Jabulani Tsambo has his back to me. We’re in the studio attached to his home and the second track off his upcoming EP, "Feels Good To Be Back," is wafting through the speakers.
The motswako OG, who has answered to Hip-Hop Pantsula (HHP) or Jabba, is at the sink washing dishes and bopping his head as though he’s hearing the song for the first time.
He is cleaning up house, literally and otherwise. Soon, he will release his 10th and, he says, final HHP album called Drum. Then he’ll be known as Jabba X.
“Hip-Hop Pantsula has taken so many shapes that the brand is broad,” he turns around to tell me with his hands covered in soap suds. “There are people who know the music, others only know Strictly Come Dancing, others know the Status TV show and others only know me for my ideologies – like the daraja walks I do.
“The 10th album is a celebration of the work of Hip-Hop Pantsula. But as Jabba, the way that I think and where I’m at right now is different from Hip-Hop Pantsula.” But before he releases Drum, Jabba X is testing the waters with a five-track EP called Feels Good To Be Back. The tracks traverse a loosely chronological order of the rise of South African pop(ular) music.
There are early kwaito influences on the title track, a pioneering rap feel on Mazenke Music, mid-tempo grooves on Boomtown, an undeniable trap flex on Hugo and gqom on Ganda Dance.
To create this EP, Jabba X partnered with a young producer called Hugo. Yes, the second track – which features the producer rap-singing like Professor-meets-KO – is named after him. Jabba X says: “I went to go see him one day and the synergy was organic.
We didn’t plan it. We literally recorded this EP in five days. “On the third day, he told me this would be his first commercial release.” In giving Hugo a chance to break out into the mainstream, Hugo is also giving Jabba X a chance to stand in the light that was bestowed upon HHP. Where HHP cut a clean figure, Jabba X is willing to be different.
It’s a big risk to take for a multi-award winning, beloved personality in a time when fans are spoilt for choice. To me, this EP sounds like an evolution, an experiment even. But not one that would taint the HHP legacy. The way Jabba X tells it, this prelude to Drum could cost him some of his base. But he’d be inauthentic if he didn’t step out as his true self.
“Hip-Hop Pantsula has got to a point where he is typecast as someone who only raps this way on these types of beats and makes you feel this way,” he says. “Jabba X wants to explore more. I want to do things that aren’t conventionally in Hip-Hop Pantsula’s space and create a new audience who will appreciate that. “As Jabba X, I’m at a place where I am just so honest… I would rather have people dislike me for who I truly am, than like me for who they think I am.”