Back to the streets: Pretoria and Cape Town are leading the resurgence of street rap in South Africa

We explore the resurgence of street rap in South Africa, from Cape Town and Pretoria’s kasi trap to the Western Cape’s Afrikaans drill scene.

By Sabelo Mkhabela

One of the hottest South African hip-hop songs at the moment is the street banger ‘Never Ride’ by Pretoria producer MashBeatz, featuring Thato Saul repping PTA, and Maglera Doe Boy repping Klerksdorp (also known as Maglera). ‘Never Ride’ has a hook that could pass for a short verse. One of its biggest boosters is a 480p visualiser that treats itself like a music video; MashBeatz, Thato Saul and MDB perform in a studio in the presence of a gang of people. The whole clip is embellished with a night vision filter.

Among many others, 25K, Maglera Doe Boy, Thato Saul, Dee Koala, LOOKATUPS, Holy Alpha and Bravo Le Roux are some of the leaders of South Africa’s new wave of street rappers. Hailing mainly from Pretoria and Cape Town, they don’t only tell stories from the hood; they express themselves in street slang. Kasi trap goes by different names – straata, ringz, istrato – which all concern the streets, street culture and street lingo.

 

This wave comes at a time when mainstream interest in South African music is more on amapiano than hip-hop. Busiswa said during the ACCES music conference in November last year: “We are having a lot of conversations right now on social media about SA popular music being amapiano and amapiano only. We love amapiano but now there’s a whole entire hip-hop industry, where young black kids are doing it really well in their languages in really original ways, but they are not getting an opportunity because it feels like if we are doing this, this is the only thing we can be doing right now.”

As a result, South African hip-hop finds itself back on the streets. It’s an opportunity to reckon with itself after a period of mainstream success in the mid-2010s and, honestly, losing touch a little. The streets are where hip-hop exists in its rawest form, with little care for industry approval.

“Street rap just never dies,” said Pusha T in a Breakfast Club interview two months ago. “I feel like it just comes in different forms. It’s the cornerstone of rap. Street rap birthed this whole thing.”

In South Africa, street rap or kasi rap dominated the 2000s and early 2010s through Joburg-based acts like the late PRO, F-Eezy, Deep Soweto, Siya Shezi and the like, all great storytellers, fluent in tsotsitaal, and with a shared ability to play with words over grimy beats.

A memorable era in kasi rap is The Full Clip With Siz n Scoop show, which was on air between 2009 and 2014 on YFM. The show became the breeding ground for kasi rappers such as Mickey M, Siya Shezi and MT, who remain iconic names in the subgenre today.

SPeeKa, a producer who gained prominence from providing beats for The Full Clip freestyles, is still a powerhouse of kasi rap through his stream of EPs and the YouTube series Sotra Cyphers. He describes kasi rap as “rap music told in South African street slang” and “a more lyrically evolved form of kwaito”.

Rappers like Zakwe, Duncan, Cassper Nyovest, K.O, Kwesta and Big Zulu still make music that has elements of kasi rap, from the kwaito influence to the storytelling, wordplay and, of course, the slang.

Kasi rap has always been the antithesis to the highly US-influenced side of SA hip-hop. As Kwesta rapped in ‘Spirit’: “Abangas’qedi, joe; bathi, ‘skrrrr’, sathi, ‘hey, ningaskhinyi’.”

Language will always be a debating point in SA hip-hop, and spitting in vernac is still the easiest way for rappers to connect to the streets. “The biggest insight that rappers should take from [amapiano] is that the lyrics are things that, as soon as you walk out the gate, you see [them],” said ASAP Shembe during an interview with DJ Switch. “You should be able to see the things that people are rapping about. The guys who have really figured it out in terms of hip-hop, it’s PTA guys [and] Khayelitsha and Gugulethu [rappers].” The aesthetic extends to other regions beyond Gauteng and the Western Cape; for instance, Eastern Cape has its own wave of kasi trap; rappers like Flash Ikumkani and Bhut’Legend all rap in lingo that’s unique to their parts of the country.

25K’s debut album Pheli Makaveli feels like an epic gangster flick set in his hood, Pheli, in Atteridgeville, and it’s told in Sepitori the way the Narcos series is always in Spanish. You can’t add subtitles to audio, so, to assist fans in understanding his recollections of growing up in Pheli, hustling and eventually becoming a rap star, 25K released a “Pheli Makaveli  Dictionary” on Instagram after the release of Pheli Makaveli. “I draw inspiration from the streets,” 25K said in his Pheli Makaveli documentary.

