808s & Log Drums: How South African Hip-Hop and Amapiano Fell in Love
K.O’s latest single “K:HOVA” has amapiano sensibilities. The veteran emcee employed the talents of producer Lunatik, the architect of the skhanda rap sound — a combination of hip-hop and kwaito — which K.O pioneered in the mid-2010s. On “K:HOVA”, Lunatik sprinkled amapiano’s customary log drum and trumpet over a sauntering kwaito beat.
Responding to a Twitter fan who confessed his love for the “new amapiano wave ish”, K.O responded: “Amapiano is super current and unashamedly SA and that’s what I stand for as well in my music.” K.O’s first experimentation with amapiano was in his 2019 album PTY UnLTD on the song “4AM”. The direction was typical of K.O’s inclination to always progress with the times.
In 2019, amapiano had just broken into the mainstream. Yet today, it is the most popular subgenre of South African dance music — as championed by artists and producers such as Kabza De Small, Kamo Mphela, De Mthuda, MFR Souls, Mr JazziQ, Josiah De Disciples among countless others.
By now, it’s clear, South African hip-hop is down with amapiano. Rappers such as Cassper Nyovest, Khuli Chana, Kwesta, Costa Titch, Riky Rick, Zingah, Touchline and many others have also jumped on the yanos bandwagon. Many producers are substituting trap’s 808s for amapiano’s log drum — or are, otherwise, using them concurrently.
A Dancing Nation
It was inevitable. In South Africa, hip-hop has always competed with dance music. In the ’90s and early 2000s, kwaito was up against Afro-house, then gqom in the 2010s, and currently, amapiano. South Africa is a dancing nation, there’s no two minds about this! Aggregated, the house scene trumps hip-hop where popularity is concerned. Hip-hop artists who are keen to marry their hip-hop with any of the aforementioned dance music genres usually score the big hits.
Kwaito star Zola dominated the 2000s with his blend of kwaito and hip-hop, OkMalumKoolKat’s gqom-and-rap hybrid led to the 2016 monster hit “Gqi”, Kwesta’s “Ngud'” (2016), “Spirit” (2017) and “Vur Vai” (2018) all mixed hip-hop and kwaito. So did K.O’s “Caracara”, Cassper Nyovest’s “Doc Shebeleza” and many others of that era that resonated with audiences beyond just hip-hop heads.
Kwesta – Vur Vai (Official Music Video)
But as it was in every era, the merging of hip-hop with kwaito and/or house hasn’t always sat well with hip-hop purists. For instance, when Focalistic — the rapper who prefers to flow over log drums rather than 808s — topped the 2020 edition of MTV Base‘s annual Hottest MC’s list, many fans debated the premise of what an emcee is and if Focalistic fit that definition. In an OkayAfrica interview a few months ago, before the MTV list was released, Focalistic touched on the challenges that plagued him when he started rapping over amapino beats. This move catapulted his career to the current heights it’s soaring at. “I think people got very afraid,” Focalistic shared. “I fought through the hip-hop hard-heads, I had to fight and not even see their opinions. A lot of people [got discouraged from listening to my music] because someone would say, ‘but this is not real hip hop.’ And, in my head, I’m like, you’re in South Africa, what is real hip hop here? What does it mean to me from Ga-Rankuwa Zone 2 when they’re telling me about real hip-hop? It means nothing.”
It would be a reach to claim amapiano came from hip-hop, but there are plenty of striking similarities between the two genres. When amapiano started, the songs were purely instrumental. But for the subgenre to break through into the mainstream, lyrics needed to be added. In fact, it was amapiano emcees and pioneers who started adding chants to their beats, and later vocalists became a permanent fixture on the songs. Amapiano artists always emphasise that amapiano isn’t just a genre of music, but also a lifestyle. Just like with hip-hop, amapiano has its own subgenres and is currently being adopted by artists and producers from different parts of the continent and the world — from Davido to DJ Tunez, Masterkraft, Rexxie, Kddo (formerly Kiddominant), Mayorkun, Niniola, Harmonize, Phyno, Falz and numerous others.
