On the second anniversary of HHP's passing, we rank 10 of the South African hip-hop legend's best songs.
Jabulani Tsambo, popularly known by his alias HHP, was a pivotal part of South African hip-hop. Renowned for trailblazing the motswako sub-genre in the early 2000s, the rapper sadly passed away on October 24th, 2018 after a long and much publicised bout with depression.
During his active years, which span two decades (from 1997 to 2018), he was instrumental in breaking barriers and bridging the gap between kwaito and hip-hop in SA, from the late 90s to early 2000s.
He became a household name in the 2000s as he spearheaded the motswako movement, propelling it to the mainstream and solidifying his legendary status in the process.
With a career that spawned 10 studio albums, numerous awards and several milestones, he is widely and aptly considered to be one of the greatest and most decorated SA hip-hop artists of all time.
To commemorate the second anniversary of his passing, we rank 10 of his best songs. An artistic emcee who was equally lyrically dextrous, he was at times contemplative, insightful and emotive, but mostly jovial in character and in his music, which made for an interesting, rich and multi-faced pool of songs to pick from.
10. “He Banna” (O Mang?, 2003)
"Le nkubile ke sa apara/ La re, "Hip Hop, o sa wara…"
O Mang? (and its sibling, O Mang Reloaded) is the album that turned HHP into a household name in the SA music industry beyond hip hop. With "He Banna", which he released as the first single off of O Mang?, he found the perfect formula that would later prove to be extremely beneficial for him throughout his career, crafting a hit built off a relatively recognisable sample of a 70s/80s soul record. He would go on to do this for some of his biggest and most loved hits, like "Let Me Be", "Jabba", "Music & Lights", "Thank You Note" and "Wave Your Glasses", sampling artists like The Tavares, Imagination, Teddy Pendergrass, Enchantment and Dionne Warwick, amongst others. "He Banna" is the song that started it all, making it a pivotal song in HHP's discography as well as enforcing his partnership with producer extraordinaire Thabiso "Thaso" Ts'otesti, who would go on to craft a lot of those hits with Jabba.
09. “Nkatumela” (Dumela, 2009)
I asked her like, "Ke'ng baby? Like, wass'up? A ngwana o shapo?"
Masterful storytelling is one of the marks of a brilliant emcee. HHP was a master storyteller and more. On "Nkatumela", he narrates a cinematic dramatic thriller, that centers on a philandering man who, through his sloppiness, is not only scammed by one of his conquests, but is also caught by his wife at the end. The story is complete with an introduction, build up, climax, story arc and a fitting conclusion - there's even a PJ Powers cameo. A notable literary device he uses is giving the characters essential to the story a name and/or providing full characterisation, for purposes of the song, even if it's brief. We've all met a "Lindsay", who has an affinity for bottle dresses, gets jewelled up like a gypsy and is as fussy as one of those ladies working at Clicks. The realism, the imagery, the wit and overall narrative structure of the story is so good, that it puts HHP in the pantheon of great SA hip-hop lyricists such as Zubz and Stogie T, who can write brilliant prose.
08. “Bosso” (Motswafrika, 2011)
Ke'ng, o wa tsoga? Ke'ng o wa tsoga? O wa phakama? He wena wa re'ng entleik? Ke tla o jesa vaslapa sani…
This song represents one of the earliest moments in the SA music industry where a phrase from a song went viral and became a meme on social media. Before HHP dropped "Bosso" in 2011, one would be hard-pressed to show evidence of a song that grew legs beyond itself and what it was meant to do, instead becoming a culturally defining moment in time. He took a popular, colloquial term in Setswana slang, "Bosso" derived from the English word boss, which is meant to describe someone who inexplicably does contradicting things, bordering on impossibility or insanity quite frankly, in order to illustrate how superior they are, with the pairings of acts getting hilarious with each one mentioned. One of his great attributes was the foresight to know what would be relatable across age demographics, because "Bosso" was sung by everyone, from toddlers to the elderly, and every group in between. More importantly, it is one of his biggest hits, which incidentally came out during the latter part of his career, when the landscape of SA hip-hop was changing.
07. “Tlhabane/Maftown” (YBA 2 NW, 2005)
"Tla be kare go thuntse tlhase/ Go tlile even manyora a ko Mogwase..."
A recurring theme in HHP's music was to always pay homage to where he came from. North West, Mafikeng is the place that birthed him and he wore it on his sleeve with the utmost pride and sincerity. While there are many iterations of Jabba showing love to his hometown and province ("Bokone Bophirima", "Mafikeng", "Mmabatho", "We Built This City" etc.), "Tlhabane/Maftown" stands out for various reasons. For one, it's a purely solo effort from Jabba and boasts some of the best production he has ever rapped on. Beyond that, it's innovative in its "road-trip" point of view, traversing Jabba and his people from Tlhabane, Mogwase and Mafikeng. These are neighbouring towns within the North West province and Jabba is boldly inviting all acquaintances who feel up to it, from Joburg to Cape Town, to join them and see how they do things down in the North West. It was a fresh angle that wasn't trite or overt, as most songs paying homage to one's origins usually are, even some of the ones made by Jabba in his career.
