In the latest episode of i(m)bali LIVE, host Helen Herimbi sits down with veteran emcee Zubz for an intimate discussion about his life and career. Here are 10 takeaways from the interview.
Helen Herimbi launched season four of her i(m)bali LIVE show earlier this year. Hosted on YouTube and now in its fourth season, the show finds the esteemed South African music journalist engaging in conversations that aim to give key artists—past and present—in the South African music industry their proverbial flowers while they can still smell them. She also gives them literal flowers at the end of each talk.
On February 19th, the second episode of the new season was released and the guest was none other than the veteran emcee, Zubz The Last Letta. The two, who are revealed to be friends in real life, engaged in an intimate, in-depth conversation about Zubz's personal life and professional life in equal measure.
Zubz is a Zambian native who was raised in Zimbabwe and eventually settled in South Africa, and in the process, became a naturalised legendary emcee in South African hip-hop. Among various mixtapes and EPs, he has released four critically acclaimed albums including the undeniable classic trifecta of Listener's Digest (2004), Headphone Music In A Parallel World (2006) and Cochlea - One Last Letta (2009).
#imbali: Zubz speaks on lyricism, Heavy 8, Outrageous Records and the lowest moment of his careerwww.youtube.com
Shot on location at Zubz's home, the conversation was warm and revelatory on a wide array of interesting themes and subjects.
Here are10 things we learned:
Zubz was born in Zambia, to a mom who was a nurse and a dad who was a lawyer
Born in Kasama, Zambia in 1976, Zubz's mother was a junior nurse when she fell in love with his dad, who was a young Zambian lawyer at the time. They had their first child, Zubz's sister, Sipho Mabuye, and two years later, they had him.
Though he admittedly reveals that he does not have that many vivid memories of being born and spending time in Zambia because his family would soon leave before he was grown enough to form such memories.
His family moved to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s
Zubz's father moved the family to Harare, Zimbabwe in search of a better life. With his wife and two kids in tow, they moved and settled there, and after practicing as an attorney, he soon became a magistrate.The family would eventually be blessed with two more children while now fully settled in Zimbabwe.
"That's where my proper formative memory begins. Growing up in Harare, going to school there and starting rapping there," says Zubz.
Zubz moved to South Africa to study at Rhodes University after not gaining admission to any Zimbabwean university
In a rather surprising revelation, given how erudite Zubz is, he shares that in 1996, he eventually enrolled at a South African institution of higher learning—Rhodes University—primarily because he didn't qualify for admission at a Zimbabwean university due to the high admission requirements at the institutions.
"I'm the one who chose to come to South Africa to study because they wouldn't let me in at any varsity in Zim. I didn't qualify. I wasn't smart enough. I didn't get the grades," he says. A visibly shocked Helen then asks, "How?""The standard then was insane. No one could make it into varsity in Zim. Well, people obviously made it in but it was like, crème de la crème of the crème, that would make it and I wasn't that. My sister was, and she still didn't make it. My sister ended up going to UCT and studied law, and became just like my pops. I studied BCom Information Systems."
As a student at Rhodes University, Zubz had a successful and fulfilling stint as a campus radio DJ
Being at Rhodes University proved to be a fulfilling journey for Zubz as he was surrounded by like-minded creatives who nurtured his quirky side. He eventually branched into campus radio at the then Rhodes Music Radio, going by the moniker DJ Zubz. His time on radio was marked by great success and popularity in those circles, so much so that he used to deejay even at high schools, clubs and other tertiary institutions.
"I had a beautiful radio show," he says, "usually what happens is that you're on the graveyard shift for about a year and then you graduate to your mid-morning slot and then into a prime slot. My graveyard shift only lasted three months because it was that popping, so they just fast-tracked me into a prime time slot."
He also speaks fondly of a time he and Phiona Okumu, the artist and label marketing manager for Africa at Spotify, who studied at Rhodes around the same time as Zubz, went head-to-head in a DJ battle.
"There was a time radio personality Michelle Constant came to town to judge a DJ Battle Competition. We used to mix and stuff but not necessarily scratch, so it was about how well you could mix the songs and how good your selection was. I think the final was me and Phiona. I was mad nice at that time, but Michelle, man, I think Michelle and Phiona were on something, man, because Michelle was just enamored by Phi, so yeah, she won that."
