K.O is one of the most decorated hip hop artists in South Africa, but his lengthy career hasn’t been without pitfalls. With the release of his EP, “Two Piece”, featuring AKA and Cassper Nyovest, he reminds us why he is considered an icon.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main photo: Mini Photography
K.O (born Ntokozo Mdluli) has been dropping hits since hip hop was still a crawling genre in South Africa. As a member of the multi award-winning group, Teargas, he has played his part in pushing the genre to popularity.
When he branched out as a solo artist, he went on to break records with his hit single Caracara, which became the first local hip hop song to hit a million views on YouTube and the first hip hop song to win Record of the Year at the SAMAs (South African Music Awards). On the same night, his debut album Skhanda Republic also walked away with coveted Best Rap Album award.
In addition to his illustrious music career, K.O launched a record label, Cashtime Life along with the fashion label by the same name.
Although his musical influence has been undeniable, the widely publicised demise of his record label, in 2016, threatened to overshadow his career.
Coming face to face with public scorn and negativity, sunk K.O to the depths of depression. He admits that it was a dark and lonely place, which he hopes to never return to again.
His second album Skhanda Republic 2, was his saving grace, as he focused his energy and held on to it like a life line to draw himself out of the pit of all the negative emotions. The result was his most personal work to date.
Three weeks ago, he gave us an unexpected surprise when he dropped his two-track Ep “Two Piece” featuring mega hip hop stars and rivals AKA and Cassper Nyovest on each track. The tracks have been met with praise, especially Waya Waya, featuring Cassper Nyovest which sees K.O going back to his infectious and up-tempo sound.
Watch the video for Waya Waya:
When I meet the rapper at a restaurant in Fourways, I am startled by his modest demeanour. He appears to be a man who doesn’t indulge much in small talk and his slightly soft spoken nature will have you leaning in, in order to fully understand him. Traits which he admits create a lot of misconceptions about him being hostile.
However, once you break through the invisible barrier, what you discover is just a laid-back guy who doesn’t throw his superstar stature around.
The intensely private star slightly opens up the veils and lets us into the imperfect world of being one of the top rappers in Africa.
On your first single as a solo artist, “Mission Statement”, you made a prophesy about your career. Would you say that prophesy was correct?
K.O: I am one person who believes in throwing things out into the universe. I believe if you really want something you need to create good karma for you to attract it.
And Yes! I was able to achieve some of the things I mentioned in the song, like having a record label, Cashtime, with other artists signed under it and also starting my own clothing line.
It’s still a long journey but I can say I have ticked some of the boxes. Now, it’s just a matter of continuing the legacy and making sure that by the time I put down the mic I will have achieved all of the things that I set out for myself.
You recently tweeted: @mrcashtime: “2016 Losses, 2017 Learnings, 2018 Blessings”. How do you make sure that you are present enough to not only take the losses but to also learn from them?
K.O: I think I have the heart of a soldier. When you get in the battlefield, you are most likely to sustain an injury.
You might lose a limb; you might get a bullet in your back but as long as you don’t die and your spirit does not die, you can still pick yourself up and continue to live for another day, even in the midst of all the chaos around you.
As human-beings we need to be mindful of not just the great things but also losses because that’s how we grow. When we lose something, we must not lose the lesson; go back to the drawing board, revise your plan then get back in the battle with a better strategy.
As someone in the public eye, your losses/failures get played out in the media, how do you make sure that you don’t get stuck in them?
K.O: When I look at my journey through the public eye, I feel like there are so many misconceptions about me; because I am not an open book – people don’t know what goes on in my head – so they don’t truly get to know the real me and that’s why they end up drawing their own conclusions.
Unfortunately at times these misconceptions stick.
Looking at the Cashtime situation, people might have labelled me a certain way and whatever I had to offer after that was tainted by those negative labels.
I can sit and cry about it but because I know that I made it this far because of my hard work and my artistic creativity, I just continue making music and working on my hustle.
At the end of the day I will progress because my work speaks for itself.
You have mentioned that after releasing your debut album you went through a lot and as a result you suffered from depression. Many rappers might shy away from the term “depression” because of the stigma. What compelled you to be that transparent?
K.O: Since the days of Teargas I have always managed to keep my private life, private. I never really showed my vulnerability, even though it was there. With all that was going on, I felt like I needed an outlet to channel the darkness and negativity that was raging inside me.
I decided to use the only thing I had access to as a channel, my music, to put my heart on the table and expose my vulnerability. I’m aware that some people might have felt unsettled by that approach, thinking it would have a negative impact on my music, but it actually put it a notch higher.
