Pretoria was once known to be one of the strongholds in South African Hip Hop, boasting South African Hip Hop pioneering groups like Ba4za, The Anvils and acts like Damola, ThirTeen, just to name a few. The legendary sessions at the State Theater were known to be producers of some great talent in Pretoria. Unfortunately, the last few years Pretoria has seen the music scene slow down compared to its neighbouring city, Johannesburg. While the music scene in Johannesburg has changed and moved with the times, the scene in Pretoria has experienced the opposite.
But we don’t have to despair, because acts like A-Reece have reminded people of the Cap City Rap City’s glory and talent. The one thing that one cannot take away from Pretoria is the amount of talent the city has and one of those talents is 20 year-old Thato Saul who is one of the new proponents taking Pretoria to new heights. We had the privilege to talk to the rising talent and got to find out more about him and his future prospects.
Before we kick off everything, we need to extend our appreciation and gratitude for having an opportunity to speak to you and have you share your story. We always get motivated when we get a chance to connect with the artists/creatives that create the work we love so much. Tell us a little more about yourself? We only have a glimpse of who Thato Saul may be from a musical point of view, we are certain that you embody more than that.
Thato Saul: I appreciate the opportunity to speak on myself and what it is I do. I’m Thato Matlebyane and I’m 20 years old, 21 in December. I was born and raised in Pheli, a township in Pretoria West in a household that consisted of both parents, my sister and great grandmother. The ‘Saul’ in my name is short for Saulsville, which is the part of Pheli where I grew up and I chose that name as a representation of my upbringing. I’m currently in my 2nd year of studying Management in the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria West.
We came across your music on Soundcloud, we were immediately blown away by the song ‘The Genesis’ where you’re go back and forth rhyming with Jah Level. We then realized that you are from Pretoria, which is dope because we’re also based in Pretoria. Can you tell us how being based in the Capital city shapes the person or the artist that you are?
Thato Saul: Being from Pretoria has inspired so much of my writing. The bulk of my content is based on what goes on in my neighbourhood which is a fairly rough place and I reflect that through my words. Growing up we were exposed to crime, violence and drug use on a regular basis, done by people we consider as friends and neighbours so you learn a lot about it from an early age. Through the years it has gotten worse and after some incidents, my parents moved us south to Centurion to a more safer environment. We still spend so much time back in the neighbourhood because that’s home and my family has always been involved in church. Everyone from my mother and fathers side lived in Pheli so visiting family was just 15 minutes of traveling. That’s why I take so much pride in being from Pretoria West and express it through my lifestyle and music because it has made me who I am and for a long time it was all I knew. Being from Pretoria also pushes me musically because we aren’t known for the musical talents we have and for the most part it isn’t expected from Pretoria as many of our talents, not only from Pretoria but other cities, move to Joburg to pursue their dreams. Now we have good artists and producers coming up in the city and I feel its important we make it known that not only are we as talented, but we’re from Pretoria. Many artists around my age left the city to go to Joburg and when things started to fall in place for them they somewhat forgot where they came from so its down to us who are based in Pretoria to compose the best sounds as we’re in a position of having to prove ourselves.
Tell us about more your journey in music. Has music always been a part of your life?
Thato Saul: I live music and its been so since a very young age. My father is the reason why I fell in love with music because his love for it made it something that was constantly around me. Being raised by someone who owns around thousands of CD’s and old vinyls exposed me to a wide range of sounds, mostly it was jazz and soul. Most of my favourite music composed by the likes of Donald Byrd and Anita Baker where introduced to me by my father. My father is also the reason I found hip hop. Around 2003-2004, my father bought the 50 Cent Get Rich or Die Tryin’ copy and its cover art caught my attention and I started playing it. It got to a point where me and my friend listened to it almost everyday after school. He had Tupac records too so I’d listen to him, too. I started writing lyrics in 2009 and stuck to it without releasing music until this year. So music, not only hip hop, has been with me since a young age.
