How Cassper Nyovest’s album “Tsholofelo” changed the South African music industry
In 2014, petrol prices decreased for the first time in three years, Trevor Noah was announced as the comedian to succeed one of the biggest comedy central shows in the Daily Show, replacing Jon Stewart as the host and AKA just cemented his position in South African music by releasing his critically acclaimed “Levels”. However, that’s all I can tell you about the South African hip hop scene around that time.
Before AKA’s “Levels”, there was no hip hop record that anybody would be excited for, let alone talk about long enough to be debated. In fact, the last significant South African hip hop album to be released was in 2004, Pitch Black Afro’s “Styling Gel”, which in 2014 was still the highest selling hip hop album of all time in South Africa. Popular music for the youth before that was a battle between different genres of House Music and hip hop, and House Music seemed to be winning that battle since the end of Kwaito’s dominance. It seemed more and more artists were moving from being hip hop artists to House DJs in order to make money from their music, a good example of this was Bozza from Skwatta Kamp.
South African hip hop’s only exciting artist at the time was AKA, he was getting the bookings, the shows, the promotion and the lights amongst his South African music peers. His last release was his first album “Altar Ego”, which some how seemed to bring only hit after hit, from his breakout single “Victory Lap” to his smooth “All I know” and the introspective “Bang”. All the awards were being showered on AKA, from Channel O to the SAMAs, AKA then released the first single “Congratulate” through Apple’s iTunes and immediately changed the game.
There was nothing particularly special about this song, it was a pitched down voice of a repeated phrase mentioning the nickname of a beloved car in South Africa which had been done many times before that, however, it’s the way in which it was done. Trap music had recently started to make waves in South African underground hip hop, almost three years after it was popularised in the United States of America. In fact, people had been listening to trap music since it was first a staple in 2010 when Rick Ross and Waka Flocka Flame made the hard hitting base instruments a thing. However, South African media hates South African artists sounding at all like their United States counterparts that they play everyday, now here was a guy who was doing the same thing but somehow it sounded fresh and South African. Soon enough, while all eyes were on AKA gearing up for his very anticipated “Levels”, there was a song nagging in the back of everyone’s mind, songs always blow up though, and artists tend to be forgotten under the spotlight of their biggest song. However, when you saw Cassper Nyovest behind this song, immediately you were greeted by the ponytail.
Cassper Nyovest is a genius and this was made all the more mesmerizing by his stage presence, this man was born to be on stage. For the first time, people were looking at other artists besides AKA in the hip hop scene. Many were trying to replicate the formula Cassper Nyovest used, Riky Rick’s Amantombazane and K.O’s Caracara which used a bay area DJ Mustard type beat with South African vocals. AKA was now for the first time, in competition with other hip hop artists since his come up. However, Cassper Nyovest’s greatest success story was the one that he told a million times, he was an independent artist, which meant that he was not contractually obligated to any company, the biggest three being Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, but there were others such as Kalawa Jazmee Records and Cashtime Records, this allowed Cassper Nyovest to release music in an unorthodox way.
Before Spotify and Apple Music were easily accessible to musicians, hip hop artists would release their music for free, this meant it was easily accessible for potential fans and thanks to the internet, it was ten times easier and cheaper.
Cassper Nyovest released his second single, “Doc Shebeleza” on Friday 17 January 2014, it did not immediately catch everyone’s attention as people were still getting to know him through the Gusheshe record, the beat was produced by Sean Craig Beats, it was high energy and had an even heavier base than Gusheshe. However around March 2014, people started to hear the song more and more on radio and wanted to download it, which made people search for it online, and at the time you would have seen that it had been downloaded 100,000 times on Data File Host. People didn’t even know that there were that many people who listened to South African hip hop, let alone Cassper Nyovest.
