Words by Mercia Tucker
Classic, adjective \ˈkla-sik\; judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.
In the musical spectrum there are many interpretations to this definition, some arbitrary and others rational and reasoned. The two qualifying criteria, however, have to be longevity and artistic brilliance.
Forget the ‘instant classic!’ declarations made by rabid fans on social media on the day of an album drop, what makes an album a classic is “The test of time. So like, the first listen you can get, you be like, ‘This album is a classic.’ But you won’t know until three-to-six months later. If you still playin’ it, it’s a classic. A year later and you still playin’ it, it’s a classic,” said J. Cole. “Five years later? Hands down, classic.”
The crux of a classic, however, is the quality. Whether it was the sonic and musical tangent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that gripped you, the sheer lyrical prowess of Illmatic, or the impact and influence of The Chronic, a classic album will garner universal respect, personal opinion be damned.
A classic album, to me, is also one where – to quote Aristotle – “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It can produce some extraordinary singles, but the haphazard throwing together of a host of great singles doesn’t necessarily a great album make. It needs to be a cohesive effort as a whole statement that leaves you unable to skip a track.
Closer to home, I look at five South African hip hop albums that have stood that test; that defy time and defined the artists as exemplary.
Tumi and the Volume – Live at the Bassline
The debut that was recorded in two days and saw the ensemble present hip hop to South Africa in a way never imagined before. Rhythm and poetry was redefined in this soulful and textured approach to hip hop. “They say a thin-skinned drum makes the loudest beat, I’m fairly grounded amidst the bullshit” the intro to an album that layered itself in conversation around rape (in Yvonne), freedom and community (in ’76 and People, People), and spirituality (in Celebration and She Spirit Fancies). The eclectic musicality and socially-conscious lyrics left us with an undoubted classic in the South African music landscape.
Proverb – The Book of Proverb
As an independent record label, one of Outrageous Records’ more memorable releases, in a burgeoning culture that they contributed to immensely, was Proverb’s The Book of Proverb. His albums a lyrical timeline of his life, they have always been presented as books and the first edition is a “reading is taken from the book of ProVerb Chapter 1 Verse 1.” Verb is a lyricist par excellence, and the album was critically acclaimed for his ability to paint pictures with words as dexterously as Rembrandt did with a brush. Notable singles were Microphone Sweet Home, Heartbeat, and I Have a Dream.
Skwatta Kamp – Mkhukhu Funkshen
One of the most prolific albums that South African hip hop has ever produced was Skwatta’s Mkhukhu Funkshen. With the gritty street rep that they’d acquired, it was one of the most anticipated albums when it dropped and the crew of seven did not disappoint with a record (at the time) 40,000 copies sold. Looking at it with a commercial lens, the album proved that investing in hip hop as a genre (in an era rich with scepticism) could be profitable and provided the catalyst for much more of the same. Artistically, the outfit stuck to their rugged, street style and delivered bangers like Umoya, Spark It, and Panic but also sentiment and introspection on tracks like Sunshine and Building Castles. The cover art depicting them as abakwetha (Xhosa initiates) marking the passage from boyhood to manhood, they’d earned their artistic adulthood with this undoubted classic.
Hip Hop Pantsula – YBA 2 NW
Jabba is legend of motswako. The rapper mixes vernac and English effortlessly in an album that solidified the sub-genre as it grew to be one of the biggest movements in South African hip hop. The love for his hometown was evident in this album and represented a generation that didn’t quite fit into the strict mould that hip hop purists embodied, but paved their own creative path and stayed true to their identity. The beats just as much of a mixture as the lyrics, it’s hard not to be drawn in. Jabba, Lefatshe Je, and Tshwara showcase this versatility and pushed the limits of our hip hop imaginations.
PRO Kid – Heads and Tales
When hip hop in SA was focused on American interpretations of the genre, PRO made it cool to be from Soweto and rep your hood. He told a distinctly South African story and backed it up with flow and lyrics that were second to none. His oeuvre was dedicated to technical and lyrical excellence but in a South African context. By the time Heads and Tales dropped, he had garnered a fan base that felt a sense of belonging in his offering. Soweto, as an ode to his hood, and Wozobabona solidified this album as era-defining.