Before becoming revered amapiano producers, Tyler ICU and Mas Musiq were once hip-hop producers. It then shouldn’t be a surprise when the former fuses the two genres; Tyler ICU has become the go-to producer for many artists seeking this noteworthy blend. After the release of his comeback single “Buyile”, rapper Khuli Chana took to Instagram to share, “A couple of months back, I reached out to Tyler ICU and humbly asked him to create a street banger for me!” The song interpolates kwaito legend Arthur Mafokate’s 1996 song “Seng ‘Buyile” and contains the popular amapiano chant “hayi, yebo” in the hook.
What It Is?
Amapiano has undoubtedly taken over the streets, clubs, charts, radio, television and everywhere else. As South African hip-hop strives to regain broad mainstream prominence, more rappers and producers are tapping into, and incorporating amapiano elements into their music. One of the earliest instances is Dr Peppa’s 2019 hit “What It Is”, with guest appearances from rappers Chang Cello, Lucasraps and Riky Rick. During a beat breakdown for SlikourOnLife‘s The Recipe show, the song’s producer Tyler ICU explained how he’d added amapiano shakers, trumpet and log drum to the beat because “everyone is jamming to amapiano right now”.
Dr Peppa x Chang Cello x Lucasraps x RikyRick – What It Is (Official Music Video)
A year later, Riky Rick enlisted the prolific producer for his Focalistic-assisted single “Ungazincishi” and Mas Musiq on “Home”. Both songs were released at the same time and marked the hip-hop star’s first experiment with the yanos as the main artist. A couple of months prior, Mas Musiq roped in Riky Rick to work with on “Mthande” (2019), alongside amapiano royalty Sha Sha, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small. Apart from the singing he does on “Mthande”, the rapper flows seamlessly on amapiano productions. He demonstrated this artistry in his verse on Busta 929 & Mr JazziQ’s “VSOP” (2020).
In a sit-down with Maraza for his The Life SoFa Podcast towards the end of 2020, producer and rapper Makwa revealed that he’d taught Force from MFR Souls how to perfect his craft, and also alluded to being one of the pioneers of amapiano. Depending who you ask, MFR Souls is often regarded as the genre’s creator. Makwa is mostly known for his kwaito-inflected productions (which he calls “mzonkonko”) and his work with Kwesta. In 2019, Makwa produced and appeared on DJ PH’s “uGesi” alongside Kwesta, Maraza and August Child. The song switches between hip-hop and amapiano at various sections. Another song that follows on the same path is Da L.E.S’ “Elon Musk”, which features Focalistic, Kamo Mphela and Jobe London and is produced by hip-hop and amapiano producers GT Beats and Mphow69, respectively.
Last year, Makwa featured on “Top Sgelekeqe” — off MFR Souls’ Musical Kings album — and “Indian Prayer”, which he co-produced as well. Also included in the MFR Souls album is the amapiano remix of Makwa’s “Mali” (2019).
Makwa was involved in the production of all three songs on Kwesta’s latest album g.o.d Guluva that make use of log drums — “Kubo”, “Ma Se Kind” and “Hamba Nawe”. The former is heavily kwaito-influenced and interpolates the lead synth of DJ Ninja’s underground house hit “Pretoria Funk” (2008), a formula exhibited by AKA’s “F.R.E.E” — which Makwa also co-produced.
kwaito music is the foundation of “amapiano”
— #ThePianoKing (@KabzaDeSmall_)
Kwesta recently described the relationship between hip-hop and amapiano as “very tricky” during his interview on Podcast and Chill With MacG, adding: “I think it’s all hood music and [the artists] should be together. When people try and make it, somewhat, of a worthy attack to call me a kwaito artist and I say, ‘of course I’m a fucking kwaito artist, it’s just what I do’. The first story of the ghetto guy in music was told through kwaito and I’m continuing that shit, because I am that fucking ghetto guy.”
