Ready D’s hip hop journey mirrors the timeline of SA’s hip hop scene, writes Gasant Abarder.
Cape Town – Deon Daniels – better known as DJ Ready D – was born into political strife. He didn’t know it then, even as his family was among the last to move out of District 6.
hile the bulldozers were clearing the area, D spent carefree days with his friends scouring the shells of demolished homes, collecting scrap to sell for bioscope money.
He was drawn to the turntable of the family’s hi-fi system that played his dad’s collection of Barry White, Peaches & Herbs, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
It would become the tool he’d later use to supply the beats as a pioneer of South Africa’s hip hop scene that provided the soundtrack to the political consciousness of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
D, 47, would go on to become an internationally-recognised
But the Grandmaster DJ’s hip hop journey – which mirrors the timeline of South Africa’s hip hop scene – started in Lentegeur, Mitchells Plain, where his family, like so many other families kicked out of the district, was moved.
“My father passed away about a year-and-a half before we moved out as well. It was a turbulent and confusing time. It was also a very adventurous time for a young kid growing up in District 6.
“My sister’s friends from Gympie Street in Woodstock used to move in a Chevy Impala. They had this portable record player and they were those guys who used to work on the boats and travel.
“When they came back they had the latest music. On one of the trips they came back with Kurtis Blow and Rapper’s Delight. When I heard Rapper’s Delight it completely blew my mind because I recognised the sample from Good Times from a group called Chic. That’s what my dad used to listen to from the disco era.
“The Sugarhill Gang used Good Times and were rapping about all these things and it blew my mind. Kurtis Blow was the follow-up to that and it blew my mind even further.
“There was no hip hop, we didn’t know what it was called. For us it was just very cool music you could relate to because of what we’d been exposed to.”
It was love at first beat simply because the kids doing it looked like him. On one particular music video, D saw a guy scratching a record to make a beat.
“My first exposure to hip-hop culture was through a song called Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren. He was a British punk rock artist and an avant-garde producer.
“In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he went to New York and did this experimental project where he took South African music and fused it with punk rock and hip hop, so it was quite a turning point in one’s life from a musical experience.
“In this music video I saw these guys scratching the records and thought, What are these guys up to?’ I could relate to what they were doing. Then I saw these kids spinning on their heads and jumping with their arms and doing footwork.
“They looked like kids from my neighbourhood so automatically I gravitated towards that. I would say we were into it about two years before we actually learnt it was called hip-hop and was part of a much bigger picture.
“I don’t think the Americans even knew where this was going and how people embraced the culture. It’s kind of like a counter-culture that was bubbling under. There were a lot of similarities between what was happening in the US, especially in the Bronx, and what was happening in South Africa, and mainly Cape Town.”
The latest hip-hop music, obtained from the UK, was compiled onto mix tapes and distributed through crews from Mitchells Plain and Steenberg to all over the Cape Flats.
During the state of emergency, in the mid-’80s, D and his friends were constantly on the hunt for spots to put down their ghetto blaster to show off their B-Boy dance routines.
They took the train from Mitchells Plain to the Cape Town CBD where they were chased by security guards and the police from the old “white” station (because it was “cleaner and nicer”) to the Golden Acre, then Garlicks before ending up among the fleamarket traders on the Grand Parade.
Later in the day they hooked up with “goth” friends at a club called Teasers in Harrington Street. But hip-hop quickly took over.
“It was the whole B-Boy scene, the Dynamics, the boogie burners, the punk rockers, everybody in a club that was cutting edge at that time.
“That was my first exposure to white people where we could go and not feel intimidated or run away from white people. All these white kids were there for the music, for the vibe, for the culture.
“Hip-hop started to evolve. NWA, Public Enemy, all these rappers were talking about African issues and we could relate to that with the state of emergency and police brutality.
“NWA’s F*** the Police became our anthem as well as Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. We could identify with everything they were saying.
“We realised we were emulating what was happening in the US but the US was embracing what was happening in Africa. That was a turning point for hip-hop culture. Teasers shut down and relocated to 88 Shortmarket Street and became The Base.
“It became this really popular place on the African continent that represented this culture, this energy, this cutting-edge vibe. No one in the country was doing this back then. The UK acid house, Chicago deep house, non-commercial music was what the kids were exposed to at The Base – white, black, coloured, Christian, Muslim, Rastas – everybody in one space. It was around ‘88 and ‘89.”
D met Shaheen Ariefdien, one of the foremost battle MCs at the time, at The Base. His dad Issie was a member of the famous Pacific Express and had a recording studio.
POC was born and later Ramone Dewet and Jazzmo would join.
