This story appears in HYPE magazine #40, available here.

Behind the Mic with The Sobering

The Sobering Truth

Words: Lesiba Mankga

Images: Black Milk 

A lot is said about the extraordinary talents who grace our ears with the rhythms and rhymes of hip-hop, but very little is said about those who amplify the voices of the aforementioned artists. The ones who scream from the soap box about the intricacies that our lyricists weave into their songs. That is where the tastemakers of the local scene step in. A group that is synonymous with every crevice and corner of the South African hip-hop landscape. Scoring a guest spot on their podcast is considered a career achievement for many an artist. I am talking about The Sobering Podcast (sometimes just referred to as The Sobering). Mokgethwa, Kitso and Kabelo are the names of those who could be considered hip-hop commentary royalty for their sobering truths. This is the journey of The Sobering

What is your first memory of hip-hop?

Mokgethwa: I was introduced to hip-hop by my uncle whose name is Adolf. He used to rock really big jeans and I had no idea that, later, I would grow up to be like him. He had this 72×96-inch poster of Tupac and that’s my earliest memory of hip-hop.

Kabelo: I don’t know if it’s Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ or a Snoop Dogg tape that my sister had…

Kitso: Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is the first song that you rapped from beginning to end.

Kabelo: Yeah, you are right, but the Snoop Dogg tape was my first exposure to hip-hop.

Kitso: In my ’hood, that Doggystyle album was like gospel; it ran the ’hood.

Which generation do you consider the golden generation and which artist do you regard as your favourite?

Mokgethwa: I think that, sonically, the ’90s is my golden generation. I grew up in the 2000s, but because my all-time favourite album – Mobb Deep’s The Infamous – is attached to the ’90s, I have to give it to that period in time.

Kitso: I’ve said this before but I’m going to say it again, the early naughties are the exclamation point of the ’90s. The early naughties was the period when artists from the ’90s were making their best music.

Mokgethwa: That’s why I said it feels wrong because I came up in the early naughties and that’s when I was finding myself (musically). If I look at the type of music that I am listening to right now, like Westside Gunn – it’s heavily reminiscent of the ’90s.

Kitso: I am a Jay-Z fan through and through, so for me, it’s the late ’90s to the early 2000s – that is my golden era.

Kabelo: I am also going to go with the late ’90s, and my favourite artist from that generation is DMX.

DMX isn’t one I get too often…

Kitso: So we are “typical”, Mokgethwa! [Laughs]

I always use these sorts of questions as icebreakers. I need to get a feel for what you want to discuss in an interview. What are your optimisms and/or reservations about the future of SA hip-hop?

Mokgethwa: What if you are content with everything that is happening right now?

“The early naughties are the exclamation point of the ’90s. The early naughties was the period when artists from the ’90s were making their best music.”

I think that is a fair answer.

Kitso: I think that I am content, but the reservation I still have is that local hip-hop doesn’t have a distinct South African sound. I’m at the age when I don’t even think it matters anymore, but I don’t see the international audiences saying, “These guys [South African hip-hop artists] have added something different and unique to hip-hop.”

Kabelo: I am excited about the new energy in the game because we are forced into a state where new energy needs to be noticed or highlighted, whether we like it or not. This is because some of the big hitters have sadly passed on and our other big hitters are at the point where they are becoming legacy acts. My reservation or qualm is that I don’t think people are being completely honest with the pitfalls of the game. We are still dealing with the same stumbling blocks. There is still too much smoke and mirrors.

Kitso: I think that is true for any genre, though.

Kabelo: Yeah, that’s true but, since we are talking about hip-hop, I would say that is my reservation about the genre.

Mokgethwa: I don’t think my stance of being content comes from a good place, you know? As people who have been championing SA hip-hop, we know what we have to do. We have been speaking about unity and, at some point, you just accept that it is what it is. I bump what I bump, and I’ll support whoever is doing it. In terms of making a noise about my reservations, I’d rather keep that to myself. Maybe you could say I have given up to a certain extent but, whoever puts out music and whoever is diligent and consistent, I’ll support them.

