This interview appears in issue 19 of our ezine. Purchase the digital copy here.
Story by ON
Visuals courtesy of Thato Saul
Almost a year after his formidable 2021 collab project with MashBeatz, IF YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW, Pheli’s lyrical gymnast, the rap game’s LaVine, Mr ’10 Tau ha se sello’ aka ‘BYOR BO DESE’ is gearing up to drop a new project soon. The Street A&R, ON had the pleasure of an exclusive listening session and caught up with Pretoria West-born Thato Matlebyane, popularly known as Thato Saul, to find out more about him and his music.
Let’s open this up for the readers who have never heard your name or music before: who is Thato Saul?
Thato Saul is a hip-hop artist born and raised in the Saulsville side of Pheli – a township in Pretoria West.
What was your childhood like? Any musical moments/memories you recall that are still dear to you?
My childhood was good. Typical township childhood – getting into trouble a lot and having to grow up fast. You only realise that when you’re older. I was one of the few who had my father in my life; none of my friends had that. He’s the reason I fell in love with music, because there was always a party at home and my dad would play all kinds of music all day, until the early morning. I grew up with loud music playing in the house. One day in 2004/2005, coming back from school, I found my dad’s 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Tryin’ CD at home, played it because the album cover caught my attention, and that’s how I connected with hip hop music.
What’s a random fact about Thato Saul most people don’t know?
There’s honestly nothing I don’t know about Harry Potter. I’m a big fan of that franchise.
My first introduction to your music was a BANGER called ‘Gotta Eat’ back in 2019, which I still bang to this day! When did this music journey all begin for Thato Saul?
My journey with music started in 2014. That’s when I started recording, but I started writing raps consistently from 2008. I’d write raps in my schoolbooks in every class I was in, and rap them to my friends. I didn’t have the confidence or resources to record, though, but when I started to, I had the advantage of already being a good writer because I had been doing it for years. I just had to develop into being a good performer of the lyrics. Going to cyphers in the city helped me a lot with that.
For God’s Sake was a formidable project to cement yourself as a hardcore lyricist and – most importantly, and my favourite thing about it – it was a peak into the life of Thato Saul. As your first baby, how would you describe that project and what it means to you?
That project means a lot to me. I got my first chart topper on 5FM with the song ‘Praises’ from that project. It was my first attempt at doing a concept project. It’s based on the seven deadly sins. At that point in my life, I was out in the streets doing what I had to, getting in a lot of trouble and having issues with many people, to the point that I felt I needed to repent, in a way, while still getting involved outside. I also wasn’t going to church a lot. So, I did that project not for me, but for God’s sake, to remind Him that I am still a believer of His word and to ask for forgiveness for my sins, which I do at the beginning of the first song and again at the beginning of the last song. Those parts connect as one prayer that I wrote. That project means a lot to me.
After that, you linked up with another lethal Pretoria lyricist – Tyson Sybateli – to drop the collaborative EP At Your Service. That was your first time working with another rapper. How did this linkup happen, and how competitive was it rapping back-to-back with an MC like Tyson?
That was a collaboration we’d been speaking about for a while. Tyson and I connected via mutuals, and I started working with him and his homies. He, in particular, got the rapper side out of me – he’s the hardest rapper I’ve rapped with. I was able to go back and forth with him because I come from a cypher/battle background, which gave me the skills and competitiveness needed to be a rapper and rap alongside heavyweights like Tyson. We did that project in one session. It took about five hours and we had done the entire thing. It’s really fun because I get to tap into that side of me when I’m with him. On my own songs, I relax a bit and introspect a lot.
You’ve done a consistent job of repping your hometown, collaborating with artists from there, and being the voice for the streets. I’ve heard beautiful, heartfelt and raw street tales in your music. Is this storytelling and representation of your hometown a core part of your artistry?
Yes, it is. Growing up in the neighbourhood and being around older homies who tell stories all day about all kinds of situations really influenced me. We all like to tell a good war story when we’re hanging out on the corner. So, I decided to bring that into my music, but tell actual real-life stories that I’ve been through or witnessed, or that my homies have been through. I also wanted that to be my x-factor – the one thing only I do – that separates me from the rest. Not to say I’m the only storyteller, but I know that I’m the best at it.
Members Only – my favourite Thato Saul project with the intro ‘Still Living’ being my favourite Thato Saul song, and probably your most musical work – drops and blows up! The lead single ‘10k’ becomes a fan favourite. What was/were your favourite songs to record on that project, and why?
I actually enjoyed recording most of the project. The reason being that it was recorded during peak level-5 lockdown, so my recording engineer and I would have to make plans to link and record. We couldn’t get into studios because artists were hogging studios at that time, and couldn’t record where we always do because visitors weren’t allowed at his place. So, he spoke to his cousin who worked at some company in Midrand. She let us use the company boardroom – that’s where a lot of Members Only was done – during level 5 in a boardroom. We had to make a plan and adjust. It was an experience recording that project, also because I was in and out of hospital for non-COVID-related issues. That’s why I can’t pick a specific song because it all was an experience to do it.
What inspires Thato Saul?
My life inspires me. I do music about exactly that. I always take one- to two-month breaks from writing and recording, just living my life. Then, when I come back, I always have so much to speak about. The neighbourhood I’m from is the core of my music, to the point that it’s been in my rap name from the beginning. Saul is short for Saulsville. I live my life in the streets of my neighbourhood, which always finds its way into my music. It’s more than just crime or being tough –
it’s the life of the average South African, and all the experiences that come with. That’s my inspiration.
Tell us about your relationship with MashBeatz and the product of that relationship: If You Know, You Know.
At this point, MashBeatz is someone I consider my friend, which I never thought would be the case. I started working with him in 2021 and I’ve seen him almost every week since then. The first day we met, we spoke about doing a project immediately – and he wasn’t the guy I was supposed to meet with; he was just there. We connected so well that we did the project in three months. I was very hungry and driven at that point and, when the project came out, it only drove my hunger even more. It was very easy to do it because I had done a collaboration project before. I usually take a year or two writing a project but, for that project, it took two months to write and a month to record. That’s what I like the most about it; it represents the drive I had at that point, and it’s the reason I have even more right now because it worked out.
The last two years have been incredible for the Thato Saul brand – your work ethic has been impeccable, and it looks like it’s paying off. With this new project on the way, what should your listeners expect?
The listeners should expect Thato Saul to still be very honest and truthful. To still be digging deep inside and presenting something that shows how I truly feel. No cuts, no cap – just the truth and my life experiences. They should expect features also, which is something I don’t really do but, for this project, I tried it out. The people who listen to my music aren’t used to me working with other people on my own songs, so I wanted to bring that dynamic in for this project. Something new. The title song is a song that really cuts deep, and I hope that it will resonate with a lot of people. Especially the homies out here in these streets. It’s things we go through, but don’t express, because we simply choose not to. It’s the most important song I’ve ever written.
Who did you work with on the album?
I worked with MashBeatz, Beatshoven and Feziekk for the production. I worked with artists like Marcus Harvey, Maglera Doe Boy and Tyson Sybateli, just to name a few. I intend on having five features on the album, which is shocking considering that, in my past two solo projects, I’ve only had a single feature, which was more than enough for me.
When can we expect the album?
You can definitely expect the project to come out in June.
This interview appears in issue 19 of our ezine. Purchase the digital copy here.
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