This conversation with the South African Rapper/Producer Duo Yugen Blakrok and Kanif The Jhatmaster feels today like it came from a distant land, a forgotten and very different time. It was conducted in the midst and the first year of the pandemic. A time when everything had stopped and the unseen became visible and when the Verse “Empty Vessels speak the loudest” nested in my head, never to be removed (yes, that is a Jane Austen quote) since then it seems, after listening for the first time to Picture Box by Yugen Blakrok.
In my personal retrospection, looking back it was a time of flow, spiritual growth, excitement about the collective wakeup call finally happening, also the weather was nice, the sun was shining. Then came death, blockages and an endless period that felt like quicksand. There were many times I wanted to publish this Interview and I simply couldn’t find the words.
And you know, words matter. Words are spells. Especially if you deal with a Sorceress of words like Yugen Blakrok.
So, time went by, facing personal and collective shadows but always in the back of my head the empty vessels were echoing loudly and constantly – after all it is what echo’s do.
At some point I thought I could put my finger on it. It felt like we all collectively knew in another distant time what it meant, the power of our vessels, their spiritual significance while walking this earth, being simultaneously aware of our 3D existence and the reality of the 5th dimension, but that was a long time ago. We have literally stuffed our vessels with a lot of loud noise and empty things, we have buried ourselves wholeheartedly in capitalistic quicksand, destroying everything around us, including the most important, the ONE vessel, Mother Earth. But that is just one part of the story, at least it feels like that to me. Today, in writing this I realise, I still haven’t gotten round to articulate and understand on a cellular level what it was I thought I had remembered about these vessels and why this is so important (at least to me), but maybe it is not the time yet. And that is ok.
What I can say for sure is that it proves how powerful the verse and music medicine of Yugen Blakrok and Shakespeare is, and can be – and that I am only now understanding what it means to be spellbound by a rhyme, so I am going for now with
Turn it on, turn it off, turn it on, turn it off
Let the rhythm bring peace to your bubbling heart
Find the inner space ignite the most cosmic of sparks
The firefly that shines like the sun and lights up the dark
(chorus, Picture Box, Yugen Blakrok)
A conversation with Yugen Blakrok & Kanif the Jhatmaster
First of all, what do you make of this massive cosmic shift going on right now and the Pandemic, what is your take on it?
Y: These clichés: ‘history repeats itself’ and ‘things change but stay the same’ come to mind. We have a lot of information to filter through and there are many distractions.
If there’s ever been a time to consciously stop giving power to external pressures and go inwards instead, this is it.
K: I think there is a shift in consciousness happening. The current system is imploding on itself, so there’s also a sense of panic… It’s a good time to find like-minded people, to remove ourselves from the mechanism.
To actively stop participating and create alternative ways of living.
Kanif the Jhatmaster & Yugen Blakrok
Yugen, you grew up on a farm in the province of Eastern Cape in South Africa and had your first performance as a MC in Grahamstown now Makhanda at Hiphocalype Mixtapes in 2004, can you remember the feeling stepping onto a stage for the first time with your own words and work?
Y: I had a bunch of mixed feelings; I was inspired by the vibe and creativity around me but at the same time, I was nervous and self-conscious, trying to find my place in the hip-hop culture.
In a recent interview on Pam Grossmann´s podcast the witch wave you spoke about the Gebrüder Grimm and Hans Christian Andersens fairy tales being inspirations for you when you were little, but also the vital role Shakespeare played in your coming of age in later year as a rapper?
Y: Reading Shakespeare unlocked rhyming patterns for me.
I’d always loved hip-hop but figuring out those sonnets showed me how to analyze verses and also helped me build a style of my own.
Kanif, at the time you met Yugen, you were already an extremely respected and succesful producer and sampletologist, can you tell us a bit about it and your work in general?
K: I think what I love most about Hip-Hop is the feeling. I’ve felt it in backyard sessions in Soweto to basements in Berlin.
It’s like a universal frequency.
I think it’s something I’m always looking for when I make music…
I met Yugen at a show in Soweto, where I was DJing for Robo the Technician. I went to a session she was performing at a few weeks later in Joburg, as soon as she started rhyming I could feel something different in the room..
It felt like Hip-Hop. Her imagery was very vivid.
Kanif Sebright, aka The Jhatmaster
You are both living and working these days from Marseille in France and in general one can feel the strong connection between the two of you in the songs. There is a rhyme on Gorgon Madonna that somehow made me think of not only being Yugen both the Empress and the King, but it also applying on Kanif, it feels like you both really merge into each other in your art and approach, is that an illusion or really the case, how is your work process together?
Y: It does at a certain point merge together. I’m as much inspired by Kanif’s style as he is by mine and we push each other. Provide an extra set of eyes and ears, explore concepts. We hang. All this builds an energy of itself that gets channelled into the music.
