It’s all my father’s fault!
Sometime towards the end of the nineties, I remember him bringing along a heavy-set, pale-skinned man into our home during a lunch break from work. The man wore one of those green-gray shirts which only come in size XL and above, a pair of shorts, and veldskoens. This look rendered him more a farmer than a technician who’d come to fiddle with our computer.
He asked for the telephone end-point, the one onto which the telephone receiver gets plugged in, and began fiddling with that too. In no time, I’d figured out that either that evening or the next day (it all depended on ‘activation time’), I’d be able to access ohhla, spitkicker, and a small fortune of websites I’d only heard of or read about. The World Wide Web had landed on my desktop at a record-breaking speed of 56kbps and I was going to usher in every bit of it!
Around 2002, I was set in my ways; I’d become an Internet-dependent delinquent prowling night and day for hyperlinks to rap music websites which I’d spot on magazines, see written at the end of television shows, and hear as they were announced radio. It was during these solitary digging missions that I discovered Africasgateway. Almost instantaneously, I fell in love with its forums – a buzzing community of like-minded heads waxing fanatical about rap music from the African continent and beyond.
“I’m from an area of South Africa that is very secluded in many ways,” says Rushay Booysen – community activist, public speaker, connector, and Internet prowler of note. Rushay was an early adopter of Africasgateway and its forums. Speaking over a Skype connection from his house in Port Elizabeth, he shares invaluable information about the website which was founded by Shane Heusdens, a Dutch national who’d migrated to Cape Town from Namibia in 1989.
Rushay was alerted of Africasgateway’s existence by his then-girlfriend who understood just how much he loved hip hop and desired to connect with like-minded heads from all over the world. It’s the same desire which still informs his world view to this day. Through Internet communities, Rushay has connected with heads from all over the world.
“When you looked at the web at that time and you [didn’t] know the specifics and the dynamics of running or hosting a website, it just [looked] like a corporation. It [didn’t] look like it could be one person doing that thing,” says Rushay.
He drafted an e-mail introducing himself and stating his intention to get involved and sent it over to Milk (short for Milkdaddy, Shane’s alias on the website). Milk, whom Rushay had spoken to over the phone a few years earlier, responded by inviting him over to his house in Cape Town. “He had this coloured accent,” he recalls.
“I just took a bus to Cape Town and knocked on the guy’s door,” he adds.
Arriving in Cape Town, Rushay’s perception of how Milkdaddy might look was completely altered. Milk was still living with his wife at that time; she’s the one who opened the door when he knocked.
“You meet this woman with her husband and it’s a white dude, a white Dutch [who] grew up in Namibia. It was just like ‘this is crazy!’” says Rush, relaying the shock of that initial meeting.
Other website at the time
Africasgateway didn’t exist in isolation. There was also Africanhiphop and Hip Hop Headrush (HHH). The latter is the first ever website to exclusively documenting South African Hip Hop and the culture around it. The site was last updated in September 2007.
Africanhiphop, Milkdaddy notes, is what inspired Africasagateway. He’d connected with its founder, an Amsterdam native called Thomas Gesthuizen, through music exchanges.
“He was interested in stuff coming from where I was [Cape Town], so I would send him stuff that I would come across, and he would send me stuff from the Netherlands or from [wherever], you know?”says Milk, who’d begun teaching himself how to code using html while not working his day job.
Milk registered the domain name and started populating the website with local hip hop news and album reviews. In true web 1.0 fashion, the site was static, meaning he had to manually update all sections everytime new content became available. Eventually, he decided to use a Content Management System (CMS), enabling Africasgateway to scale well with increasing traffic. Forum functionality could be enabled within the CMS. “The forums [were] primarily just about local African music, African hip hop. And then it just went massive. I mean, it got so large at one point it was…I had to move servers several times,” says Milk.
A community of users could log in and partake in any of the topics being discussed – anything from general issues, to audio production-related discussions, to rap battles, to epic discussions about the latest rap releases. Initially, users could comment anonymously on the thread, but a username was later required as a means of discouraging trolls.
South Africa-born, UK-based Massdosage of HHH was a Computer Science student at Rhodes University during the mid-nineties. The website was an off-shoot of a prototype he’d built while hosting the Hip Hop Headrush on RMR, Rhodes’ campus radio. He’d publish the show’s tracklisting on the website and, occasionally, put up “a really bad, short [real-time] audio clip” for people to listen to and/or download. This was late 1995.
He completed his studies and moved back home to Johannesburg where he started work at a multimedia company in 1999.
“The account I had at Rhodes was going to get closed. I had to keep paying for it but I was like ‘what’s the point?’ But then I realised I was going to lose the web space,” says Massdosage of the free server space allotted to him while still a student. He decided against letting the website go, aided in part by the potential he saw in the Johannesburg media space. He had contacts who helped him with interviews. “I thought we can make this bigger than just the radio show,” says Massdosage.
