Forward The Swordby Rob Cockcroft / 09.04.2014
Garlic Brown has been blessing the Cape Town hip-hop scene with lyrical sorcery and spellbinding stage performances since back in the early 2000s. Known to older heads as Judah of the seminal group Brasse Vannie Kaap and to the younger generation as the spirit-possessed frontman of League of Shadows who had that batshit crazy (in a good way) verse on song ‘Wie Maakie Jol Vol’ off Die Antwoord’s debut album $O$, he’s been setting standards and controlling the gates of Mzansi’s subterranean rap movement for close on two decades.
A self-proclaimed ‘emcee’s emcee’, he says he works at perfecting his various rhyme styles by writing at least one new verse every day, and has mantras like “A cipher a day keeps the wackness away”. That’s why it’s very uncharacteristic of the brother to have been so quiet on the scene of late.
He’s just re-emerged from the shadows with a comeback solo EP. But why has it taken so long?
The EP, entitled Forward The Sword, is based on an important book to Rastafarians that lays out the principals of the faith and is billed as a “return to his roots”. I remember bumping into Garlic close on two years ago after he had just shaved off his thick locks and was sporting a bald head. He told me he shaved it all off because he was catching a lot of flak at the time and losing the locks meant that he could practice his lifestyle with less confrontation. Maybe the mystical bredren needed time to reconnect with his spiritual side and this offering could mean he is representing Rastafari with even stronger resolve.
Perhaps Garlic decided to take some time out because he was feeling disillusioned with the scene. In his Bush Radio interview in the run-up to the EP launch, he talks about hip-hop with the same feeling as the disenfranchised people of his community speak about their country: “At the moment, you know, you have the outcasts in the culture of hip-hop? So I am the outcast of the outcasts. We are the ones that the people have forgotten and I ‘n I is just here to remind the people,” he said.
Forward The Sword was put out by Khoi-Soul and Semels Unite, independent imprints from Cape Town, and is said to be the result of material recorded and collected over the course of close to a year. It’s the most polished product from Garlic yet. The last CD I got that Garlic featured on was an L.O.S mixtape which was a CD-R with the title written on with permanent marker so it’s cool to see that he now has a management team backing him, getting him media exposure and guiding an aesthetic appeal with rad artwork and photography.
The EP launch went down at Ragazzi Live Bar last Friday. I arrived just before Garlic’s set and about mid-way through Ruthy Pearl’s DJ set. There was a nice size crowd filling out the dancefloor and people perched in the upstairs section to get a good view of the live performance that was about to go down. Ruthy played a dope blend of music from Mos Def kinda conscious vibes and rap for the “deep thinkers” with the off-kilter beats, a medley of local cats like Garlic himself, Hemelbesem and Cream. Then she played some old school RnB vibes; Janet Jackson and Tony Toni Tone. The selection got my blazed mind pondering. Why is Cape Town so fixated on 90s music? Pretty much every hip-hop party’s concept is hinged on Golden Era throwbacks or rap that was put out at least 10 years ago. Either way I was still stoked to hear the kind of music I play in my lounge on a regular basis played in a club environment.
As the DJ set wound down, Garlic’s backing band started readying themselves and a dude from Khoi-Soul began hyping up the crowd. Garlic steps up and I see that he has grown his dreads back and has them wrapped in a turban, Bobo Shanti style. He’s got no fronts in, rocking a ‘passion gap’ with pride. He’s full of praises to H.I.M Haile I Selassie I, Jah Rastafari and positive greetings to all-especially the women dem.
He kicks off the set supported by his band for the first two tracks and it comes off proper. This is where you learn exactly what mic skills are all about. He comes through crystal clear like they were playing a pre-recorded version of his lyrics. His flows seem way more influenced by dancehall and it feels like this could quite easily be at a Sizzla concert. Ragazzi is also a really good venue for a rap show because you feel right up close to the stage whether you’re on the dancefloor or watching from upstairs.
The band steps off, leaving Garlic to his own devices. He immediately transforms from solemn Rasta to a man deranged. For his next few tracks his alter egos Knoffel Bruin, Abadon Horseman and Vulgar Tongue made appearances at random like a schizo. He goes in with a range of styles from ghetto tales in Afrikaans (“in die Kaapse Vlaktes waar elke dag is ‘n begrafnis”) to his super-scientifical-mythical styles where it’s not unlikely to hear him rap about battling wicked Babylonian foes while flying on giant Pterodactyls in an imaginary future apocalyptic world.
The set was a delight and Garlic was generous enough to drop some extra verses after the crowd called for one more song. Afterwards he stepped through the crowd getting daps, looking genuinely thankful for the support. Dubstep started playing on the soundsystem and many took it as a cue that it was time to go home. The only bummer was that there were no copies of the EP at the launch to take home (due to printing issues, apparently), which sucked because fans and converts would have copped it on the strength of the performance alone.
*Images courtesy Khoi-soul.