We interview Nasty C about his widely-anticipated sophomore album and his growing stardom.
Nasty C, 21, is the boy wonder of South African hip-hop and one of the finest musical talent on the entire continent. His new album Strings & Bling, released on July 6, has been widely-anticipated, especially after the critical triumph of his debut Bad Hair (2016) which introduced a superbly skillful MC, wavy trapper and astute rap-singer of unbounded creative scope.
Before the success of Bad Hair, Nasty C made his name with a trio of releases: One Kid, A Thousand Coffins (2013), C.L.A.M.E (2014) and Price City (2015). In June, while in London to perform at the annual One Africa Fest, the Durban native sat down with OkayAfrica contributor, Sabo Kpade, to discuss his sophomore album, growing stardom, his development as an MC and his early releases and why he refuses to rap in Zulu.
What are your expectations for all Strings and Blings?
I don't have any.
You can't not have any.
No, seriously, I don't have expectations. I have hopes. I don't want to predict how it makes people feel or what people get from it or what it does. I just want people to accept it for what it is and if they like it, they like it. If they don't like it, they don't like it.
Why did you want ASAP Ferg on "King"?
ASAP Ferg is always one the guys that i thought was definitely responsible for the new wave taking over. The bangers that he puts out and also it just changes people's slang, that type of stuff. Also, he's part of the group that does that collectively, not in just like music fashion.
You revel in a clever use of words and language, sometimes changing annunciation to rhyme words that don't otherwise correspond—as you did on "King" rhyming "timeline" with "Ghana," and "winner darling" with "Devil's car."
Yeah, I learn that from Eminem. He inspired it, definitely. Because I feel like most of my idols are not just my idols because they were successful in music. They're my idols because they teach people how to do stuff. They go against what people do and they show people that you could also do it this way. Young Thug, that man, he understands that an artist doesn't paint one picture the same way every time. Every canvas deserves it's own special kind of way of working with and Young Thug does that.
I don't hear West Coast rap in you. It's mainly Southern trap. Is this something you're conscious of or is this simply a function of the age/era you grew up in?
I guess one, it's age because the first song that made me pay attention to the music, was a trap song. It was T.I.'s kind of trap. So it'll definitely come across in my music, right?
Some songs you can't deny, though. It doesn't matter what genre it is or what style of hip hop it is. Some songs are just like undeniable, so when I hear them, even without me noticing it, they evoke something in me. Some songs, you might not even remember the lyrics, but you definitely remember how it went and what it did to you, what it felt to you.
Ludacris was a fearsome lyricist and pop juggernaut in the mid around the same time as T.I. in the early to mid-2000s. His lyrics were also fantastically nasty. I wonder if your knack for nasty lyrics—like "if I throw a couple of gees up / she'll prolly let my shadow fuck" ("Coolest Kid In Africa")—was influenced by him.
Yeah, at some point, but he wasn't really somebody that I looked at beyond music, you know what I mean? He's dope, undeniably. I'm not taking anything away from Luda, but he's not one of those people that inspired me. That's just me being creative.
Your version of Runtown's "Mad Over You" is incredible for improving on an already perfect pop song. It is maturely ruminative and philosophical about emotional turmoil. Does it have a specific emotional origin or is it a generalised response to the song?
Right now, I'm in this space where I'm reading a lot of books and just growing myself mentally and as a person. There's some things I definitely feel I have a responsibility to do. I know that there's some people looking at me and get inspired by everything I do, so I might as well, even if it's just subconsciously, without them even noticing it, trigger their minds to unlock new levels, so that they can also think.
So you willfully embrace the responsibility and burden of being a role model?
You have to. People fan out when they see us and they go crazy, and they put us so high above themselves. It's like sometimes I look at it and I get worried because of guilt. You probably have the same amount, or even more, potential that I had at your age, or even at any point in my life. But you just don't see that because you idolize everyone else besides yourself.
The rap verse on "Mad Over You" is, to me, one of your structurally and emotionally complete verses. Do you rank it highly?
It's definitely one of them. The other one is a verse I did on "Another One Done" (off Strings & Bling). I feel like that's one of my favorite and one of my best verses. Actually that whole song.
Structurally or emotionally?
Both. The way I put it together, the way it speaks to me every time I listen to it. I feel the same emotions that I was feeling when I was recording, every time I hear it. Sometimes even more. Like when I'm a little tipsy, or when I'm just like in my feelings and into it, I listen to it, I was just like, "Yeah."
You bring new shades to what we know as common phrases—"I was digging my grave and found gold" ("Jungle"), "Ain't nothing cooler than the wrong moves, when you do 'em to the right song" ("Particula")—are these conscious things you do or has it naturally evolved from your writing?
It is. It is [conscious]. It's like when I said, "I made it and made it possible," I'm just talking about going against what people thought was normal, what people thought was the only way of making it or the only way of getting your deserved credits or whatever. Right? And I made it possible to do it, the only way. At least where I'm from. Because where I'm from, not that many people think positively or think that much of themselves or feel like they could even make it out of where they are. So this is like a constant reminder that it's possible and that I kind of encouraged it every single time and that they can do it.