“A mutual friend introduced us and he couldn’t believe there was a guy that could actually scratch in South Africa. He needed evidence and this friend brought him to my house in Mitchells Plain one day and I did a routine for him. He was blown away.
“I didn’t know Shaheen was a political activist at his school. He started talking about Mandela and Steve Biko and all these people I didn’t know. I wasn’t interested.
“My focus point was to become a ghetto superstar quickly because I was exposed to that kind of characters in Mitchells Plain and the people I used to hang out with.
“With Shaheen’s influence on the SRC of Elsies River High, things started to escalate to a socio-political space.
“That was the beginning of me being led to a conscious path. We used to read a lot of Steve Biko and we used to participate in a lot of political events.”
POC helped cement Cape Town’s reputation as the birthplace of South Africa’s hip-hop scene.
“We released our first album Our World – the first-ever non-English material in hip-hop was released on that particular album. A song called Dala Flat. It was the first Afrikaans hip hop song.
“About two years later we met Ishmael (Morabe) and Junior (Dredd) in Joburg. We brought them on board as dancers because that’s how we met them.
“But little did we know Ishmael was a phenomenal singer and Junior was this really phenomenal Zulu rapper. That was the birth of vernac’ where the local languages were incorporated, other than English, Afrikaans and Cape Flats slang.”
But as politics intensified in the early ‘90s, and Chris Hani was assassinated, POC switched focus to produce their most groundbreaking album, Age of Truth, with tracks like Understand Where I’m Coming From.
“During that period we unfortunately lost a lot of gigs and work and that is how POC started to fade away from the main performance arena because we had these very strong, in-your-face political messages.”
The lyrics were so hard-hitting that POC lost their top billing at Madiba’s inauguration concert.
It was reduced to Jazzmo (Clement Snyders) performing as the “Human Beatbox” and the crew rapping to his beat. “One of the engineers working on the album, who was crucial to the industry and well-connected, got a fit when he heard the music. We had recorded it while the engineers weren’t there and sneaked it in. This guy went off his mind and rightfully so because we were at a very dangerous moment then.
“But we needed to say and do something because we couldn’t turn our backs on the situation. We were directly affected by what was taking place then.
“The engineer rushed in because he heard one of the songs where we were talking about Hani’s assassination and mentioning names of people we felt had sold us out at the time. He confiscated all the tapes and masters and equipment.
“They called us into an emergency meeting. They gave us the talk. Thank the Lord our manager was able to slip the back-up into his pocket while it was happening and that was how we got Age of Truth out of there.”
POC was soon invited to record abroad and to perform at major music festivals with the likes of James Brown, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees.
“On those tours I came up with this idea because I was so homesick in terms of what needs to happen in Cape Town, specifically when it comes to hip-hop and where we can take it.
“It was hard to trade that opportunity, but there was so much happening at home that directly affected us.”
Brasse Vannie Kaap (BVK) was born post-transition and on D’s return when he met up with Mr Fat (Ashley Titus) and Hamma (Roger Heunis). They produced the first full Afrikaans album that would appeal to a new generation of hip-hop lovers.
“It could further drive what we were trying to get across with POC. With POC we were extremely black conscious, political and militant in our approach to hip-hop music, with BVK we could relax.”
D is married to Malikah, who is also his manager, and they have two sons. He has a slot as a presenter at Good Hope FM.
But the couple’s big drive is to channel their passion for motorsport into an initiative called SR4A or Safer Roads for All.
“I’ve been involved in the drifting scene for about eight years. We were into it way before Fast & The Furious when drifting was called something else: pop-a-wheelie in Cape Town.
“Learning what you can do with drifting and what you can do with a car, my mind was blown in the same way when I first saw scratching on a turntable. The emotion, the thought patterns were the same.
“Looking at newspaper reports and on TV, knowing how friends and family were caught up in many accidents, it was total carnage and still is on our roads. I was of the view that something needed to be said and done about the situation.
“It’s not just about illegal street racing. I’m always telling people I’m not trying to make enemies because I love speed. But I’m over racing and doing stupid stuff on the streets that could affect me or someone else.
“People want to wake up when they’re in a crash or you are the cause of someone else’s death.”
With help from the City of Cape Town and finding an ally in Killarney to provide a venue, D has been running SR4A for two years. For the same reason he is part of Mayor Patricia de Lille’s public anti-drug campaign.
Ready D has been at the forefront of shaping minds and creating political and social consciousness through hip-hop for almost three decades, but he is increasingly finding new outlets for an activism that comes naturally to him as one of South Africa’s biggest influencers.
“What I’m doing now is no different from the days of POC.
“What can I do to use my influence and use that passion and interest to change hearts and minds?”