Bra Hugh never cared about fashion when growing up.
“Music hijacked me from when I was a baby, and by the the time I was 2/3 years old, I couldn’t stop singing.”
He’s chillin’ with the King of the Cotton Eaters, Riky Rick, and going back-&-forth, back/forth about life, as one does.
We’re in Sandton. At a place called Fine Living. On a Tuesday night.
Personally, I’d rather Riky was in conversation with Thandi Ntuli, or Nduduzo Makhathini, or Benjamin Jephta. He’s worked with the latter two; a television award thing.
But, I digress.
Riky mentions, during this back-forth, the influence of Madlib and Dilla in his early beatmaking pursuits, and says too how it was other artists’ refusal to either rap or sing on his beats that led to him deciding to rap.
“I wasn’t a rapper rapper,” he says.
The mention of Madlib makes me think about the California beat-wizard’s 2003 excursion. The Blue Note label gave him access to their catalogue. He emerged with gems; sped-up, drummed-out, sample-freakish things for blunted rap kids to enhance their jazz education and increase their crate-digging confidence to. Shades of Blue, it was called.
Viewed in that light, bra Hugh Masekela and Riky Rick’s conversation tonight is not only fitting, but long overdue. An elder statesman who was already a superstar when rapping came to light, and a youngin’ emcee whose career choices make the most sense in South African hip hop; who’s well on his way to becoming a pop culture icon, are collaborating on a project to celebrate Joy of Jazz’s 20th Anniversary.
In the lead-up to the 2016 MAMAs, I played tag-along with a homie, on a mission to interview Riky at the MTV offices in Hyde Park.
The mandate: make sure to punt the brand throughout your interview.
Phil, the homie, did the talking; I filmed.
Riky was dressed in a green t-shirt and white spoti, Bathing Ape.
A Maserati, green like the t-shirt, was parked outside.
These were the early days of Riky’s King Kotini personna. Mabala Noise years…months; 6 of them before he declared:
“After long prayer and conversation with God, I am no longer part of @Mabala_Noise *prayer hands emoji* Blessings to everyone there. Thank you for the love. *fist bump emoji*”
Phil asked him about fashion, and in the midst of him answering emerged this point, one he’d provide context for during the chat with bra Hugh.
“The fashion world, really, is run by the White Establishment; that’s what it’s really about. A lotta kids don’t feel like they fit into that world; a lot of streetwear kids, [including those] that are into high fashion and designing, don’t feel like they fit into that world. For Elle to open doors to us, it opens doors for other kids to feel like they should aim for that, instead of trying to be like, indie-designers that don’t care about those publications. Those publications need them [in order] to keep running; everything evolves.”
Oh No, younger brother to Madlib, got Galt McDermot’s permission to dig through his crates. When producer/emcee combo Draztik and Young Nations were working on Nations Uprising, they asked bra Ray Phiri for permission to sample “Zwakala”. Bra Ray came to the studio instead.
“Before Louis Amstrong and King Oliver and all those guys came on the scene, people used to dress shitty,” says bra Hugh back at Fine Living.
His knowledge and understanding of pop culture and its significance in shaping history is unparalleled. He can go skin-deep when talking about Miles Davis; emerge to tell you of the one time him and Bob Marley hung out; drag you kickin’ and pushing to ’70s Zaire, Rumble in the Jungle, before heading Southward to Botswana with you.
There, he’ll tell you the story of how while working on Techno Bush, he got on the line with a record executive who then told him about this new thing called rap which was blowing up all over, then. He’d been away from the States for some years. He even spent some time in Lesotho, a country he’d earlier immortalised in song on a track called “Maseru”, off of his Home Is Where The Music Is album.
“The people I liked most was the Sugarhill Gang. And I lived in New York, on Sugar Hill, up on 148th & Convent Ave. And of course there was [Afrika] Bambaataa, Melle Mel…I just loved the stuff they did.”
He continues on the fashion beat: “These people came out of slavery and I think when they looked [at the fashion then] they said ‘shit, we ain’t gonna dress like that.”
Bra Hugh’s passion when engaged on a subject he’s pondered upon extensively, is one of his many charms.
“Damn they dressed!” he exclaims.
“Not only did they dress, they set the standard for dressing in the world. By the 1930s/’40s, everybody wanted to be an African-American, all over the world! I always say that if it wasn’t for Louis Amstrong [and] all those people, we’d probably still be wearing white-powdered wigs and those buckled shoes that George Washington used to wear.”
An influential figure who transcended the ages, and at times found himself at odds with the very music he helped style, and with the black community at large for what they deemed to be Uncle Tom-type relationship with the government of Cold War-era America. He didn’t give a fuck though, Pops, he didn’t. He knew his black self. He had, perhaps, thought through things more than all of us then, and reconciled with some.
He was at a higher place.
Bra Hugh credits Louis Amstrong/Satchmo/Pops, and other figures that became influential in black America during the twentieth century, as having changed how the world lives — its very fabric, from how we walk to how we cook what we eat, essentially.
“Usually when people talk about jazz, they just talk about the musicians. But that first group of people [who] came out of New Orleans actually civilised the world. And out of that came all the genres. If it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be Mr. Kotini!”
When talk about South African hip hop takes place, we only focus on the songs. It’s part of the reason why the scene in general feels stagnant; arguably in a slump, even. Following a 3-year run of OG-status albums from the likes of K.O., Reason, AKA and more, no major 2017 release feels like an inspired effort.