Ghostwriting under a nom de plume
Showing her knack for extensively researching her subjects, Helen reveals that having gone through some of her old HYPE copies, she noticed some interesting articles in the magazine which were credited to The Writer. It's known that Zubz refers to himself as The Writer or The Ill-Rhyme Writer, plus, one of his most loved and popular songs is called "I Write". As such, Helen makes the connection and infers that this individual who wrote these interesting articles for HYPE may very well could be The Ill-Rhyme Writer himself. Mildly amused, Zubz indulges her.
"It could very possibly have been me. Look, I've done a lot of stuff under nom de plumes. Stuff as a ghostwriter and all that, you know. And I like to keep those hidden. It's important for me that I do that because sometimes the Zubz The Last Letta, Golden Mic Holder, Ill-Rhyme Writer, MC Extraordinaire prejudices me in certain spaces. So The Writer and other nom de plumes don't prejudice me in those spaces."
He was part of a Christian rap group in Harare called HARD C.O.R.E which ended up opening for american hip-hop group Lost Boyz
In his time in Harare, Zubz was an avid church goer who was growing up in a staunch Christian household and was raised on Christian values. So, as a rapper, it would make sense that when he was courted by a Christian rap group, he would easily join, though he admits he was never fond of being in a group just in general. It was ultimately his love for the group members that compelled him the most to join them.
"I'm very proud of that part of my life. 'HARD C.O.R.E' stood for 'HARD Christian Oriented Rapping Evangelists'—that's what we were. We were from the Baptist Church, pretty Evangelical, very Bible-based, frowned at by the church because they were like, 'What is this secular music you guys are bringing to our holy space?'. But we were very Bible-based and had songs like "Gangsters In Da Right Gang", "Give The Lord The Props" etc."
He then mentions that he got his first taste of a nationwide tour with the group.
"We opened for Lost Boyz, and at the time, I was a fan of theirs… when they came to Harare we shared a stage with them, you know, as curtain raising acts. We got to hang out with Mr Cheeks and it was a dream come true for me. You know, when you idolise someone from a distance and then you're on the same stage with them, doing the same thing with them, it's so empowering."
Zubz winning a battle against Snazz D
One would be forgiven for seeing The Last Letta is the poster child for conscious meaningful hip-hop. In fact, this is a description he gladly embraces. But a lesser known part of him is that he is really a formidable emcee with a lot of tested battleground experience. He famously battled ProVerb at YFM and his song "Number 1" off Listener's Digest is a throwback to his battle rapper hey days. He shares another exclusive piece of information which is that he battled another legendary figure in South African hip-hop, Snazz D, at Club 206 on Louis Botha in Johannesburg.
"At the time, nobody was trying to go toe to toe with Snazz… Snazz was really good… but him and I were in the final and I won... Amu actually told me before the battle that he felt I would win," says Zubz.
The lowest moment of his career
Zubz' third album Cochlea - One Last Letta was released in 2009. It is the album that housed his most successful single to date, "Part Time Lover - Full Time Freek", which went on to be a chart-topping single at the time of its release. It stayed for weeks on end on the 5FM charts. However, Zubz reveals that it was during those moments, when he finally had a nationwide crossover hit, that he felt at his lowest, careerwise.
"I'm so grateful for that song, hey," he says. "That song changed my trajectory, my profile, my access, my space; and once you're in that space, you don't quite know until you're in it. 'Part Time Lover' was a song that did that for me, it made me meet some amazing people and took me to some amazing spaces… but it also took me to the lowest place in my career because it was during this time I would realise that in some of these spaces, no one really cared about me or what Zubz Last Letta was about. No one cared about my legacy, my catalogue, none of that. Me and my band would prepare 45-minute sets and really give it our all but all they wanted was 'Part Time Lover'. That realisation was the lowest point of my career."
Choosing to write his most heartfelt songs in first person
Speaking about the song, "Hadiende", Zubz clarified that the song was not about him. Once he learned about the context of the original song by Steve Makoni, him and his producers started working on their rendition and he started working on the writing process, revealing that his most heartfelt songs are usually written in first person.
"Once I started, I wrote it in first person because that's how I usually like to deliver heartfelt things—'My Distress' is in first person, 'Handiende' is in first person, "I'm Here", "A Different Life - Live It Up" etc.. None of these are my stories but they are delivered in first person because they're so personal."
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