Numbers Started To Matter Again
Because of the fake numbers that can be produced by Data File Host, it is now shunned upon to use Data File Host to release your music. However, at the time, seeing that number (100,000 downloads) was marketing in its self. Word started to spread that there was an artist shattering notions about South African hip hop and its riches, everyone was on the Cassper trend, you couldn’t get away from the song, it was everywhere, kids were singing it in the streets, old people were talking about kids singing the song in the streets, and its legendary status was cemented when Doc Shebeleza himself showed up in the music video, metaphorically handing over the baton to Cassper Nyovest. Everyone and their grandmother wanted to be a rapper and get on this hip hop trend, it is widely debated if “Umoya” by Skwatta Kamp or “Doc Shebeleza” by Cassper Nyovest is the biggest hip hop song of all time in South Africa.
Remember when I stated that AKA was about to release his next single “Congratulate” and be the first artist to release on Apple’s iTunes, well that did change the game, AKA was the only South African number one artist for weeks and months on iTunes until that was disrupted by a remix of Riky Rick’s “Amantombazane”. Other songs started to pop up in the number one position, DJ Speedsta’s “Special Somebody” and K.O’s “No Fear (freestyle)”, and even a few underground artists such as Zakwe were able to get their songs on iTunes.
When a fan on Twitter commented that Cassper Nyovest’s “Doc Shebeleza” was the number one song on the internet, AKA responded with “Number 1 on iTunes, not Zippyshare… know the difference!“. This started a long rivalry between the two artists which I will write about in a different article, however it was clear that AKA noticed that his star was not the only one shining anymore and it was getting to him. Taking the time to capitalize on the rivalry, Cassper Nyovest announced that he’d be releasing his debut album, “Tsholofelo” exactly a month after, which was quick in terms of South African hip hop, even dropping an unannounced music video for “Tsibip” on the same show as AKA’s highly anticipated music video for “Run Jozi”. So came Monday 30 June 2014 and AKA’s sophomore album, “Levels” was released to fanfare, however there were no numbers to back it up, it was basically up to us the fans to believe that he was the biggest act in South Africa.
We couldn’t quantify their reach though, because as much as Cassper Nyovest had 100,000 downloads for his song, nobody had actually spent money on him the same way that people had spent money on AKA. We were not able to compare the two and we didn’t know how except through opinions until Wednesday 30 July 2014.
Cassper Nyovest had recently released his third single, “Phumakim”, and appeared on the cover of Hype magazine. Having announced his album not so long before that, people wanted to hear what the rival of arguably the biggest hip hop artist in the country had to produce. When the 30th of June arrived, it was like any other artist’s release that was had in South Africa, the album was a mixture of multiple genres such as hip hop, dance, house and kwaito. Cassper Nyovest had a great understanding of telling introspective stories about himself, and a presence on an instrumental that was that of a natural. This isn’t an album review necessarily, however this was a very noteworthy album and arguably still his best album to date, I tend to disagree with that notion and I lean towards “Thuto” being Cassper Nyovest’s best album but I’ve digressed. What really caught people’s attention was when he announced on V-Entertainment a month later that he had sold 10,000 copies, in the United States of America, you would be laughed out the building, but in South Africa this was big. He would need 10,000 more to go gold in South Africa. As a measure of how well he was doing, the biggest hip hop album before that, was from a rapper by the name of Zakwe, who also went gold but it took him over two years to reach this. So Cassper dyed his hair blonde and got his peers in the music industry to dye their hair blonde too in support of his campaign to go gold, people all over South Africa were dying their hair blonde in support and it became known that Cassper Nyovest was the biggest hip hop artist now and his album was moving at an incredible speed, iTunes could back up his claims of his album being the most purchased album in the country. On Thursday 6 November 2014, Cassper Nyovest’s debut album “Tsholofelo” went gold, then went platinum the following year, even using his momentum to fill up the biggest event arena in South Africa, the Ticketpro Dome. At this point it wasn’t opinion, Cassper Nyovest was the biggest hip hop artist or rather the biggest artist in South Africa during this period.
Hip hop music since then has had the same qualities, artists cause rivalries in order to boost sales, cite A-Reece and Nasty C. People are trying harder and harder to use more American sounds with South African twists in order to get air play, this is basically the whole Ambitiouz Entertainment formula. And since this period, Apple Music numbers and chart position are still used to contest the status of different artists no matter how controversial, see the case of Focalistic. Because of Cassper Nyovest, his actions and rise, South Africa can now contend with the rest of the world.