Kwaito as the Foundation of Amapiano
The relationship between kwaito and amapiano is obvious to anyone aware of the latter genre. Amapiano vocalists often borrow lyrics and cadences from kwaito, while the producers make use of kwaito basslines and rhythms. Many artists such as Reece Madlisa, Zuma, Njelic, De Mthuda and others share happily and willingly about the influence kwaito has had on them. Self-professed “king of amapiano”, Kabza De Small even once tweeted, “kwaito music is the foundation of amapiano.
In an OkayAfrica 2019 interview, K.O described how “4AM” came about. He had been listening to golden oldies on Apple Music when Mandla Spikiri’s kwaito banger “Money Talks” came on. “I’m sitting there like, ‘hold up, what could I possibly do to this shit?'” he recalled. “When I heard that joint, I’m like, ‘put yourself in Drake’s shoes, what would Drake do on this record? Or a record like this?'”
Cassper Nyovest made this relationship more obvious in his 2019 “kwaito album” Sweet and Short, featuring tracks such as “Remote Control” and “Tseya Ukwe”, on which he rapped over beats laced with amapiano’s customary lush pads, trumpet and the omnipresent log drum.
The hip-hop superstar has always been an amapiano fan, and was one of the first rappers to embrace it. Cassper Nyovest’s infectious presence has graced tracks like amapiano powerhouse DJ Sumbody’s 2018 single “Monate Polaye”, Major League DJz & Abidoza’s “Le’ Plane Elandile” (2020), Kabza De Small’s “Sponono” from the ‘piano king’s 2020 album I Am The King of Amapiano: Sweet and Dust. The rapper is currently working on a full-on amapiano project. He recently shared its first two singles, “Ama’Number Ayi10” which features prominent amapiano artists Kammu Dee, Abidoza and LuuDaDeejay, as well as “Angisho Guys” alongside Lady Du.
COSTA TITCH – AREYENG FT RIKY RICK & DJ MAPHORISA (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)
The relationship between kwaito and amapiano comes to light on Costa Titch’s “Areyeng” featuring Riky Rick and DJ Maphorisa, who references TKZee’s “Dlala Mapantsula” and “Shibobo” in the refrain. Stylistically, there are a few other tracks from Costa Titch’s debut album Made in Africa (2020), which are embellished with the log drum.
Costa Titch learned from the best — the young emcee was Cassper Nyovest’s dancer for approximately five years. “I guess he was taking notes,” Nyovest tweeted in 2020 at the height of Costa Titch’s breakout hit “Nkalakatha”, a trap music take of late kwaito legend Mandoza’s 2000 monster hit of the same title.
Cassper Nyovest recently expressed why he is drawn to amapiano. “The one thing I love about amapiano is that there are no gatekeepers. Ha gona bosso [there is no boss]. It’s either your song is hot or not,” he tweeted. This was after hip-hop deejay Speedsta had tweeted that amapiano deejays play the same songs, even though they release every other week, specifically mentioning De Mthuda’s hit “John Wick”. Speedsta was dismissed as a bitter hip-hop deejay who’s feeling the heat amapiano is bringing, and sending hip-hop all the way to the back of the room.
Hip-Hop Deejays Play The Yanos
Ironically, DJ Jawz, content producer of Metro FM’s Absolute Hip Hop, a Saturday evening show hosted by Speedsta, leans on amapiano for his single “Ringo“. So does veteran South African hip-hop deejay C-Live, who used to host Hip Hop Power Nights on 5FM in the 2010s, in his single “Potential”.
During his live sets and mixes, two-time South African Hip Hop Award DJ of The Year winner, DJ PH often follows an open format by switching between various genres. Though he is the most recognised (and most criticised) for this move, PH is not the only hip-hop deejay who has “switched sides”.
