Interview With Hymphatic Thabs

Image by Gustav @ Iapetus
Image by Gustav @ Iapetus

When I was coming up in Maseru Lesotho during 2001, I had no idea that ten years down the line I would be writing about an album that for months on end I struggled to even get a hold of a cassette version of. Even at the height of Napster (and the subsequent rise in illegal music downloads), Internet penetration was still fairly sparse. The implications were varied: I could not get anyone I knew elsewhere to upload the album; neither could I download it legally from any on-line store.

In the video for the Richard III-produced song, “Those who“, a frenetic Hymphatic Thabs could be seen in various scenes, animated as a bug digging in dirt, semi-conscious of reality and totally immersed in his own universe. The first few lines of that song were autobiographical in nature: “In a small town called Maseru a pro found/ Hym the profound pronoun, pronounce it right“.

Thabiso Mohapeloa, alias Hymphatic Thabs, heralded an era in South African underground hip-hop that went on to catapult the careers of seminal acts such as Audio Visuals, Cashless Society, Basemental Platform, and others into the consciousness of mainstream South Africa, if only for a limited period of time. In no way did he single-handedly drive this awareness, but it can be argued that “Error Era” was pivotal in ushering the age of a more incisive, reflective underground emcee.

Hordes of rappers suddenly moved from Wu-Tang/Def-Jux/Rawkus-esque rhymes in favour of extended ‘R’s’ (a la Thabs’ signature pronunciation of the letter) to express themselves. Ciphers were suddenly filled with imitators who indiscriminately waved their hands side-to-side, as if to lift a heavy burden off of their nether regions, in exact replication of Thabs’ movements. “In those days I used to be offended. I used to be offended that somebody is biting my rhymes” informs Thabs, going on to state: “now that I’ve grown, I’ve made peace with that. It’s an honour. They like my stuff, and they can only copy it so many a times until they find themselves.”

The grandson of the great choral music composer Dr. J.P. Mohaepeloa, Thabs went on to produce two more albums, the last of which was the 2007 masterpiece “Age of Horus“, a conceptual album which deserves mention due to its inimitable, layered textures and dense subject matter.

Ten years down the line, I am interested in finding out what the impetus was behind his debut offering.

Error Era was released in 2001, and we are interested in knowing what the motivation was behind that release.

What happened is that I had been doing rhymes from like ninety-four/ninety-five, came to Johannesburg in ninety-six, and then did some more rhyming around my school. Ninety-seven I went to Le Club and met up with people like Snazz and Shorty Skillz, and then I started realising hip-hop as a more serious and real thing. Up until ninety-eight/ninety-nine, that’s when they did the YFM thing, and then I started seeing that people were listening to me on a much larger scale than Voice Of Soweto. By the time 2001 came, I thought it was time for me to record some of the collections of my work. So it wasn’t an ‘inspired’ album in terms of a conscious album, it was more like a collection of my works.

What was your state of mind during that period?

Well, I was still trying to grow from being a teenager and developing into an adult; just going through that thing [where] I thought I’d figured out the universe, I thought I’d figured out the world, even my parents were Babylon – you know, everything was Babylon, I was going through my Rasta phase, you know what I mean?! I was just being a rebellious teenager, developing into finding myself as an adult.

Now, since the album wasn’t necessarily focused in terms of topical issues, what tied it together?

It is more or less that I had this burning desire to record, first of all, the material that I’d done. At that time, I thought that there were too many things that I’d done, only now do I realise  that I hadn’t really done enough. I thought I had done so much that I had to have some sort of evidence of it; part of the recording was to try and have evidence of my lyrics and my songs. I was a performer; I didn’t know about recording because in those days, nobody used to make beats, so we didn’t have music to record albums onto. It was an entirely unfocused album; it was semi-childish, semi-grown up; it was just in the middle of me trying to get out of being a teenager and into an adult.

But surprisingly, in that unfocused and messy state, many people connected with you as this person that just brought a totally different perspective to rap, arguably. How did you deal with the attention that album garnered?

For me, it was entirely a surprise. I knew that people on the streets like me in terms of my freestyles and live performance throughout clubs around Johannesburg Central and Yeoville. But when I recorded my messy lyrics with very bad…my music was all over the place, very unfocused, no choruses, just verses. I was very surprised by the reaction that South Africa gave me. I didn’t understand why they could connect so much to what I might have thought is some abstract, ‘high’ music. But for other people, it was real life, you know what I mean?! People took to it religiously, and it shocked me, I wasn’t expecting that! I thought I was just recording my lyrics and the verses that I had written; little did I know that it would resonate with other people’s real lives. For me it sounded like it was just a dream.

