For rapper Da Les and soulful vocalist Ish of ‘crunk’ group Jozi, African awards, presidential inaugurations and new albums are the order of the day.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 05/06 December 2009. Find out more on Tonight.co.za .
Hailed as “the hottest hip hop crew in SA”, Jozi started life when Cape Townians Ishmael Morabe (aka Ish) and Leslie Mampe (aka Da Les) teamed up with producer Bongani “Bonz” Fassie, son of the legendary Brenda Fassie. They created a fresh mix of hip hop, R’nB soul and Afro-pop influences to create a sound they dubbed “Muthaland crunk”. With a pedigree that includes time in Prophets of Da City and Skeem, a string of solo releases and a handful of SAMA awards, Ish brought soulful vocals. Bongz had already proved that his claims to musical fame were based on talent and not just a surname. US-raised Da Les (you’ve seen him on eTV‘s “Shizniz”) added MC flair that later on saw him create the infectiously catchy “Tippy Toes” and “We On Fire” for his solo release, which enjoyed five SAMA-nominations.
Jozi earned SAMA nominations, won the MTV Africa “Best Live Performance” award in Nigeria, gained three international MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards nominations and were asked to play at the inauguration concert for President Jacob Zuma. And then Bongani Fassie announced that he was leaving the band.
“It’s an emotional time for,” says Les. “He brought a lot of creativity to the group, so we’re still a bit devastated, but we’re slowly getting over it, and we hope he’ll come back. For the performances, we do what we have to do and we get the songs out there. We’ve done a few shows without him and it still works out well – the dancers are there, and we are there. If there’s a song with a verse that he did, I’ll do it. Also, on the new album, Bongz and Ish produced it, so we still have the skills with the new Jozi.”
“It does put pressure on us on stage,” agrees Ish. “But the position that was held by him, both of us were very close to it, so we can make the show work. We’ve done a few gigs now without him, and people seem to like it, so we are moving on.”
With regards to the friendship, both Le and Ish are optimistic, if cautious. “Everything’s cool, I guess. We haven’t seen him since he left, so we don’t really know. Jozi is cool with Bongz; we hope that Bongz is cool with Jozi,” says Les. “We’re cool as far as we’re concerned,” echoes Ish, “Of course, we’re not sure as far as he’s concerned. But we keep it moving. This is our livelihood, and it is something that we all started. People want more, and we have to give them more.”
One of the biggest highlights in Jozi‘s impressive career to date is the invitation to perform at the presidential inauguration. “I always wanted to be on stage, and I always knew that it would be a cool experience, but rapping at an inauguration? I could never have imagined that happening,” laughs Les.
“I have been in this music business a long time, but did I ever think something like that would happen? I’d be lying if I said, ‘Yeah’,” says Ish. Of course, he is merely speaking, but the soaring silk of the voice that has powered hits like Skeem‘s “Wayithini Umami?” (“What’s With The Attitude?”) and Jozi‘s “Gotta Keep It Going” and has shouted or crooned, “Yeah”, to literally hundreds of thousands of fans locally and abroad. “It’s one of those things that you don’t think can happen. Then, you get used to it that you have been asked and you say, “Okay, sharp. Maybe I am one of those people that can do it.’ Things like that invitation make you feel good inside. If you’re performing there, you think, ‘There must be something right that I’m doing’.”
In fact, a new album is in the offing. “It’s still under wraps, but we’re working on an international album for next year,” says Les. “Something that will feature international artists and international producers. We’re also looking at Jozi the brand, and a clothing label around that. We’re waiting for the right time; we want to be ready and prepared with the distribution so that when it does come out, everybody can receive the gear (news that should delight local Jozi fans who’ve tried to hunt down the “Ama Kip Kip” shirts they made famous). Also, I’m looking at my own clothing label too, and there’s a reality show happening next year with a camera following me around. We shot a birthday episode on Saturday, and that was pretty wild. Next year is going to be a good year.”
With his Cape Town history in the legendary P.O.C., involvement in the kwaito revolution when he started Skeem and a solo history as an urban R’nB voice, Ishmael is perfectly placed to comment on contemporary South African hip hop, and the differences in the Cape Town and Johannesburg scenes. “Joburg hip hop is growing in terms of what it is as its own thing,” he says. “Cape Town is evolving too, as well as other parts of the country. The main difference is that everyone from a different place should be pursuing their own sound; something that is unique to that place, but all under the umbrella of hip hop. When we were in studio on D’s show (he refers to fellow ex P.O.C. member, Ready D, and his Good Hope FM show last Monday night), and the guys from Skwatta Kamp there too (Slikour and Sugasmaxx), it was like a reunion, you know what I mean? The old and the new, back in space and time, and fast-forward to the now. We were definitely having fun, and it was a nice one. Hip hop 2010 and beyond is looking good.”