'Last Letta To Nina': A South African Hip-Hop Tribute To Nina Simone

MC Zubz and producers Mizi & Nyambz share two tracks from their Nina Simone tribute album, featuring verses from Skyzoo and Pharoahe Monch.

Two South African producers and a Zambian have been working for over 3 years on Last Letta To Nina: A Tribute To The High Priestess Of Soul. Throughout the sessions at Pretoria’s Goliath Studio, Mizi Mtshali and Inyambo "Nyambz" Imenda have been carving hip-hop beats out of Nina Simone samples for Zambian-born MC Zubz to rhyme over. We caught up with Zubz via e-mail to speak about the project and get previews of two album tracks “Hold It” and “Doctor Goodlungs,” which features notable collaborations from Skyzoo and Pharoahe Monch.

How did you first come across Nina Simone's music?

Growing up in Zimbabwe in the 80s and 90s, I was exposed to artists from all over the African continent as well as the world. My parents' record collection, as well as local radio station Radio 3, opened up a world of music to me that crossed genre and continent. I knew songs by Nina before I even knew who she was and where she was from. I knew her songs by their chorus lyrics and melodies before I knew their song titles. Only when I got older did I begin to know that songs like "Feeling Good" for example, were called that and were by a woman named Nina Simone from the US. I only saw videos of her performances long after I had fallen in love with her music and her voice.

How do you think Nina Simone has influenced your hip-hop songs and what pushed you to record a tribute to her?

Nina Simone's influence on me sits in my view of the world more than anything else. It's because of artists like Nina and the songs she sang that I think a certain way or view the world through a certain lens. The honesty in her voice, the magnetism of her live recordings all add to what has shaped me as an MC as well as a person. As for doing a tribute, that was a collective idea sparked by Mizi and Inyambo. Mizi came to me with the plan to do a tribute and explained how he and Nyambz had been hearing my voice all over the soundscapes they were creating inspired by Nina Simone's music. I heard some of the music they were incubating and I instantly resonated with the project and we knuckled down to recording. Artists like Nina are a rarity. Paying homage to powerful spirits like hers musically is a duty for artists like me.

How would you say her music has influenced African artists in general?

It's tough to speak on behalf of others, but going on how Mizi, Nyambz and myself feel her music has been huge. It's multi-layered. Of course we know the songs and love them. But then there's another layer of her influence on our folks and our elders, in how they think and their taste in music as well as how they see their continent and their skin. These values were shaped by Nina and artists like her at a time when our folks were at their most impressionable. So our parents (whether they knew it or not) handed over the spirit of Nina Simone to us: their children. Never mind influencing African artists in general, Nina's music influenced Africans across the continent, period. Over generations. And she still does.

What specific Nina Simone songs do you sample in these two tracks—"Hold It" and "Doctor Goodlungs"?

Of course Mizi and Inyambo ran point on the musical aspect of production. "Doctor Goodlungs" samples “Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter” composed by Ailene Bullock from a beautiful live album released in 1974. Her last work for RCA Records I believe. It's some of the most powerful music you'll ever hear. "Hold It" is built off the "Work Song" aka “Chain Gang,” released even earlier, in the 60s already the song came out.

How did you link up with Pharoahe Monch and Skyzoo for "Doctor Goodlungs"?

I'm a huge music fan before I'm a musician so artists like Pharoahe and Skyzoo have always had my ear and my heart. Being able to share a song with both of them is mind boggling. I never thought I'd ever see the day I spark off the idea that causes Sky and Pharoahe to both pen original verses for my project. It's such a trip! Actually getting them on the song is credit to Inyambo and Mizi's vision, resourcefulness, tenacity and networks. I remember sitting with Skyzoo marveling at the fact that we now share a track. We live in incredible times where the only limitation in as far as collaboration goes is your imagination. Both Pharoahe and Skyzoo did the concept justice by writing powerful verses and executing them just right. I knew they would though. Inyambo has been having conversations back and forth for 8 years with Skyzoo and I get to reap the benefits of that! Mizi, Inyambo and I had a wish-list of artists that we wanted to reach out to in order to bring these songs to life; I was humbled at how eager they were to be a part of it.

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Photo: Single cover art courtesy of Emerald East

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