Your sound is quite unique, fresh and a breath of fresh air, particularly in the South African music scene. Who are some of your influences?
Thato Saul: I’ve taken influence from 50 Cent, The Game and Lil Wayne in the early stages of my writing as I grew up on them. They made me love hip hop and influenced much of the type of content I would produce. At that time they were doing hard street records and I stumbled across J Cole and through him, Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick Lamar not only has the most heavy influence on me, but also I view him as a role model. My friend Jah Level introduced me to The Heart Pt. 3 when it came out it became how I wanted to structure my schemes and use different techniques. Kendrick Lamar and J Cole made me develop a more lyrical approach and smoother sonics, compared to those of my earlier influences and they are the catalysts to the way I approach my lyrics and sonics today.
Tell us about your creative process, how do you channel your creative energy to create your work? The songs that we’ve listened to are filled with powerful lyricism and an uncharacteristic cadence which is amazing to witness.
Thato Saul: It’s important that I find a topic that triggers an immediate emotional and mental response from me or something I stumble across casually like watching tv or listening to music. I find it difficult to write about something I cannot be honest about. I focus heavily on the topic at hand so I can find numerous ways of speaking on it so that I don’t walk away with something else to say about it. It is mentally exhausting because most themes I touch on aren’t the most positive themes so I have to channel negative thoughts constantly and it affects you during and after concluding the piece, but that’s what comes with using raw emotions and thoughts as the backbone of your writing. After the piece is done everything gets easier as it goes through polishing and minor edits like the using different words and moving the placement of words to create new schemes and patterns so the whole piece wont just be truthful in terms of content and thought provoking, but sound good when reciting it. Lately I’ve become big on vocal projection which is an important part of the whole creative process. Come up with different textures, tones and tempos of saying the lines I’ve written.
What does your normal day entail? We all have little rituals that are integral parts of our days. Do you have certain daily rituals that you need to get out of your way so your day can kick off?
Thato Saul: It’s very basic at the beginning. I wake up and brush my teeth, wash up and have breakfast and I go to campus or not if there’s no lecture or general importance to be there. This is where things change because inspiration can hit you at any moment. I still have books and papers from high school where I wrote rhymes at the back while the teacher was giving a lesson and it happened very often. It used to hit me in Afrikaans class where I used the translation dictionary often and I ended up writing small rhymes in them, too. These days I just open my phones memo if inspiration hits me during a lecture. After my lectures I spend time on the WiFi watching videos then go home. Once I’m home I attend to whatever rap I started writing during the day or I watch a football match with my father while having our dinner then wash up and go to sleep. Throughout all of this I somehow spend much of the day with my earphones plugged in because if I’m not in a lecture of talking to someone, listening to music is what I do. That’s my normal day. No real major rituals.
Photo credit: Faces_SA
Are there any projects that you are working on that people should look out for?
Thato Saul: Work on my debut project has already begun and I’m working closely with Zarro, my producer and engineer who’s based in Pretoria. Much work will be done this December and I’m hoping everything goes well so it can be released in early 2017.
Where do you want your creative efforts to take you? What are some of your goals when it comes to your creative efforts?
Thato Saul: My overall goal is to be a great. That’s what I keep telling people. I always say I want to be seen as a form of Rakim in my own way. Obviously I also wish to make a comfortable life for myself through my work as everyone does in whatever field they operate in. The sad thing with SA hip hop is that it blew up and become a real industry that’s taken serious at a time where really rapping isn’t considered as important anymore.
Do you feel that there are enough platforms that house the music that you create or maybe the music that you love listening to? The South African indie, underground and alternative music scene is very small and it is not connected. You get pockets of little scenes all over the country and it would be great if more spaces where created which become enablers for dope collaborations? What is your take on collaboration?
