Hailing from the fabled metropolis of Pretoria, South Africa, A-Reece grew up a rap acolyte, moulded by his older brother who filled the house with the cross-pollinated hip-hop of the early 2000s, which dispensed with the notion that “classic rap” had to be provincial and pure.
A-Reece’s talents as a teenage prodigy was consonant with this gestural vision of rap. At just 19-years old, he became one of the youngest artists to win ‘Lyricist of the Year’ at the South African Hip-Hop Awards off the back of his 2016 debut album ‘Paradise’. As he matured, he reached starrier heights: with every subsequent release he merged the underground with the commercial, refining his wordplay, cementing his position as one of the most gifted storytellers from the vast terrain of the African continent.
A-Reece’s new mixtape, ‘Today’s Tragedy, Tomorrow’s Memory’, was assembled over the course of one year. At just 13-tracks, the mixtape avoids the overlong, overwrought nature of major hip-hop releases. There’s no flashy aggrandizing or ornery glorification, instead A-Reece’s centres the natural ebb and flow of life’s journey; the aftershock of personal loss and the cycle of grief explored with journal-like precision, the apocalyptic feel of 2020 adding a layer of brooding meditation and urgency.
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‘HIBACHI’ documents his come-up, the now 24-year old resolute in his aversion to conveyor belt rap, luxuriating instead, in his own hard-won independence. The mixtape walks a fine line between programmed and organic sounds; the “chipmunk soul” samples and tempered beats on ‘DICOHTOMY’ and ‘NO MAN’S LAND’ are highlights, a playground for A-Reece to wax lyrical on matrimony and materialism but also the privation he’s endured. ‘Today’s Tragedy, Tomorrow’s Memory’ is a survivor’s project, a communal work of art conveying the triumph of A-Reece’s spirit.
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CLASH spoke to A-Reece on the eve of his new release as part of our digital #PLTFRM series, spotlighting global talent breaking down barriers.
I want to go back to the moment you realised you wanted to pursue a career in rap. When did it all start for you?
I was already inspired by my older brother to rap and record music back in the mid-2000s when he began doing it, simply because it was fascinating and I kind of grew a passion for it. But the moment I realised I’d pursue it as a career was when I won a rap competition at a talent show at my high school in the 8th grade.
When I first delved into your discography, it struck me how you’re very much a student of rap and rap’s progenitors. Your lyrics, your flow evokes rap Greats like MF Doom for example. Whose penmanship inspired you?
Thank you. This list is quite long but artists like Phonte, Lupe Fiasco, Cyhi the Prynce and Jay Z inspired me to improve my writing skills. I could go on…
Is there a hip-hop record that you can pinpoint as igniting your love for the genre?
50 Cent’s ‘Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was a pivotal record. The whole damn thing! My brother would play it every morning before school, basically every day. I was still in kindergarten then but it left its mark.
You parted ways with your label after your debut and made the decision early to go down the autonomous route. What has that afforded you creatively?
Freedom at most. Creative freedom. I don’t have anyone telling me what to do creatively. I mean getting advice or direction on how to improve your artistry is not a bad thing, but being forced to sound a certain way and how to do it is another thing.
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Tell me a bit about the South African hip-hop movement and how that environment fostered your talents? Did you ever feel stifled by locale or were you edified by the influences around you?
It has been gradually evolving. I grew up listening to the 90s trio TKZee, Morafe, the late HHP (Hip Hop Pantsula) and PRO to name a few and that’s part of the reason I wanted to rap and these are the South African legends I want to honour in my work. I remember watching HHP’s ‘Music and Lights’ video and seeing Amerie in it, for me that was breaking boundaries. As for the latter part of your question, I feel it’s a little bit of both because before the fame and accomplishments not everyone believes in you.
You reference this evolution of regional hip-hop. What’s the scene like right now? Your mixtape is ripe with South African talent, you’re very much honouring your origins in your work and not diluting it.