Cassper, trash. Reason, trash. Riky…are we to classify that EP as hip hop even? It’s so far been so bad a year that even AKA and Anatii’s much-hyped collaborative effort, is trash.
The stasis in the rap industry currently is either of the following: An unravelling, like it so happened with kwaito; or a change of guard, and hence the calm before the nu kids kick down barriers and bring a bloodclot noise through the area.
Riky’s had a rocky relationship with fashion. In ’97, his family moved to Austria. He felt out of place as an out-of-towner, stuck in-between, unsure of what sub-culture to identify with. That’s when he took the decision to always try his best to stand out.
“My love for sneaker sort of developed from that. I would try to collect as many sneakers as possible, just so that I could be cool,” he says, and I recall the time at MTV when he spoke about how it was his father that always made sure that he always made a dope pair of sneaks.
Tonight he’s tracksuit mafia’d up in Gucci’s athleisure collection, Spring/Summer 2017, and rocks a pair of Air Jordan 1 Retro high’s, blue and black.
Fashion’s therapeutic for Riky.
He tells bra Hugh that he can sit on-line for extensive periods, “just looking at clothes”. He says that it’s something he’s still trying to figure out, and draws a parallel to when he first started making beats.
“That’s why I can wear different things; try this and try that, wear a skirt and wear a doek…it doesn’t matter to me, cuz it’s really just [an] exploration of feelings.”
Bra Hugh got his love for fashion ignited when he was 11 years old, round about Riky’s age, though many decades earlier. He speaks of how his best friend — and the person who taught him how to play trumpet — Stompie Manana’s brothers were bad-ass dressers, and how Stompie’s hand-me-downs ignited in him a still-simmering thread passion.
“He had Cashmere jerseys, with maybe like Dodd here and there. But it was mainly Cashmere,” he says, before correcting himself to pronounce it the was it was back then: CAJ-MIYA!
“I wanted to hang out with him; it was him and (bassist) Monty Mahobe. When they were dressed, they’d walk a certain way,” he continues the story, raising his hands mid-air and wiggling his feet to illustrate his point. “Their shoes looked up, they called it Ma-beka’s, mabeka-phezulu.”
He wanted to be Monty, and was willing to do whatever to see it happen, including failing what was then referred to as the Second Form.
“I was always willing to change my life for friends,” he says during the chat.
(In his book, bra Hugh outlines how this part of his life played out with his father, a man whose ass-whoopings render him a legend of Still Grazing’s pages.)
Stompie approached Hughie one day: “Sani, I can see that you like us. And I like you. But I can’t hang with you.”
Why, asked Hughie.
“Beause you wear John Drake’s. Nka se bonoe le uena, you have to get a St. Louis.”
The shoe was four pounds and some change, a fortune in those days.
Bra Hugh resorted to taking some of the money from the stipend he used to receive from his father, and managed to save enough to buy his way into cool kid circles.
“The day I took out that St. Louis shoe was my birth,” he says. A concealed smile tugs left and tugs right, threatening to break free from the corners of his mouth. His eyes, sharp as ever, glisten, offering a glimpse into the joy he must’ve felt on that day.
“There was a culture of dressers,” says bra Hugh. He mentions some of them: The Americans, Selenki, La Luki.
The Ninevites, I say to myself, silently.
“Over the years, I became an expert. When you become an expert is when tough guys stop you in the streets: ‘Sani, kom hierso, kom hierso'”
He flicks his index finger.
“Wat is die jas die,” continues bra Hugh, laughter emerging from all across the room, a lit-for-filming cosy set-up with sofas and chairs and tables, filled with a mix of musicians, media personalities and businesspeople. ”
Bra Hugh holds an imaginary shoe in his hand, and speaks like the street fashion gahds would’ve back in the cut: “Madala, kyk die skoene man, kyk die skoooene!”
He throws both of his hands up.
“I got carried away. Now I can’t wear any kind of wool but CAJ-MIYA.” says bra Hugh.
At the MTV offices, Riky says that he would rather be making music that is challenging to make, and to put out.
“Unfortunately, out of what I perform, I perform for 30-45 minutes and, to tell you the truth, all people wanna hear is hits.”
I ask him whether there’ll ever be a point at which he’s comfortable enough to perform the album songs.
“You’ve gotta balance…if you’re booked at an event, and it’s a festival and there are so many thousands of people, they just wanna hear the hits.”
“The question is ‘am I going to step out of that space?’ Um, that’s gonna have to be a risk…we’re gonna have to see if we take or not. But, I would definitely like to do stuff that’s more musical, but you have to be at a stage where you’re financially secure [in order] to do that. Cuz not everyone understands.”
Sidenote: Riky’s the new Vaseline ambassador. His Russian Bear ambassadorship’s seen him on Billboards as far out as Idutywa in the Eastern Cape.
“Do I see myself doing this for 10 years? No. Do I see myself developing into someone that does things in different fields? Yes. So, if I take a left turn completely, it’s not gonna be because music is the first thing on my plate. I’ll get back to the real reason why we did music, which was for fun. And once you do things for fun, you could do anything and it doesn’t matter what people think about it.”
With this collaboration, Riky has access into the storied crates of one of the world’s most valuable musician.
This here brother’s doin’ it!