By Kwaku Gyanteh

Back in the ’90s, not many people in South Africa wanted to associate with hip-hop. Parents who were concerned with rap’s misogyny, crass language, and gang affiliated lyrics had a hard time accepting the culture. Musically, it was seen as disorganized noise and playing it loudly in the house would guarantee a good dressing down. Cult classic hip-hop films like Juice, Paid In Full, and New Jack City and others that made their way to TV screens didn’t help.

It wasn’t just nonplussed parents who had a hard time accepting hip-hop. To black kids in the townships, hip-hop was foreign. Those who got into it were mocked and heckled in the kasi (township) for their low-slung pants. In post-apartheid South Africa, these lunch boys went to better Model C schools, shared classes with white kids, and identified with the black characters they saw on TV screens in the suburbs. On the local front, however, there was no shortage of artists trying to break into the hip-hop industry.

Among the many rappers in South Africa, the most prominent were groups Black Noize and Prophets of Da City whose members Ramone, Shaheen, DJ Ready D, and Ishmael put the elements of hip-hop—emceeing, graffiti, and turntablism—to good use, combining them into high-energy showcases that kept them hot in the streets for years. Nomadic (aka Mr T) and the group Bafitlhile (sometimes styled as Baphixile) were pioneers of a Setswana language brand of rap called Motswako, a style further developed by HHP, Morafe, and Zeus. Brasse Vanie Kaap (BVK) paved the way for Die Antwoord, Jack Parrow, and many others who preferred to rap in Afrikaans.

Even with their success, it was not on the same scale as their counterparts in other genres, and it took a while for them to break successfully into the mainstream. This meant that there was a shortage of local rap stars for the kids to sink their teeth into. Those who could afford to ship mixtapes and albums over or had relatives overseas managed to get their fix, but for most it was difficult to satisfy their hunger for content.

What happened next was very odd.

Looking for heroes, hip-hop heads turned to kwaito, a popular genre among young black kids in South Africa. The genre blends house music elements with African percussion and vocals, usually at a slower tempo than traditional house. Diplo once called it “slowed down garage music.”

As a genre originating from lower class families in the townships, most kwaito artists had street credibility, a trait young heads look for in a rap artist. It was rugged and unapologetic, but its purveyors were charismatic and nationwide coverage on TV and traditional print media was on their side. They may not have had the baggy pants or accents but they made up for it with the fly cars—preferably BMW 325i Gusheshes—or other high end automobiles for those with deeper pockets. In the passenger seat, the VIP section, or the streets, beautiful women mobbed them wherever they went. They were living the dream.

Parents overlooked the reckless nature of kwaito stars that were just as bad as their international counterparts because they had risen out of abject poverty in the kasi. Kids got away with anything in the name of kwaito. The language from artists like Thebe, whose start was on an over-the-beat-block-party-chant song, was vulgar and crass at best but managed to propel him to star status and spawned a career spanning two decades. His success led tours across the continent and overseas. Even more importantly, big business took notice.

Kwaito embraced street culture, and they became tastemakers for an entire generation. Kwaito star Kabelo Mabalane, better known as Bouga Luv, was one who took advantage of the new attention. He scored a Reebok deal that had him designing a shoe and a car endorsement partnership with Kia Motor Company. Mandoza, whose work with top producer Gabi Le Roux led to a string of hits and awards, managed to win crossover appeal as well. He endorsed everything from shades to sportswear to Chrysler. Some corporate ties didn’t do as well (like The Trompies’ endorsement deal with FUBU), but the kwaito artists were rockstars, and their lifestyle kept audiences idolizing them for years. Tsotsi taal, the slang used on the street, spilled over to normal conversation, kids and adults embraced the street wear, and the choreographed dances of Arthur Mafokate made their way to dance floors in the taverns, matric dances, and corporate banquets.

It is no wonder that hip-hop tracks coming out today sound like Kwaito appreciation songs.

South Africa’s biggest hip-hop artist out now is AKA. He tops the South African iTunes charts, besting international bands and highlighting the stark contrast between rap now and 20 years ago, when they could barely get their own SAMA (South African Music Award) category. His new single “Congratulate” makes reference to Thebe’s hit “Bula Boot” and summarizing it best, he gets “so much love, trust fund and kas’lam.” It’s this ability to cross the floor between the two extremes (trust fund babies and the hood) that he and his contemporaries strive for.

Motswako rapper Cassper Nyovest paid homage to kwaito with two songs that tip the hat off to the culture. The first is “Gusheshe,” an ode to the BMW 352i matchbox or Gusheshe as it’s called in the hood, which is a favorite among kwaito artists and street hustlers that “made it.” The second is “Doc Shebeleza,” a high energy #TurnUp anthem eerily similar to A$AP Ferg’s “Shabba Ranks” sonically and Migos “Versace” in delivery/rhyme scheme. The song is named after kwaito legend Doc Shebeleza.

In an interview with Fader, Thomas Gesthuizen, a DJ and one of the pioneers in promotion of African hip-hop in digital spaces, had this to say: “The commercial and media success of the Afrobeats sound has also inspired hip-hop producers to look for crossover with other, local genres of music or sometimes digging into their musical heritage, and that to me is where the biggest opportunity for African hip-hop will be: creating a sonically superior but musically unique fork of global hip-hop music.”

K.O.’s “Caracara” brings this local flavor and genre-crossing intention by referencing kwaito classics like Mdu’s “Mazola” and Trompies’ “Bengimgaka.” The video merges kasi and U.S. street culture through fashion (spotties and Supreme) but also kwaito associated dances. Especially more nostalgic is that the song is based on the Volkswagen Caravelle that was a status symbol in the hood if you grew up in the ’90s.

Major League Djz, a production duo comprising of twins Bandile and Banele, recently put out their debut single “The Bizness.” The song is heavily based on the sghubu sound—a hardcore version of kwaito which avoids danceability—with a catchy chorus from Ricky Rick. The boys pay homage not only through the sound but they out-rightly express their love by wearing t-shirts boldly branded N.A.K. (New Age Kwaito) across the front.

Perhaps the ties are not as surprising as it seems. The intertwining of kwaito and hip-hop has been in the works for years. Bouga Luv dropped Ja Rule’s lyric from “The Life” in his native tongue on “Pantsula for Life,” Spikiri of Trompies likened himself to Snoop Dogg by using the moniker The King Don Father, and TKZee’s first album had a heavy hip-hop influence in their delivery and flow. Kwaito, like hip-hop, is still evolving and had many variations from the bass-heavy sub-genres of sghubu and digong originated by Brothers of Peace [B.O.P], Mdu’s jazz-kwaito blend, and the contemporary Durban Kwaito sound that was popularized by DJ Tira and Big Nuz.

For the 2014 hip-hop artist in South Africa, the shackles of apartheid are (almost) non-existent, the corporate atmosphere is conducive for profit, recognition from music boards is a given, and the game is inclusive of all, regardless of race and background. Kwaito as a genre, a style, and way of life has provided the blueprint for these new artists to learn, transforming them from wannabes to new kings.

Kwaku is a Ghanaian-Motswana based in Gaborone, Botswana. Find him on Tumblr and Twitter.