Game-changing moments are often only recognised and appreciated in retrospect. When is the exact moment a rap icon is born? When does an artist transcend from being a great rapper to being recognised as a legend? How do we decide who’s got next? And who decides – gatekeepers? Which gatekeepers? Fellow artists? The Fans..? South Africa’s top 5 hip hop artists have, to a large extent, contained the same names over the past few years, but can most of them even still be considered as hip hop? With modern versions of Kwaito songs, house inspired tracks, rappers proclaiming themselves as pop stars, and others biting every single genre they can latch onto to salvage their collapsing careers from perishing altogether, SA hip hop has looked largely unrecognisable this year, expect for a single game-changing moment – the release of Shane Eagle’s debut album, Yellow.
“Shane Eagle saved SA hip hop.”- A murmur that is whispered along hip hop corridors between members of South Africa’s hip hop community who are too scared to offend their hip hop connects, the hip hop factions they rep or their meal tickets. As an entourage member devoted to maintaining a lifestyle you can’t fund yourself on the gram, it’s hard to sit in a rapper’s sec and sip on their champagne when you openly express that someone else has a better project than theirs.
The release of Shane’s debut album not only shocked SA hip hop out of its comatose state of complacency, it destroyed many illusions that rapper X or Y had the best hip hop album of 2017. Just so there’s no ambiguity, I’ll say it here; Shane Eagle dropped the best South African hip hop album of 2017. Yes, that means a better album than Thuto, Manando, Be Careful What You Wish For, New Era Sessions, High Level etc. That doesn’t take away from those respective albums or artists in any way; Yellow was simply a better body of work on numerous levels.
I found it peculiar that SA’s hip hop industry didn’t stand up and applaud the release of Yellow. A handful of individuals not marred by ego or threatened by Shane’s tangible rise offered due props, whilst most stood in deafening silence. Masses of SA hip hop fans on the other hand, embraced the release of Yellow, with many describing it as a breath of fresh air in local hip hop and an album the game has been in dire need of. Many local rappers have cried that South Africa’s hip hop audience isn’t discerning enough to appreciate nuanced hip hop or doesn’t have the attention span to dissect intellectual rap, a notion the release of Yellow has dispelled. What the release of Yellow has also shed light on, is that a number of so called South African rappers don’t want nuanced, mature hip hop as it exposes many of their own limitations as pseudo-artists. The truth is that many people benefit from the hip hop bar being lowered; if every established local rapper was required to produce an album on par with Yellow, there wouldn’t be many SA rappers left standing. As US rapper Russ recently said in a Montreality interview, “People might think this whole thing called Mumble Rap is running rap. It’s not. You know when you should really be concerned? Is if some of that Mumble Rap ish is the biggest ish in rap. But it’s not. Guess what the biggest ish in rap is? Dudes who can rap, and it always will be. If you can’t rap like that, you’re not going down with the best; you’re not ever going to be the biggest. You’re gonna plateau because that has a ceiling.”
Shane’s introduction to many of his fans was through The Hustle, a reality show which shaped the perception of him, a perception characterised by his looks and his ego, a far cry from the artist before me today. His evolution as an artist since the show has been immeasurable, mirroring an artistic maturity typically found in rappers a decade older than him. “The evolution happened with me as a person before it happened with the music,” reflects Shane. There’s a touching humility about him and a profound level of respect offered to each person he engages with. “You could have easily left The Hustle and taken the easier route making trap or radio friendly music, why did you choose to take the harder road?” I ask. “I didn’t even see it as it being the harder road or focused on what anyone would think. I was really just going through some shit in my life and all I know to do is to make music and I was like everything I’m going through I’m going to put on this album. Everything is damp and so morbid with sounds; everyone’s just sounding the same and I knew I couldn’t come out with my first album sounding like everyone else. In a sense I feel like it was also a selfish element of being an artist, I stopped making music for the masses and started making music for myself, and the biggest blessing has been that the music I made for myself is what the people are rocking with.”
Yellow is a remarkable project, offering a vulnerable narration of Shane’s complex life. Shane’s journey has been one of duality, a tangible characteristic in his music. His mother is half black and half coloured, and his father a white man of Irish descent; resulting in Shane constantly navigating conflicting worlds and offering him tremendous insight into South Africa’s multifaceted identity. “That is where most of me was created because there were two spaces for me to live in and understand. I could understand the hood and the grimy side of it, but my Dad was still making money and I got to understand that side. I had two perspectives which not many people are exposed to.” Feeling a tangible difference from a young age from not completely belonging within a coloured, black or white community, Shane formed a fierce level of independence early on. It’s a non-conformist outlook which has informed a large part of his career and how he has maintained his individuality and sense of identity as an artist – his decision to not sign with a major record label and start his own label, Eagle Entertainment alongside Vaughn Thiel, his decision to walk away from The Hustle and produce tracks such as Cutting Corners and Julia, as opposed to uninspired trap songs.
