South African rapper Capso, (featured on the program South Africa Today was recently in town for a project with acclaimed Haitian American maestro Wyclef Jean. We met up at the trendy Fort Green, BK South African Restaurant Madiba, where he performed briefly on a boisterous Saturday night. It became clear that we had a lot to talk about, and needed a quieter place to discuss. So several days later we met again at Capso’s mid-town hotel room, where he was relaxing between his recording sessions at Big Daddy’s House.
Capso: My name is Capso, I’m an artist, I produce music, I write and I perform it. I’m from South Africa. I was born in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] but raised in South Africa since I was 7 years old; it’s where I spent most of my life.
Morgan. Greenstreet: Why did your family leave the DRC?
C.: Well, they left when they were young, they grew up in Belgium, then they moved back when the country was doing really, really good, I guess that was in the ‘80s. Then they decided to move to South Africa because of the opportunities that were there, that was what they wanted to do. They moved the whole family, and I grew up there.
M.G: What kind of music did you hear growing up? What was around you and what did you choose to listen to?
C.: Basically, my father is heavily involved with the church, he’s a pastor, so I grew up around Congolese sebene music, which was playing all the time at church. And my two older brothers and older sister played in the church band as well, they were really part of the main band. They would bring back instruments after every rehearsal that they had two or three times a week. They were always playing music basically, coming up with new songs…My brother built a studio, so I started messing around with production when I was really young, 11 or 12, just messing around with Qbase, Reason, Cakewalk, programs like that. Just for fun, because it was there. So instead of sitting in front of the TV, I would be in the studio, working on stuff and discovering, and watching my brother work as well. It was a pretty natural thing. I don’t know what it’s like in different households, but I imagine that everyone else, after homework and sports were watching TV or listening to music, but we were making it.
M.G: So did you take up an instrument?
C.: No, because it was never really like a task, like you have to take lessons, or be in the church band, because I didn’t play or sing in church band. But it was just normal to mess around with a piano; it’s just a tool that has always been there. I play by ear, because I hear music in my head, or I write a melody and I hear a melody that will accompany it well, I go find it on the keyboard. As soon as I’m ready, I put it down, then I hear another one, I put it on top of that, and then I hear the beat, or I come up with a beat that I want to do, and I just play around ‘til I get something I’m happy with, that I really like, that go with the lyrics and the whole vibe of what I’m trying to do.
M.G: So do you still do your own production ?
C.: I do yeah, I always do my own production. I have a little studio set up at my place. So what I’ll do, is, I’ll have an idea, I’ll go in and lay down some keys for it, so I get the right vibe, the melody. I basically do pre-production of my own stuff, I get it to a certain level, and then I take it to the main studio where I work, with an engineer and some other producers sometimes, and we just take it to a level where I’m happy with it. I’ve done a lot my stuff from the beginning to end, but I always try to get extra ears and people who specialize in production to give it a take as well. I really like to collaborate with different minds and stuff, it makes it fun. It’s exciting, and it makes it better, you know.
M.G: Did you listen to popular music when you were growing up?
C.: Yeah, of course: There was the radio, there was stuff at school, people sharing music like that. I grew up listening to a lot of French hip-hop, and the thing about French hip-hop is it’s always had this social commentary angle to it, basically talking about society, it’s ills, commenting on things you see, things that are happening. That’s the thinking for me with music, to always be able to use it as a tool to express things, to describe things. Right now I feel like, it’s like taking picture of life but with songs. Just like how a photographer would do it, but with songs you get to take more than just the image, which you can describe with words, you also get the feeling about the mood. So if you’re taking like a picture of someone’s emotions, or a picture of your emotions, or a picture of the emotions in the situation as well as the situation itself. The beat helps you to create the necessary energy that you need, if it needs to be that way: If you talking about war, for example, you can use the different sounds, the different tempos to talk about that; if you talk about love, it’s a little bit slower, smoother. I’m like a photographer, but with the music. And you can color it with all these different instruments. It’s like taking a picture, or painting one.
And the things with the lyrics, it’s great, because when you write things down, it doesn’t make them go away, but it makes them bearable. Maybe that comes from the church, you know, you pray for stuff, you use music to get into that zone if you will. And, depending on the situation, certain songs are used. My mother, she knows so many songs, she picks songs based on the situation, whether it’s a celebration, or if it’s just for praise or for worshipping, or if it’s a funeral and you’re basically singing songs that support, that give you that comfort.
