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Ready for the hip-hop headrush?

2008-01-22 09:04
For years Kwaito has been seen as the South African version of hip-hop because like hip-hop it became a sub-culture for the youth. Just like American youngsters who formed their identities through hip-hop, South Africans were influenced by that ‘tough gangster wearing All Stars and standing on street corners’ look portrayed in kwaito music videos. But now that kwaito is dead, maybe hip-hop culture is ready to take over. And when it does these avant-garde artists will be at the forefront of the whole movement!

The only difference is that these cats won’t be spreading the message of violence, tsotsis, fancy cars and hoochie mamas which we see in hip-hop today. The label is split into two. On one side you have avant-garde emcees at the cutting edge of hip-hop such as Ben Sharpa, KONFAB and The Realist. On the other hand you’ve got kasi-flavoured ‘Spaza’ rappers like Rattex and Driemanskap. They’re both about breaking moulds, pushing boundaries and taking African hip-hop to a whole new level.

Read the quickie interview with Pioneer Unit CEO, Damian Stephens
Who is Pioneer Unit?
Pioneer Unit is an independent Cape Town-based record label that I set up last year. Our core belief is that Africa is the birthplace of rhythm – that rhythm found its way to the Caribbean through the music of the slaves where it eventually became Reggae and Dancehall. From there it traveled to the US where it evolved into Hip Hop. Soon after, it spread out around the world, and back to Africa. We represent one completed circle in Hip Hop’s journey. Our mission is to keep that journey alive by making innovative African Hip Hop that is at home anywhere in the world.

Pioneer Unit artists seem to be making waves overseas, but are hardly known in Mzansi – why?
Whilst our artists may not be household names yet, Ben Sharpa is on this month’s cover of Hype Magazine, and has also been featured in Cosmopolitan and One Small Seed. However, unless you are making format-friendly pop music, it is very difficult to get on to the radio as we lack specialist music shows in South Africa. Sharpa has gained a lot of attention overseas because niche music is well supported by various media channels.

Who are the key players, the “next big things” and why?
We consider anyone we work with to be an important artist. Ben Sharpa will be releasing his solo album, ‘B. Sharpa’ in the first quarter of 2008 so that’s definitely something to look out for. We also expect The Realist to make waves too. On the Spaza side, look out for Rattex and Driemanskap this year – both are capable of becoming big stars in South Africa.
What kind of hip-hop artists do you sign? Why?
Beyond having the basic skills, we sign artists with originality who aren’t afraid to experiment with different genres and move out of their comfort zones. We also look for artists who understand that Hip Hop, more than any other musical art form, is about addressing important issues and representing where you’re from.

It’s a Mzansi hip-hop stereotype that Jozi is just about bling and Benjamins and Cape Town is stuck in ‘keep it real’ consciousness. Where does Pioneer Unit fit in?
We’re the yin and yang, the heaven and the earth. We’re the unity of opposites, the opposing but complimentary forces that underpin life. Everyone needs to eat - being a starving artist just isn’t practical. We believe it’s possible to have something worthwhile to say and still make money. We are acutely aware that there are important issues that need to be discussed, but we like to party too.

Tune into our Free Top 10 Pioneer Unit MP3

Ben Sharpa, Terror MC, Rato, Jaak
Welcome to ekapa aka Cape Town with this reggae-flavoured joint taken from Damian “Jr Gong” Marley’s classic “Welcome to Jamrock” tune.
Listen: Welcome to the Cape Flats

Ephniko feat. Terror MC
Latin America meets Africa in this unique blend of English, Spanish and Afrikaans rhymes with traditional Zimbabwean folk singing undertones.
Listen: Third World Citizens

Tune into this conscious does of hip-swinging, head-nodding dancehall and dub filtered hip-hop. Keep it kasi.
Listen: How Could It be

Driemanskap feat. Macho
You’ve just got to admire the ‘clicks’ in these Xhosa rhymes from this three-man crew from Gugulethu.
Listen: Go and Ask (Hamb’ubuza)

Ben Sharpa
Tune into this beat-bopping rap by Mzansi’s most accomplished lyricist inspired by acoustic-rock legend Neil Young’s classic “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)”.
Listen: Into The Black

Middle Finga
Middle Finga takes us on a journey to the streets of ekasi with his unique ‘Spaza’ hip hop ‘vernac’ raps backed by exceptional traditional Zulu vocals.
Listen: Kasiology

One of the most inspired and agile wordsmith to have come out of Maseru tells us popular culture rocks in this hypnotic jam.
Listen: It Rocks

Middle Finga, Oracle Flo, Rattex, aNon
A raw-tongued tune dedicated to all the so-called fly chicks. “No one is perfect,” they profess.
Listen: Battle of the Sexes

Oracle Flo
Move over and let the Oracle flow in this kasi-flavoured joint where he rambles on about the state of hip hop in Mzansi.
Listen: Prophetic Bastard

Tune into this urban hip-hop poetic rhymes on whether change and transformation will ever arrive.
Listen: UCTorchange

-Tiisetso Tlelima

They may not be household names in the Mzansi hip-hop scene just yet, but Pioneer Unit is destined to elevate underground hip-hop to new heights! These cats are determined to change the perception that Kwaito is South African hip-hop. Like the army unit that inspired their name, Pioneer Unit is here to lay the foundation for Mzansi hip-hop’s planetary assault.

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