What publications were you following when you were growing up, and how did they inform how you guys move today?

Mokgetwa: I’d say this is a full circle moment because HYPE was one of the magazines I used to buy when I was younger and, if I had enough money, I would buy XXL and The Source magazines. Outside of that, I would go to CNA to get Student Life magazine and I would be put on to new music in skate videos at a later stage.

Kitso: YFM was a huge one for me. HYPE and Student Life were also integral in terms of being put on to new music. I would read those magazines alongside XXL and The Source. Basically, I would consume print media and music shows that aired on Friday at 9pm.  

Mokgethwa: When DVD players became accessible to people, that’s when smack DVDs came through.

Kabelo: More of the same really… XXL, The Source, etc. To be completely honest, I would consume anything that had music-related content. I used to read the Sunday Times for the magazine on the inside.

Kitso: And we don’t say it enough, but YoTV had artists coming onto their shows all the time.

Mokgethwa: … and Shiz Niz!

“In terms of podcasting, I was an early adopter of that and, as Kitso was saying, there was a lack of documentation.”

Given the amount of music content you have all consumed, were there any music journalists after whom you moulded your career?

Mokgethwa: As a kid, I wanted to be a graphic designer but then I saw bylines on magazines and I would be interested as to how those people got there. In terms of The Sobering, I think Combat Jack and Juan Epstein. I also moulded myself after Ayanda (Aquarian Ox) from Boyznbucks.

Kabelo: If there has been one instance where I have enjoyed someone’s interviews and how they present themself, it’s Sway. His presenting style has no frills. He just sticks to his job as a journalist. For those reasons, he will forever be my GOAT and my inspiration in broadcasting.

Kitso: Unlike the other guys, I was inspired by the “lack of”. There was a point in time when we didn’t have in-depth interviews with artists. It would just be a quick, in-and-out interview where they asked surface-level questions. I will bring up a journalist named Trevor Nelson because, when you read his pieces, they were in-depth because he actually spent time with the artist. Even when I go back to how Dream Hampton used to write – her pieces were so in-depth because she cared enough to deliver a quality piece. So, to answer your question, we didn’t plan this.  

How did you guys conceptualise The Sobering?

Mokgethwa: In terms of podcasting, I was an early adopter and, as Kitso was saying, there was a lack of documentation. I hit up Kitso with this idea and I had a full-page document ready for him and he just tossed it out. [Laughs] I had it (the podcast) in a radio format and I later got to understand that this is a different playing field. I had modelled it too much after Aquarian Ox. In terms of the name, we had a few options, but we settled on the name The Sobering because we speak the sobering truth on the show. It has nothing to do with our habits or lack thereof.  

Kitso: Let me defend myself. The only reason I threw it out was because we would have wound up doing the same thing as radio. What’s the point of doing the same thing, just with different faces?

Mokgethwa: I was very appreciative of that because I was still wet behind the ears and Kitso is years ahead in broadcasting and engineering. His saying no to the idea widened my perspective on a lot of things. I had to evaluate what was happening without being too avant-garde on how to cover my own lane.

How did you find it navigating the media space as a new media platform, and how did you guys keep the fire burning all the time?

Kitso: There was a season… Mokgethwa, I don’t know if you remember… There was a season where we felt bummed after every episode. Our being drained was because of the uncertainty we were facing at the time. We knew what we were doing was dope, but now what?

Mokgethwa: I had just come from Kool Out and we were running through everyone who was a part of it at the time and, one day, Kitso said that we had become the Kool Out podcast. Luckily, Kitso had Zubs at arm’s reach and that widened things, and shoutout to all the other guys who showed us love from the jump. On the other end, we were being questioned about where the content would live, and people weren’t really too keen to come on the podcast because the content would live on Soundcloud. Kabelo came in later and he had a wider network and that made things easier for us. 