Whilst a healthy amount of hubris and bravado that form the makeup of any great rapper are present on the album, themes on Yellow also explore many intimate facets of Shane’s curious psyche, including his relationship with God and religion. “God, he or she, has always been a major part of my life as a kid. When I started understanding my relationship with God and harnessing the power between me and the Creator, is when everything started making sense.” Arguably the most poignant song on the album is Aliens x Conversations with God, an ode so beautiful and unrestrained, you almost feel like you’re intruding on a private conversation. “That was the most difficult song for me to put together on the album,” he admits. This is the level of transparency Shane carries throughout the album and leaves you feeling like you’ve gone onto a personal journey with him when you arrive at Empty Highways. “There are a lot of taboos in hip hop and things people try to shy away from and religion and God is one of them, but God has been a big part of my life, that’s probably why I touch on it so much.” On his decision to be as open as he was on this album – “I feel like SA hip hop doesn’t speak about anything. If you’re building a fanbase of people who you want to ride with you till the end, how can they love you if they don’t understand who you are. The only way someone can understand you is if they know everything about you,” explains Shane earnestly.
With a debut album better than your favourite rapper’s entire catalogue, the release of Yellow is a moment to be celebrated in South Africa’s current hip hop climate because it’s the bravest album a South African rapper has had this year. Whilst many are going to take offense, remember that the first and most basic pillar of being a hip hop artist is the ability to actually rap. As Shane eloquently reflected on Let it Flow; “how the f*ck yall rap? Ya got no punchlines, homie.” I ask Shane if he has appreciates the massive impact his album has had on the game thus far; “I had the album mixed and mastered before it actually came out, so I had my time with it because I knew my attachment with it and knew once it’s sent out, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. When I was listening to it, it was from a fan’s perspective and I was thinking this is crazy, this is an album I’d want to listen to. I kept seeing what everyone was saying during the first two days of its release and remember driving home listening to it and those were the moments I started realising its impact. And now with the pop up’s and the energy when I meet people it’s like ‘Bro, you have saved my life’ or ‘I didn’t think I would make it through the night but your music got me through another day.’”
The release of Yellow marked a second pivotal, game-changing moment – the definitive separation of a new era of local artists. Whilst who forms part of SA’s top 5 rappers list may vary depending on who you ask, the fact is that many of those artists are slowly aging out. “F*ck all these old n*ggas / this is the new wave,” asserts Shane on Privacy (Interlude). Whilst people have noted J. Cole’s influence on Yellow, Shane has arrived at this stage with his debut album, a journey Cole has to take with the release of three studio albums. And if we’re discussing rap influences, we can’t ignore the influence that Drake, Rick Ross, Nas, Kanye West, and Future have had on Cassper, AKA and Nasty C respectively. My point is that inspiration is one of the fundamental pillars of hip hop and that many of our favourite artists wouldn’t exist without the inspiration of their favourite artists, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yellow is an inspired project, one that should be appreciated and hailed as just that.
South African hip hop has been stagnant and complacent for a while and a slow shift is currently underway. The climate of hip hop is changing and will only be evident to most people once it’s happened and individuals like Shane are at the forefront of driving that change. Over and above the release of a triumphant debut album, Shane Eagle’s presence in the game marks a stark paradigm shift – an unapologetic new school of artists who are returning to the essence of making real hip hop and don’t aren’t afraid to claim their place in the industry. It’s a breed of artists that carry a culture with them and don’t have to spend years lost in the game to understand what their purpose is. The ethos is an independent one, reflected in the rejection of major labels and the foresight to start their own and the confidence to always speak their minds, irrespective of what the industry dictates. It’s an ethos also reflected in Respek Nation, a Steers campaign which Shane currently forms part of. “It’s dope being part of it and being able to show kids that you can be part of this (hip hop) thing and you can be yourself. To be part of mavericks and people are different and are true to who they are is a beautiful thing.” Shane’s debut album has positioned him as a leader of the next generation of SA rap, artists who have thrown out the rulebook, disregarded the status quo and are pioneering their own lanes and blueprints. Above everything else, they mark a return to honest music, something SA hip hop has been starved of. A reminder that, “only real music is gonna last. All the other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow.”
Photography by Anthony Bila
Creative Direction and Styling by Mzo Gwabe