[Cover Story] Tyson Sybateli’s long way home

This interview appears in issue 21 of our monthly ezine available for purchase here.

Tyson Sybateli on the creation of his well-received sophomore album HOME, his meticulous rollout, independence and more…

Words by Sabelo Mkhabela

Photography by Karabo O. Diseko

There’s no question, Tyson Sybateli’s HOME is a contender for “album of the year”. “I have the album of the year,” he assures me. It’s the kind of statement Tyson would make; he’s sure of himself and is as eloquent and authoritative in person as he is in his raps. A few times during our interview, he recalls songs he’s featured in that he strongly believes will never drop. “I killed them,” he says.

I

Present-day: HOME

With 12 tracks, HOME is precise and sharp, and manages to capture Tyson’s character. The several love songs it comes with show a thoughtful man with no fear of expressing his feelings, while the hard rap songs reveal a skilled MC to whom rapping is second nature. The humour adds a light-hearted layer to HOME and humanises him. Throughout HOME and his previous work, like 2021’s Eve, Tyson manages to throw a variation of the simile, “My b*tch bad like…” You are most likely recalling some of the lines right now: “… like coronavirus”, “… like cashmere sweaters in hot weather,” or “… like the picture on my driver’s license.”

“I’ll purposely change a verse just to add those kinds of lines,” Tyson says. “We always stop recording after those lines because Feziekk or someone else is laughing. Dudes always laugh in the studio when they’re with me, and I figured I need to put it in the music. The music is going to control my narrative.”

It’s working so far. “Okay, the ‘my b*tch bad…’ line is stuck with people; the more R&B ‘singy’ side is stuck with people; the ‘Okay, he can spit too,’ is stuck with people. So, I’m seen as a versatile act, who’s kinda personal and entertaining. But I’ve said little on socials, so that’s how I control my narrative; I start it with the music.”

II

2.02.22: Long way HOME

 In November last year, Tyson Sybateli announced his sophomore album HOME, a follow-up to his 2021 debut, Dulcé. “You see the date on the title – that’s when my album’s dropping, and I’m calling it HOME,” he rapped on ‘2 & 22.02.22’, the opening song of Eve.

“We were like, ‘We gonna train the listener early,’” Tyson says about his rollout. “People normally announce [albums] like two weeks before dropping, then drop the cover art and tracklist the following week. And I get them; people have a short attention span – gotta strike while the iron is hot.”

But HOME didn’t drop on any of the February 2022 dates. “We couldn’t get a deal on time. The deals we got, we didn’t like, so we were like, we gonna drop ourselves. So, we needed to get momentum. So, we cooked up Eve in like two to three days, and put that out on Christmas Eve in honour of my late friend.”

Tyson and his team were meticulous and calculated with the rollout for HOME. “We changed the cover art for all my releases on DSPs to have ‘home’ on them, before we started the hidden face campaign,” he says. “When Feb hit, we knew everyone had been waiting for the two-two-two thing, so we rolled out the website. It was a test on people, like, ‘Do you care if I say I’m dropping my album on this date?’ And the buzz was a lot. A lot of people were waiting on the 2nd and 22nd. On the 2nd, we dropped the website with a mailing list to get direct contacts of all my core fans, and within a week, we got 300 core fans signing up to the mailing list.

“While we were dropping the website, my friend was making this beat, and I’m like, ‘Add rain to it; let’s start the missing campaign.’ The beat he cooked up was the ‘If Found, Bring Home’ beat – we were gonna call it ‘2.02.22’.”

The beat to ‘If Found, Bring Home’ consists of warm keys that mosey through a shower of calming raindrops; an aesthetic one associates with the popular Lo-Fi hip-hop beats playlists found on YouTube. The difference here, though, is you won’t be able to study over this particular one, as Tyson and Jay Jody take advantage of the serenity and bark orders to the industry cornballs. “Couple thousand-rand grills, they overcharged your dumb ass,” Tyson raps, “That is plastic, not gold, your image is straight cap.”

