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 a notable 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 the 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 of 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, K.O sunk into deep depression.
He tells Blacklight that the period was a dark and lonely place, which he hopes he will never return to again.
He cites his second album Skhanda Republic 2, as his saving grace, as he used it to refocus his energy. The recording of the album served as a life line which drew him out of the tumultuous phase. And the result was his most personal work to date.
Watch the video for K.O’s latest single Fire Emoji:
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, sometimes, have you leaning in – traits, which he says, 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 like to 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.
Blacklight: On your first solo single, ‘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 that 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 on the song, like having a record label, Cashtime Life, with other artists signed under it, and also starting my own clothing line.
It’s still a long journey ahead, 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.
BL:You recently tweeted: @mrcashtime: “2016 Losses, 2017 Lessons, 2018 Blessings”. How do you turn your losses into lessons?
K.O: 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 the back, but as long as you don’t die and your spirit does not die, you can pick yourself up and continue to live for another day, even in the midst of the chaos around you.
As human-beings we need to be mindful of not just the great things, but also our 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.
BL: 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 on them?
K.O: When I look at my journey through the public’s eyes, 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 – they don’t truly get to know the real me. And that is why they end up drawing their own conclusions about me. Unfortunately, sometimes 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.
BL: You have mentioned that after releasing your debut album you went through a lot, and as a result you sunk into deep depression. 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 much vulnerability, even though it was there. With all that has been 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 (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.
BL: 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. We are not robots. With Skhanda 2, I wanted to show that I am human, 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 now getting back to that, as you can hear with 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 also discovered when I was on that personal journey, was that, as a rapper, there is so much you can touch on because everyone’s story is unique.
Sharing your personal story is important, hence I am not going to completely abandon that. However, at this moment I am focusing on the sound that made people gravitate towards me, like Caracara, so you’re going to hear a lot of up-tempo songs, but the substance will still be there.
Watch the video for Waya Waya:
BL: Many young local rappers cite you as being their blueprint, which rapper was your blueprint?
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 still in, especially with the likes of H20 and other acts.
Because of that, I always found it difficult to try the solo thing, because I was not 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.
BL: Over the years, the local hip hop landscape has changed drastically. Since you are known for being the rapper who delivers albums, what do you say to a new rapper who wants to take the same route?
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, 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 is relevant for that period.
However, I still love albums. I feel like with an album, if a 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 singles can be more viable than releasing an album – which can be costly – an album can be a great point of reference for your career, and can also fully capture different points in your life. While with a single, it can be difficult for us to know where you are, mentally and personally, at certain points in your life.
However, I do believe that young guys 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 tell us about your love life or anything that affects you personally – don’t be afraid of variety. Trust me, If you don’t give people a bit of variety, they get tired.
Watch the video for K.O’s single Swagganova:
BL:You’ve got the awards, multi-platinum selling music, and Cashtime Life. What would you say is your mission statement, now?
K.O: To bless others through my blessings. But, 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 we can change their lives through this stream of mine. That is the reason I created Cashtime Life.
I know the blessings that God has put before me and I can’t enjoy all of them by myself. When I first did it, unfortunately, I got burnt, but I have learned that I can’t walk just away from it because it is a gift. Selflessness is a gift. I can’t let minor setbacks steal that away.
BL:What’s the intention with the EP, ‘Two Piece’?
K.O: The EP is a warm-up for an 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 aswell. That is a way of making a strong statement, flexing my muscle and influence in the game.
With the collabos with AKA and Cassper, on my EP, people are aware of what’s happening between the two artists, and I wish to bring them closer 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. And maybe on the next one we might be on the same track, who knows?
This is just my way as a big brother of reminding them that, “There is more strength in unity than division.”