The Spaza Shop Hip Hop Mashby Tseliso Monaheng / 07.12.2010
Meet Mikko Kapanen, a Media Theory and Practice graduate from Finland, who got to sit in on the recording of Rattex’s Streets, Raps and Us EP. He wrote a paper on the experience (available here), exploring survival tactics in the fickle, almost non-existent, South African hip hop ‘industry’, and the lack of support from mass media platforms. He also spoke to Damian Stephens, CEO of the independent imprint Pioneer Unit – who signed Rattex. Stephens is better known by his producer name, Dplanet.
So this is a meta-interview about interviewing other people. Mikko says: “Well, I’m not sure what field I’m in. I’m a radio man, a blogger, and photographer – though everyone is a photographer now. I also lecture at UCT. I don’t really have any official status in hip hop. I can’t rap, I’m a terrible DJ, I can’t do graffiti, certainly can’t breakdance! But I like music.”
I ask him about growing up in a country known more for heavy metal acts (think Nightwish & Children of Bodom) than hip hop.
“I liked Public Enemy from a very young age, even before understanding what they were saying. And I’m very fortunate to find myself still agreeing with their message; I am not ashamed at all. In the environment that I grew up in, I was very much a one man minority. When it comes to Cape Town, I think that it is incredibly racist. A lot of people don’t like to hear that because of this notion of ‘a rainbow nation’ and what have you, but we have to be realistic about it”.
His impressions regarding local hip-hop: “It is probably easier to be a rock band from Cape Town than a hip-hop group. The media here does not embrace its own at all.”
You don’t find the ‘coloured’ hip-hop audience at a ‘black’ gig organised by heads in Gugulethu. Neither will the Gugs crowd be seen at gigs organised by the ‘urban’ crowd in the Cape metropole. I ask Mikko why?
“For me, my wife is Xhosa, so language-wise as well as aesthetically, I was more interested in that side of things. With regards to what’s coming out – and this has nothing to do with one’s ethnic background – I’ve been very impressed by Driemanskap and Rattex…you know, a lot of the Spaza guys. Also, I do enjoy Terror MC, and the other stuff done in Afrikaans. There’s a lot of good material coming out, but I do have a specific interest, culturally, because of my family connections”.
Spaza hip hop is associated with rappers who rap in Xhosa, much the same way that Tswana rappers refer to their music as Motswako. An issue in hip hop circles is language, whether the language one decides to rap in counts?
“My life would be very empty if I only listened to music in languages I speak. I can’t imagine limiting myself in that way. It’s like how some people refuse to watch films with sub-titles. I used to do a radio show, the Welfare State Of Mind, for a community radio station here in Cape Town. I played music from all over, regardless of language.”
Why the rapper Rattex, and why the decision to document the recording process?
“I wanted to write about something meaningful to me, so what I ended up doing is writing about Rattex. He’s incredibly polite, very humble, a generally good guy. It was a coincidence that the recording happened while I was working on the article, so I asked him to come and hang out in order to capture him in that creative headspace. It was an interesting experience which led me to appreciate music in a different way because of the production process”.
He asks Dplanet in his article whether independent artists are making enough money:
“We can’t exaggerate, it’s a real struggle to be an artist. The day to day challenges are quite extreme here. Getting them enough shows to live on the money is tough, but there’s a progression happening which keeps us dedicated.”
Is Mikko’s paper just a Rattex promo?
“I’m not here to promote anybody. I’m interested in engaging in a very critical way, without being pompous about it.”
His tone shifts to a reflective undertone.
“These artists make music out of love, and I have been thinking about that a lot. There’s also this idea that ‘no, you gotta get paid’! Of course they’d love to make money out of what they love, but at the same time, they love their art too much to compromise.”
On the lack of support of independent music by commercial radio stations: “Look, it’s a question of market. There’s a lot of corruption in the music industry, it’s not accidental that artists from big labels get so much airtime. It also stretches to royalties. South African artists are really losing out on that. If we as the public vote with our wallet – and that’s the only thing that matters – then we may change the state of affairs”.
What about the YFM model? Can a community-oriented, pro-local content radio station survive like YFM did when it was founded over ten years ago?
“The sustainability of that is very difficult. When YFM came, it was a very different market situation and political climate. People were very open to the idea. Right now, I don’t know how open people are to the idea”.
How about academia and hip hop? There’s not much hip hop-related literature with an academic emphasis. No archiving going on. From the introduction to the Root’s Illadelphhalflife album: “Hip hop records are treated as though they’re disposable / they’re not maximised as product”. In order for hip hop to be taken seriously, there should be an academic edge to it, just as rock’s virtues are extolled by the Academy.
“The industry wants to sell hip hop as something dumbed down. They don’t want to promote it as a tool for positive thought. There has been work done – even here in South Africa, by the likes of Dr. Adam Haupt – which has served to open up some doors. Internationally, I think it’s more advanced. I follow Mark Lamont Hill on twitter, an assistant professor, I think, at Columbia University; who writes about hip hop. However, the idea of an academic discourse in hip hop is not very marketable; like I said, ‘they’ choose to market the more watered-down version.”
We talk about egos in hip hop, how they limit the growth of the culture in South Africa. We also discuss artists not buying one another’s material and the impact of social media. Finally, I ask Mikko to share his excitement about meeting Chuck D, front-man of the legendary Public Enemy, landing on these shores very soon (the gig’s tonight in Cape Town). “I’ve been very fortunate to see Public Enemy live three times in different places, and each one of those times, I felt like a teenage girl at a Westlife concert! It’s crazy because in hip-hop, one is automatically expected to be cool all the time. Meeting him was very special, he is a tremendously down-to-earth guy”.
*Visit Mikko’s blog here, or follow him on twitter @mikmikko.