Thato Saul: There aren’t enough platforms. In SA the mainstream music is completely cut off from the indie whereas you look at other countries like America, there’s a lot mainstream music that has elements that you’d get from their indie music. This has to do with time and audience. The amount of time that the popular genres in South Africa have had hasn’t been much. What the masses are hearing and have accepted right now as the high level and the proper standard is in actual fact far from the standard we will reach because the industry is yet to begin developing. In the case of SA hip hop, it hasn’t been big in this country long enough for a number indie artists to make a transition into the mainsteam, which is the only way mainstream and indie can end up sharing common elements. That’s why when Nasty C broke into the industry the masses, including hip hop artists, were shocked that he is rapping when that’s nothing to be shocked about since this is hip hop and you’re required to actually rap in the first place. If our hip hop stays big for a longer period then more artists, like in Nasty C’s case, will bring in something new and develop it to the kind we see in America, where audiences now accept different types of hip hop artists because they’ve had time to be exposed to different hip hip approaches to the point that hip hop started having sub-genres and radio stations. So with that being said, only the ones in mainstream hip hop in SA will have much of the platforms for the time being. Collaboration between indie and underground artists are important because the artists have a common goal and that’ll make the artists push harder and feed off each other and another way forward is also the collaboration between indie and mainstream artists as that’s the most effective and efficient way of exposing the masses to different kinds of hip hop and artists. I view collaboration as the most important key to the development of SA hip hop, but not everyone at the top of the chain wants new faces as their seen as competitors so we have to create our own ways and platforms to make it into the industry. Whether its our own labels or events that give those similar to us platforms.
How would you describe your style and music to someone that may be coming across your work for the first time?
Thato Saul: That’s actually something I’ve never thought about. I would describe it as rap music with a 90’s hip hop approach as it was lyrical orientated because rapping or what they call “bars” is very important to me, something that’s unusual in the 2010’s in SA hip hop. I’d describe it as relateable music because more people can actually relate to it in one form or another.
What are some of the struggles that you face as a young musician residing in South Africa? Do you want your music to be easily accessible to the masses? Do you have a target listener?
Thato Saul: The struggle is platforms like I spoke about and also financing. Hip hop is still young in this country so there aren’t many people who are willing to put money into it as yet. Investments such as hip hop events and hip hop record labels. When Mabala Noise came into the scene it was something new to the masses because most people, including myself, cant name 10 labels that generally recruit hip hop talents and when those entities do come about, it benefits the most popular handful artists. So that’s an opportunity you miss as a young upcoming artist. For me specifically its hard to be accepted quick because I’m more of a textbook rapper. A kind that isn’t accepted quick and welcomed with open arms as that kind hasn’t been experienced by the people long enough yet especially coming from within the country.
We live in a digital age, where more and more people are starting to realize the power that social media and other avenues have when it comes to storytelling. The storytelling power has been given to the people through the internet, how do you use the internet to tell your stories and to document your life? How important is delivering quality content to you?
Thato Saul: The internet is very important. You don’t have to be on the street corner selling out mixtapes from the back of your car anymore. In the last couple of years you will see that physical copies don’t sell much anymore and artists actually make more digital sales than physical. That’s the route everyone has to take now. You have to give your music out through social media to be recognised rather than handing your demo to radio stations and record executives. Personally my content has to be of high quality because I normally release on Twitter and there is whats called “Twitter rappers”, a term used to belittle rappers who release their music through Twitter because people have been exposed to a lot of local work released on Twitter that’s of low quality, sound and content. It means for people like me who release music through Twitter, the music has to come at high quality because you’re already facing a negative perception from the get go.
In closing, where can people find you and your work? Do you have any words for people that are going to be following your work or the fan base that you have already built?
Thato Saul: My music can be found on Soundcloud as Thato Saul and on Twitter and IG as @groovyrico. For the people who will start following my work I can promise that there will be nothing but good quality sounds and content being put out as I don’t start for anything less myself. For the people who are already listening to the music, thank you very much
Thato Saul has fearlessly taken the task to resurrect Pretoria Hip Hop and bring it back to its glory and we’re fully behind him. Follow him on social media and be apart of his journey in music and what he intends to bring to the masses.