It’s a scorching day in Fourways and I go about the business of interviewing Ntokozo ‘K.O’ Mdluli at a quaint cafe. The patron at the table next to mine – who I’d befriended to charge my phone – asked as K.O walked away, the interview now concluded, “Is he always that way?” “What way is that?” I asked. “Colourful.” he said.
That’s the thing about K.O; he’s distinctive. More than that, you can’t ignore him. A pioneer of the ‘skhanda’ sound, his impact on South African musical landscape has been indelible. He’s relatively soft-spoken in person but his face lights up and his whole demeanour changes when speaking on the one thing that he loves; music.
Difficult to imagine him as a boom-bap rapper because of the sound that he’s taken on over the years, that’s where his journey started. “My first introduction to [hip hop] musta been LL Cool J [and] Snoop’s Doggystyle, those typa vibes. After Snoop the next commercial artist I was really into was Jay Z. In between that, after Snoop, I started delving into the underground. I was just really focused on the underground, anything that was anti-mainstream. That was my shit.”
Moving to Joburg to study Public Relations, the fame bug had already bit but he knew that he’d need to set himself apart from the pack. “I’d put out some underground music way before this whole thing, put out underground records way back. Obviously they got nowhere because firstly that shit was too abstract and no-one had a thing for that unless you were, like, a Tumi back in the day. There was Proverb, there was Zubz [and] that’s how I saw myself, when I got to Joburg I was like ‘I’m tryna be those guys’ so I delved into that a little bit. Till Prokid and Skwatta Kamp came into the building and it was game over ‘Ok underground music, it was nice. Now we need to pay these bills.’”
Linking up with MaE and Ntukza on campus “was so crazy cos it was the first group of people that I met with that literally spoke of the same taste in music, like my observation of underground shit, they’re into that too. It just feels like an organic connection between me and the homies.” The reluctance of the South African market to take to the hip hop culture back in the day was the catalyst that K.O needed to tweak his sound and cater to a home grown crowd.
“Some people were even scared to dress in a way that suggests hip hop. There was an actual stigma back in the day. If you were a hip hop head, you looked fucking crazy. They deemed you someone who was going through an identity crisis. Like ‘Oh so you’re tryna be a ‘nigga’?!’ There was a negative connotation to it, until the H2Os and the Skwatta Kamps started doing the whole vernac thing and people were like ‘Oh we can actually do the whole vernac thing instead of all this shit we’re tryna do.’”
“If you tried to put too much English in your music, you’re already isolating yourself. This is what people connect with. Some of the elements that made kwaito what it became [were] the township stories. What do we know? We come from the township. I can’t talk about what’s going on in the burbs, cos I’m not from out there. This is what I know, I can tell this story better.”
Recalling how Mhlobo Wami, one of Teargas’ biggest tracks, was inspired after hearing Akon play a Rex Rabanye track during his South African show, and taking up a ‘For Us By Us’ stance in his music, K.O says “People just wanna see themselves in us. ‘Cause what we do a lot of the time as hip hop in this country, we think we live in our own little world. And that’s why you’ll find people saying all types of crazy things on record and a lot of it is just fiction. Talking bout this many bitches, these houses, these cars… and by default, the layman cannot identify with that. It sounds condescending to the layman who is not in that bracket”
Going solo cemented his commitment to tangent the way commercial rap in SA was approached. The Teargas album Num8er Num8er “didn’t really resonate like the other one [Dark or Blue] because we had now started doing the American wannabe shit again” he says.
“‘Actually now that I’m about to be a solo artist, I don’t wanna do anything that we did as Teargas, cos what’s the point? We might as well remain a group and do that shit. Let me try and do something [different].’ And then BOOM! I stumbled across that sound and I started building from that and it just connected. The people were like ‘That sound is just so South African.’ So I ran, literally, with that; that’s aesthetically what my music is based on. It’s based on any and everything that says South Africa, beyond just the lyrics and what I talk about; the music, the backdrop, has to already say ‘Ayt cool, this is a South African song, let me tune in.’”
Starting up CashTime Life was an effort to give his other Teargas members Ntukza and MaE a vehicle to launch their own solo careers without leaving them “dead in the water” after the group split. He roped in the likes of Kid X and Smashis as CashTime Fam but separated them after noticing that “You guys are lyrically on two different levels so somehow there’s a disconnect between the two of you guys so the best thing is to separate the two of you.”
What’s it like being both the player and the coach on the label, I asked. “It was fun when it started” he says. It was a sort of brotherhood, a family. But as with any other family, disagreements arose.
Speaking on the apparel business and other business opportunities within CashTime, he says “[There were] so many things that came our way that we turned into a team thing instead of a K.O situation, but in turn we didn’t realise what we were doing. Even in that whole selfless act, you end making people who don’t really know what they bring to the table feel like ‘I’m the man round here!’ Because everything that’s coming in it’s like ‘Team. OK. We’ll put it on the table. Everyone get your pie.’ But when it really comes down to it, it’s actually this one guy, he’s the reason why we’re getting this shit. So when that starts dawning on them, and now people are taking different stances ‘Ayt cool, what’s the point of me doing this because its homie’s shit’”
“And that person focuses on their own shit and it’s not as great when it’s pitted against what we do, then it looks like CashTime has abandoned or neglected their artists.”
