When I was coming up in Maseru, Lesotho back in the 2000s, 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 hold of, on cassette. Even at the height of Napster (and the subsequent rise of illegal music downloads), internet penetration was still fairly sparse in the mountain kingdom. The implications were varied: I could not get anyone I knew elsewhere to upload the album; neither could I download it legally from any online store.
In the video for the Richard the Third 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/ Hymn 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 his album 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 oftheir 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,” says Thabs. “But 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 times until they find themselves.”
The grandson of the great choral music composer Professor J.P. Mohaepeloa, Thabs went on to produce two more albums, the last of which was the 2007 joint Age of Horus, a conceptual album which deserves a mention due to its inimitable, layered textures and dense subject matter.
Ten years down the line, we went to find Hymphatic Thabs to talk about his approach, style and the impetus behind his debut offering.
Mahala: Yo, Thabs!
Thabs: Ah yeah, wassup?!
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 94/95. Came to Johannesburg in 96 and then did some more rhyming around my school. I 97 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 99, 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 around, I thought it was time for me to record some of my work. So it wasn’t an ‘inspired’ album in terms of it being conscious, 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! 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?
I had this burning desire to record. 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. How did you deal with the attention that album garnered?
For me, it was 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… hell, my music was all over the place, very unfocused, no choruses, just verses. I was surprised by the reaction. I didn’t understand why people could connect so much to what I 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 lives. For me it sounded like it was just a dream.
Do you feel that you managed to build upon the solid foundation laid down by that album?
I thought that because Error Era worked so much for me, I should try repeat it with Perfect Times. That was the fucking biggest mistake of my life, something I should never have done. I tried to make another album exactly the same way. 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? 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’. And remember, I’m also rapping, so it’s like I’ve got my Chucks 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. I can’t stand the shit that I used to like. But anyway, I was a child man.
How did the producers you worked with (Kanife, Richard the Third, Infa, Iko) mould the sound on that album?
These guys knew me for a few 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 96. We’re talking about Kanife. I could chill at his house and smoke weed everyday. These people knew what my sound is about. 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 switch it up, and get all confused and mad and whatever.
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 go in that direction?
I think it has been a blessing. It has not been a problem for me to be underground and holding down what we call the real hip hop movement. 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 other people, and that’s how I connect with people.
Where does hip hop fit 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. The political is personal first. So when I’m being personal about the things that I do not like in my 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 comes from 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.