Da L.E.S. Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

Da L.E.S Is the Unsung Champion of South African New School Rap

How Da L.E.S paved the way for new school rap in South Africa.

The way Prophets of da City paved the way for South African hip-hop as a whole, and Skwatta Kamp paved the way for it in the mainstream, is the same way Da L.E.S paved the way for new school rap in SA.

“Da L.e.s changed the game more than most of us would like to admit,” wrote Fred Mercury, former editor of Hype Magazine, South Africa’s only hip-hop print publication, in his farewell piece when he was leaving the publication earlier last year.

The rapper, who’s also known as North God, didn’t do it alone, but he has always been the common factor in the ten years he’s been active. He started with the group Jozi, alongside Ishmael, Crazy Lu and Bongani “Bongz” Fassie. The group released its debut album Muthaland Crunk in 2007, and changed South African hip-hop.

Muthaland Crunk began what is now the norm in South Africa," wrote Independent Newspaper's arts and culture journalist Helen Herimbi last year. "The N-word isn’t even censored on our radios anymore and it’s heavily littered on songs by South Africans! The biggest rap stars in South Africa right now are more able to copy America and not receive flack for it.”

Jozi was unapologetically doing crunk in an era when the criticism was at its peak and the 'Dirty South' was vilified for killing hip-hop (remember Hip Hop Is Dead by Nas?). In the mid-2000s, South African hip-hop wasn’t as popular as it is today. It was esoteric, consisting mostly of “real” hip-hop, in the form of groups like Optical Illusion, Landmynz, Cashless Society, Writers Block, Archetypes and solo rappers like ProVerb, Tha Hymphatic Thabs, Prokid, Amu, Zubz, Tumi and more, who put a huge focus on lyrics.

Sonically, South African rap leaned towards the East Coast, through producers such as Nyambz, Hipe, Planet Earth, Battlekat, Ootz and Draztik. Even Skwatta Kamp, the first mainstream rap group, though jiggy, maintained those sensibilities.

Jozi changed all that. Their hit single “What’s With The Attitude (Wayithini Umami)?” had only one rap verse—it was catchy and in plain conversational English. The rest of the song was repetitive melodic vocals by Ishmael, accompanied by the loop of a Vusi Ximba sample. It made sense why the album was called Muthaland Crunk—Jozi had given birth to a newish sound, blending crunk with South African samples.

“We used to have people pulling middle fingers at us at our shows. Right in front of our faces,” Da L.E.S was quoted as saying in the same piece by Herimbi. “And the girls were just screaming. As long as the girls were screaming, it was fine.”

They couldn’t be bothered by the negative response from hip-hop heads. “For the fans, it was refreshing to turn on the TV and see a South African hip-hop artist taking themselves serious, from an image perspective,” mentioned Da L.E.S in an interview with the Zimbabwean-based podcast/ web series 2 Broke Twimbos, last year. Jozi were rocking neon Bape sneakers and those colorful hoodies popularized by crunk, at a time when South African rappers were looking raggedy and didn’t consider the importance of image.

In 2008, Da L.E.S released a solo album, Fresh 2 Def, which took off where Muthaland Crunk left off. The album’s lead single “Tippy Toes” was a catchy finger-snapper, leading with the high-pitch synth heard on most Lil John productions. It came with a dance—pissing off insufferable South African hip-hop heads (myself included) even more.

The second single, “On Fire,” which was lyrically strong—thanks to a show-stealing verse by Maggz, saw Bongz sing the hook in autotune, another crime at the time (remember Jay Z’s “Death Of Autotune” and KRS-ONE & Buckshot’s “Robot”?).

At around the same time, Maggz, who was signed to the indie label Ghetto Ruff, was working with Bongz. He released his debut album The Breakout (2009), which was produced entirely by Fassie. The music was more mainstream than what heads had grown to expect from Maggz, who was an ally of the Soweto rhyme spitter ProKid.