M.G: Do you try to do a similar thing in your composition?
C.: I don’t really think about what I’m trying to do in my composition, I just do it. I don’t sit down and say I’m gonna write something that makes me feel a certain way, it just happens. It’s definitely not something that I consciously think about. People want you to explain it to them. I think the best way to explain it is to listen to the music and experience it. After a while you start seeing a thread through it. I definitely have that social commentary, and wanting to describe things a little more, to leave pieces of music behind that are relevant to what I’m thinking about. Sometimes now when I write stuff…I think about nursery rhymes. I wonder what kids sing right now, what are the songs their parents taught to them? I don’t know if kids are like, “I’m a fireman, fire-fa-fireman” you know, I don’t know…So I kind think about what would I want my great-grandchildren to hear? What can I leave behind for them through the music, so I can kinda have a conversation with them. So I think a lot about that. Also, what are we doing right now? I make music for myself and the people around me…It’s just a cool thing to do with your life, I think. It’s just the best! Why do anything else? It’s fun, it makes you happy, it’s rewarding, and you can make a bunch of money, and you travel. I couldn’t do anything else really. It wouldn’t be worth like living if it wasn’t for music being there. I’d just stay in bed all day. I’m not really excited by anything else, that’s the thing.
M.G: So the French hip-hop you were listening to, that wasn’t on the radio?
C.: No, but I went to a French school, because coming from the DRC I couldn’t speak English. I learned English at school, and then from watching TV, because in South African it was mainly English spoken, amongst the other languages. So through the French school there was always stuff coming in, people bring stuff in, and also my eldest brother lived in France, so he’d be sending me stuff. I’d do research, find out about titles, new artists coming out.
M.G: What artists?
C.: I know he sent me IAM, Passy, just everything, man.
M.G: Did you listen to American hip-hop at that point?
C.: Of course. I listened to Biggie, you know, one of my favorite albums, the double album, Life After Death. I listened to Tupac, Nas, a lot of Nas, Rakim, just like everything I could get my headphones plugged into, that was what I was listening to. It was a good escape from the constant gospel music that I was hearing all the time. It was a crazy different way to make music. I guess, thinking back now, music is such a part of my life, I could understand it’s use, I could also see that there was a different way to do it. You could just write a poem and put that into a song or describe something completely different that was just happening in front of you. You could basically put anything into a song. There’s a sort of childlike, amazing sort of effect. To be able to do that, and be able to share it with someone and see their face light up! That’s what’s up.
M.G: As you were coming up, were there rappers on the South African scene?
C.: Yeah. There were a couple, I’m trying to remember their names. There was a guy called Mischief, that was way back. I don’t think he was South African, but he lived in South Africa and he was pretty big there. There was like club called Le Club that was probably where most of the hip-hop, the MCing culture, a lot of guys came there, at least went there and visited it regularly. It was a spot where you could just go, they had open mics, and you could just sign up and rap. There were a bunch of people there, it was really live, you know. It was crazy, a spot in town. There was definitely a little scene.
M.G: Did you do that?
C.: Of course.
M.G: When start rapping? Was it a decision or…?
C.: I guess it always starts with rapping other people’s stuff, that you’re hearing, and then you just repeat it. And then I just started writing my own. I don’t remember exactly when, I’ve just been doing it. Like in primary school, basically, late in primary school, I started writing my own rhymes. It’s so much fun, you know, to write a rhyme and to share with your friends…
M.G: Describe your early career. How did you move from fun with your friends to putting out a record on a label?
C.: I was doing all this music in the studio with my brother, you know, and I got into trouble at school, and after school I continued studying. I came home, because I was in Capetown at that stage, and my whole family was in Joburg. I came back to Joburg for the holiday once, and it was just music again. I had this little demo that I’d recorded, but I wanted to make it to sound a little bit better. So I found a dude that had a studio, he was producing artists. So I went to see him. I had to pay, actually I had to leave my watch behind once, because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the session. So I left my watch, “I’m coming back, you know I’m coming back, I gotta finish this track, and I’ll bring your money when I come back, here keep this watch!”
