Focus then shifts to the artists on Pioneer Unit’s roster. All but one – Manqoba – had a firm following in Cape Town hip-hop before coming on board the label. Through time, Dplanet developed a vibe with artists whom he felt could contribute positively to the overall vision of the label. He tells me of how he and Ben Sharpa’s shared love for electronic music eventually led to them collaborating on various musical projects.
He also shares the anecdote of how he first got to know of Driemanskap. “I recently saw a photo of a gig we were at…I don’t think it was quite the first one, but I think it was around the time. They looked like babies, like they shouldn’t even be out at night. They did ‘Itsho into’ and the crowd just went nuts, and they were just mad on stage; their energy was insane; it was almost like punk, it was so hardcore! They’ve changed a little bit [and are] a little more controlled these days”.
Driemanskap’s debut, ‘Igqabhukil’Inyongo’, was released in 2009 – a full two years after their song ‘Go and Ask (Hamb’ubuza)’ featured on ‘Planetary Assault’. Part of the delay was due to them feeling their way around Dplanet; in his own words, they needed to “trust that we’re actually in the scene”. Two more years were to elapse between the debut’s release and mass media outlets (SABC TV in particular) catching on to their product. ‘Camagu’, perhaps the most criminally-underrated, culturally-poignant song in modern-day South African hip-hop, received little-to-no airplay. That it got overlooked begs the question of whether the gatekeepers in mass media – radio music compilers and their ilk – are actually in touch with the potentially-groundbreaking content being produced underneath their very noses.
People in influential quarters only started taking note when Driemanskap performed on SABC1’s premier music video show, Live. Their second video, ‘Sphum’e Gugs’, elicited a delightful response from audiences who proclaimed their affection for the new group – unaware that the four-man troupe had been putting hard work into their craft since the early 2000s. Work on their sophomore offering has begun, and Dplanet seems confident that it will build well on the foundation laid down by their debut. Tentatively titled ‘Hlala nam’, it should be out in 2012.
While his label-mates seem to glide gleefully on the brink of commercial recognition, Ben Sharpa is a far-cry from any structured-song, sixteen-bar lyricist. Sure he can pull a fast sixteen out of his pocket, and has victims aplenty as evidence. Sharpa has a knack of overpowering emcees on their own songs; he revels in the moment, and then disappears as quickly as he appeared.
“I think it’s not the most accessible music” says Dplanet of Sharpa’s ‘acquired-taste’ take on songs. He tells of how he had an epiphany of sorts months after Sharpa passed his CD onto him. Dplanet recognised in Ben Sharpa a kindred spirit from the galaxy of electro-clash, glitch-n-blip, and all manner of contorted electronic wizardry. “I think I put it in my car or something and I was like ‘shit, this guy is a genius!’” says Dplanet. It seems Ben Sharpa came at a juncture where Dplanet was “trying to make more commercial beats”. He acknowledges the role Sharpa played in bringing him back to what, as he says, was his “more my natural style of production anyway”.
What followed from their working relationship was the ‘B.Sharpa’ album in 2008, a collection of new material and some re-fixes from Sharpa’s independently-released effort three years earlier. Amongst the new songs added was ‘Why’, a chance collaboration with Brooklyn-based emcee Wordsworth, and an experience Sharpa once described as “pleasantly easy”.
Whatever headway he had made into the South African underground as one-fourth of the head-splittingly gully Audio Visual crew, and their extended Groundworks family, Ben Sharpa lacked the support necessary to leverage his ingenious skill into a viable product. “I think he sort of lacked a coherent vision of what he could be. He’d been doing his thing for quite a while” informs Dplanet, quickly adding “not in any way to say that he lacked direction as an artist – he’s always got a strong opinion on everything. It’s just that maybe I saw a way of packaging it, and [selling it] to a more receptive market”.
Bringing Ben Sharpa on board seems to have benefited both parties. In conjunction with the French-based Jarring FX label, Pioneer Unit has been able to provide a regular touring regiment for Sharpa. In December last year, work begun on the Fourth Density Light Show (4DLS for short) project which will be released early 2012 through Jarring FX.
