Words by Mercia Tucker

Images Jabu King

In 2017, Family Tree Records has grown to become a household name in hip hop circles.  The opus of its CEO, Cassper Nyovest, the label was started in 2014, when he was only 24, and has been prolific in its growth.  In the years since its conception, it currently represents a number of artists including Nadia Nakai, Tshego, Carpo, and Dr. Peppa. Its legacy will be an important one in the South African hip hop landscape on independence, growth, business savvy, and creative exploration.

Record labels in SA have taken a downturn of late. After Nomuzi and Kid X’s exit from Cashtime Life last year, Maggz surprised us with the announcement early this year of his own departure. Ambitiouz artists Fifi Cooper, A-Reece and B3nchmarq parted ways with the label in a controversial and public spat, and Riky Rick announced his departure from Mabala Noise with a series of tweets, one of which stated “Inspire the kids to not be slaves to THEM”. In a tumultuous landscape, and not without setbacks of its own, Family Tree seems to be determined to get it right.

Cassper started the label because “Artists only get eight percent of their record sales, [it’s the] industry standard, and 50 percent of their show money. I didn’t want that, I wanted 100 percent of everything.” he said in an interview with Forbes Africa late last year.

Prince told Rolling Stone magazine in 1996 “If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you.” Typical record label deals include relinquishing the rights attached to your recordings to the label in exchange for the financial backing of recording and marketing your album. It’s an industry-old practice that severely limits the artist’s earnings from their work until the label has recouped their investment. By owning his label, Cassper’s retained the licensing of his work and maximised revenue generated from it.

Lindsey Arends, owner of AMG World Media spoke at the SA Hip Hop Summit in September 2016 and touched on Cassper’s business model and album distribution. “When I met Cassper and T-Lee [Lerato ‘T-Lee’ Moiloa, owner of Bridge Entertainment and Cassper’s long-time manager], they approached me almost toying at the idea to help find a record deal. I was saying to the guys ‘Why would you want to go and sign a record deal when you can do it on your own?’ ” He said “’Why don’t we try it a different way?’ A different way is [to] look at doing it independently.”

Going independent, however, isn’t the utopia it’s sometimes imagined to be. It requires an unparalleled work ethic to accomplish the achievements of bigger labels with much deeper pockets and seemingly limitless resources. It requires innovative thinking and cost-effective strategies. This is where the hard work of Cassper and his team paid off.

“To date we’ve sold over 70,000 Cassper CDs but, to date, only about 17,000 of those CDs were moved out of record stores.  From 70,000, only 15-18,000 were sold from retail, the rest of it we found other ways, other means. We were doing 1000 CDs per event, we were doing about 4-5 events per week. There’s always a different way to do it” Lindsey said. On changing the model and maximising revenue from album sales he says “Understand contracts; understand distribution, [and] what it’s all about.”

The Tree quickly grew, sprouting other branches. While Carpo had come up with Cassper, and was in a rap group with him in the early 2000s – together with Aashish (of Ganja Beatz) and Family Tree’s current Operations Manager, Oratile Mmolawa –  Chad da Don joined the label in July 2014, Gemini Major in June 2015, and Tshego following soon after in July 2015.

Tshego is the rising star of the label, incredibly talented with smooth RnB vocals. He’s featured on both of Cassper’s albums but seen individual success with the release of his single, Hennessy. The subsequent release of Garden highlighted his talent and someone to take note of on the come up. The songster been has also been hinting on social media at an EP drop in the next month.

Nadia Nakai, one of the country’s most talented – and baddest – female rappers announced that she would be joining the stable in February 2016 and has thrived since. Nadia has since released a slew of singles [Money Back, The Man, Don’t Cut It, and Sqwaa], a few videos, and her EP, Bragga, under the label’s direction. Her overall presence in the industry increased as we’ve seen become a line-up staple hip hop festivals and shows, and dominate tracks that she’s been featured on.

Speaking to her in June 2016 she told me “I feel like Family Tree was the perfect place for me. You know when things have synergy and things just add up and everything just works? Cassper’s manager [T-Lee], he’s Bridge Entertainment, he’s not part of Family Tree but he’s involved in my brand. He doesn’t have to be involved in what Gemini and Tshego and I are doing but he’s involved in it because it’s a family. He gets involved with my manager and building my brand and it’s just because he purely loves what we’re doing and the vision we’re tryna push and where we’re tryna go.”

She added “Cassper himself… To be able to share platforms that he doesn’t have to share with me, because I’m not on his level, but for him to allow me to perform with him at the Nicki Minaj concert – and to perform my song – just shows that he’s all about elevating people to his level and not keeping them down.”

The label had an eclectic mix of artists, with Tshego focusing on RnB, Gemini on ragga, and Nadia and Cassper on hip hop. The variety of sounds meant that the artists supported each other and added creative depth to their individual musical pursuits by drawing on inspiration from their label mates, and working as a team, where necessary.

The label, however, hasn’t been without its setbacks. Chad da Don made a sudden departure from Family Tree in August 2015 and released a diss track in April 2016, Chad is Better, aimed at Cassper. “I left the label and I’m moving on/ I can’t tell you why but Ima prove em wrong/ I drew a statement today and it said ‘I’m on’/ Heard you got money now/ Spent about 500K on a Bent/ that’s okay motherf**ker/ Remember the money you owe me for rent” were some choice words from the track and he went on to insinuate that Cassper stifled him as an artist and wouldn’t allow him to further his growth under his tutelage.

Gemini Major also announced his departure in March this year to start up his own label, Rudebouy Major, and partner up with Da L.E.S’s imprint, Fresh 2 Def.

Despite the exodus of two of the label’s talents, Family Tree still has a roster of strong artists in Cassper, Nadia, and Tshego. Where artist departures may have left the label slightly floundering, Cassper may be able to resurrect it on the strength of his own star-power. Now that he’s proven his capacity for success as an individual artist, his challenge will be cementing himself and a leader and nurturer of talent on a wider scale. One thing you can’t fault Cassper on is his work ethic. Imparted onto his label mates, Family Tree Records will grow to become one of the most successful record labels in SA.