10 Years of One Last Letta: A conversation with Zubz

Words by Sekese Rasephei

Zubz has managed to create music that transcends time. His legacy is best described as one that is embodied by unwavering reverence, compelling his fans to continue revisiting his catalogue with the same fervour as when he first released. With a number of mixtapes and EPs under his belt, it is his first three official solo albums that are fondly placed at the pinnacle of South African Hip Hop. The three albums were released in a space of six years on Outrageous Records. We decided to ask him to look back and reflect on his most celebrated works.

The Plug: It’s been ten years since the release of your third album, Cochlea – One Last Letta in 2009. It was preceded by your debut Listener’s Digest in 2004, as well as your sophomore, Headphone Music (In A Parallel World) in 2006. Those three albums are widely considered to be the foremost trilogy of classic South African Hip Hop albums by one emcee. How did you manage to create such seminal work so early in your career and with such a short amount of time between each project?

Zubz: Firstly, I should clarify that I didn’t plan on making a trilogy of albums like that. I never had that kind of planning because I generally don’t plan much when I work creatively. I start something and go wherever it takes me. The conception of the albums forming a trinity came way later.

Really? That’s fascinating because the obvious thing that points to the conclusion that the three albums are closely related is the shared “listening” reference embedded in their respective titles. Can you take us through the creation of each album and how they became what would eventually be known as the Listening Series?

When we started doing Listener’s Digest, with Battlekat in 2003, we had eventually made about 20 or 30 songs. Then we lost all of them because of a computer crash. We tried to recover what we could but most of it was gone. BK (Battlekat) and I had to start from scratch. Thankfully, our work ethic when we created at that time was quite high and effective. We used to be in studio every day. Black Rage Studios where Outrageous Records was, in Norwood. Every single day, BK would be in studio making music. Either for H20 or ProVerb or me. Even Jabba would come through sometimes. Amu as well. There was just always cats there creating music, daily. This is why losing 30 songs worth of a project wasn’t that much of a thing, you know. We just looked at it like, Aww man, we worked so hard for that stuff, what are we going to try and recreate, and what are we just going to forget about? There were ultimately some songs that we didn’t bother to recreate. There were others that we ended up recreating.

That sounds like an incredible environment to create in. I can understand how it added to your resolve to continue with the album despite the setback.

Certainly but that was not the only setback. My dad then passed away in 2004. We had already begun recreating and trying to recover some songs. I have to tell you, during that period, I don’t remember much man. I guess mentally, when one grieves, things get blocked out. I don’t remember how far we had gone in the recording process when he passed. I don’t remember how deeply the music had progressed. Were we already into an album then? How deep into the process were we? At that point I was just like, Yo! My pops just died! I went to the funeral in Zambia and buried my pops. Came back and started making music but truthfully, none of it is clear to me right now. I think the entire process ended up being very cathartic because having something to do kept my mind off what was going on. But I clearly wasn’t present enough because I don’t have too many memories of that year. That is testament to the fact that there was no planning. One just kind of goes with what happens, as it happens in the moment. So the songs that came out in the end, were songs that just birthed themselves in the moments emanating from those sequence of events. How we created them was a collaborative process with everybody, from BK, through to all the cats on “Heavy 8”, through to Pops Mohammed for the outro, “Brave New Day”. And it was literally like, when we were done with Listeners… we were done with the project. Dzino curated it, selected the final joints and basically executive produced the whole thing.

Did Battlekat produce the whole the album?

No. He was the main producer but he didn’t do the whole album, just the bulk of it. He crafted the sound of Listener’s Digest. That’s the Battlekat album.

Listeners Digest was a classic debut which was evidently carried by great strife in its making. One can say it’s almost tradition for great emcees to have great debuts, but the feat is not so easy with sophomores. Take us through Headphone Music (In A Parallel World) which was not only a brilliant follow up to a classic, but a classic in its own right.