The single “Girls” saw Maggz singing more auto-tuned than rapping – like Lil Wayne did on “Lollipop.” On the album’s intro, Da L.E.S was talking on the hook, cheering Maggz on, as if giving him a co-sign as the leader of that school of rap. He was also featured on the track “We In The Building” alongside Bongz. His and Bongz’s influence on the new direction Maggz’s music was taking was a given.

Jozi was close to Gliteratti (later Glitz Gang —a crew Maggz was part of alongside Morale, L-Tido and Sean Pages). The two entities were on the same page. It was a tough time to be a crunk or trap rapper in South Africa at the time, but they fought the power as a unit.

L.E.S also released a collaborative mixtape with a then up-and-coming Riky Rick in 2011. It was light-hearted, and its name, Last Summer, suited it well. It barely made noise at the time, but it was another building block in L.E.S and Riky Rick’s now blossoming careers.

Da L.E.S now has four albums under his belt—Fresh 2 Def, Mandela Money, North God and Diamonds In Africa. He has released a string of solid singles such as “Heaven,” “P.A.I.D,” “Real Ones,” and is affiliated to one of the biggest rappers in South Africa right now, AKA, performing with him in most of his shows. Another gold star on his CV has to be appearing on Stogie T’s self-titled album. His influence still has an impact to this day.

It all just began with a kid who wasn’t apologetic about being from a well-off family. He embraced his identity as a kid from the opulent Northside of Jozi in his music. He chose to rap about the life he knew, over music that he personally loved.

“That’s what we liked to talk about—bitches, smoking weed, having fun, being in the club, turning up,” he said in the 2 Broke Twimbos interview. “All we wanted to do was tour the country, [get] a bunch of groupies, live that rockstar life. Fuck all this complex shit.”

Which is essentially the narrative most South African rappers in the mainstream are subscribing to. So when you see an A-Reece or an Emtee or a Nasty C flourishing, don’t forget things haven’t always been this way. Mainstream sounding rap wasn’t always a winner in South Africa, but soldiers like North God had to consistently fight.

And don’t sleep on the man’s work. His albums, except maybe for his first one, never disappoint.

Da L.E.S’ latest album Diamond In Africa is out now, and it knocks.


Watch the First Episode of Flame’s Documentary Series ‘Welcome To My Life’

Flame takes fans behind the scenes in his new documentary series.

From interviews to smoking sessions, performances, studio sessions and a visit to the hair salon, Flame gives fans a glimpse into his life and adventures.

The South African hip-hop artist and producer shared the first episode of an ongoing documentary series titled Welcome To My Life. The first episode, which he shared today, shows Flame and his affiliates—the likes of Ecco, Mellow and others—going about their business.

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uSanele Releases a New Project ‘uMvelase’ Featuring ASAP Shembe, Windows 2000, Manelisi and Others

Listen to uSanele's new project 'uMvelase.'

South African hip-hop artist uSanele's recently released project is titled uMvelase. "This project," says the artist, "is in honor of my father and family, abakwa Mthembu; all my siblings, extended family and my roots in the heart of KZN, kwaNongoma. It is a calling—if you will—a completion of my journey and all things coming full circle."

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Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi (L) reacts in court as she attends a trial to face charges for cyber-harassment and offensives communication, in Kampala, on April 10, 2017. (Photo by GAEL GRILHOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Jailed Ugandan Activist, Stella Nyanzi, Wins PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression

The outspoken activist, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a poem she wrote about the president's mother's vagina, won for her resistance "in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her."

Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, activist, and vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for freedom of expression, given to writers who "continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution."

Nyanzi is currently serving a 15 month sentence for "cyber harassment" after she published a poem in which she wrote that she wished "the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's (the president's mother) vaginal canal had burn up your unborn fetus. Burn you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda."

According to the director of PEN International, Carles Torner, her unfiltered outspokenness around the issues facing her country is what earned her the award. "For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her," said Torner at the award ceremony.

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