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Stogie T

A Conversation With Stogie T

The perennial MC talks about his new EP Shallow, touring overseas, what hip hop means to him, his audience and the Kendrick Lamar/Drake beef

Shallow is Stogie T’s fourth project in his post-Tumi and The Volume period. It comes subsequent to 2016’s eponymous Stogie T album, 2018’s Honey and Pain mixtape and 2020’s Empire of Sheep album.

Comprising of hard hitting songs that reflect a particular kind of cynicism prevalent in Africa, Shallow finds Stogie ruminating about the dream deferred, the loss of hope under the crushing weight of an increasingly failing state and looks deeply at the effects all these have had on a people, while asking the all consuming question “What becomes of the people’s thinking, their dysfunctions, and pathologies in the wake of so much loss.”

Shallow features a dynamic group of collaborators that include American spoken word giant and frequent Stogie T collaborator Saul Williams, as well as celebrated South Africa Afro-Folk singer Msaki. Vocal powerhouse and Stogie T live show partner Bonj makes an appearance, along  with newcomer Apu Sebekedi, who offers a striking baritone performance on the lead single ‘Shallow’. Experimental jazz musician Shane Cooper handles the production duties throughout the EP. Other than working together in the band, Shane and Stogie were drawn together to do Shallow by their love of alternative hip hop and South Africa’s vast 80s musical output, which compelled them to “merge these colours against the background of the local current dance waves taking over the globe.”

Conceptualised, written and recorded between Johannesburg and Los Angeles at the tail end of the Covid pandemic, Stogie notes that work on the project was done amidst moments of intense anxiety. Following the release of EP, we caught up with the man himself to delve deeper into the process behind the music, as well as touching on a myriad of other aspects in his storied career.

The most immediate thing about Shallow is its sound. It’s specifically 80s coded in its soundscapes, which are characterised by vibrant, energetic, and a highly synthesised musical landscape. All the songs are punctuated with pulsating basslines, soaring leads which add a sense of grandeur and space to the music, enhancing its larger-than-life feel. All very reminiscent of the big 80’s hits. You’ve spoken a little about how the lead single “80’s Love” is ‘a nod to a romantic nostalgia and a period when the world was full of wonder and mystery for you as a kid.’ Do these sentiments extend to the motivations behind the sound of the EP as well? Can you speak about the ideation behind all that, as well as Shane Cooper’s role and contribution.

“80s Love” started it all. Brittney Crush sent me this beautiful urban ballad centred around romantic values. The sound wasn’t distinctly 80s but the sentiment of the lyrics leaned that way. I was lucky enough to have Shane on production. He not only has the technical chops to execute the treatment but crucially he understood the concept of transplanting the lyric on a more suitable bed of music. This was the catalyst for the whole EP. We set out to tick some boxes; paying obeisance to a much maligned period of music that still produced Bob, Stimela, Tracy, Prince, The Clash, Rakim, BDP and U2. Also a time capsule unbottling the tumults of 80s repression in South Africa and resulting militant fervour.

A theme that finds expression on this album, which is recurring in most of your work, is that of detailing your paternal side. On “Dux Africanus” You say, “Daddy’s family never had me, made me a bastard, moms carried baggage next to the guns and cannons.” Why is it important for you to contend so much with this reality and express it in your music?

The pursuit of one’s identity is a durable and perceptible theme universally. There was a period when I was personally preoccupied with this pursuit myself but today I find it utilitarian rather than personal.

Can you speak about what you want to convey with this EP and where it will ultimately lie in the broader tapestry of your discography? Is it purely stand-alone or is it a prelude to a larger/longer body of work?

I suppose once the dust settles it might be clearer to tell where it sits in relation to the full discography but this really feels like a stand-alone snapshot. I lost my usual focus since Covid and I struggled to make sense of a body of work. Some of these songs might have existed in a different form but thanks to Shane and our mission to save the 80s [laughs] we found a new drive and voice for them.

How was the process of creating “Too Late For Mama”? From an artistic point of view and from a business sense – clearing the sample, etc?

The song was always a personal favourite of mine and it came directly from my live show. Shane created some stem guides for the other musicians and when I heard it I thought ‘this can be a record’. The clearance process was not really interesting. Chicco wrote and produced the song, he was kind enough to let us use it and we gave him his just due.

How was it working with Msaki on “Zimkile”?

I love Msaki. Her process is so intuitive. We knew we wanted to work together. I tried to force it and she was wise enough to let me wait for the right song to appear. An exercise in faith and patience. I tease her ‘cause I got her to be militant in a joint. [laughs]

What’s the motivation behind the title Shallow?

Because I feel like the hook to the title track can genuinely be a South African mantra for the least of us. Actually, for us.

“I been too high to function
Too broke to dream
Searching for something
but caught in-between
Too tired to be awake
Too woke to be sleep
Shallow is the cost
But the pain is so deep

Two scars I got
Make it too hard to speak
Searching for something
but caught in-between
These demons and these monsters
At war inside of me
Shallow is the cost
But inside there’s no peace”

How did your relationship with Chinese Man start and how has it grown over the years?

I met the group [Chinese Man] when I was performing overseas pre-Stogie T aeons ago. It’s a relationship that shouldn’t have worked honestly. They are party starters and I make more contemplative music, but we challenged ourselves to step in each of our worlds. I am able to rap about the most dense African postulations on their rich sampled tapestries. It’s great fun. We are more than collaborators now. They are my family.

How does touring so extensively in Europe compare from back in the Tumi and the Volume days to now [with Chinese Man]?

I don’t really like being away from home. I have growing kids that need my attention and I have set my sights on slower endeavours to that end. TATV was like being an elite squad in an army. Always frontline and trying to win over crowds. Chinese man is more drone warfare. They expect precision from me but don’t need me in the frontline.

Do you feel like Stogie T is appreciated more overseas than he is in South Africa?

No. Numbers don’t lie. I worked hard to reverse that.

Can you share a little bit on your exploits in the US – linking up with Benny The Butcher, Black Thought, etc. As a well-travelled OG and the seasoned performer you are, what do you still draw from such pursuits at this stage of your career?

I sometimes feel like I need to remind myself where I sit in the pantheon of this thing. Working with Benny, Haddy Racks, doing Sway, linking with Tariq [Black Thought] was just such reminder. I don’t always do well with presenting who I am in the universe of global hip hop but that’s because the perception of it is less important to me than the reality of it. I know what I am in this thing.

I imagine hip hop to be more than one thing to you. At this stage of your career, would you say hip hop remains a hobby, a passion, a calling, a profession or an obligation to you? Is it all of these things or some of these things?

It’s a job.

Given your long career, what would you say is your understanding of [your] fandom? Is it important to have a core audience which you cater to?

I’d honestly rather not think about who my audience is. Half the time I am surprised they are interested in what I do. I always feel like if you dig my stuff and are able to articulate some of its power, I just wanna know you because it means we might just be A-Alikes. You are a thinker and might have something to teach me. Not always of course. [laughs]

What’s your take on the Kendrick/Drake beef?

It was fascinating in many respects, the dirtiest, quickest, largest, widest (players involved) possibly the most tribal battle ever. I preferred Drake in the exchange. Assuming all the most egregious claims were lies I liked Drake’s approach lyrically, musically and until Heart pt 6 his posture was that of a battle tested mc. Kendrick was disappointing to me. I think he sacrificed too much for the win. His usual refinement was lacking and a lot of his stuff sounded hacky to me. His best verse was the first one. I learnt Drake is not liked by the mob. [laughs] I am also not going to debate you if you think Dot won. It’s not that deep.

Listen to Shallow from Stogie T here.

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