While creating HOME, Tyson wanted to work on a song with A-Reece and Jay Jody, but Jay Jody was interested in jumping on ‘If Found, Bring Home’, which had just been released on Twitter when the two rappers finally spoke, after admiring each other’s craft from afar. “In two days, he sent back the verse and asked, ‘What you doing Sunday? You seen that Pusha T and Kendrick ‘Nosetalgia’ video? Do you know a dude with a camera?’”

On the day of the shoot, Jay Jody pulled up with Reece who, Tyson learnt, was also a fan of his. “He’s rapping my lyrics to me, busy going, ‘Who raised you, n*ggas?’” But, unfortunately, due to time constraints, the Reece feature never happened.

‘If Found, Bring Home’ was an oddity on HOME at the time, as it was more of an R&B album than the rap masterpiece everyone is streaming. “I didn’t want people to expect a rap album from me,” Tyson explains before sharing that he listens to more R&B than rap. “The album was supposed to be purely R&B. The hooks on there – I wrote them myself.”

“We knew we couldn’t have [‘If Found, Bring Home’] as the only rap song [on the album],” Tyson recalls. “And then we added more rap songs. Some of them ended up not making the cut.” While explaining the process, he emphasises the role played by Feziekk on the creation of HOME. “He recorded, mixed and mastered the album. He also had executive-producer input, like, ‘How do you feel about this song?’ or ‘Let’s place this song here,’ or ‘This verse is too long.’”

III

If found, bring home

R&B is still a huge part of HOME; as heard on songs like ‘Homecoming’, featuring Una Rams; ‘Riddle Me’, featuring Feziekk; ‘Heaven’s Gate’, featuring Francis Jay; ‘Places’, featuring Tron Pyre; and ‘House’, assisted by Amarafleur and Marcus Harvey.

The rest of HOME is just Tyson going off alongside some of the country’s finest lyricists, most of them from PTA – from his two-part rap relay with Thato Saul, ‘Home & Away Games’, to the emotive posse cut ‘Chauncy II’ featuring Mass The Difference, IMP THA DON and Wordz, and the deeply reflective ‘Bra Nyoga ‘Lude’ and ‘Growth’.

Asked about what role unity plays in the prospering and seemingly close-knit Pretoria hip-hop scene, he says, “It’s not forced; it’s not a thing of, ‘Yo, we have to work together.’ It’s just a thing of, ‘I see that other guy doing just as well as me and that dude will also respect me ’cause I’m moving.’” He explains that, if each one of them has created a buzz, paths are bound to cross. “And then it’s a thing of, ‘If I got something, I’mma pass you,’ or ‘When you planning on dropping? Okay, I’mma align it around the same time – let’s keep the momentum going – you on my album, I’m on your album.’” That’s how he got to connect with Thato Saul, with whom he has collaborated multiple times, including on the joint EP At Your Service, released in 2020. “Thato Saul is actually a big inspiration to me,” he says. “He plugged me with Mash, and he produced ‘Riddle Me’ for me.”

Tyson Sybateli’s buzz is growing with every listener who discovers him and quickly converts to being a fan. The indie journey is a beautiful struggle; he has played his cards right so far. He seems to be on track with his plans, which he speaks about confidently. As we speak, he has been in the studio with veterans Blaklez and PDOT O, and his streams are satisfactory to him. “Dudes don’t look at being an independent artist as a business. To do it successfully, you have to understand that you are now a walking business.”

As South African hip-hop moves back to the street with a new wave of vernac rappers, Tyson, who raps exclusively in English, doesn’t seem bothered. He mentions that the intro to HOME was initially a song in which he rapped in IsiZulu, but he didn’t like it much (“I sucked on it,” he says). “People go, ‘You won’t connect with the more local fans unless you do vernac’ and what not,” he says. “That’s the dumbest sh*t ever. Our two biggest artists are Nasty C and A-Reece – no vernac in sight. When I go to eMlazi, my cousin will be like, ‘Yo dawg, do you know Smino, nja yami?’ Because they care about that culture, too.