The label has also had its fair share of misgivings. There have been videos gone wrong: on Rattex’s ‘Get down’, Dplanet reflects: “We just wanted to try, it was an experiment – but in retrospect, a pretty dumb experiment. It’s not really our style, and it didn’t do much either”. A wry, self-deprecating humour underpins the whole statement – a British thing perhaps. Projects slated for release have also been sidelined, none the more recognisable than Konfab’s ‘Swaart gevaar’, now a legend as opposed to an imminent reality. Besides releasing ‘Lost tapes’, a collection of old recordings covering the 2006-2008 era of Konfab’s career, Pioneer Unit has kept mum about any album anytime soon. As it appears, much of the blame should be put squarely on Konfab’s perfectionist nature.
“I have literally sat with my head in my hands, banging against the table, as we re-recorded a verse that sounds exactly the same for the four hundredth time – not because he’s fucked up anywhere, but because he’s realised that there’s a syllable there that needs to be emphasised more because it doesn’t get the third meaning of the metaphor…” says Dplanet, recalling the not-so-enjoyable – but still memorable – moments when he and Konfab get to be in the studio together. The two met recently to discuss a possible way forward. Hopefully an album will materialise; Dplanet hints at production credits courtesy of DJ Raiko and Ootz among others. All one can do is hope.
Rattex, Cream, and Jaak form a triumvirate at Pioneer Unit through their shared work with Hipe. The former gets to have this producer extraordinaire as his significant other during live performances, a pairing which could bear fruit if exploited to its full potential. Collaborations with the Swiss duo Filewile enabled Rattex to tour the European festival circuit in June and July last year. This largely incognito figurehead from Khayelitsha is making slow but steady strides into the mainstream; with the right amount focus, he seems poised to perfect a formula that works for his audience.
Cream’s album ‘Bruinbrood’ is nearing completion. If respected tastemakers such as DJ Azuhl’s sentiments are the yardstick, Jaak’s entirely self-produced, soon-to-drop album, ‘Galant’, shall be a classic that will rattle the very foundations of Afrikaans hip-hop, and subsequently send milliards of fellow practitioners back to their breeding ground. Intent on putting a magnifying glass on the history of ‘the first people of the land’ – the Khoisan – ‘Galant’ seems poised to become an elegant and informed launchpad on which discourse regarding issues of identity and culture get furthered…
Conversation with Dplanet flows easily . He talks about doing menial chores around the house, speaks delightfully of his daughter, and briefly ponders upon the possibility of moving the label’s operations to Jo’burg, citing the city’s appeal as the financial hub of South Africa as the main reason (“more corporate gigs, more people who are movers”). He berates what he terms the ‘Americanisation’ of music in the country, acknowledges that he too likes some of the output from rappers with more commercially-accessible content – Khulichana and JR’s names get dropped – and mentions in passing the project with Zaki Ibrahim that he hopes will happen sometime in the future. Nothing is glossed over; every question receives a fair answer. Even the rather political issue of why booking agents in Cape Town overlook his 4DLS endeavour gets addressed to the best of his abilities.
But does Dplanet ever see himself taking on a less hands-on approach to his artist’s projects? “I guess it’s theoretically possible if we became successful enough and I could find the right people to respect and uphold the vision. It’s not something I’m thinking about at the moment though” is the answer.
Eventually, it boils down to the ability to create, to filter through all of one’s influences and produce credible content – content that, though informed by remnants of one’s background, still reeks of an insatiable appetite to not conform. And Dplanet sums this sentiment on our way back: “it’s cool to learn all the techniques, but of what good is it if you are just going to replicate them”.
Indeed, what purpose does a creation serve if it fails to advance an artform; what good is art if it fails to challenge the status quo? Quid-pro-quo, art – and artists by extension – should be the gateway through which evolution is realised.
Success, as seen through the eyes of society, has proven itself to be less about talent and/or innovation than it is about following trends. In Dplanet’s words: “Success to me would be the label breaking even or making some money, us being able to travel, and making sure that all the artists on the label have the platform to keep making music”. And we leave it at that.
*All images courtesy of Pioneer Unit
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