Kitso: Before Kabelo, our guests would give us the run-around. We would go from Braam to Bryanston, and the guest still wouldn’t show up.

Mokgethwa: We’d get to the space we would be recording at and I would ask the guest, “How far are you?” and they would be like, “Nah, I’m in Bloemfontein for a gig.” [Laughs]

“I’d say this is a full circle moment because HYPE was one of the magazines I used to buy when I was younger and, if I had enough money, I would buy XXL and The Source magazines.”

Kitso: I think you should know that the team is just the three of us. We don’t have PR or anything like that, so everything happens between the three of us. Mind you, we also have to maintain other things outside of the podcast, like nine-to-fives.

Kabelo: What’s dope is that we rely on each other like that. When one of us is tired, the other one comes through with that new energy and new vibe that will recharge the other two. Even if guests don’t come through, we will always have each other. That’s the gift of having us three. We put the batteries in each other’s backs.

Mokgethwa: It’s also the reliability of skills shared. We sort of service the same industry in various parts, but we come with different skill sets, hard and soft skills, that we all bring together and we have become somewhat symbiotic in this whole thing.

Having touched on how The Sobering evolved from its SoundCloud days, will there be another evolution of the show, or are you looking to solidify and maintain the show in its current format? 

Mokgethwa: I think the show will evolve into having different segments, but the main evolution will come on the business side. We are looking into new ventures, new shows and entities.

Kabelo: It’s about not being stagnant and not being comfortable. It’s about finding new ways to spread our wings, and new partners to collaborate with. Just making sure we exercise the brand.

Talking about the brand and business ventures, you came out with an announcement about the podcast being available on the Revolt Network. Can you tell me a bit about that and what it means for The Sobering?

Mokgetwa: The Revolt move came about through a connection with a guy named Wise who used to work at Indie Creative Podcast Network. He made the move to Revolt and put us on. The move to Revolt means quite a few things but, mainly, the price went up! It also means more opportunities, more eyes on us and new ventures.

Kabelo: It’s about expansion but it is also about knowledge and learning about how other pockets of the world operate and what they value more. A lot of people have misconceptions about digital media and what really counts. Being in meetings with these people, we’ve been exposed to what advertisers look for in a podcast, among other things.

Kitso: Now we are open to an international audience in terms of advertising, which is something we never had.

“The move to Revolt means quite a few things but, mainly, the price went up! It also means more opportunities, more eyes on us and new ventures.”

Where do you see new media featuring in the media space in general? Do you feel that there will be more who follow in your path in this new space?

Mokgethwa: Calling it new media is relative because the whole media space is syncing. It’s new media in relation to traditional media but that’s what the whole landscape moulded into. I look at it as something that is bigger than we are. I mean, we were one of the first podcasters of colour in the country. We knew coming into this that we were paving the way for those after us. Things are going to get bigger and better in the world of podcasting. 

Kabelo: New media might not be the go-to immediately but it’s definitely going into a space where it becomes a standard. There will be a lot of reinterpretations of this thing. You’ve got the podcasters and now you’ve got the streamers, you know? There is always a new layer to be covered. It’s going to be ever evolving, and it’s exciting to watch… and it means you can’t get comfortable.

Finally, if there were one thing that you’d want people to associate with The Sobering, what would it be?

Mokgethwa: It is difficult to give you just one thing to associate with the podcast. We are a whole host of things. We are culturally inclined; we are well researched; we are irreverent; we are authentic.

Kabelo: We are about everything fly. We are all about good vibes.

Kitso: I always wanna throw in this thing – South African. We are very patriotic about that. We are trying to move South African music media forward.

Kabelo: Shoutout to Kitso, for the quality of the production. Also, I don’t know if you noticed but The Sobering is the first purely South African podcast that is unapologetically local. Even when we talk to international artists, it has to be in the context of South Africa.

Kitso: You know what’s crazy? Even in the meetings with Revolt, they want to know about South Africa. They don’t care about your opinion of what’s happening there (USA).

This story appears in HYPE magazine #40, available here.

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