Street rap may be largely associated with the drug trade in the US – kool G Rap, 90s’ Jay-Z, The Clipse, T.I. and Migos but, in a South African context, it is that and more; not all street n*ggas are trappers in Mzansi.

So, not all street rap in South Africa is rooted in trappin’ in the classical sense; pushing product. The likes of Thato Saul, SimulationRxps, Dee Koala and Bravo Le Roux tell stories from the streets, reflect and show love to it. Their music doesn’t contain that much drug talk, but it’s still unquestionably street.

Describing the themes he explored in his debut album live from elokshini, SimulationRxps told former HYPE editor Roo, “live from elokshini for me is art/music used to paint how beautiful and how dark the township is.” He also spoke about being inspired by Durban kwaito star L’vovo Derrango’s 2007 debut album Derrango, which he was bumping before commencing work on live from elokshini: “That album was so raw and relatable; the stories he was telling on that album still make sense to this day. [K.O’s] Skhanda Republic was also one of the albums I was bumping a lot.”

On, ‘Yizo Yizo’, a single from live from elokshini, SimulationRxps and Bravo Le Roux, who’s featured in the song, reflect on the show’s influence in their lives and those of young people in general at the time. “Yabona ekasi sasithi make sure 8:30 semakwethu phambi kweTV/ That’s the same reason why iiboys zazingaphathi iskaftina/ cause ubhaka wayesindwa yintshiza,” SimulationRxps raps.

Before Bravo Le Roux dropped his debut album, International Gubevu, in 2021, he teamed up with DJ Switch for the mixtape The Rise of Istrato. The project is streets to the core, both content-wise and sonically. “To most of the people abakhulele estratweni, istrato is like your second parent,” says Leo Pretty August on the intro for the song ‘Noba Yintoni’. “You learn a lot from istrato, sometimes even more than what you learn under the roof that you sleep in.”

In 2021, music journalist Mayuyuka Kaunda called Maglera Doe Boy’s debut album 2Player [The Digital Score] “an engrossing love letter to South Africa’s street corners” and “a Shakespearean spin on township rap”. 2Player [The Digital Score]’s entry point into Maglera Doe Boy’s experiences as a township kid is arcade games (hence the name). Maglera Doe Boy is a major player of South African street rap; a verse from the motswakolista is a cheat code in the game right now. His and Ginger Trill’s appearance on Boity’s ‘018’s Finest’ led to a grimy visual that brought the TV superstar back to the streets. For the video, she recruited Botswana

Kasi rap in the 2000s had cypher sessions for rappers to showcase their skills. But, today, it exists in a world where the worldwide web affords rappers more eyes and ears. They may not be household names like AKA and Cassper Nyovest yet, but their cult followings are substantially bigger and more devoted than those from the previous generation.

Another great example is the Afrikaans drill scene of the Western Cape. Just like the Xhosa rappers discussed above have made the trap sound theirs, Afrikaaps (a version of Afrikaans spoken by coloured people) speaking rappers from the Western Cape are spitting over drill beats in vernac. “The grimy sound was the perfect tone to express myself,” prominent drill rapper Matt Levai from Laingville was quoted as saying by Bubblegum Club. “It made me tap into my Afrikaans roots, our Cape slang. I started looking around me, here in Kaapstad, in the Cape Flats, and I felt inspiration like never before. While everyone was trying to sound like the drill artists from the US and UK, I said, ‘Woi, masekines, die is os se tyd nou.’”

More Western Cape drill rappers such as Young OG CPT and Kulture Gang have released street hits that racked up tens of thousands of views on YouTube. Those videos, shot almost exclusively in the hood, show the rappers flanked by the masses; a style of music video that was associated with pioneering Cape Town lyricist YoungstaCPT. The majority of street rap videos are filmed in the hood in less constrained environments that enable rappers to share their moments with their people.

The Afrikaans drill scene is one of many popping drill scenes on the continent; Ghana’s drill scene is international, so is Kenya’s. By comparison, Cape Town’s scene is still in its infancy, but is already showing promise.

Street rap, which has always been too grimy for top-40 radio and other commercial platforms, is poppin, thanks to the internet and its DIY approach. And, luckily for fans, in the digital age, DIY and independence aren’t synonymous with low quality, because of the accessibility of equipment and savviness of fans. But, some street rappers have partnered up with labels; 25K released Pheli Makaveli through SONY Music Africa, Holy Alpha recently joined Def Jam Africa, and Maglera Doe Boy is releasing his official debut album Diaspora through Universal Music South Africa. The streets is up.

Check out our playlist of South Africa’s new wave of street raps:

 

 

 

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