When it comes to hip hop the rationale seems to be that if your rhyming abilities aren’t good enough then insulting punchlines might do the trick.
At least that’s how people used to describe hip hop music outside the general commercial canon – termed “underground” hip hop.
People generally associated it with criminal acts, a mucky appearance and disrespectful behaviour. It was even easy to spot a “stereotype” hip hop cat – opting to wear baggy jeans, an over-sized T-shirt and sneakers with a matching cap.
But that’s about to change or should I say it has changed already with vernacular hip hop invading the industry. African rap doesn’t need a wardrobe change or one to abandon the underground feel of one’s tunes.
Many have tried this with the likes of Pro Kid dabbling in Kasi flava with his punchlines. But for Durbanites, it was Zulu Boy who paved the way. For that same reason, Zakwe is now banging on the door of the local music scene with his dope hits, Bathi Ngiyachoma and Ishove.
His punchlines are not commercial but underground in every sense. That’s why other hip hop heads have turned down record deals, mainly because they don’t want to be stripped of their freedom of expression.
Phumuza Zindela, better known as Moja Pooh, is one of the hip hop underground heads in Durban who prefers to stay underground.
Moja Pooh has been in the industry for more than a decade, working together with well known cats like Zulu Boy and Shon-G.
Having released more than 10 mix tapes, Moja Pooh feels that underground rap allows him to let rip with whatever he has on his mind, without anyone interfering with his work.
“Most people think we are sick, but we are free to express ourselves without any interference.
“Commercial rappers are guided on what to say because they have to worry about airplay and things like that,” said Moja Pooh.
He uses the vernacular language to voice his thoughts while rebuking claims of vulgar usage in the vernacular hip hop.
Underground rap may be disparaged by many but it’s where most hardcore big wig rap stars are tested before going commercial.
“We can compose a mix today and release it the next day. It is not about money but to spread African rap to society,” he says.
The good thing about back- yard rappers is that they are hard workers and always eager to be the best in the hood, he shares.
“We even sell our own mix tapes on the streets. Under- ground is like a training centre for rappers. We are not spoon-fed here,” he said.
Moja Pooh’s sentiments were echoed by Mhlonishwa Dlamini who joined the world of hip hop in 2004. Dlamini says African rap allows him to touch base with his values while keeping it original.
“We have freedom to touch on relevant issues like drugs, poverty and other things affecting our own nation. We don’t have to change our identity to fit in,” he says. Asked if he uses vulgarity when rhyming, he says: “We diss our enemies fair and square. We tell them how lame they are but we are proscribed from using vulgarity.”
During our conversation, it is clear these hip hop stars feel represented by the likes of Zakwe, Zulu Boy and Shon-G also operating on a commercial level.
“Some of the commercial rappers have a blend of underground in their tracks but it is not about fame, money and booze,” he says. Another underground artist, Ma-ice also praises African rhymes as the next best thing to hit the industry hard.
This shy rapper says he drew inspiration from the hip hop group H2O, only because they stayed true to themselves.
“Personally, I think they were dope, and I also liked the fact that they weren’t imitating US rappers.”
Ma-ice believes that before going commercial, rap acts should go the underground route to survive the fame.
“You need to strategise first, know your strongest points and you must be versatile too,” Ma-ice explains.
These hip hop cats still believe that every hip hop muso should undergo the hustle life of underground rap “Umrapper” before going commercial.
“It is hard to survive the commercial industry if you didn’t spend much time as an underground rapper. You can release the first hit album but that will be the end of your career. No one will ever hear from you.
“These people (big labels), if they see you’re talented and desperately need a record deal, they take advantage of you,” he says.