After trying and failing to register hhh.co.za (the initials of his radio show), he began thinking of alternatives. It turned out that hiphop.co.za was available so he snapped it up, got a designer with whom he completely overhauled the website, then went live in 1999.
Massdosage would go to events at clubs like 206 to film the likes of DJ Ready D during their performances. Through the website, he was able to host a live chat with Dead Prez during the South African leg of their Black August tour.
“I’d also get certain artists to give me songs to put on-line, to distribute. But I would always discuss it with them first…it was like promotion for them,” he says. These artists included the P.E.R.M collective (Zee, Strawmoon, Space2wice, Kju52, Tumi, Richard III, McWillie, Neo Shamiyaa, and Diliseng), Skwatta Kamp, and the late Mizchif.
Rushay recalls this period: “[Massdosage] was the one guy running the site, he was updating it. It was very basic, but it allowed us to share. We did an event, we shared photos, we shared the story of the event. It was this sharing platform which was one of the first of its kind in South Africa.”
The status quo
Nowadays, Africasgateway is but a shadow of its former self. It succumbed to the ripple effects of Myspace and Facebook.
“Having sites that had that control—not the control but like, where you could kind of congregate everybody—everything just kind of like went flat. And so that’s when the site just kind of died. And a lot of sites around the world went the same way,” says Milk of the website’s demise.
There are more websites and blogs focused on posting South African Hip Hop-related content, from the African Hip Hop Blog’s editorials, to Heavyword’s snapshots of the latest gems. Chekadigital, more a lifestyle blog which sometimes focuses on hip hop, is also doing its bit, as are blogs like Kasi Music Kona, Sistersnrap, and others.
Slikour Metane, solo artist and [former?] member of Skwatta Kamp (and participant to the Africasgateway community) runs a (Jay Z’s) Life + Times-style blog focused on easy-to-digest content. “I am not a blogger, but I love the music, so if I am going to write it with my bad writing skills, know that I did it for the music. I haven’t even scratched the surface as it is a five-year plan,” he told one publication in an interview.
Phiona Okumu was a contributor to Hip Hop Headrush in its heydays. Nowadays, when she’s not traveling the world, she writes about urban African music for The Guardian and is part-owner of Afripop. As one of the earlier purveyors of South African Hip Hop writing, both on-line and in print, does she see a future for the movement on-line?
“I can’t imagine why not,” she responds via e-mail. “South Africa has had no real definitive Internet place for hip hop to call home since the days of hiphopheadrush or [Africasgateway].”
Phiona points out that it’s not only with hip hop, but “with pretty much all the urban musics.” She recalls the days of the Black Rage Productions-owned rage.co.za, and says it’s strange that “no site has taken up the baton to represent SA urban culture in the way that Rage did.” (Black Rage went under with the 2008 financial crisis).
“Today, for better or for worse, anyone with a WordPress and the time can set up shop. That’s why it blows my mind that there aren’t more kids doing it,” she says after noting that the Internet was a different place during the days of Rage. She also credits artists such as Okmalumkoolkat whose on-line presence has been instrumental in catapulting them to mainstream acclaim.
Journalist Mookho Makhetha expresses another view in her article entitled For the love of music:
As large as the online music blogosphere is, it is still left on the fringes of “normal” life. Most bloggers have day jobs and do not have the resources to invest in exhaustive tales about an artist’s music. Some blogs while engaging and well-written (even better than most journalistic pieces) do not have access to the artists. That music writing is not a worthwhile pursuit, that it is something that one does in their spare time and will often play second fiddle to people’s “real” careers is precisely the problem.
We should be recording this
The comparatively low costs of web hosting coupled with the rise of blogs and social media have democratised the playing field for South African Hip Hop. It’s important to recall a time when this was not so, and to celebrate the prospects and promise of a South African Hip Hop which fully embraces the internet. As it stands, most artists treat these platforms as a stopover, a mere mask to cover up their ultimate desire to congregate at the behest of radio and television so as to feel like their music genuinely matters. Phiona, in closing says:
Many from my generation feel like there was something of a golden era that played out between 2003-2004. I think that now, ten years later, the real dawn of an era is happening where for once, hip hop is being given the same weight as Kwaito was. We should be recording this…
Footnote: both Milkdaddy and Juma 4 of Africanhiphop.com reference Shamiel Adams (alias Shamiel X, formerly of the DJ collective The Beatbangaz) as having influenced them to start their individual websites. Attempts to get input from him proved unsuccessful.
*Milkdaddy’s interview was conducted by Lorien Hunter