It was 2002, or 2003, I recorded this song which I gave to Sony and David Gresham records, and they both called me up a couple weeks later, and they were both interested in signing me. I signed a deal with David Gresham records, I think it’s the biggest independent label in South Africa, it competes really well with the majors. It’s like a major independent, if you will. I think back then they were sort of testing the grounds with this new sort of hip-hop thing for South Africa I guess. So I signed with them in 2003. I put out an album called Things Are As They Are, and actually the song that I recorded for my demo, a song called “How Are Things,” that was the first single that they put out, that played on all the radio stations, on the biggest stations, Y FM, 5FM, Metro, stations like that.
And the girl who sang the hook, Tamari Day, she was on tour with Enrique Iglesias, opening up for him. And she invited me along. That was a really crazy experience, man! We did Johannesburg, Durban, Capetown, opening up for a lot of people! Ten, twenty thousand people. That was crazy, to go out there and do my song.
Then,“Africa” came out after that, and that did really well, too. I got synched up with a big Telecom company, across the entire continent. I wiled out a bit with the royalty money there: I went to live in UK for three years, just chillin’, living off the royalties. I guess in my head, I was like, “I’m too ill, I got this shit.” Then I ran out of royalty money! And I came back to South Africa, I wanted to see my friends and my family, so I came back to hang out a little bit. I decided to stay, and I decided to start a my own label with a guy I met in the UK.
I just decided that I wanted to put my own music out on my own terms, the way I want to do it. Because obviously they pick your singles and things like that, and I wasn’t really happy with a lot of the choices the label was making for me, you know? And so I bought the rights to my first album back from them, like I bought the masters. And I reworked it. And I remember that they gave me ridiculous money for videos back then. Like Africa for example, I re-did, I did new videos, I re-mastered a bunch of tracks. “Dreams” is from the old album. “Dreams” was written in 2003, a lot of people don’t know that, they think it’s a new joint, it was just never put out really.
M.G: So you just put it out as a single relatively recently?
C.: Yeah, from having bought the masters when I came back from the UK in 2008. “Africa” I put out again, not too long ago, because a lot of people hadn’t heard it. They’d heard it because it was on ads for this company, and they’d heard it on the radio, sure, but it wasn’t put out the way I would have wanted it to be put out. So we went back and worked really hard on videos, re-mastered.
So I decided to create this label, to do everything differently, creating strategic marketing campaigns to associate my music with brands, to get funded so you can produce music to the level you want to. And working with different people through all levels and aspects of it. And slowly discovering new artists and trying to develop them as well, while I continue to I work on my own stuff.
M.G: So you have other artists on your label?
C.: I have one artist in development, not really on my label, they do whatever they want, we just sort of work together very closely. They want to put their stuff out through our label, but we’re really small right now. We work with some of the major labels, too, on publishing. But it’s a little family.
M.G: What’s your experience running the business yourself? Do you feel you are reaching the same audiences as you were before, on a major? Or different audiences? Or still in a learning phase? How’s it going?
C.: Well, we work so hard, all the time on stuff, meeting different people, trying to use different avenues to get the music heard, using the internet, trying produce the highest quality stuff and just trusting that the quality of the material that we’re putting out will speak. And it’s starting to do that, it’s starting to get to the right people.
We’re on the radio stations in South Africa, which is really competitive right now. There’s some amazing stuff coming out locally and internationally. Obviously because there’s some real artists that dominate the charts and stuff, but we find our way to wiggle into that as well. We’re playing in France as well, on some of the stations there through the agencies that we work with over there. And we are here, in New York, discovering the landscape here as well, trying to navigate through that.
M.G: So are you working on a new album?
C.: Everybody keeps talking to me about albums and stuff. I don’t know if it’s relevant anymore to have an album! I’m not gonna just put out an album, and then not work on any more music for like a year while I tour. I’m always working on music, always writing all the time. I don’t even know if the demand is high enough. I could put out an album tomorrow: There’s tons of songs that have been recorded, mixed and mastered. I just want to put stuff out consistently, all the time, and when I feel like somebody wants to buy the CD or download a sort of collection of these songs…but in the mean time, the songs keep coming out, and they’re available immediately as soon as they are released, they’re available online straight away. And that’s basically my mentality around it. This is the way it’s been modeled but it’s about changing things and breaking the rules and just going with what you feel, as well. You might as well put stuff out while you’re here, and your alive, just keep on putting music out the whole time. I’m in the studio all the time; it’s a lifestyle. At one point, if we need to put an album out, maybe we will…I don’t think about that stuff. I’m just worried about my next song, whether I’m shooting a video or not, who I’m working with, who’s mixing, engineering, who’s featuring on it, if I’m doing a feature, whether I’m happy with the way the song sounds, the lyric, the beat. That’s what I care about. And I also care about the performance. Knowing that I could do a performance for an hour and half with fresh material and some of the old stuff.
