The Rise of Durban Hip Hop

When you’re from a city that is popularly known for its bunny chows, plush beaches, beautiful women and a lavish annual horseracing event that no-one attends for the horse racing, it’s easy for your attempts to blow up to be eclipsed by all of the city’s generous attributes. Admit it, three years ago when someone mentioned Durban you couldn’t help but let your imagination wander off to a warm, placid utopia. The last thing you thought of was music, and when you did, the experience involved two highly zealous chubby guys and a skinny dude (R.I.P Mashesha) on stage hypnotizing the crowd with amazing, high-energy house music. 

We’ve never been mad at that. But what that did was sell the hip hop community there short of its awesome dynamic. And the surge of talented producers, fierce emcees, buck krumpers, skilled poppers & lockers, vocalists and visual artists were not being represented to the world. They were being told they had to move to the City of Gold to ‘make it.’ And now that’s all changed monumentally and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. 

To be fair, it’s not like there was a black hole in Durban before Dreamteam popped off. In its first form during the underground era of hip hop, the city had heroes like Abdus and Raheem Kemet, amongst a handful of others. But it is not a coincidence that the Durban that the listeners have embraced in the past two years seems more appealing. The main differences between now and then is, in the formative phases of local hip hop, regional territories weren’t as big a deal because we were all still just trying to figure out what our adaption of this American music would sound like in SA. This meant that the content often mimicked international standards regarding how it sounded, making many rappers indistinguishable from one another (regionally). So whether you were from Gugulethu, Kwamashu or Tembisa, it was difficult for that to be heard without one having to shout it out on the song. 

Now, fast forward to mid-2012 or so – SA is in the rap game and the sound has developed but the narratives are still universal, for the most part. (For instance, L-tido’s style, sound and content was more in-tune with Dipset than the reality of a guy from Alex – his hometown – at this stage). And where many came into the game for years and immediately subscribed to the precedent of hip hop that had been created by those before them – bravado, gun talk, gangster sensibilities, griminess – Okmalumkoolkat simply dug into his organic surroundings for content and subject matter, making his version of rap extremely unconventional (for hip hop) but much more relatable to a guy from Umlazi. In other words, in the collective journey of exploring what South African hip hop was meant to represent, he differentiated himself from even South Africans emcees by unapologetically making his story specific to his city and his street.  So instead of saying “whip” to describe a car, he said “three-two-five” or “taxi.” Instead of saying “kicks” or “Jordan’s” he said “Carvella” or “spova.” Instead of referencing Scarface to parallel his life, he used Lesilo and Mr. Chinwag to capture different times of his childhood. All experiences that strike a sincere chord in a culture where pretention sometimes rivals Nitrogen as the most abundant substance in the atmosphere.

During the rise, the representations of Durban in hip hop were not just limited to cool lingo and but also extended to sound. The genius in many Durban artists’ approach, is that it doesn’t take for granted that South Africa is intrinsically a rhythmic nation. That’s why house, even though originating in Chicago, is more accepted as an intrinsic genre of SA while for a long time hip hop still failed to organically resonate with the masses.  WTF’s Gqom Trap adaptation of hip hop takes this into account, whether it’s intentional or not, and organically bridges the gap between the Gqom House music that the young fellas grew up listening to in Durban, and the Eminems and Jay-Zs who they heard on the radio rapping their asses off. Similar cases are true for OkMalumkoolkat, Gemini Major Dreamteam,and producers Muzi and Sketchy Bongo

A few years ago, as a head, you could never get away with busting into a dance, whether you were the performer or a spectator in the crowd; it just wasn’t gangsta. Maybe a shoulder lean and a young two step at the most, but that was it. Just as there was a time when it seemed that the South had a new dance every week, Durban again dug into its culture of festivity and fun-spirited energy and managed to pull it off without it seeming corny or contrived because there was context to it. It’s no coincidence that a rapper (Breeze) nicknamed The Stage God happens to come out of Durban, and that ‘Walking and Dabbing’ is the rhythm which the city moves to (shout out Aewon Wolf).  

Lastly, Durban is not the first city to have rappers tell its story. But it is the first city to have enough rappers embracing its energy and history at the same time to have a national impact. Think about it; Verb is from Kimberly and is the only rapper that most folks can name from those parts. For the longest time, ProKid repped Soweto and carried the township on his shoulders. PTA, Gomora, Beastrand and CPT had their stints too, but none of these places had enough guys popping off to call it a movement. And when they did, there was a lack of solidarity. So that fact that Nasty C can exist without threatening Erick Rush’s chances of success puts the whole city in a position to win, and the multiple Durban to Durban collaborations, even across genres, are a testament to this.

By the way things are going, if the city doesn’t start beefing and implode before they have a chance to completely take over the country, Durban is going to own the next few years; especially when you consider that there are young cats who are still to come that honing their skills at this very moment. Sketchy has just signed an international deal with Universal, Muzi has relocated to Europe and now in the company of names like Diplo, and Nasty C is arguably the greatest raw talent to come out of this culture in the past decade. At this stage, whichever city or hood your loyalty lies with, you have two choices: step your game up and rep for you city, or get on board with the Durban wave… The weather is beautiful here.

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