10 Years Down | Zubz | Listener’s Digestby Ts’eliso Monaheng / 29.11.2011
Zubz’s role in local hip hop has been that of a lyricist who engages the listener beyond the hackneyed tropes of bootie, clubs and bling. His songs have explored such disparate topics as polygamous relationships (“Handiende”), football (“Premier emcee”), and xenophobia (“Time to heal”); every subject has received unscrupulous inspection by the man holding the golden mic.
When he got into trouble with the authorities over the song “Get out” off of his second offering, Parallel Worlds, it was mainly due to his gripping, vivid analysis of the situation in the country where he grew up (Zubz was born in Zambia but raised in Zimbabwe), a factor the authorities curtly ignored. And while his brand of lyricism tends to fly over people’s heads (he readily admits this on his track “The Entertainer”:
“Since you say that I am your entertainer/ my role is to be a good data disseminator/ keep your audio and your ocular occupied with food for thought on the proper and not the lie”. He has never been apologetic about taking a stance in hip hop.
Eight years since the release of his debut offering Listener’s Digest, we decided to pick Zubz’s (Ndabenga Mabunye to his moms) brain on how he built hype prior to the album release, relationships in the music business, and chance collaborations which turned out into lasting friendships with Mzansi musical icons.
You know I need to take them back a bit/ to the era when a few noticed cats could spit/ 206/ my first Joburg battle kid/ I won that real quick… – “Standing Ovation”.
Mahala: You started out as a battle rapper, but made a swift transition into the songwriter you are today. What facilitated this transition, given that, apart from a few, battle rappers are infamous for producing shitty records?
Zubz: I think ultimately, because music is in your blood, it’s not so much what you do, but who you are. There’s a process of evolution that comes with you growing as a person. So in the early days, what I was trying to do is prove that ‘I can rap, and I actually am good at it’. So the battle stuff was a bit more prevalent. But as the whole purpose of what I was doing changed, so did my approach to the music. I know people my age who are like ‘yo, I could never rap right now’, you know?! Because for them, the purpose of rhyming and rapping is pretty much the ‘early days’ phase of rapping. For me, the process of evolving from a battle rapper into an artist was realising that I was growing, and the purpose of what I was doing was changing. I wanted to write songs that would be appreciated by more than just rappers. I wanted my songs to actually move people into some kind of activism, and to activate them on an emotional level. The thing about rappers is that they don’t realise that the impact of their music goes beyond hip hop, beyond the technical aspect of being rappers.
The first time we heard you was in 2002/03 when Outrageous records was putting out compilations such as Rage and Expressions. Were you building towards the album during that period? What was your goal back then?
I remember at that time Outrageous records had just been formed, and I was working under a company called Black Rage Productions. The mission for Outrageous was to establish themselves as a label dealing with urban music. So those CDs that they released were meant to let people know that ‘this label exists, these are the artists on the label, and this is what they do’. But I was in two minds at the time: I wanted to be in a band, and to be a solo artist, hence why on that CD you’ll see that there are Zubz songs, and The Origins songs.
After that, you released The Last Letta mixtape which was distributed for free (provided people sent in a CD-R and a return address). What was the aim with that project?
The purpose of the mixtape was to pretty much decide what kind of path Zubz the Last Letta would be on, to decide what kind of direction I would take with my music, and also to nurture some kind of following. It wasn’t about the listeners so much, it was about me. So I couldn’t charge the people out there because honestly, I needed them more than they needed me. They didn’t know me enough to need anything of mine. It didn’t matter to them whether I released music or not at that point… I was even willing to pay people to have copies of that CD. So we dished it out for free, and it was like a diary for me. It was rhymes I’d written, and Battlekat had produced over a period of time. We decided: let’s put them out, see how people feel about it, see if there’s a market for this. And it did that in a large way. People loved it; people copied it and spread it around, requested songs… so much so that I got three songs playlisted on national radio.
With me, it sort of had to be/ all the popularity just happened automatically/ like the force of gravity/ but that to me is an externality, although I’m glad to be the cat you see as next in line to be called… – “The Master”
How have your skills developed?
I think my strengths as an emcee then have just been accentuated now. I’m at a point where – then it was by default, it was an automatic thing – but now it is deliberate. I even make an effort sometimes to write songs just to mess with structure, just to play with puns and metaphors. Sometimes I do songs just to touch people’s lives, like, I will mention certain things in my songs that hit a nerve or whatever. And these are deliberate things that I do now, whereas back then they were incidental.
On that very Last Letta mixtape, you had what you described as the “performance of your life” with Tumi and Proverb. How would you say they have developed into their careers?