Last year, you were nominated for the BET "Best International Act Award" which, to some, is a big deal but you've also said, in an old interview, that you don't care for awards.
That's a bad way to put it.
It is not the reason why you make music?
They can critique my music, yeah. They don't know where it comes from, so I shouldn't look for validation from them, to say, "Okay, your song is good enough to be the best." I wasn't thinking about those people when I was in studio. I wasn't thinking about competing, I was doing it for myself. I don't care if you think that person is better. But I respect award shows for what they are. At least they make it known to the public that artists deserve a nod for what they do.
What, then, are the markers of your success?
When I see somebody doing good and they quote me and they quote my lyrics, or they mention me somehow in their success story, that's the biggest reward you could ever get. That is the biggest reward I could ever get. Anything else comes and goes, that stays forever.
Tell me about the three features on Strings & Bling.
ASAP Ferg is the only really long feature on my album, because I love that song so much. But the two other vocalists, one of them is my artist, the other one is a girl from Durban called Kaien Cruz, who I think has so much potential, so I had to put her on the album. And then the one I signed is Rowlene. I funded her and helped her in every way I could, before I even had a label, it was just genuine support.
Are you actively working on both your label and your own music?
My relationship with her [Rowlene] is still the same. She'll come to me if she needs advice about something or if she wants guidance in the studio, she'll just come to my place. It's still the same, we're still like super chill. And then, everyone else is just like respectfully tied to certain duties.
Your first mixtape One Kid, 1000 Coffins in 2013 is scarily fluent and super-impressive for a 15/16 year old. Was it the one thing you were good at, at that age?
I definitely knew that this is something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life and that I was on the track because I was getting the amount of compliments that I was getting. But it's not like I wasn't sure it was going to do any good. Even at that time, I didn't even have access to the internet and all that type of stuff. I had somebody else do that for me. My plan was just to send a few to my friends. So I wasn't sure that I was super dope or whatever.
Tell me about how you recorded it.
I did everything myself. From the beat to recording, to shooting the videos on my phone and editing them, just sending them around till somebody uploads the videos. At some point, I even used the Nokia earphones.
Not even the Apple ones?
No, bro. I didn't even know iPhone was a thing. It was rough but it was so much fun, man. I miss those days. I miss having to scramble and fighting and getting what you want and what you've been saving for so you could record something.
You showed astonishing precocity for an early teenager. You really were not aware of how good you were?
I wasn't praising myself. No. I was trying. I was just doing my best, the best I could.
Yet you sounded so confident and cocky.
I just had so much fun with it that, whether people liked it or not or this and that, wasn't really a concern. Because the people I was making it for would've listened to it anyway, because they were my friends. So I didn't even know if I was dope, or the dopest out. I was saying all that stuff because I was just in my head and just having fun with it so much.
Nasty C. Credit: Liezl Zwarts
Do you ever listen to your other early releases C.L.A.M.E (2014) and Price City (2015) ?
Sometimes. You know, it'll be some nights or some days where me and my photographer (Teddy Max), the first person that's ever followed Nasty C. We'd just be in the house, just chilling and he'll remind me of like "Yo, you remember when I came to your house this other day, you were recording this song?" Then we'll go back and we'll try to find it and then we play. Those are the only times I really, really, really listen to it.
Will it ever be reissued?
One day, if I do a movie or write a book. I will definitely write a book.
Any reasons why you're now reading a lot?
I actually started taking reading seriously and enjoying it about three years ago and I wasn't even that deep. I couldn't even finish a book, like I'd just read halfway. I think it was because I was reading novels.
About a year ago, two years ago, I discovered a book that wasn't a novel, it was a textbook. It was like a guide to success or something like that. So that's when I started reading and applying the stuff that I was reading to my life. So reading was like a part of my weekly schedule or whenever I got the time. Then, a year ago, I got introduced to "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill. And that's when I really started reading a book religiously, like every time I get tired on a flight.
In school, what type of student were you?
I was only reading in school, because I had to. I was a decent student. I wasn't good. Like I wasn't one of those students that always stuck out at school. I didn't even like school, not even at that age.
You've been accused of refusing to rap in Zulu and embracing your heritage. There's a self recorded Youtube video of but there's only one Zulu on the album, in the song "Blisters".
I probably could do [rapping in Zulu] justice, but I feel like, if I do that, it'll distract people so much from what I'm saying and what I'm trying to send across. They'd just be focused on, "Oh, he's rapping this ... It's really great."
I don't want you to miss what i'm saying here. I don't want it to distract you. Like if I put on the accent when I say something, it's because the accent's got something to do with what I just said. And also, it'll be very limiting (rapping in Zulu). That's all I speak like when I'm with my friends. But when it's time for me to send a message across, I need it to go further and beyond just me and my crew or me and my country, my country.
'Strings and Bling' is available now.