 I wrote most of that album while I was in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. We were doing a campaign with some cats from Europe. When we would travel between venues and cities, I would be listening and writing to the beats I was sent. I would always have my headphones on as I wrote. That’s how it dawned on me that this is really listening music. I don’t know how much of it was informed by the fact that my previous album was called Listeners Digest. It could have been, but in that moment, I was really not thinking about that. I just knew that this is new music and I’m working towards another album. I was in a transit space and really far removed because I was in another world. I was seeing myself differently, I was seeing Africa differently, and I was seeing the world differently. I was forced to acknowledge that, as a person, an artist, an African, a man, a human being, there’s a perspective one has of all of these things. When they step out of that perspective, they start to see them differently, hence Parallel World. I wrote the whole project in that frame of mind. I came back to South Africa and we started recording. We laced the songs in a short space of time and that’s how Headphone Music in a Parallel World came out.”

Who handled production on that album?

Mizi and Nyambo were for Headphone Music what BK was for Listeners. They also didn’t produce the whole album but they produced the majority of the songs on there. They also dictated the mood, the energy and the direction it took because they were the ones whom I was immersed in musically. I wrote around their soundscapes, and everyone else that contributed music on that album, contributed around their soundscapes.

When did the light bulb go on in your head that you’re creating a series of albums that will be grouped together, not only because they are designed by you, but also because they are inextricably linked by their titles and subject matter?

It was only with Cochlea: One Last Letta when I realized that there was a consistent theme threading my albums up to that point. This was the only album informed by the reality that there was two listening-themed albums already. By the time we started with it, there was now a deliberate overarching pursuit to make it another listening themed album. However, we also decided that this would be the last one in that series, hence One Last Letta, which is also a play on my nickname. It also referenced the digital shift that was at its impetus at the time which compelled us to decide that this would be the one last physical CD of my albums we would release. Everything would be released digitally moving forward. Cochlea obviously has to do with the ear and I liked it, in part, because it’s in the inner-ear where resonance happens and also because of its anatomical illustration, you know? The spiral shape, which sort of forces you to go in.  And I have never been afraid of my music requiring people to really listen closely and go in.

Listeners Digest and Headphone Music (In A Parallel World) get the critical acclaim they rightfully deserve. Cochlea – One Last Letta on the other hand, doesn’t get the same shine. While it’s certainly deserving, why do you think it is not lauded to the same degree as the other two? Are there any fundamental differences that help to make sense of its reception?

Cochlea was sonically lighter on the ear, compared to Listener’s and Headphone. What’s also interesting, as you point out, is that Listener’s and Headphone are both way more critically acclaimed and have the songs most people point to when they think of my catalogue. As far as numbers go though, you know? Radio spins and just overall reach, Cochlea is the album with the most success. The songs on it charted the highest.  “Part Time Lover – Full Time Freak” was the first time I had a number one single in South Africa, on more than one radio station, simultaneously. 5 FM, Kaya FM, Ukhozi FM and Metro FM all had it at number one in the same space of time. I had never experienced anything like that. I didn’t even think I was that kind of artist.  I didn’t think that was for me. I expected that for people like Jabba and Skwatta. That’s their territory. H20 maybe, not me. Even ProVerb was more likely than I would have been but then that joint did that. Another thing we set out to do with Cochlea, was to make the music a little less dense while also employing more instrumentation and layering to the songs. Take these two songs for example, “A Different Life – Live It Up” featuring Pebbles from Cochlea, and “My Distress” featuring Pebbles from Headphone. Same writer, same featured artist singing on each hook, similar subject matter in that they both raise awareness on social issues, however, “A Different Life…” was less dense, more lighter, had a higher frequency and was more radio and listener friendly. That was my entire thinking with that entire album. It had a lot more variety in terms of producers as compared to the previous two but Ameen was the guy who served as a constant presence in its direction. He contributed substantially.

This makes a lot of sense.  Listeners Digest and Headphone Music dealt with darker themes a lot more than Cochlea – One Last Letta did. When you look at songs like “Hadiende” or more specifically “Get Out” and “Fight Back”, what do you think of them in today’s context especially?

