities while first-person-perspective hood narratives provide dark hues and warm shades, adding murky hues to their thick-textured music. Traces of jazz music are not far from reach.
The album is a rap nerd’s wet dream! Anyone can literally play spot-the-influence on every song; traces of Common (‘To the beat y’all’), KRS-One (‘Back to the streets’), and Heltah Skeltah (‘Yesterday’) are peppered throughout with the decadent splendour of now-ness. It’s revisionist, but it’s also modern; behind, but ahead at the same time.
But why “Native Yards,” an inherently apartheid construct which initiatives like Name Your Hood have done little to address? Ill Skillz would know: they’ve just played me songs off the album – unreleased at the time – at a roadside restaurant. We’re in Rondebosch, very near to where they come from, yet miles apart in terms of people’s living conditions.
“Now there’s that name-change thing,” begins Flexx, often the most vocal of the two, while Uno listens intently, chiming in whenever he sees fit. “They changed NY1 to Steven Biko drive, but people still call it NY1 regardless,” he states, then goes on to wax philosophical about the significance of not only the album title, but the location where the album was recorded – SAE Studios which was, until recently, located at Church Square.
“There’s a spot, which is still there, where they used to trade slaves. They’d put them on this pedestal and sell them like goods; like an auction. Just with that backdrop, the content of the album that we speak on stretches from very far; it goes very deep. It’s not just immediate; whatever social ills, whatever stuff you talk about, whatever the condition in the environment is – it’s actually a culmination of many decades.”
With Ill Skillz, the personal is political.
A conversation about them should have at its core a full appreciation of their make-up. They are two Xhosa men born and bred in Gugulethu, 80s babies who came of age in the 90s, imbibing all the attendant features of that era, RnB and rap music notwithstanding. They went through the Gugs school of musical knowledge, and are as fond of a McCoy Mrubata or Ringo Madlingozi as they are of, say, Gugs reggae legend Zoro. Or Crosby. Or Korianda, co-founder of the Gugulethu Sports Complex Park Jams at which Ill Skillz have performed many a times.
The conversation should acknowledge their rap music headspace – more Def Jux/Rawkus than Bad Boy/Def Jam. They’re spawns of a loose collective of similar-minded emcees known collectively as Groundworkx, mostly active during the 90s and early 2000s.
Jabu Lephoma’s story mirrors that of many rappers who took up music production so that they’d have beats to rap along to. “At some point, my older brother showed me Fruity Loops,” says Jabu over a Skype call, referencing the beatmaking software which set him on his current path. As J-One, Jabu is the chief architect behind an impressive arsenal of music on NFTNY. He composes audio cinema to massage the contours of the mind.
In high school, J-One would write frequently on a rap forum about his experiences at the now-defunct indie label Outrageous Records. He’d pay attention as artists such as Zubz and producer Hoodlum worked on music, noting down the more refined points of music production.
J-One met Uno in 2011.
“He came up to me during that whole jazz period,” says Uno, referring to their being selected to perform at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. “Everyone was just crazy about us, saying ‘yo, you guys made it to the jazz fest!’”
“J-One told me he’s a jazz musician; I think that was his way of selling himself. But then he played me this one beat, and I [was] like ‘dude, this is a very decent jazz song!’ It was in two parts; it was a very dope beat! If you remember…” continues Uno among the mutterings of the student population as he motions towards Flexx. “It might’ve been the first song that we declared that ‘hey, we’re actually working on a new album’. Sonically, it was the way to go; at that time, it was quite relevant.”
J-One details how he got on board as producer: “Around the time when I met Uno, he was just collecting beats. I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing; I think I knew he was doing an album, but it wasn’t really my concern at the time.” After a brief stint away, he returned to Cape Town, and met with Uno who then expressed his desire to formalise their working relationship. J-one agreed.
Jimmy Flexx, who met him a while later, describes J-One as a “young cat of probably about 18,” whose beats got better with every batch he produced. The album’s creation followed a similar, organic trajectory. It was essential for J-One to become familiar with the group’s history and background. Uno made J-One listen to their old songs; he took him to their shows; he introduced him to their friends.
In turn, J-One immersed himself in those influences and translated the most striking parts into music – big drums, thumping basslines, and cinematic synth flourishes. What started off as a casual exchange of beats became a commitment from both parties to oversee the album’s direction.