I think ‘Verb is still a punchline emcee. I mean, he hosts a reality TV show and whatever, but when he gets in the booth, he gets busy! And Tumi, I mean, Tumi is amazing! This guy will rhyme with Arno Carstens, and his flows becomes adapted to that beat; he does The Volume stuff and he adapts to that; he does his own thing, and he adapts to it. And I still check for him in terms of flow, like, let me break down what this guy did. Basically, Tumi’s insane! So I think we’ve continued in the same vein, nurtured it, and become more deliberate with it.
During the process of recording Listener’s Digest, the hard drive crashed and you lost all the songs. Please tell us about the events that followed.
Yeah, that was an insane time. A lot of it I can’t remember; there are patches of it in my brain that are just blocked, I guess I don’t really want to go there. The hard drive crashed, I had a whole bunch of joints that I’d done – a lot of them were album tracks. We lost all of that! And immediately after that happened, I lost my father. I had to go to Zambia to bury him. And, those chunks of my life, right now, I can’t even tell you man… it’s a blur. I just remember I got back from burying my dad, jumped into the studio, tried to re-create some songs… that didn’t work out. We ended up writing new songs, and that worked better. And eventually, we had an album! I really think that, in a lot of ways, that album was done with me kinda being vacant; it was written by proper inspiration. Which is why, for me I guess, it’s always been one of my favourites.
Yeah, because of the emotional stuff I was going through, the serendipitous events that were happening around this record. So you know, it was an interesting time. And I’m blessed because it ended up becoming something classic.
The first track was the only song that got salvaged, and it’s called “The Listener”. It was very appropriate as an introduction, wasn’t it?
Indeed man, indeed it was. I remember at the time when we did “The Listener” I was like, we need to just set the tone for the record. I’m a firm believer in track number one setting the tone on all my albums. What I found interesting was that it was playlisted on MetroFM as a single, and I was like “but that’s an intro?”
The first eight songs are very up-tempo, sort of geared exclusively towards the hip hop head. You had “Super Star” as the lead single, but there was also “Number One” in which you address some serious issues.
At the time, I’d received some e-mails, some phone calls… there was beef in ciphers, and people were online just talking a whole bunch of foulness. So I was like, okay, instead of me going out there, toe-to-toe with someone, I’ll let you inspire my song. And that’s what it did, it inspired the song, and I put the song out, but I never once mentioned who these people were. And they know themselves; they mailed me after that and were like “yo, were you talking about me?” And I was like hell yeah I was talking about you, but I’m never going to say your name because I’d be putting you on.
The writer, that’s me/ a biter’s wet dream/ a light that gets seen at night like jet-streams – “I Write”
Back then, one of the issues frequently raised on online forums was that you were not giving anything back to Zimbabwean emcees. Did you ever feel that the onus was on you to do that?
Well, I think the criticism was there because, um, I am Zimbabwean, and that should come out in my music, it should come out wherever I’m at… I should be ambassadorial with that. But what was unfair was that I am being ambassadorial with it, and I am contributing to it. I have emcees out of Zim… Metaphysics for example, Tech Diamond, Karizma, Simba… these were all people that were influenced by my music, and we linked up. I mean, even Dumi Right from Zimbabwe Legit, who’s based in the States… what we were doing was that we were putting Zim on the map without being condescending about it. So our nurturing of the Zimbabwean hip hop scene was about putting the flag out there. Zubz the Last Letta is on the continent, globally, planting the Zim and the Zambian flag. I’ve never denied the fact that I’m Zimbabwean. “Handiende” is Shona, this is actually from a Zim song, and it became one of the biggest songs on the record. So for me, the way I see it, I am doing a whole lot more for Zim hip hop than a lot of these dudes online. And that was enough for me.
For the song “Heavy 8”, you had artists coming into the studio and recording verses without hearing what the other featured acts had done. Where did that idea come from?
For me, every album should have a special moment, and when you collaborate with somebody, it should be a special moment. So I wanted to put rappers on, but I never wanted to do a song with rappers. I’ve never really been that guy on albums where I do a track and I say “this is Zubz featuring HHP”. I do that on mixtapes and feature singles. On an album, I always put rappers on with a twist, and that’s the twist I needed for the first record. And it’s gone on to become one of the greatest hip hop collaborations of all time! I feel like I can actually say that because it has stood the test of time. The concept was simple: track number eight, spit eight bars, and put eight emcees on it. The execution was even simpler: you don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to go home, no concept or topic to rhyme around, just get your eight bars, here’s the beat, go! Who cares who’s on it?! Who cares what the person before or after you says… rhyme!
In your opinion, who had the best verse?
I’m a be honest man, even today when I listen to it, I have to admit, I truly love my verse… I’m playing! You know what, if you listen to “Heavy 8”, and see what Mawe2 is doing today, see what Tumi is doing today, and you hear Golden Shovel’s album… for me, all these artists were doing their own thing. All the rappers are different, which is why I put them on there.