Those songs were harsh you know? With very coarse imagery. Especially for the time they came out in. If “Get Out” came out today, I don’t think anyone would care about it. It wouldn’t cause the same fervour it did when it came out. Largely because, with the popularity of social media and the resultant desensitization to a lot of things as well as the bombardment of information, the discourse today is indicative of the energies around the world. It’s not just in South Africa or Africa, it’s a global thing. It’s not just about black or white, male or female, rich or poor. The constant conflict it’s about anything that’s not ‘me’. Anything that’s different to ‘me’ or doesn’t come where ‘I’ come from. You know? It’s this whole adversarial approach to everything bro. When you go online, that’s the running theme. I find that weird because online, the silos that are built are like echo chambers for real, like these are the people who feel like you. You’re only ever surrounded by people like you online. The algorithms are designed to have similar people in the same online space. Whether it’s by similar region or similar information consumption.  Yet each and everyday people are at each other’s throats. This is why I’ve taken an indefinite hiatus on social media. My energies suffer in that space. I have to figure out a way to engage social media without internalising all I see because I have too much empathy and the constant conflict, whether trivial or serious gets to me. What I acknowledge is that when I did those songs, it came from a place of angst. Justified angst at that. However, my stance is, that feeling can’t be the predominant emotion. So to be honest, I’m not particularly proud of those songs because that energy of adversity is not good for me man. I don’t like the feeling of being associated with anything adversarial. When you immortalise those energies, whether it’s through tweets or posts or songs, you perpetuate them. I don’t like that.

Looking at the trajectory that the hip hop industry has taken from the time when you were starting out and the time you were most active, what are some of the most glaring differences? How would you advise an aspiring artist to navigate a rap career today?

Back then, when a label signed you it meant make or break. When they said, we’re signing you, it meant they got you. You just had to focus on your writing and your craft, they would take care of the rest. The chances of an artist making an impact and being the best that they could be were higher. The flip side to that coin though is can you live up to their expectation? Is it worth it for them to stick with you? Are you going to be worth the hassle for them? Are you going to be worth the investment of time, money and emotions into you? For a lot of people getting signed seemed to be their goal, but I think staying signed ought to have been their bigger goal. It’s easy to impress for the first time but can you consistently churn out the numbers and keep impressing? This is why I think I was very lucky to have Outrageous who stuck with me, through out that entire time I released all three of those albums. Today, social media is the big engine room. Being signed doesn’t have the same make or break effect it did back then. Artists trying to breakout today just need to be very clear with the vision they have for themselves. The label route is still viable but so is indie. It just depends on what the artist wants for themselves and their career. Personally, if I was trying to breakout now, I would invest more time on social media strategies rather than trying to be signed.

What do you make of your place in South African Hip Hop and by extension, the constant grouping of yourself, Tumi and ProVerb throughout your career? Did the inevitable comparisons ever rub you up the wrong way?

The yoking thing for me makes sense. We yoked ourselves anyway. Tumi, Zubz and ProVerb. It’s like a unit. It’s obvious that it would be a unit because we made ourselves that way. Above everything else, we’re also really good friends. We’re family. We all hang out together, we create together, we talk about each other, and our names come up with each other. We love each other. Skills wise, lyrically? I always tell people this. ProVerb killed me in a battle. Completely obliterated me. We battled on Yfm. At the time, I was the reigning battle-rap champion in Jo’burg. So this Kimberly kid comes through and makes it to the final. We went head to head, bar for bar live on air and he killed me. Bodied me. I was dumbfounded, like, who’s this guy? From that moment on, we became good friends and we have been since. So as far as penmanship goes, in terms of metaphors, similes and punchlines, ProVerb kills me. All day every day. He’s nicer with that tool. As far as star quality, charisma, flow and sheer penmanship, T is my guy. He’s my favourite in the world. I say this as a guy who loves Black Thought, who loves Nas, who loves Jay, who loves Pac, who loves Big, who loves Rakim. Tumi is my favourite in the world! So I’m never surprised when people say T killed you in “Heavy 8” or TZ Deluxe or wherever. He’s nicer than me at that. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. There’s no competition. When it comes to that intangible feeling though, that inexplicable feeling only music can give, that’s where I’m at. But that’s not the most important thing for everyone. I don’t really assert it in any kind of way. A listener either gets it or doesn’t. This is why I wasn’t affected when MTV did a top 10 list of the greatest South African Rappers of all time and I wasn’t in it. I’m used to it. Everyone they had on there, sells more records, appeals to a broader audience etc. so that’s not new to me. However, the people who really know and get Zubz, know that it’s a different thing. And for me, that’s enough. Because the wages for my labour is the satisfaction of knowing that I gave you more than average rapping. You can’t quantify or put into words the feeling and satisfaction that I know my music elicits.