M.G: So you call your style raprobeat? What’s the afrobeat influence ?
C.: The raprobeat, right, it’s basically a mixture of rap and afrobeat, just a dope way to call it, raprobeat. Just keeping some of the elements of the African continent that I grew up with. Like sebene for example, you get a little bit of that mixed with some fat beats. So you get a sort of Skrillex, Fela Kuti, mixed with some crazy rhymes on top of it. All those little guitars you know, that amazing Congolese guitar, some of the rhythms from African drumming, and the hip-hop elements come through with the lyrics. For me, it’s just like a little bit of everything that I know and that I love, into one thing.
M.G: Talk about “Muthi in Her Booty,” which was recorded recently.
C.: Well “Muthi in Her Booty.” You know my girl was walking up the stairs, wearing those tight gym pants, and her booty was movin’ and I was like, “Yo, you got muthi in your booty.” [muthi or muti is traditional medicine in southern Africa] So I went in, did a song, called my boy MX, told him about it, he loved it. It’s just fun, man, we just do it for fun. Some days you wake up feeling sad, and some days you just want to bullshit, you know? And that’s what my music is about. I’m just gonna tell you how I feel. If I wake up one day and I want to put out that song, I’ll do it you know, put out a video, speak to my team, if they’re down, we’re gonna put it out. I don’t theme this shit. Life is so short and precious, I don’t have time for that. I just want to do stuff while I’m alive and I’m here. People die every day, so while I’m here I just wanna do it! And I’m not gonna wait for the right time to put something out or the right mood…I’m just putting out stuff while I’m here, and I’m just gonna keep doing it.
M.G: Was “Muthi” well received?
C.: Yeah, people love it. Now people use it as an expression, like when they meet a girl, or in the club, “Yo, check her out man, she got some muthi in her booty.” If you look on Twitter, the conversations are pretty funny. We just put the term out there. You know muthi is a serious thing, it’s not a joke, ngomas [traditional medicine people/witchdoctors] they don’t mess around, they be mixing up all types of stuff, but we look at it from the light side and say that muthi makes you go crazy when you look at that booty! And it just made sense to put it out! You’re not going to sleep at night if some material doesn’t get out. That’s how I feel.
M.G: And how has “Dreams” been received?
C.: “Dreams” has done really well. People really love the message and the feeling of the song. I got some really good feedback on it. I actually don’t want to tell them that I wrote it in 2003, because it’s new if you’ve just heard it. Music doesn’t really age, you know. The reaction has been good. Radio, the video played everywhere; the song is gonna be released in France as well. We got a lot of good write-ups up in the media. And the people around me, my ‘frands,’ my friends who are fans, they basically really love it, I got some really cool stuff about how the song just gets stuck in their head, they can’t go to sleep without hearing it, cool stuff like that. It warms the heart.
M.G: So what’s the current project that brings you to New York with Wyclef?
C.: Basically, I created a competition, it’s like a mobile song contest, with Trace, the biggest music video channel in Africa right now; they’re in Europe as well, they’re based in Paris. They’re in 160 countries across the world. A lot of times kids come up to me, and they want to know, “How can I get in, you know? How do you do this? I know you’re independent, but your stuff is playing here on the radio. There’s gotta be a way you can help.” But this happens all the time man, every time I’m out, everytime I’m in the mall, anywhere, there’s always somebody with a demo. It’s so easy to make music now, so it makes sense. So I started feeling like, is there anything we can do? Obviously the corporates are only interested in it if it’s profitable for them, or if it’s advantageous to them. But the idea is to just get more voices heard.
So a couple of years ago we created a thing called “Jam In the Traffic,” a CD that was sold at all the Total gas stations across the country, and the idea was, you’re not in a traffic jam, you’re jamming in the traffic. People were invited to send in their music, we’d help them to get it to a certain level, we’d put it on the CD and sell it and pay them back the royalties. It worked really well…the first couple months, then the sales kinda just dropped. I guess it wasn’t getting the right support from a marketing perspective. And then I had the idea to create a song contest where people could simply call into the IVR line and record their song, and we would then listen to those songs, and there would be a winner. So Wyclef agreed to be involved, and be the main judge and basically help us to develop the project even further, and really get involved with it. And that’s what we’re working on, tying a few things up, and also working on some music together.
