On the 27th of November, the Ill Skillz duo; Jimmy Flexx (Lukhona Sithole) and Tommy Jinx (Uno July), performed a selection of songs from their latest album, Notes from the Native Yards at Zula Bar on Long Street, Cape Town. Since becoming a fan in 2008, this was my first time attending an Ill Skillz-headlined event. I had my expectations. Were they reached? You’ll find out in the next few paragraphs. But first, I’ll take you through some of what I know about their journey.
Released two days prior to the launch party, Notes From The Native Yards comes five years after their debut, Off The Radar (2007). Not that they were in any way close to being off the radar between these two albums. How ironic. Ill Skillz has been one of the most prolific hip hop outfits, not just in Cape Town but in South Africa as a whole. In 2010 they teamed up with Red Bull to record an album in 24 hours. It happened but not in 24 hours; it took a few months before the album could be released. The result was Skillz That Pay Billz: The 24 Hour Project, a proper album that featured the likes of Proverb, Zaki Ibrahim, IAMWAVES, ETC Crew, and 5th Floor, among others. The vibey “Coolest in the City” and the 5th Floor-assisted “We Are Over Here” each had videos. The second installment of the 24 hour project came in 2012 and this time around it was recorded in the UK, courtesy of Red Bull and The British Council. And no, they never took an intermission between 2010 and 2012. They brought us singles such as “Ill Skillionaire” and “Unbreakable”, performed at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, and made appearances on Rolling Stone SA among other major moves.
Notes From The Native Yards was announced in 2011 (at least that’s when I heard about it). The duo announced that they were working with a twenty-year-old producer by the name of J-oNE. Most of the album was recorded at the world-class SAE Institute studios where J-oNE was and is currently studying towards a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sound Production. He handles the bulk of the production, with legendary Cape Town producer Hipe contributing a couple of instrumentals among other producers such as Trompie, Rich Kidd and Planet Earth. So why is the album called Notes From The Native Yards? In an interview I had with Uno July on Bush Radio, he said, “It is notes from the native yard.” Guguletu township where the duo is from was, during the apartheid era, demarcated into sections such as NY1, NY2, NY3 and so forth with NY standing for ‘Native Yard’. “It reflects on the features on the album,” he continued. “We have worked with a lot of the people we started out with, most of them from Gugs.” Planet Earth, who handled most of the production on their debut, Off The Radar is also part of the album. Their first single, the J-oNE-produced, Common-sampling “TTBY (To The Beat Y’all)” carried the theme quite well – a nostalgic reflection of how far the duo has come and also highlighting the challenges they have faced (and still continue to face). Rhymes Uno, “…It’s kinda hard to be a black man in Cape Town/ racing against the racist regime and not just playground/ I’m just on a hustle to make my mama proud/ It’s kinda hard to please everybody/ it hurts me especially when she questions if this rap sh*t’s gonna bring me some money…” The video was shot in Gugs with a bunch of youngsters and reflects the two MCs’ upbringing in Guguletu. Towards the third verse, where the duo exchange bars reminiscing about their come-up days in park jams, the video depicts exactly that, with the two rapping at a basketball court flanked by onlookers and fellow MCs.
A few weeks before the album was released, a video to a new Hipe-produced single “7s Clash” was unleashed. 7’s clash is a form of a handshake exclusive to the Native Yard. The song features vocalists, Sandra Amarie and Melo B Jones. Producers, Hipe and J-oNE make cameo appearances on the jovial video.
Okay, this was supposed to be a review of the launch party, right. The launch party went quite well. The turnout could have been better but was decent still. I spotted a couple of familiar faces such as, among others, Redondo, Ma-B , Hipe, J-oNE, Siya Ngwekazi and DJ Hamma. The legendary DJ Azuhl was on the ones and twos when I got there, setting the tone with some hip hop classics on the turntables. Opening acts were long-time Ill Skillz friend rapper, Quest Maguire who gave a good performance and the Indo&Inuendos duo gave an okay performance with some sprinkles of awkward. Host for the night was one half of 5th Floor, Camo. He introduced the duo after the two opening acts to an excited crowd of fans, friends and colleagues.
Unlike most hip hop shows (and sadly, even festivals and award shows), the sound at the launch was crisp, allowing the two to deliver their notes without any hiccups. Kicking it off with TTBY, their set consisted mostly of tracks from the new album. But they revisited some of their old jams like the Mizi-produced “Let’s do this” – a personal favourite of mine, the hard-hitting “Ill Skillionaire” and “You and You” which they closed with on an emotional note. Backed by DJ Kurt, the two gave a focused and sterling performance. The juxtaposition of their completely different characters and abilities contributed to the grandeur of their performance. If you know the duo, you know that Flexx and Uno are oil and water – Uno is a sober forever-veracious individual who makes sure the two remain focused on stage. He stands short next to the relatively tall Flexx and speaks with a high-pitched sonorous voice. Flexx is, on the other hand, one interesting character – a reluctant genius with his jester-esque antiques and subtly witty humor. Uno clad in Head Honcho gear and a pair of Jordans, and Flexx in a blue two-piece labourers’ overall and a pair of All Stars, they allowed their personalities to just be; their chemistry was natural. Uno’s short speeches (which were toned down by Flexx’s murmurous innuendos) between songs made sure that the audience never got lost and stayed connected with the two.
The songs they performed revealed Notes From The Native Yards to be a versatile body of work with varied production styles and themes. They have always had the ability to craft great hooks – catchy yet not cheesy and repetitive, and they are evidently still maintaining that ability. The rapping is still tight and energetically robust. There’s a reasonable rate of maturity in their lyrics which are highly socio-politically-charged. I’ve given the album a couple of spins and I already have my favourites and I can safely affirm it is way better than their debut which I sometimes found inaccessible. It would be a travesty of justice if they don’t manage to catch the attention of South African hip hop fans (which has been dodging them) with this album. Their consistent work ethic is something to marvel. They have stuck to their anti-mainstream sound and proved that artists can survive independently and without major mainstream media attention. Guguletu Cape Town South Africa should be proud of these dudes.
Images by Lulama Mali (@makheswa)