K: I guess it’s often like that with crews or collectives.. common trains of thought or consciousness.. books and films… Researching concepts and sharing ideas..
I think Yugen and I both approach music with an openness, a willingness to let it express itself. When you can create without interfering too much in the process it’s the most magical time. The best music comes from those states.
In your work there is a lot of occult references and elements modern witches respond to, one could call it’s magnetic, same time I can’t remember anyone being so candid and free using these very powerful words and concepts. Is it just your natural way of expressing yourself or are you also a child of our times so to speak, especially in terms of the rising female empowerment movement?
Y: Both. Naturally, this is where I’m at.
I grew up in a somewhat intellectual family with strong, powerful women and a love for magic and the unseen.
Another picture that comes up when I listen to your music in terms of contemporary art from South Africa is in general the work of Mary Sibande, in particular her last show at Somerset House in London, “I came apart at the seams” – do you know her work and if so would you share with us your thoughts?
Y: I think she’s a great visual artist and find aspects of her work that run parallel to the imagery in my mind when I work. I really like her style.
At Coeur & Art we always say, words matter. I believe in words being spells and a powerful source when spoken with the right intention. How does it feel when you are working on new rhymes and lyrics? Is your process intuitive, do you connect to a certain state or flow?
Y: It is intuitive. Sometimes the concept comes in broken phrases and I’ll build around that. Other times, the beat will inspire a flow, my work there is to put words together that are true to both the rhythm and the feeling of that moment.
Kanif as they say, music is a potent magic, can you tell us a bit about your background and especially how you started to sample? Which is like a Prometheus like process itself?
K: When I was around 13 my mother gave me “Please Hammer don’t hurt me”, “3 feet high and rising” and “Fear of a Black Planet” on cassette. I played the Hammer and De La for a few weeks until one day I played the PE. It completely hypnotised me. The wall of sound. I played the intro over and over and ended up looping it onto a fresh tape to not warp the original. From there I started looping other bits of music I liked.. really just to make tapes for my Walkman.
Later I was fortunate to have some great teachers, folks like Bravestarr, Richard tha IIIrd… pioneers of the early Joburg beat scene.
Sampling is a beautiful science.
It gives a feeling live instruments can’t really replicate. I like it when sounds are slowed down. The hidden frequencies and melodies that emerge.
You are signed to an independent label in Marseille, and you are both just getting to know the city, if you would have to pick both 3 words to describe it what would these words be?
Y: Petanque. Mediterranean Sea.
K: Yellow at night.
And if you are jumping now in your imagination back to South Africa, the place you would call home, what do you feel, see, smell, which words would you pick to describe?
Y: The smell of Joburg’s jacarandas on spring mornings. When the flowers fall, the streets look like purple carpets.
K: Home, friends, red skies, the smell after summer rains.
The French language is terrible beautiful but also super hard to learn, but French HipHop always just sounds cutting edge and extra cool it seems, could you imagine, or do you plan writing/rapping in French?
Y: French hiphop does sound great to the ear, doesn’t it? I’m learning the language slowly but surely. My plan is to learn enough to have good conversations, really.
Does this happen in your music and work too between the two of you? That you have a thread, or narrative and suddenly it pops up everywhere, multiplies and creates new energy, realities and songs?
Y: Yes and I don’t think it’s uncommon. As human beings, we manifest what is in our minds quite often whether we’re aware of it on not. And not just in grand gestures but in little, unnoticed ways as well. Intent plays a big role in creation.
Awareness and knowledge are important because we’re energy vessels among many other things.
K: Yes. We experimented with it a bit with Yugen and Hymphatic and Shorty Skilz. 1-hour silent writing sessions then recording whatever we had. Very often there would be similar trains of thought, words and rhymes. Like a collective frequency we were writing to.. some of these songs have ended up on albums.
When creating an album, I think the whole universe is only really revealed at the end.
It’s all gifts from Mother Marimba.
You performed both performed a lot in Berlin, tell us about the experience, do you have a memory or story you would like to share?
Y: Berlin is the original home away from home. We started our first European tour from there in 2016, made really good friends that have become like family over the years. It’s still the one city that I find hard to read a book in. My eyes are forever occupied there.
K: I love Berlin and the friends I have made there. It’s also the first place that embraced us when we came over from SA, and the HipHop culture there is very deeply intrenched. Haha there are many stories in Berlin…
One night we took a night bus from Kottbusser Tor, very late, around 3 or 4am… when we stepped on we noticed a crazy energy. Like the whole bus had dropped acid at the same time. A warm cosmic glow coming from the back. I was suspicious because we were the first to get off.
I still regret getting off and wonder where they were all going.
Author: Esther Harrison