Poor Family Crewby Ts'eliso Monaheng / Images by Remy Ngamije / 15.03.2012
Three years ago to the month, I remember it clearly. It was one of those humid nights on the Rondebosch side of Cape Town. Town, of course, had revellers dripping with sweat. Jazz fest season was in full effect; the free concert and the month-end were on a collision course; Long Street was abuzz with starkly contrasted denizens from all over this city.
Ill-Literate-Skill (Ill Skillz for short) was billed to perform at Zula later that evening. It was their debut gig with the Ill Skillz Playaz, their live outfit consisting of members of avant-garde jazz band Ological Studies. Four plus three equaled seven, along with two guest vocalists. On Ill Skillz’ side were Jimmy Flexx (Macav), Tommy Jinxx (Uno), Macho, and DJ Nick Knucklez. At the end of the show, Uno announced their imminent German tour, and fervently thanked everyone for coming out and showing support.
Eighteen months down the line, the German tour was in shambles, a sponsor had pulled out of a joint show with Slum Village (who came to these shores later on, albeit through a different promoter), and the four-man outfit had just been slashed in half. I sat with the remaining members, the pint-sized Uno and the towering Jimmy Flexx, in a flat overlooking the city’s bright lights to hear what they had planned as the way forward. “For now, we are making songs again, just to raise the momentum”, said Uno, ever optimistic in his outlook. He is the group’s visionary, the one who orchestrates minefields for the group to navigate. Three or so months after that conversation, DJ ID had joined the troupe. I sat yet again with Uno at a Nandos the night American retro hip hop enthusiasts People Under The Stairs were in town; he mapped it out before me, over a can of Coke, chips, and the fresh sea breeze, their planned ‘free’ project which was to be recorded and released in just 24 hours. The media would be alerted, a photo-shoot would be conducted, and a press conference would be held. Live blogging would catalogue the entire process, which was scheduled to begin promptly at 5am on a designated date at the Red Bull Studios.
Everything Uno had outlined came to pass, although not necessarily according to plan. Skillz That Pay Da Billz was released, not the day after its recording, but about six months later. There were glitches, bugs in the studio, and conspiratorial forces in the matrix. Still, Ill Skillz marched on. They performed regularly around the country, shot a plethora of videos (starting out with the impeccably-filmed “Rocoflo with the Ill Skillz”, which was shot on a budget of close-to-zero by Greenhaus Productions), and maintained a public profile that put most ‘independent’ hip-hop outfits to shame. They also underwent a change of image. Instead of the once-street-level urban gear Butan, they were now endorsed by the more, umm, “glitzy” label Head Honcho. “Stay fresh, get paid” was the order of the day.
Around this time last year, rumours started flying about in hip hop circles regarding a planned tour to England. Not one to dwell on hearsay, I cornered Uno and had a brief chat about it. Basically, the British Council had agreed to fund a trip to the hinterlands of the former colonial master. The plan was to record part two of their 24 hour project. “We actually plan on taking it to every continent.” Said Jimmy Flexx over a Skype connection when I inquired why they had chosen London. Once again, Red Bull Studios were involved. And once again, glitches, bugs, and forces delayed the end product.
According to the Skillz, the engineers treated them badly and only gave them eighteen hours of studio time. The project could not be finished. A strategy had to be devised to complete the mission back in sunny South Africa. But not all was lost. According to journalist/rapper Rob Boffard, he and Flexx had quite the experience gatecrashing a 40th birthday party of a French couple they didn’t know.
Yet again, I find myself in the company of Uno and Jimmy Flexx. DJ ID lives in Jo’burg, but comes to town regularly for the Kool Out gigs. Kool Out Live – an events company he founded with DJ Raiko and erstwhile rapper Mingus – is responsible for bringing out some pretty radical hip hop artists to South Africa including Blu and Exile, DJ Babu, and the aforementioned People Under The Stairs.
Flexx is very opinionated and outspoken, whilst Uno plays the laid-back but mouthy counterpart. The kind of opinionated that hits you post-conversation. Flexx is a madman on stage, while Uno is the cool kid in shades and a backpack. A month prior to our meeting, the full line-up of the 2012 Cape Town International Jazz Festival was released; Ill Skillz and the Playaz are going to be performing alongside hip hop marvels such as Pharoahe Monch, Atmosphere, and Jean Grae. They have also just done a spread for Rolling Stone SA, and released a video for their song with like-minded hip-hop headhunters, Fifth Floor.
I am interested to know how their relationship with Hit Entertainment’s Hardy McQueen currently stands. For those not in the know, Hardy managed Die Antwoord just before they blew up. His roster of artists also includes, but is not limited to, Dirty Paraffin, T.H.O.T.S, and Maliq. I also want to know why it is taking so long for them to penetrate South Africa’s mainstream in the way that their peers AKA, L-Tido, and their ilk are doing in big, bad Johazardousburg. I want to get their take on groupies, the small-town mentality and the advantages of being associated with a clothing label as hungry for success as they are.
“Come to Gugs if you want to see drinkers”, retorts Jimmy Flexx after I asked how his liquor-happy, carefree emcee persona co-exists with Uno’s strait-jacket, teetotalling lifestyle. We are midway through our conversation, and Flexx is drinking draught. Uno’s glass of water is almost empty.
