Jah Seed. Picture: Tyrone Bradley
A beast of an SUV pulls into the parking lot and cruises straight towards the entrance. A security guard stops chatting and rushes to remove a bright orange cone from the parking bay.

Once the car has stopped, a big man opens the door to step out and I see his dreads - cascading down to his waist and each about as big as my palm - before I see his actual body. They have taken on a life of their own and add to the unique energy that he’s walked around with since he first burst onto the music scene. The man is Jah Seed.

The reggae quarter of the iconic Bongo Maffin, Jah Seed (whose real name is Anesu Mupemi) also carved out a unique lane for himself and Andy “The Admiral” Kasrils.

With Jah Seed as the DJ and The Admiral as the selector in the tradition of Jamaican reggae and dancehall sound systems, the pair became known as the African Storm Sound System and ran Ragga Nights at Bassline for seven years.

When Bassline closed down, the pair took over the management role and rebranded the venue as Newtown Music Factory. This is where we meet for this interview. His office has a Damian Marley gig poster on the wall and, next to a window, a dreamcatcher with the Big Five in the middle.

As one of the veterans who has managed to escape extinction, I ask him where his love for music began. He takes me back to his home country, Zimbabwe.

“I’ve been DJ-ing since the age of 13,” he says. “I played Yvonne Chaka Chaka to the other kids. They didn’t know her!

“Our primary school had an entertainment committee and we’d go buy music every week. South Africa was the most dominant external culture at that time. All the South African record companies would come and try take our Zim dollar when it was still strong,” he laughs.

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While studying construction engineering, he would also frequent clubs and get on to the mic to say catchy things over beats. That’s when Oskido - of Kalawa Jazzmee - became interested in working with him. But Jah Seed wasn’t so sure about leaving his country to become a full-time musician in Mzansi.

“Oskido was already in the industry and his travels had allowed him to see the likes of Stoan and Speedy,” Jah Seed’s bass-heavy voice reverberates through the room. “Boom Shaka was already huge at that time and Junior was doing his Shabba Ranks elements.

“There was also Aba from Aba Shante, so that Shabba Ranks influence was strong.

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Jah Seed will be performing at the Red Bull Culture Clash on September 23. Picture: Tyrone Bradley

“So Oscar thought: let me get a group of three guys to sing, rap and do the reggae thing. I was in the middle of studying and it wasn’t as if things in Zim were bad yet, so you actually wanted to be a star in Zim first. Oscar saw me in 1995 and prior to that, South Africa was not the place to be.”

But then his world changed. “My mother passed away in 1996,” he says sadly. “She was the cornerstone of the family and had high hopes for me to build an oil rig in New Zealand or somewhere. Because she was gone, I just took the plunge and came to South Africa.”

Here he became a part of Bongo Maffin with Speedy and Stoan, and together they were stitched into the fabric of kwaito forever. “Stoan was twice as skinny as he is now and Speedy was full of excitement,” Jah Seed laughs loudly. “We made Summertime the very first time we met.

“There were no laptops then, so the music was mainly programmed on the keyboard,” he says. “Bruce Sebitlo made that riddim and we made our first song.

“Thandiswa was still very young. Oscar said since she’d done all our backing vocals and was there from the beginning of the band let’s just add her and make her a full-time member.”

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Bongo Maffin went on to release four albums and Jah Seed has his own solo effort, No Retreat No Surrender, which came out in 2015. But perhaps even more interesting is how he has managed to sustain a thriving career in what is still thought of as a niche market: reggae and dancehall.

A lot of that success is shared with his partner in riddim, The Admiral.

“In Zimbabwe, reggae is on a different level,” Jah Seed explains. “There are DJ outfits called sound systems in that culture. So when I came to South Africa, there wasn’t anything like that.

“And then when I met Andy - who had been in England so he understood where reggae was coming from - we initially sized each other up,” he laughs. “We had a music battle and then instantly clicked.

“He was sceptical, but I kept saying if anyone understands where dancehall is right now, it’s you, so let’s do this thing. Before you knew it, we were pulling 1 000 people at Rocky Street in Yeoville.”

Back then, South Africa had just had the first democratic elections and the Rainbow Nation dream had many in a euphoric state. “We tried to call ourselves the Mandela Sound System,” Jah Seed bursts out laughing. “We’d even cut some dub plates and then we were told we couldn’t use that name. So then we decided on African Storm. Andy is the selector and I am the DJ.”

Together with a few surprise acts, they will be going up against AKA, DJ Tira and Patoranking in the extremely male-driven Red Bull Culture Clash on September 23. Save for Babes Wodumo, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who is a musician or at least MC-ing the event. But The Admiral and Jah Seed are likely to bring out the dancehall queens.

“It’s about the entertainment value you are able to add when you’re dealing with this kind of event,” says Jah Seed. “The improvisation is very important. How quickly you’re able to change while you’re there is important.

“AKA and Patoranking also have that reggae influence, so we are going to really be capitalising on any mistake they make. We’ve prepared a lot of skits and a lot of things to wow the people.”

* Catch Admiral and Jah Seed at the Red Bull Culture Clash on September 23 at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Tickets are available from Computicket.

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