Solo Is Playing The Rap Game By His Own Rules
A Profile by Sabelo Mkhabela:
For eight weeks from 29 March 2018, AGOG Gallery in Maboneng, Johannesburg, hosted an artist for a residency… only this artist wasn’t exhibiting visual art, but rap songs. Every Thursday night, the rapper Solo and his band The BETR Gang were performing a selection of songs from Solo’s extensive discography. Solo plays the game by his own rules and moves at his own pace. This residency was a simulation of the countrywide tour he’s planning with The BETR Gang after releasing an album titled Tour Dates in January.
“If we are planning towards a tour and we need to showcase what it would feel like, through a residency, then the space needs to almost paint a picture of how we are trying to present it.” When I finally get to sit down with him for an interview, he tells me it’s been a crazy day. He has been getting his hands dirty making sure the show goes as planned. “For example,” he continues, “nothing about what you experience here makes you think that we are taking the tour to a club.”
By choosing an art gallery, Solo wanted to ensure that whoever is in attendance is there for the music and nothing much else. He doesn’t feel performing in a club does justice to his music.
“It’s what I’ve learned to experience in a club when a performer comes on, and understanding that I don’t want that for myself,” he says. He gives me an anecdote of when you are chilling with your peeps in the club just kicking it, and all of a sudden you hear a host telling you an artist is about to perform. “All you’re doing is breaking the mood,” he says.
“People turn around and be like ‘arg, fuck,’ and that’s for known acts, your biggest acts. That’s not the space for an experience like this one. Imagine me putting together this album, learning all this music to go to a space where I’m only allowed to do two songs, or half of two songs. Because you can’t do more than that, dude, it’s a fucking club. People need to get back to their conversations and drinking.”
Solo, who released his debut album .Dreams.A.Plenty in 2014, tried the conventional way earlier in his career. Performing with a digital band that played two MPC drum machines was too complicated for a lot of clubs technically. “They were like ‘fucking hell, just play a CD, dawg.’” Now he has added a drummer to his ensemble.
Solo reveres art. It starts with the attention to detail in his rhymes. He’s a highly technically skilled rapper, hitting double entendres, syllable and double rhymes like they aren’t a thing. This reverence shows even in his records, which are highly conceptual. His first album was part of an ongoing trilogy, which is centered around dreams as a theme. On .Dreams.A.Plenty, Solo was sharing his aspirations, and sneering at how rappers were doing things so conventionally.
On his second release, 2016’s .Dreams.B.Plenty, Solo was less idealistic. He was still a dreamer, but with some cynicism and aggression, which is a result of some gashes he suffered as a newcomer and some wins like the Best Newcomer nod he was given by the South African Hip Hop Awards in 2015.
.Dreams.B.Plenty is one of the most personal South African hip-hop albums I’ve ever heard. And I’ve listened to Zubz’ Listener’s Digest, Mawe2’s A Fool’s Hope and all of ProVerb’s albums. .Dreams.A.Plenty, featured clips recorded from Solo’s family gathering as skits. In his rhymes, he refers to people by their names—a great example is the song ‘Jubilee No LigaMo’, which is dedicated to his late grandmother Jubilee and his cousin LigaMo, who he grew up with. The music video to the song is a tearjerker of note, as it features reenactments of moments spent with the two souls who have since transitioned. Watching it is like living in a compartment of the rapper’s memory. ‘Jubilee No LigaMo’ is a song your fave would never make a single, but keep as a deep cut for the loyal listener, mostly because of its sentimental nature and mellow disposition.
Solo’s latest project, Tour Dates, even though still conceptual, sees him take a break from the trilogy. The album features an artist out of Solo’s camp on every song excluding its intro. These artists represent some of South Africa’s cities and provinces, which Solo and his band would like to hit for their tour. For instance, K.O. comes in on the ominous ‘Moon Over The Jungle’ to represent Mpumalanga, YoungstaCPT takes the attention to the Mother City on the song ‘The Light’, while P.H, on the melodic ‘Ain’t Ready’, represents Limpopo.
But one song that reminds you that Solo doesn’t play by the rules on Tour Dates is the song ‘Top 5’, which features the Soweto smooth rhyme slayer Maggz. While most rappers will only devote a song talking about another rapper when it’s a diss, on ‘Top 5’, Solo raps praises to Maggz, who he reveals is one of his top 5 rappers.
Tour Dates isn’t the first BETR Gang project. In 2015, introducing the group, the rapper released We Need A Title in which him and BETR Gang member Buks traded bars on 10 excellent songs. “I thought let me introduce the dudes I always work with,” says the rapper on why he chose to release music with BETR Gang under the name when they were still involved in his solo work anyway.
The BETR Gang consists of, apart from Solo, the rapper, producer, and singer Buks, producers Al da 3rd, Subrocc, Solid The Gifted and Th&o. The band is dynamic. They managed to keep a crowd of loyal supporters and fans entertained every Thursday night for the duration of the residency, and there were some moments of improvisation that blew everyone away. Different guests were on the bill every week to add to the diversity of the show – artists like Reason, Moozlie, Priddy Ugly, Aewon Wolf, L-Tido, most of who are featured on Tour Dates, among lots of others, made appearances.
But Solo making the kind of music that is neither designed for the radio or the club, sees him existing in the fringes of the mainstream music industry in South Africa. You won’t see his name on the MTV Base Top 10 list or the SAMA awards nominee list. Solo isn’t affected by any of that. “No one should ever bring that energy, that ‘underrated’ shit,” he says. “I don’t even retweet dudes who say I’m underrated. I understand it comes from a good place, but it’s weird to me, it’s just not the time for that kind of energy on our side.
“You’re feeling sad because you feel like a train is leaving, but there’s no fucking train. We understand that, money isn’t disappearing, people aren’t going away.”
For Solo, it’s a marathon. He believes in making the best music he can and giving a world-class show. “All I need to do is to keep fine-tuning the sound and performance so I keep the people I have here happy, so that word of mouth exists and that happens and you start infiltrating more like-minded people.”
Solo and The BETR Gang will go on a nationwide tour soon!
Follow Solo on Twitter to keep up.
Watch Solo and The BETR Gang in The Heist, the winner of the 2016 Jameson Music Video Grant.