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Solo and The Betr Gang: Rapping around the republic

2018-02-04 00:00
 

Acclaimed rapper Solo and his collective The Betr Gang’s concept album, Tour Dates, is an audio trip of the country, showcasing the best South African hip-hop has to offer. Refreshing and lyrically strong, it’s already being called one of the best albums of 2018. Phumlani S Langa asks the artists how it got made.

Johannesburg - Diepkloof-born rapper Zothile Langa (29), known as Solo, quit the University of Johannesburg, where he was studying accounting, to pursue music full time.

We wonder if he knew he’d come to be known as one of the most refreshing hip-hop voices in South Africa.

Pre-eminent hip-hop magazine Hype awarded his first EP, released in 2010, called No Shades of Grey, four out of five stars. It quickly gained him the respect of established local rappers. He was signed by singer Kabomo and released his first album Dreams.A.Plenty, in 2014. It featured Nothende, Nova, Reason, Tumi, Kabomo and ProVerb. It was no surprise when he walked away with best newcomer (freshman) at the SA Hip-Hop Awards that year.

Now, the lanky, always well-dressed rapper – who is currently dating actress Dineo Moeketsi – is basking in the fruits of a unique concept album released last year, one that showcases the best South African hip-hop has to offer.

Contrary to his name, the project was a collaboration with The Betr Gang (The Body Everything Right Gang), a collective comprised of rappers Solo, Buks, Solid The Gifted, Alda3rd, TH&O and DJ Subrocc.

The sitdown

I meet Solo and Solid The Gifted at Father Coffee in Rosebank. I see a clean-cut gentleman wearing a gold chain and rings sitting at a table. He’s tall and has a neo-Afro like Solo, and I assume it’s him. It turns out to be Solid, who remarks how people often confuse him with Solo. We get to talking and delve into the new project, Tour Dates, which was released in December, to much praise from the streets and social media.

It’s already being heralded as one of the hottest albums of 2018. It dropped at the tail end of 2017 and has set the bar high for the new year. The foundation of the Tour Dates album was created on a farm in Walkerville over six days in the last week of October. It’s quite late in the year to record an album with so many guest appearances, as people go away on holiday. However, it worked and opened the sonic account for 2018 in style.

“Alda3rd formulated the concept for this album,” says Solid. “Once Solo heard the idea, he was very eager and we all met here in Rosebank to begin.”

The producer and music production controller player continues: “We had one room where all the producers were locked in. Solo had his own room, where he would lay down his raps. We just sat and cooked. Solo would sit in the middle and he would take what had potential to the other room, where he’d record himself. He usually works like that. He’d return and let us hear what he had,” Solid says.

“After that, myself and TH&O would work out choruses and themes. Working with him was easy, no hassle. He’s always writing and always down.” The very talkative producer explains how TH&O made the beat for Moon Over the Jungle, the Mpumalanga stop on the tour.

“I wrote that whole ‘it’s a stick up, tell ’em to get their hands up high’. Solo heard it and was digging it. By the time K.O came through, he created magic. We were fortunate to get the Run Jozi K.O. He sat with it and took his time. He’s very meticulous and clinical. He kept coming back to us with suggestions to mix his verse.”

YoungstaCPT recorded himself in Cape Town, of course. This sonic stop on the tour is probably the best on the album. Solid praises his work ethic: “He was one of the first to send their verses.”

Asked how they pulled off a sound that is both new and unique, but strangely familiar and relevant, he says: “Every producer in the team is either in the realm of synthesiser music or throwback sample-based music. The magic with TH&O is that he is very alternative; he’s not even hip-hop at all. Having him with Alda3rd, who’s done things like Hello Hello Kitty for Tumi, that concoction of all these influences is what worked.”

The frontman

Solo arrives a little late and apologises, joking: “He [Solid] has all the answers man, I just show up.”

We get to ordering: two iced coffees and a cold brew for the frontman. I was a little confused by the move to have Dream Team represent Durban, as opposed to Nasty C, who has garnered a large amount of media attention in the last two years. “We weren’t aiming to match hype,” Solo says.

“I mean, you heard that joint right. For that type of bounce … now picture Nasty C on it. It was artistic direction that came first. It’s no hate to Nasty. It isn’t like anyone who isn’t on this record are people we don’t mess with.”

Solo touches on the idea of regionalism that is at the core of this record and why it is essential to the culture.

“It’s where it started. The thing about evolution is that it never promises to be on your side. As hip-hop progresses, the more it changes, but it’s still hip-hop. I’ve always had the notion that South African music needing to sound a certain way is opposed to the diversity of this place.”

Solo goes on: “The process of this album is different to the way I do things alone. There was a level of faith we placed in the artists who appeared. There were surprises for
us around the verses we received,
like K.O’s. He immersed himself in the track emotionally. Asking someone to speak in feelings is a tough request, but at no point did we need to do a rewrite.”

The band was very particular about the type of L-Tido and Youngsta they wanted. Solo explains this as ”chasing a feeling”.

“Everything we were gunning for in terms of what the feedback we’re getting is what we hoped to get across. It is never nice if people don’t get it, you know,” the rapper says.

Landing seven tracks in that one week was surprising for Solo. I asked him who stretched him lyrically: “Because of how everything played out, I didn’t write after anybody. I wrote every verse first and there were no follow-ups after hearing anyone else’s verse. Coming in, I was already deemed to have bars – be a lyrical person – which I don’t mind. I guess I’ve grown up. I don’t have it in me to talk about who killed who. As soon as I do that I’ve compromised the art. That is an enjoyable aspect, especially for the consumer. I understand it but artistically I’m off that. If I say Maggz killed me, then what am I saying about the work I put out?”

They get into it and start talking at the same time, recalling all the aspects of recording the project with a sense of excitement and pride. And why not? The record is a step in the right direction for the local soundscape.

The verses

Solo describes working with up and coming rapper Nomuzi Mabena on Caffeine and other Drugs, which was the East Rand stop on the record. Solo doesn’t drink or smoke, but declares his only vice is caffeine. “When we did this song, Nomuzi was worried she wouldn’t fit in. Her whole thing was that she isn’t a Reason or a Kid X, and we were happy with that. She’s a rock star and I’ll keep it 100 with you.” He takes pauses to emphasise this statement. “Two, three years ago I would never say that, but Nomuzi has the potential to be a global icon. When she made that verse we were there, and 30 minutes before she was done, we thought she was good. She kept saying ‘take me back I want to add an ad lib here or redo this’. She took so much care in her approach and it’s something we appreciate, especially as someone who just came in to do me a favour.”


We look to the future before ending what has been a long and stimulating conversation about hip-hop. C Plenty Dreams, the third instalment in Solo’s trilogy, will come, but he says Tour Dates is a more important offering. For someone called Solo, the unit’s wellbeing seems to be far more important to him.

“We’re probably one of the few independent cliques that exist that make music, web design, cover art, all that. Six guys are behind it and that’s a small team,” Solo says.

He recalls how Kid X was one of the first people they called up, but he was the last to send his verse. “I always give him s**t for that, but he had just dropped, and so had K.O,” explains Solo. “They were in promo mode, but still took the time and sat with those verses. I was thinking those are the kind of verses you keep for your own albums,” he gratefully mentions. A few artists were unable to appear on this album, like Sho Madjozi and Nadia Nakai.

For an album constructed fairly quickly, laden with collaborations while attempting to drive home a theme or concept, these brothers definitely bodied everything just right on Tour Dates.

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