“Thing is, lines got blurred, people didn’t know what they were bringing to the table so now it ends up being people are entitled to certain things, and then when we start clarifying things and now people feel some type of way and the whole movement starts getting all disenfranchised.”
Splitting his focus between developing artists on the label and working on his own music was a challenge for him that resulted in him not releasing any music for the majority of 2014 and 2015. “I just wanted to play for the team” he says.
“Whatever ideas I had, I’d channel them towards the next artist because I just wanted to make sure that they were popping. Contributing in the creative process of the music, video direction, that’s what I mainly focused on. With me doing that, I also sold myself short. Because if you look at 2014 and pretty much the most of last year, there were 3 top tier names. We’re talking Cassper, AKA, K.O. Everybody else was popping, but if we’re talking top tier, it was those [three] brands. So these guys only had themselves to focus on, I took on extra weight.”
“I also passed on some records to other artists, I’d come up with songs and be like ‘Take this one, run with it’ and they’re outta here. Some of those songs went on to become fairly big and they were my records. So I’m sitting there like ‘I coulda put out a slew of records and did all this extra shit if I was only focusing on myself without focusing on other people because I was spreading myself way too thin.’ And now in 2016 I’m sitting here and ok cool ‘What do we do now? K.O needs to come out with more music’ and there’s a MaE project coming out at the same time. So now we’re focusing on getting this K.O album out but people are asking ‘Where’s the Kid X album, where’s the Maggz album, where’s this, that, and the third?’ but I have to continue doing what I do because its 2016 and I need to put out new music. And that has in turn turned into ‘Wait, those other guys are not putting out much stuff because this dictator wants to be the only one putting music out’ and now there’s this anti-K.O thing happening against my brand and I’m still trying to box myself out of that even till this day.”
“There was a lot of damage that came with Nomuzi and Kid X moving because people were like ‘Those guys are leaving because they’re sick of this guy’ whereas it wasn’t even the case. And the fact that even those guys didn’t come out and be frank to the market on some ‘Stop it! It’s not this guy! I haven’t put out an album because my shit is not ready. It’s not this f*cking guy!’ So once again, now here I am tryna repair my brand given the knock that I picked up tryna help. And when I started deciding to focus on myself, then it’s now like ‘You’re abandoning these guys’ So that’s where we are.”
When asked what the process is like at CashTime, if artists are given free rein to create music (with full label support) when they want to and present it when they’re ready, or if the label pushes artists to work with certain deadlines and parameters, he said “That’s how it started in 2014. That’s why there’re records that came out; those songs were produced by me. And it was me saying ‘Hey, I think this will work, run with it’ and it connects.”
“So it was literally just… I was too involved, I must say, in that whole thing. And last year it just started when X came out and said ‘It’s cool that you’re so eager to help, but I kinda feel like I’m cheating myself because even when the record comes out and it goes and it connects, I still feel like I did half the job because my teacher was literally there side by side in the exam room helping me fill out the answers’ And I’m like ‘You are actually right. So run with it then. Do it on your own.’ And truth of the matter is, ever since I did that, it’s just been… Even the records that came out were not as, let me not say ‘great’, but they didn’t have all the right elements to make them work, like the records I was involved in, because I’m coming at it not on some ‘Oh shit you killed this verse! You’re such a nice rapper, you out-rapped that other guy!’ I’m coming at them on some ‘This is a hot record. This is gonna get you bookings. This is gonna take your brand to the next level.’”
We all knew and loved Nomuzi on screen but I wanted to know what made him want to develop her as an artist. “I was looking at all the personalities, the females. Not taking anything away from the girls that are out there, but I just felt like we didn’t have a strong enough personality, beyond rapping and making songs, but just presence alone. Someone who just comes off as commanding.”
“I was looking for a complete package and she hadn’t rapped all her life but I was like ‘I can take that risk and get that out of her’ and that’s how she came [to CashTime]. I was like ‘Let’s help you with the verse. Not even just the girls, let’s make these rappers look at you like ‘OK wait up. Did this girl just out-rap me?’”
“There’s another female rapper who I heard in certain conversations say that the whole thing with Nomuzi was that she skipped the line, she jumped the queue. And I actually agree.” He says her already popular presence helped boost her profile in rap, but she still owes her success to the CashTime machine.
“You’re gonna come out like a finished product because of the team. Outside of that whole situation, now you really need to be the rap goddess [to] the competition that you’ve already superseded off your run with CashTime. Carrying that on your own you’ll obviously hit a couple [of] missteps just based on the fact that maybe you didn’t really know how this came about. It happened way too fast for you as well that you missed the chain.”
Moving forward, he says CashTime is regrouping and consolidating to continue growing. Asked if the move will make better artists of Nomuzi and Kid X, he says “I don’t know about them being better artists, I truly hope it does. But I do know now they are more… it ignited the entrepreneurial spirit in them because soon as they left, they went and set up their own imprints. It ignited that. As much as there could be some negative [stuff] that they might have to say, there’s something that they also learned from it that they can take and go and apply to their own setting and try and build their own empires and probably go through the same process that we went through with their own people and realise that it’s not a f*cking joke.”
For now, K.O says that they’re less focused on CashTime as a brand, but we’ll see more effort placed on individual artist’s projects. Maggz’s album is done and we won’t have to wait much longer for it. We should, however, look out for a lot more new music from him as he reclaims his space in South African hip hop on the throne.