Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

How AKA’s Sampling Is Preserving South African Classics

AKA reimagines old South African classics into hits young fans can relate to.

On his 2009 hit "Music and Lights," the legendary motswako rapper HHP greets us by asking, "What would Jabba be without a sample?"

It's a straightforward question, over the group Imagination's infectious melodies chopped up by the South African veteran producer Thasman. South African hip-hop is constantly asking itself that very same question, with a range of interesting answers. Where would it be without the inspiration of previous generations and a plethora of different sounds from various genres?

Over the past decade, the rapper AKA has been answering this question more often than any South African rapper. It's something he hopes benefits his young fans when they hear a sample he's deployed. The rapper once tweeted, "I really think with the passing of Ray Phiri and Hugh Masekela among other legends we've lost, it's never been more important for the music to be passed on to the next generation. Younger people need to know this music so they can be reminded where we come from."

As a student of an array of music himself, AKA has proven to have a penchant for picking great samples throughout his career. He's made it a point to signal where he comes from with hints of influence from African artists such as Fela Kuti, MXO, Stimela and Future 21, among others.

Traversing across genres like house, afrobeat, jazz, bubblegum and funk, he's proved he possesses an ear for catchy melodies and the talent to reinterpret them for his audience's current tastes. Sampling has played an important role in AKA's career, precisely because he's trying to create memorable music with a long shelf life. He's repeatedly tapped into timeless sounds with a proven longevity to do this. This strategy is clear on the Jerah-interpolating "Kontrol" and the Brenda Fassie-sampling "All Eyes On Me." With a decade-long career consisting of only two solo albums—Altar Ego (2011) and Levels (2014)—it seems to be working for him. AKA's singles have outlived those of his peers because they punctuate moments in people's lives and tap into the nostalgia of listeners. He repurposes soundtracks of the past and creates new ones that appeal to both young and mature markets.

The run-on effect of sampling, though, is what it contributes to the entire music ecosystem. The rejuvenation of genres that may have lost out on airplay as we've ushered in the age of streaming has far-reaching consequences. There are obvious financial benefits for the artists who get sampled (including their estates), the preservation of culture and great music for fans. It's no wonder that on his upcoming and final album, Touch My Blood, AKA is sticking to his tried and trusted formula. On Touch My Blood, it seems his masterful approach is coming full circle.

His lead singles, "Sweet Fire" and "Caiphus Song" reinterpret Stimela and Caiphus Semenya respectively. Both songs represent the now-signature sound AKA has been working towards: providing a pop sensibility to African classics. The masterstroke, of course, is that the resultant songs are as appealing to his young fans as they are to their parents.

This cross-generational appeal is particularly evident on "Caiphus Song." The track has been a staple on the charts since it was released last year. The brilliance of the artist is his awareness of how to create conversation before the song, and a future beyond the release date. His controversial fake-breakup in 2017 with his then girlfriend Bonang Matheba provided a talking point and the subsequent link to popular reality TV show Our Perfect Wedding ensured that "Caiphus Song" was a soundtrack to an important aspect of most people's lives.

This is precisely the strength of sampling; it simultaneously gives life to music that came before it and enables artists to create memories beyond the updated song. This may very well prove to be the case with "Amen", the latest Tweezy-produced single off of Touch My Blood. It reimagines Hollis P Monroe's "This Is Goodbye," a song popularized in South Africa by house DJ and producer Fistaz Mixwell. Although the L-Tido-assisted song is a nondescript, looped portion of the song, it's AKA staying true to form.

Reworking a prominent house hit from the 2000s ties into a larger story beyond the song itself. As listeners recognize the song, they also remember their initial interaction with it as a go-to party song in what seems like an aeon ago.

AKA has tapped into memories and added an extension to them again, so to speak. This allows for a second wind for other genres as they increasingly play a role in rappers' sonic choices. The offshoot of fusing genres has seen the growth of subgenres that have spawned their own great music. New age kwaito, digital maskandi, Afrotrap and skhanda rap are all a result of reimagining existing genres and moulding them for new audiences.

K.O's 2014 mega hit "Cara Cara," Kid X's "Aunty," Cassper Nyovest's "Destiny," Kwesta's "Spirit" and Dr Duda & Stogie T's "Stimela SaseZola (Trapmix)" all rely on a nostalgia specific to South Africa. This is proof enough that genres can be reborn through modern artists' treatment of them.

AKA has been at the forefront of this rebirth since releasing "Jealousy" in 2013, reimagining the sounds of South African hip-hop by drawing from music that reminds us where he comes from. Thankfully he's not alone and the sounds South African hip-hop explores will continue to reignite our love for music, both old and new.

Beyond AKA's penchant for sampling is the increased life cycle of more than just his songs: it's the preservation of music that has contributed to a collective culture that shan't be forgotten.

Listen to AKA's Touch My Blood below.

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