06. “It Ain’t Easy” (Acceptance Speech Re-written, 2008)
"Why you think I won the, Dance, with a body e kana-kana/ I got fans like I'm a Mamelodi leSundawana
Botsa Towdee ka nna, I work hard, like B. Habana/ Botsa Noni Gasa, I rap hard, ho please-a bana…"
HHP enjoyed a highly decorated career in his lifetime. When he put out this song in 2008, it was at the height of his musical success, as well as other ventures outside of music. He would go on to win Best Hip Hop Album and Best Male at the 14th Annual South African Music Awards for Acceptance Speech in the same year; he had lucrative endorsements and most pleasantly surprising, he had won the 2007 edition of SABC 2's Strictly Come Dancing, a reality dance television show based on a British show of the same name. The song felt like a celebration of all these milestones, while acknowledging that it wasn't easy to have done all that he had up to that point. He was as sharp as ever on this sublime track by the then highly rated production collective of Octave Couplet, confidently boasting about his skill as an emcee, his irresistible charm and charisma towards the ladies, as well his business savvy that has led to his numerous deals. The song also appeared on one of SA's flagship hip-hop magazine's then-popular quarterly mixtapes, HYPE Sessions, the 21st volume aptly titled Jazzworx FM The Album.
05. “Two Witnesses” Ft. Molemi (Dumela, 2009)
"Do you live your life strictly for the lights and the fame/ And when your life's lame, do you look for someone to blame?"
Despite having a generally bubbly personality and coming across as a happy person in his music, there was also a cloud of gloom that would abound within it. On "Two Witnesses", he and Molemi tackle the theme of mortality, although in a triumphant manner, which almost feels like they looked forward to their own demise - or rather, they didn't fear that reality. Coming to the realisation of the certainty of death can be a sad thing, but Jabba and Mojoman look at it positively, framing it as the fulfilling prospect of meeting one's maker. An event that they believe shouldn't be avoided but instead should be embraced. It is one of HHP's most spiritual songs, revealing a side of him that shows his persistent disenchantment with all that is of this world. Adding to how poignant the song is, Molemi recited his part of the song at HHP's funeral service.
04. “Tswaka” (O Mang Reloaded, 2004)
"Jabba-man, Thasman/ With another lekwete…"
This is the quintessential Hip Hop Pantsula song. It justifies why he decided to call himself that because it contains both elements of Hip Hop and Pantsula in equal measure. When he released it, he hit a pivot that established him as a mainstay in the game. More than that, it was also a timestamp of the motswako sub-genre being a fully fledged enclave in the South African Hip Hop scene. It was clear that this was not Kwaito, however, it bridged the gap between Kwaito and Hip Hop based on its familiar, yet new sound. It was also noble and brave of him to give a nod to the legendary Kwaito group Trompies, by interpolating a part of their song, "Bengim'ngaka", considering the love-hate relationship Kwaito had with Hip Hop during this time. A song that can set off any party or gathering - legal or otherwise - it proved to be an addition to a string of highly successful collaborations between producer Thaso and HHP, whose chemistry in the studio was undeniable, in light of the many hits they have churned out together.
03. “Ancestors” (Dumela, 2009)
"Ke Jabba-man, ha ke claim-e bokgosi/ Re tlile re le baiea, nou ke bowa ke le inosi…"
HHP had an authenticity to him that shone brightest in this song, where he spoke on his identity, and ancestral lineage. The ideation of the song is simple enough to feel accessible and relatable, but not simple merely from the fact of being one dimensional. One of his best attributes was presenting his complexity in an uncoded way, that way he is understood easily. "Ancestors" is such a layered song that came at the tipping point of his career, where he was resigning into a certain calmness and acceptance of himself, sorting out the important from the not so essential aspects of his being as a person, who is also a hip-hop star. Emphasising on the importance for one to do the work of knowing themselves, where they come from, their ancestors, their clan and totem. To HHP, this knowledge of self supersedes any strides, achievements and material possessions a person can make and amass, and it is thus important to gain it, before gaining all that is worldly. It is also one of those songs which showcases his skill as a sophisticated and dexterous emcee, something he never got enough credit for being.
02. “See” (YBA 2 NW, 2005)
"She's in need of your affection/ And as to whether you are is the question…"
There is a formulaic way of making an album that's popular. There has to be a song for the club, a song thematically centered on love or courtship, and a heartfelt song. The problem is, when music is done this way, that contrived effort almost always shows and that's not a good thing. HHP hardly wrote songs with this line of thinking. He was compelled to create songs which were an extension of the person he truly was. "See" is one such song. It is in the same vein as one of his incredible songs, "Go Diragalang" from his earlier album Maftown—sombre mood and heavy content. It displays a beloved characteristic of Jabba - his empathy and ability to see outside of himself. He wrote with so much care and thought for others, which to me means, he truly saw himself as an instrument of God meant to speak to and for others. Not in a preachy or far-removed, distant way. "See" is a cautionary tale about taking responsibility for one's life and guarding against peer pressure that often leads young people to misery.
01. “Harambe” (featuring Max-Hoba & Dimitri) (O Mang Reloaded, 2004)
"I'm not the political type/ Not the type to fake an image for the sake of this whole consciousness hype…"
Jabba was an incredibly talented and skilled emcee, but he never sought to be the flyest or the hardest on the mic. For the most part, he only made music that was authentically himself, instead of trying to prove anything outside of that. He cared for others. "Harambe" happened through happenstance. Story has it, during a taping of the then-popular youth talk show, Take 5 that aired weekdays on SABC 1, HHP wanted to freestyle and Thaso just played a beat for him. HHP spat the lyrics that would eventually become "Harambe". Thaso was blown away. He says they did the song in under 15 minutes. A few things can illustrate better, the genius that was HHP, as him doing what is unanimously his most important song, with that greatest of ease. A song that came to represent the commemoration of the youth of 1976, who are heralded heroes for their pivotal role in the Soweto Uprising protests and demonstrations, as well as the Heroes of the broad struggle for Black Liberation in Apartheid South Africa. Its power is able to unite South Africans, as a people during any struggle, and it has become a symbol for unity and solidarity. This was HHP's legacy.
"Go Diragalang", "How You Feel (Gabi Roux Remix)"