I suggest that their billing at this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival is, to a certain degree, comparable to Ghana attaining its independence. They are the first Cape Town hip hop group to be afforded the honour.
“That’s a great analogy”, says Uno in acknowledgement.
Our discussion tends to center around identity politics and the suppression of black artists in Cape Town. We go back-and-forth. Intellectual diatribes regarding notions of culture, the impact of music, and the normalcy of jazz to a youth growing up in the Cape Flats in the period between the sixties and early nineties. “I grew up opposite McCoy Mrubata’s house. I used to wake up to his saxophone every single morning”, says Uno of the jazz lineage he found himself surrounded by, by default. He continues to tell of his family’s friendship with Ringo Madlingozi’s family, who happened to live in the vicinity of his house. “And then down the road was Ezra Ngcukana; he’s family as well, on my mother’s side.”
Jimmy Flexx is more militant. His emphatic, neo-revolutionary stance meanders on the verge of Fela’s vehemence and slides fluidly towards the sharp-eyed surrealism of a ghetto youth, while concurrently possessing the street-savvy, eco-conscious mind of an urban city dweller. “I can’t be obnoxious”, Flexx explains. “I don’t know how other artists do that shit, where they can present something that is not real. I know, every black motherfucker in this country has poor family, no matter how successful you and your immediate family might be.”
Uno breaks into song: “Ndoda emnyama, ndoda emnyama / hamb’o sebenzel’ i-sizwe sakho ngo-mkhonto ne-khakha…” He has a knack for quoting his lyrics when responding to questions. It is not necessarily arrogance, but a case of demonstrating that what he writes references his daily experiences. Lines such as “hypocrites showing love, giving hugs and pounds/ previously nay-sayers, now they’re yelling out WE MADE IT/” from ‘Whole world fell in love’ off of their Skillz that pay da billz II EP, or the music industry-aware “pushing my loyalty, earning my royalty/ notify my works every time I do a mic check”.
Jimmy Flexx provides this anecdote concerning art during the struggle for liberation in South Africa: “The realest music in SA was done during the times of struggle; even the artists were producing their best work, I feel. Even when they were overseas traveling and longing for home, longing to be with family… all of those struggles. Out of that came songs that, even today when you listen to them, you’re like ‘what a great topic'”.
“But what is the soundtrack to our generation? What informs us as the youth in this day and age?” I ask.
“We like to partay ay ay!” Says Flexx. “Just that whole song. Think of all the issues that we have in this country, but somehow the youth are still having fun, still celebrating. It’s like an outlet, ignorance is bliss they say. No one wants to even be aware of what’s going on, it’s almost like we’re running away from something that we almost don’t want to deal with.”
“It is a paradox most observers of the social condition have been grappling with since the dawn of South Afrika’s teenage freedom, that of an increasingly-apathetic, meme-obsessed generation.” I continue.
“My grandmother got jacked. They took her two thousand rand social grant yesterday morning.” Says Uno. “And these are the kids we know, but you’re not sure who to point at first.” Flexx interjects. “Imagine, an old woman, they wake up early so they can be in the line, wait there for hours, then when they go home and these youngsters come and jack their shit.” I chip in with a nugget involving the chilling front-page image of that day’s newspaper story, that of a cop pointing his gun at protesting school children from Nelson Mandela High School in Nyanga. “There’s disruptions here, disruptions there… they’re tryna bring in the secrecy bill, trying to press and control things here and there. Those are all just efforts to make sure that shit doesn’t spiral out of control. Even if you walk past a stall and you see that image, you don’t even think. You don’t want to pay attention to those things.”
“So what gives of the business relationships they have formulated over the years?” I change tack.
“Yeah man, Hardy (McQueen) is more of a consultant at this stage. I don’t think his heart is in management, he sees himself beyond that. We knew about the Jazz Fest gig while we were still in London, last year. So you can imagine”.
“And what about their relationship with urban clothing label Head Honcho?” I continue.
“First hmm…” Uno hesitates, and then Flexx chips in. “It goes way back. We saw it from when it was still on paper.” Uno continues, “Mzo’s our friend; he used to produce for us at the same time. We were the first guys to be there, to rep the label. I mean, I used to live with Nick Kaoma, the CEO. We used to run a business together, but we parted ways. I was like, yo, look, you go focus on the clothing thing, and I’ll focus on the music. But sizohlangana somewhere along the way. And it happened!”
A few days after our chat, Ill Skillz are on stage at the Artscape theatre, performing at a British Council event. In the space of two songs, they successfully manage to win over the crowd; a sizeable portion of the audience is waving their hands up and down to “Ill Skillionaire”, produced by Canadian rapper/producer Rich Kidd. At that point, I have an epiphany of sorts. It takes a special breed of hip hop head to move beyond the victim mentality that runs rampant in the gutters of underground hip hop. It is extremely easy to bemoan ‘the man’ or ‘the system’ for lack of opportunity, to succumb to the we-and-them mentality which plagues our artform. Ill Skillz have – and this is very much still up for debate – but they have, time-and-again, withstood the most testing periods of their career, and emerged stronger through the process. In judging their art and their personalities – ‘originality’ notwithstanding – one should at least consider the ballsy, middle-finger-to-adversity approach they bring to their art.
*Image by Remy Ngamije.