Joburg is still the same/ the nameless become famous, they kill for fame/ instead I’m getting profiled, by the SAP testing me, and with no smiles/ and since my skin tone’s darker than most/ you know I’m getting picked on more often than most – “I’m Here”
On tracks such as “I’m Here” you took the theme of a long-distance love affair and turned that into a beautiful narrative by re-enacting a phone call. Was it inspired by real events?
At that point, I wasn’t even an artist, I was a channel. And I do that a lot sometimes when I want to depict something that is pretty much a burden on my soul, something that is very important and dear to me. “I’m Here” is about being a foreigner; it’s about having to call your people back home and tell them “yo, I still haven’t got a job”. So there were social issues, love issues. What inspired me was just my day-to-day living, being stopped by the cops, seeing some of my fellow Zimbabweans really having to hustle hard to put food on their families’ tables back home. It was about the regular man on the streets of South Africa having to travel. Egoli is known for being a city built on migrant labour, and everybody can relate to having to call home and being like, “I’m still grinding, I remember you and I love you, and I’m gonna send you money”. Long-distance relationships can come in two forms: having to take care of family, or that my girlfriend stays on the other side of the globe and we gotta nurture this love. Both of those elements needed to come out strongly in that song. And of course Pebbles did it justice, like she always does. Every single song I’ve had with Pebbles, on every album, has been a monster.
And then there was “Handiende” which featured Palesa Mokubung. What did that song represent?
Well, we all think that love is a one-dimensional, simple thing. If you love somebody, that’s your person, and you’ll be loved and live happily ever after. It’s kind of the notion we are sold in the mainstream media, and society is given that notion of love. But in reality, love is a lot more complex; love can be a lot more tricky to navigate. One of my friends… well, she ended up becoming my friend a bit later, she was like, when that album came out, they played “Handiende” so much with her husband that when he decided to break up with her, he played the song. These are the stories that happen between two people who are in love. And it’s not that easy, it’s a very grey conversation. And that was the message that “Handiende” was supposed to portray. Sometimes a dude finds himself in a situation, but he won’t be a douchebag and have an affair on the side. He’ll come to you, tell you the deal, and suggest things… things like I think you should leave, I think I don’t deserve you, I think you deserve better. The converse side to that song was that the lady was even willing to stay, to accept wife number two into the household. To some people it’s unheard of, but trust me, it’s a daily occurrence in a lot of places. So for me, I felt like it was necessary to portray Zubz in that light, that real crude, sometimes-vulgar light. Palesa Mokubung at the time was dating a Zimbabwean dude… I think it was a dude, you never know. So it was easier for me to teach her the chorus because she could wrap her tongue around these words… I think she would hear them on occasion. So I taught her the words, she wasn’t really good at saying them at first, but she did an amazing job. She has since blown up to become one of SA’s most notable fashion designers.
Who is the original artist that did the song?
The artist is called Steve Makoni, but another rendition was done by Oliver Mtukudzi as well.
You collaborated with Pops Mohammed on the album. How did that come about?
Pops Mohammed used to stay down the road from our office, and he used to do a lot of things at Black Rage productions at the time. So I told Pops that “I’d love to have you on my debut album”. And he was like “I’m literally just a phone call away”. And just like that, Battlekat produced the skeletal beats, Pops took it home, re-arranged it, and played every other instrument on there. I got Geno (formerly of Optical Illusion) to sing the chorus. I loved it so much that I transcribed those lyrics and put them in the artwork. Every time a song touches me like that, I always put it as the last song on the album. And it was the beginning of many collaborations with Pops. And we’ve gone on to build not only a beautiful relationship in our careers, but also a beautiful friendship.
After “Listener’s Digest”, a remix project called Producer’s Digest did the rounds. What did that aim to achieve?
That was basically to give extra legs and extra life to songs. That’s what remixes are meant to do to be honest. Kenzhero was in charge of that project, and he did an amazing job on it.
But why wasn’t it widely publicised?
Well, I think a lot of it had to do with Kenny and Dzino (executive producer at Outrageous records) trying to get to a place where they could both kind of agree on how best to put it out. The timing had to be right, and also we never really wanted to take away from the original. If it had been done too early, it would’ve been weird, if it was done too late, what would’ve been the point? So we all had to reach a compromise.
Finally, what direction are you headed in now?
Because I was born off the Golden Era of hip hop, the Big Daddy Kane, Heavy D who just passed away recently… I feel like the next phase for Zubz will be informed by hip hop, but it’ll have to encompass more than just the genre of hip hop. I don’t wanna just put out another album. I want to start movements. I want to start engaging in workshops and conferences around the world. That is my plan. I’ve given myself continental plans for 2012, and hopefully from there, we plateau onto bigger and better things.
*Follow Zubz on twitter