Renegade regiment in spirit and form / see the agents are long gone / long gone / far gone, far gone / far gone, long gon e/ but the seeds grow from concrete and fertilized soil / and life once again prospers…
Increasingly, a conversation with – Ill Skillz eventually leads to ‘the Joburg question.’ Why not migrate to the city of dreams like everyone else?
On Skillz To Pay Da Billz part 2, Uno has a verse which goes: “Cape Town pioneers and veterans left us for Joburg / seemingly it was for greener pastures.”
He begins by commenting on the verse in question: “That was the problem then. Now things have shaped up differently. I think we’re here of our personal choices,” he says. “I’ve heard this line so many times: You. Guys. Need. To. Move. To. Jo’burg!,” adds Uno, emphasising the ‘moving to Joburg’ part, pausing after every one of the seven words for effect.
It boils down to personal choices, and – especially in Jimmy Flexx’s case – responsibilities. “Also,” Flexx begins, finishing off his partner’s trail of thought, “you can’t just uproot yourself. As you can see,” he says while gazing at his daughter who’s just a few feet away, “we’ve got responsibilities.”
Ah yes, that word again! It’s what happens when the business of rap music is in hibernation; the days in-between club dates and festival appearances; the hours before and after recording sessions. It’s the break-ups with long-term partners; the having to move back to the hood in order to recuperate from that experience.
But responsibilities can stretch beyond the mere acts of existence. They become more than having to worry about the rising cost of fuel – paraffin, petrol, diesel – extending, as these things do, into concerns about our collective living conditions. It’s something both of them are passionate and vocal about. This awareness, however, doesn’t cloud that of their relatively privileged standing within their own communities.
It’s easy to dismiss Ill Skillz as being unauthentic. They’ll be the first to admit these ironies; these extenuating factors which always place them at the edge of scathing criticism. Throughout their career, they’ve learnt to embrace each and every one of these influences while imbibing new ones, allowing each one space to percolate and develop at its own pace.
We resort to support[ing] individuals instead of ideas / what if the worst comes out of em, that’s just my fear – Uno on ‘Deliver me’
In 2009, Jacob Zuma was elected president. Julius Malema hadn’t been declared persona non-grata by the ANC – ‘kill for zuma’ was still a thing, and ‘tjatjarag’ had yet to form the cornerstone of national dialogue among politically-astute youth. Ill Skillz were preparing to release their first full length album Off The Radar. It seems like many lifetimes ago.
Since we last spoke, on the eve of their Cape Town Jazz Festival appearance, the Secrecy Bill got passed, Nkandla happened, as did Marikana, the latter a key-point which Jimmy Flexx breaks into a monologue about, ending with the true and definitive “People will never forget it. Even in centuries [to come], people will refer back to that time.”
It’s a strange collection, a weird twist of shared memories and happy accidents, this musical marriage. Ill Skillz used to promote a series of monthly events called Ill Skillz Exclusives. They gave Reason his first performance in the city through that platform. ID currently manages and performs with the rapper who, if his monthly freestyles are anything to go by, will be the biggest rapper in South Africa when his sophomore album on Motif Records gets released this year.
There is a charm about Ill Skillz which makes them easy to gravitate towards. They are underdogs; the odds are stacked so highly against them that you want them to win. Every small step becomes a mini-victory worth celebrating. For their cancelled trip to New York (they had been invited to perform, but Flexx had his visa application denied), there’s sharing the stage with Zaki Ibrahim, Lebo Mashile, Whosane and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) on New Year’s eve, or opening for Kendrick Lamar during the Cape Town leg of his South African tour. The fluidity of life dictates these changes, and Ill Skillz is the by-product of that process – of uncertainties, of commitments, of strife.
History has not been kind to trailblazers who decided to go against convention. They don’t get to tell their story. Instead, the true narrative is filtered, re-packaged, and sold as rarified myths, or even worse, sequestered by the annals of time and banished to the edges of existence. Will Ill Skillz be remembered as the dastardly ingrates who were too wise for their own good (what Helen Zille calls “Professional Blacks”), or staunch believers in the power of collective action – as espoused by their efforts to integrate with all sectors in Cape Town’s creative scene, from Bitches Must Know to Native Yards mainstays (and Diggin Deep counterparts) Driemanskap; to their association with the Beatbangaz, Redbull Studios, Kool Out Live, and various Cape Town-based initiatives?