“We are influenced by the Western culture. But now, because of the internet, there’s no Western culture; we’re all the same. That’s why amapiano dudes and rap dudes dress the same; we are sharing the same culture now… Spanish artists are wearing gold chains; that’s hip-hop, bro. That genre thing is gonna die in a few years.”

IV

Since 1998: Growth

Tyson, who was born in Durban, but grew up in PTA, is right where he should be. He may not come from “a musical family” like most of your favourite artists, but he was born into music. “My parents were big on, like, 50 Cent, G-Unit, Rick Ross… a lot of R&B,” he says. “My dad put me on to music. In high school, my dad would bring me zip files and I’d be like, ‘I got these ones.’ When we were waiting for my mom at work, we would wait at Musica, and I would listen to music there. And we would leave with one CD. Next week, leave with another.”

Getting into rap came from him wanting to do something in which he would stand out in primary school. “I was a smart kid; I thought I’d become a scientist or some sh*t,” he says. “It didn’t happen.” As smart as he was, he wasn’t pleased with not being the smartest, as he has always wanted to be the best, which he still strives for to this day.

“So, I thought: I’m not standing out; let me focus on other things,” he says. “In English, I liked the literature part, and my friend was like, ‘You were writing poems the other day; you can rap.’ He put me on to the new music, like, ‘This is Wacka Flocka… this is so and so,’ because I only knew the artists I knew from my parents. He had an elder brother who would put him on to new rappers.”

Tyson was in Grade 5 when he started rapping. “We had a crew called Dope Squad,” he says. “We recorded on a desktop using a video game mic piece, and recorded on virtual DJ. You had one take to do the whole mix on Virtual DJ. We recorded like that every day. Every day, from Grade 5 until Grade 9. We didn’t hesitate. Every day. That’s how I got better.”

Interestingly, one of his homies from those days, IllRose, produced a pivotal song on HOME. “We hadn’t made music since probably Grade 10,” he says. “He has produced for a lot of people: J Molley, Windows 2000… He produced ‘Heaven’s Gate’, and [that’s the song that] inspired the whole album. That was the first beat sent for the album. Then we built everything up from there.”

As Tyson was growing as a rapper in his own space with his homies, PTA’s rap scene was alive through rappers and producers who have since become icons in their own rights – the likes of Blaklez, N’Veigh, MsSupa and Nyambz. “Whatever was going on in those days,” Tyson recalls, “your Blaklezs, even those cyphers at State Theatre, I didn’t care. I was a kid, bro; I was born in ’98. I didn’t make plans to leave the house; I just thought I’m going to be the best rapper… me, myself, and I don’t need nobody. No one is better than me.

“I always did cyphers with the people who were around me. I was the best where I was at, until I grew up and I discovered names like Thato Saul, Huey, Reece, Wordz… through datafile host links that were going around.”

It’s those names that aroused his curiosity about the city’s scene. “I was like, ‘Yo these guys have steam. I don’t, so why do they?’ And, I had to do my research. That’s when I found about all these cyphers and what not; these dudes are in these spaces. I was in high school when my boy told me that his friend A-Reece got a deal with pH Raw X and his brother is about to get that Ambitiouz sh*t – I will never forget that.”

He recalls the moment he decided to pursue rap as a career. “I think it was the eighth or ninth grade,” he says. “My mother had lost her job – resignation stuff, nothing serious – she was talking to me because we would record every day after school. She was like, ‘What do you want, because you are here every day with your friends, recording? What do you want it to do for you?’ And I told her straight up that I’m going to be a superstar, and then she was like, ‘Okay, make it happen; you see how we are at home.’ I’m like, ‘I see that we don’t got the same advantages; opportunities are not gonna come the same as for my peers who I’m around.’”

Now, hot on the pursuit of that goal, Tyson Sybateli isn’t just confident, but intentional, with his moves, as seen on his rollout and controlling how the fans perceive him. It’s not as easy as it looks, which is why only a few can pull it off as well as he does. Stop being broke; he’s coming home.

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