M.G: Awesome, when can we expect to hear that?
C.: A couple weeks I think. We’ll see. Going over there tonight, and we’re working a bit tomorrow. It’s just amazing, it’s a movie! I grew up listening to this guy! The Score, come on man! That’s classic, man! It’s crazy, man, it’s unbelievable. Also the energy there. It’s really a movie!
M.G: Where’s the studio?
C.: Around times square. It’s called Big Daddy’s house, I think it’s Puffy’s studio actually, he build it way back. There’s a signed Biggie poster in the toilet!
M.G: Nice! So what’s the place of the place of hip-hop in South African scene? What’s exciting you in the scene in general?
C.: In South Africa right now, I think hip-hop is niche, man, it’s just like a small group of people who are into hip-hop proper, the local hip-hop, the overseas hip hop. I don’t think you can fill up stadiums, even with major international acts with the hip-hop stuff. It depends who. The stuff that’s coming out is amazing, though, Reason, Tumi, of Tumi and the Volume, he’s been around for a while, really, really dope. That’s the kind of thing that gets me excited, on the hip-hop side of things.
Also, what’s really exciting right now with the major, major South African, acts like Mafikizolo and like Zahara, I just checked out their albums recently, in fact one of my boys Tresor Risiki, is on Zahara album, he’s from the DRC. There’ a song where she’s singing in Lingala, Lingala’s like the main language in the DRC, basically the vernacular. It’s not spoken in South Africa, but she’s singing in that language. I’m excited about the how African artists are starting to work together, the collaborations you know. Mafikizolo’s new track that’s doing really well features a Nigerian artist, May D. It’s called “Happiness.” And it’s just amazing to see, because I like to think that Africa is just one place, not all the different countries it’s been divided up as, and it’s nice to see that through music. Different languages that are getting mixed in the same song, from different parts of the continent. That’s a trend right now, and I hope it keeps going, because it’s amazing that we can have these types of collaboration with music.
And you got big DJs, big producers, doing really big things. Das Kapital, he’s playing all over, he’s just a crazy producer; he does all types beats, man. He keeps you dancing all night. The level of production is crazy! These kids are so young, like 22, 21, I’m working with kids who are 17! They make crazy beats! The young people are like really, 150 percent just, music, music, music. And they’ve got the tools to do it, too. It’s exciting, people are doing really great stuff. You can go out and watch shows and have a really great time.
M.G: So there are opportunities to perform in Joburg and around the country?
C.: Yeah, throughout the country, definitely. There’s a live scene. It’s just a shame that local acts don’t pull crowds as big as international acts that come in. And I still don’t understand why, because the quality and the level of the music, it’s on the same level. It’s just the marketing and promotion, I guess. It’s just the fact that certain records are playing across, you know, a bunch of different stations. And I guess people only, can only react to what they’ve heard, or what they have access too.
M.G: What is the situation in terms of mainstream radio in South Africa? You were saying that your songs get radio play as an independent artist, which is very encouraging.
C.: For us it’s just the relationships that we have with certain radio stations, the fact we’ve been doing it for a while, so a lot of them know us. I remember when we sent out “Dreams,” one of the radio stations replied that same day, asking for the high-quality WAV version so they could put it on for the next day. And that’s a huge station where everybody plays, it’s a hit radio station. So I guess we’ve been putting in the work. It’s one part of the world where we’re starting to be able to have a voice in, but I want be able to play in Zimbabwe, in Congo, in Nigeria. We’re trying to build that network through the label, with all the relevant players on the African continent, and European, America and Asian markets. We’re talking to everybody who likes our stuff, just pushing and promoting, getting people to hear it.
M.G: Think about more experimental artists from South Africa? Like DJ Spoko or Spoek Mathambo. What are their overall popularity or reception in South Africa?
C.: I guess, they’re really good, it’s niche I think, not mass sort of… It’s different. Die Antword is pretty exciting, too…They’re crazy man! Their music, it’s fresh, it’s dope! Max Normal, he’s always been doing it.
M.G: So you feel like they earned the attention they got?
C.: Yeah, and they work hard! They’re machines, man. Respect.
M.G: Anything you want to add?
C.: Go and listen to some music by Capso, see if you like it!
M.G: Thanks so much!