I guess there is not much room in our local hip hop scene to be vulnerable because the music is very casual.
Which is why I applauded you for being brave enough to show yourself as a human being who also goes through emotional pain………
K.O: Many people expect us to be robots just because we’re entertainers. But we are not robots and I wanted to show that I am a human being too. Unfortunately that’s not a popular lane locally.
In this country people are not perceptive to those subject matters; they just want to dance…. I am getting back to that as you can hear on my latest single “Waya Waya” featuring Cassper Nyovest. However, I am not going to abandoned that path which I discovered for myself because it’s not just about the people, it’s about me too.
What I discovered when I was on that personal journey was that there is so much you can touch on because your story is unique and there is no way I can say the same thing another rapper would say. I am telling my story which is important and hence I am not going to completely abandon that. At this moment I am focusing on the sound that made people gravitate towards me, like Caracara, and so you’re going to hear a lot of up-tempo songs but the substance will still be there.
Watch K.O’s music video for Swagganova:
Many young rappers name you as their blueprint in local hip hop, who was your blueprint, considering that there were a handful of hip hop acts when you started?
K.O: Proverb, Pro Kid and obviously Skwatta Kamp because I was in a group. Pro Kid was like “the guy” for me! When we came in as Teargas, the group thing was in with the likes of H20 and other acts. I always found it difficult because I wanted to try the solo thing but I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for it. I had made songs by myself but I always wondered what would happen if I had to make a whole album or be on stage by myself.
I looked at Pro and it was just him on stage – the way he controlled the mic and the crowd – I wanted that. Overseas I was looking at the likes of Jay-Z and 50 Cent (back in the day). When I was already doing the solo thing I looked at Kanye West, Kendrick Lemar, Drake and I learned a lot from studying them.
The local hip hop landscape has changed drastically, it’s now the number one genre in the country and it seems to be more about the singles and the numbers rather than the albums. Since you are known for being the rapper who delivers solid albums, what do you say to a new rapper who also wants to have a sustainable career, like yours?
K.O: I think you can have a sustainable career with just singles. The rules have been redefined by the way people consume music. As you can see now that albums are becoming shorter and shorter.
Recently, it’s just seven songs or just twenty minutes. I remember the rapper, who just passed away, XXXTentacion, his album was just eighteen minutes. It just goes to show that the way people consume music is constantly changing. So you need to move with the times and produce what’s relevant for that period.
Even when we were making Waya Waya, Cassper said that getting to the sweet spot shouldn’t take you longer than 03:30 minutes, in terms of curating a song.
I feel like with an album, if the single is not working you can always pull out another one from the album. When you go the route of producing singles then you have to let the single run its course before you can drop another one.
As much as that may be more viable than releasing an album – which can be costly – an album that is strong can be a great point of reference that says a lot about you as an artist at different points in your life. With a single it can be difficult for us to know where you are mentally and personally at that particular chapter in your life.
However, I do believe that young guys do have a shot as long as they don’t make the same music. Yes, give us the dance tune but also mix it up and maybe tell us about your love life or anything that affects you personally – don’t be afraid of variety. If you don’t give people a bit of variety, they get tired.
Listen to K.O’s latest single feat K.O:
You’ve got the awards, multi-platinum selling music, Cashtime and a fashion label. What would you say is your mission statement now?
K.O: To bless others through my blessings. To turn all those avenues into a fully-fledged business requires that I build a team. That way, whatever the company generates then people can get jobs and change their lives through this stream of mine.
That’s why I created Cashtime because I knew the blessings that God put before me and I can’t enjoy them all by myself.
When I first did it, unfortunately I got burnt but I have learned that I can’t walk away because that is a gift. Selflessness is a gift. I can’t let minor setbacks steal that.
What’s the intention with EP, Two Piece, featuring AKA and Cassper Nyovest?
K.O: The EP is a warm-up for the album. I have been in the studio since my second album and “Two Piece” is the first layer of what I am about to do moving forward, but I’m still undecided. I might release another album this year or I might push it to this time, next year.
I have just been creating in the studio as much as I can that’s why I have managed to have six features on other people’s songs, this year. I felt like since I am back let me put some artists on my songs as well. This was a way of making a strong statement with me flexing my muscle and influence in the game.
I know people are aware of what’s happening between these two artists featured on the EP and I want to bring them close together.
I believe having Cassper on one track and AKA on the other is the closest thing to a wet dream for South African hip hop lovers. Maybe on the next one we might be on the same track.
This is just my way as a big brother of bringing back that reminder: “there is more strength in unity than division”.