Right now, the South African rap scene is not only being noticed abroad but also being accepted. In fact, it is also being rewarded. We are seeing more South African artists receive international accolades. There’s a lot of new young talent coming from this side following suit. I collaborated with Belo Salo, Wordz & Ayanda Jiya to name a few on this mixtape; if you want South African talent to listen to, I’d start with them.
Every culture and tradition is special and people are different in special ways. Honestly, I don’t know what I can tell you, it’s where I’m from and I’ll always represent.
‘Today’s Tragedy, Tomorrow’s Memory’ is a symbolic title. Did this mixtape serve as a form of catharsis to you, in coping with the loss of your Father? The mixtape overall has an inward-looking feel to it, as if you’re expounding your demons…
Definitely. Making music is very therapeutic. What you’re hearing are my unfiltered thoughts, opinions, feelings, perspective on everything. Music allows me to do that, it’s very freeing.
When my father passed away, his death put me in a dark and isolated place. It felt like my journey was starting to lack purpose; I was struggling to write let alone even think of music. Until one day after having a conversation with an old friend, he told drowning in all this sorrow won’t help. I had to continue working. Someone in the world is going through the same thing or even worse and my music could be their cure. To me that meant and signified something deeper, that today’s tragedy is ultimately tomorrow’s memory.”
I never thought I’d lose my father, or experience certain things in my life until it actually happened to me. The message I’m trying to convey is that I’m just like everyone else in the world. I’m human and my life isn’t perfect just because I’m in the spotlight. I also want people to know they can achieve their dreams regardless of what they go through.
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Did you take longer recording this project in comparison to your previous projects because it required more of you emotionally?
‘THE 5 YEAR PLAN’ was actually the first song from the tape that I worked on. In the beginning I didn’t really have any intention of working on a tape. It was at the beginning of 2020 when records like ‘THE SAME THING’ & ‘HIBACHI’ were created and I figured I might as well turn this into a mixtape. I took longer than any of my previous projects to put this tape together. It took me a whole year and yes, it took a lot out of me to make this.
‘HIBACHI’ is a standout track on the mixtape, foregrounding your greatest strength which is your words - every syllable lands with impact. Tell me the story behind this song?
I had just discovered Tracklib, I was digging for samples for the first time and I stumbled on Ace Spectrum’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Play Around’ record. It immediately reminded me of Drake’s ‘Fancy’ and Estelle’s ‘Silly Girls’. I just knew I wanted to do something with it and make it my own. I wanted to make it raw and gritty; I didn’t want to add drums, I wanted my words to dominate.
‘HIBACHI’ seems to be a fan favourite. Would you say it’s the centrepiece of the mixtape?
It is, yes, although I’d say the opening track ‘MARK 15:35’ is as well because I feel like it sets the tone for the mixtape. The opening immediately introduces you to the themes that I’m exploring on the tape.
The production on this record is nostalgic but you also switch it up with songs like ‘The Same Thing’, which is quite austere, electro-tinged and downtempo. Talk us through how you approached the production side of things on this record and how you wanted it to differ from other rap records?
There are no rules when I create or when I select a beat. I told myself I’m going to do what I want or what feels right to me, not what might be appealing to the people or the industry at large. My older brother used to play artists like Kanye West religiously. His style of production has always been interesting to me. I would be blown away every time I listened to ‘Through The Wire’, ‘Celebrity Overnight’, ‘Addiction’ or ‘Gorgeous’. I’d always ask myself what the hell was Kanye thinking? How did he end up chopping the record like that, then dissect it and put it back together into something totally new and innovative? I’ve always wanted to be able to do that.
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Whose work has impressed you so far this year? Who are you listening to – throwback or new?
I’m currently listening to various artists, old school to new. It normally depends on how my day goes and the mood I’m in. To be a little more specific, I’ve been listening to Lauryn Hill’s ‘MTV Unplugged No. 2.0’.
What advice or words of encouragement would you give to young musicians coming up in South Africa?
I want them to know there isn’t a blueprint. Some people make it in their 30s and some people are stars the minute they are born. It all starts with believing in yourself.
What’s your affirmation for this year?
If I can take it, I can make it.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography & Direction: Sherwen Diamond & SXMZX
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