At the tail end of last year, hip-hop deejay and commentator Ms Cosmo also released an amapiano-infused single titled “Bhuti”, produced by Tyler ICU and Gobi Beast. During multiple episodes of the YouTube show PopCast, the deejay alongside her co-hosts DJ Vigilante, Scoop Makhathini and Speedsta (who’s since left the show) expressed their frustrations with South African hip-hop, especially in 2019, when it took a dip commercially and amapiano took control.
In one episode, Speedsta vented that South African hip-hop was “going nowhere slowly”. “As deejays,” he told his co-hosts, “we always go back to the 2014/2015 era where we played ‘Boss Zonke’, ‘Sorry Makhe’, ‘Special Somebody’, ‘Yaya’, ‘Caracara’, ‘All Eyes On Me’, etcetera, etcetera and when we were doing that, we were doing really really well, from 95 BPM to a hundred BPM. We then got too cool and started doing a bit of [trap]; a bit of a different direction, and, when we were going in that different direction, we weren’t adding vernac to our stuff; we were trying to sound too American.”
Ever since non-hip-hop fans were exposed to South African hip-hop, the criticism has always been consistent — SA hip-hop needs to incorporate more South African flavours for it to connect with the masses. Which is exactly what happened in the mid-2010s when new age kwaito happened — catchphrases from vintage kwaito hits and those rooted in township references were appropriated as refrains in the aforementioned songs from that era.
South African Hip-Hop’s Identity Crisis
While hip-hop went through an identity crisis of sorts towards the end of the 2010s, audiences developed an affinity for and a connection to amapiano — the genre’s lyrics are always sung in South African languages and, most importantly, the songs make people dance. It was around those years that Focalistic started rapping on amapiano beats to maintain SA hip-hop’s connection to the streets.
“Amapiano is from kwaito, so it was a natural thing,” Focalistic explained his transition in the interview cited earlier. “It was never a decision of let me switch bands… people make it like there’s two different genres; hip-hop and amapiano. For me, it’s never felt like that — it’s one thing; good music.” His Cassper Nyovest-assisted 2019 single “Never Know” which has both kwaito and amapiano influences, resonated more than, say, “Klippa” featuring Emtee, a trap song Focalistic released in 2020. So did his projects Ase Trap Tse Ke Pina Tsa Ko Kasi released in 2019, Quarantine Tarantino, Blecke and Sgubhu Ses Excellent all released in 2020. Ase Trap Tse Ke Pina Tsa Ko Kasi was attributed to Focalistic and Major League DJz as a collaborative project.
Though the twin producer and deejay duo are currently the biggest advocates of amapiano, their entrance into music was through being Khuli Chana’s official deejays. When they started releasing their own music circa 2014, the duo took on new age kwaito and released instant hits such as “Bizness” and “Slyza Tsotsi”.
In 2019, Major League started releasing amapiano songs, working with Focalistic and producers The Lowkeys and Tyler ICU. Last year, they, alongside Abidoza, put out two ‘piano projects, Pianochella and What’s The Levol which contained the hits “Dinaledi” and “Le’ Plane Elandile”. During a recent amapiano panel discussion on SlikourOnLife‘s YouTube channel, when comparisons to hip-hop were brought up, one half of the twin duo jokingly said, “This is a ‘piano platform, chief, we do not [want to] hear about hip-hop here.” To which rapper and entrepreneur Siya Metane (Slikour), who was moderating, later calls them out on. “Can you guys stop talking like you haven’t made money out of hip-hop songs, just stop,” said Slikour.
While it may be rocky at times, the relationship between South African hip-hop and amapiano should be nurtured and encouraged to “co-exist happily ever after”, rather than ridiculed or shunned upon. Both genres’ synergy points are a win for everyone — hip-hop benefits from having a unique South African identity, while amapiano gets to further spread its tentacles into other genres.