Image by Gustav @ Iapetus
Image by Gustav @ Iapetus

Do you feel that you managed to build upon the solid foundation laid down by that album?

What I did is that I thought that because ‘Error Era’ worked so much for me, I should then repeat it with ‘Perfect times’. That was the fucking biggest mistake of my life, something I should have never done! I tried to make another album that sort of was exactly designed in the same way that the other one was. The reason that it couldn’t be like that is because it’s a copy of something that was real and unplanned. ‘Perfect times’ was trying to mimic the original album. And I couldn’t even mimic myself, you know?! As much as it’s an album that I respect, because it also led to my growth now as an artist; I wouldn’t have known to ‘never repeat yourself’. After it was released…half of the lyrics on ‘Perfect times’ were written around the recording of, and before, ‘Error Era’. What I learnt is to just write new stuff; don’t regurgitate.

Who were you channelling before you ‘found’ Hymphatic Thabs?

Okay, I went through different phases. Um, there was a phase when Doggystyle came out, Snoop Doggy Dogg right?! That was a phase of mine where everybody was like ‘I’m like Snoop’, you know what I mean?! And remember, I’m also rapping, so it’s like I’ve got my Chuks on, I’ve got my afro going…and then I went through a minimal Pac phase, during Thug Life. And then after that, your Redman, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, Killah Priest phases. And then after that, it was just honing into myself, trying to identify myself. I listened to a lot of different rappers whom today I wouldn’t even fucking stomach to listen to. I can’t stand the shit that I used to like. But anyway, I was a child man; I liked the shit that as a grown-up I don’t like no more. [But] that’s what opened the door for me to find myself.

How did the producers you worked with (Kanife, Richard III, Infa, Iko) mould the sound on that album?

These are guys that knew me for like three/four/five years. It’s not just guys that I bumped into and said I’m looking for a beat. We’re talking about DJ Blaze from Le Club; Afrika Mkhize; we’re talking about Iko, who did the Muthaload in ninety-six. We’re talking about Kanife, [whom I could] chill at his house and smoke weed with everyday. These people knew what my sound is like anyway. So when I said ‘I need beats and I’m putting them together’, they’re thinking ‘chap, here’s what we’ve cooked for you’! They knew my rhyme-style and how I, you know, talk shit from here and there, and switched it up, and get all confused and mad and whatever.

So it was more like a developmental relationship type-thing as opposed to just rocking up to people on some ‘yo, I need beats’ and what not.

It was more like ‘yeah, it’s about time somebody did it’.

HYMPHATIC THABS from Isaac Chokwe on Vimeo.

In a sense, could your staunchness as a lyricist, as a person who is ‘keeping it real’ have hindered your progress, or was it by design that you wanted your artistic path to be headed in that direction.

As a matter of fact, I think it has been a blessing. I think it has not been a problem for me to be underground and to be holding down what we call the real hip-hop movement. When somebody looks for an opportunity for himself, for his own personal benefit, and forgets the movement where he comes from and then goes and degrades the movement knowingly…coming from a ‘religious’ perspective of hip-hop, when you degrade the movement in order to gain personal happiness, that’s when you will be punished in ways that you will never ever forget. For me, keeping hip-hop special and underground so you have to dig in to find it, to find that that fucking gold that is not everywhere all of the time…that’s when it becomes something that is bigger than money, you know what I mean?! Bigger than the illusion; bigger than being lost and being whack to yourself. For me it is a selfish thing in the sense that I feel that I am okay, I am not selling out. I write rhymes for myself, I don’t write rhymes for people, and that’s how I connect with people. And if I prescribe some sort of doctrine for people, some of them might not like it. Even if a lot of them like it through radio and television, it might not connect with them in a spiritual sense.

Hip-hop is going in so many directions now, and is a potentially-useful tool that gets misused in a lot of situations. Where, to you, does hip-hop fit in, in the South African socio-political sphere?

I feel that politics is interconnected with real life. It’s one of the things that you cannot separate from the personal; political is personal first. So when I’m being personal about the things that I do not like about society or my surroundings, it can automatically be categorised as political. Whether I’ve got problems with Apartheid or racism, or Fascism, or whatever you might call it…it’s because it’s my own experience. It’s about ‘how can I improve my most immediate surroundings’? And maybe it’s about sticking it out, saying things that other people would like to say.

(This post originally appears on Mahala)

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