In Conversation with Zuko The Don

Zuko the Don has been nothing short of a fresh burst of air since first rising into the Cape Town Hip-Hop and music scene. The Cape Town based rapper has seemingly taken it in his stride to put hip-hop back on the map in the mother city. Having now spent years sharpening his pen and honing his writing and flow, the lyricist has formulated a road map of his life and career and packaged it in his debut EP titled, Anomaly. In this project, The Don showcases his lyricism, rhythmicality, flow, and skill as a rapper while also portraying his ability to dig deep into his feelings, contrasting the tough guy of rap with the vulnerability of Zuko the man.

We unpacked the rapper’s life and music in the conversation below:

Captured by Candice Chaplin

Let’s start with the basics, who is Zuko, where is he from and how did he get to hip-hop?

This question is one that has an extensive answer. I was born eMthatha but my parents are from Gqeberha so early on in my life I bounced between Mthatha and Gqeberha. After that, we moved to Rustenburg because of my dad’s work and I lived there for a while. In 2001, we moved to Pretoria and that’s where we settled, in fact my parents still live in Pretoria. When I was in grade 7 I applied for boarding school in Gqeberha, so from 2010 to 2014 I was there before moving to Cape Town in 2015. So I’m from all over the place and that’s cool because I know people everywhere but I think the flip side of that is that no one place truly feels like home. I often hear people say things like ‘oh this place feels like home’ and that sounds like an amazing thing but for me home is what I make it, wherever I am is home.

When did music start feeling like home for you?

Music has always been there, from my earliest memory music has just always been there. I started writing quite early. I must have been 10 or 11 when I wrote my first lyric, and I remember this because it was around the same time I got my first mp3 player. My friend’s brother loaded a whole bunch of rap songs on my mp3 player and as I listened to the songs I found it to be really cool and that’s when I wanted to start writing my own music. I truly started making music when I was 15. At 16, I released music for the first time. 

As a kid music and sport were my passions but music was something I hid from my parents and did in the background because sport made more sense to them. But I suffered a spinal injury in my matric year, and when that happened I gave a lot of thought to my life and what I wanted to do going forward since sport was no longer an option; and I found myself in music.

You detail a part of your struggle with depression in your debut project, do you think your spinal injury triggered the depressive episodes you experienced?

Not entirely , no. I have lived through some harrowing experiences from a young age but in those moments music and sport were always there as my safety net. I always played in teams and I went to boarding school, so I always had a sense of community around me. But when I got injured and the doctor told me I couldn’t play contact sport anymore, I actually didn’t know how I would connect with people because sport was my way of connecting with people.

I then go to varsity and let me tell you…there’s a lot of space to feel alone in varsity and all that space forced me to look inward and face all the dark parts of me that were always there but suppressed. I knew I was going through something but I didn’t know what it was until I opened a book on psychology which gave me the language to describe and explain what was happening within me.

It wasn’t one thing that caused the break, it was a host of things that had been left unattended for years. It could be the fact that I broke my leg at 12, the murders of several of my family members that same year, or that I have a stutter.

I’ve heard you rap really fast, how do you manage your stutter?

I think that’s also why I’m obsessed with preparation. I’m the person that will constantly be running through my raps weeks before a gig. If we have a setlist, I will always memorize it. I do the same before going to studio to record something because I don’t want to get there and waste time falling over my words, that can happen to someone that doesn’t stutter, how much worse would it be with a stutter? I want to go into a gig or studio with the least amount of problems as possible. When it comes to live performance, I just don’t think people pay money to hear me forget my lyrics. People pay money to see me as a polished act.

Captured by Candice Chaplin

What does “making it” in this industry look like for you?

My obsession with making music is playing live shows/live performances. I love to write, I like to make music, I am in love and obsessed with the idea of performing. 

I spend hours researching and watching YouTube videos of live performers and I feel like I can build something visual and sonic and it’s going to be amazing. So for me, making it would be to book more shows. And to have made it would be me being able to curate an audiovisual experience on stage with props, fireworks, smoke, a band in the background, the works. That for me is the highest level.

If I can take a crowd that doesn’t know me and by the end of my 15 minute set there are some head bops, it’s mission accomplished for me. And I’ve done that in the smaller gigs that I have here (CPT), but obviously bigger and better is always what we’re chasing. Bigger and better also means I get paid and I can stop doing these side jobs and side hustles and focus on the main thing, the music.

Which artists are you inspired by?

There are so many but from the top of my head I’d say Biggie, 50 cent, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, J Cole, a lot of J Cole, T.I., Drake, Nasty C, Blxckie, Cassper Nyovest, AKA, and Riky Rick, more so for what he did for the culture. But yeah, each of these artists inspire me for different reasons and at different phases of my life.

You mention Riky and what he’s done for the culture. What is that culture and what was his contribution according to you?

Hip-hop is the genre and it is also the culture. The culture is what we’re wearing, what we’re saying, how we’re saying it, what’s popular at the time, who we’re promoting, etc. I remember running around in primary school with tinfoil in my mouth folded over my teeth because I wanted to have grills because Nelly was all grilled up.

Riky Rick opened up the culture to the youth, he made it inclusive, the clothes obviously, and truly having fun with it. I don’t think he ever strayed from the roots of hip-hop, Riky rapped. Other guys might hop onto another genre and do what’s happening in that genre, but Ricky always rapped. For the song Stay Shining he sampled a beat from one of T.I.’s albums, made it very South African, and had fun with it. He made hip-hop friendly and collaborative.

Anomaly is a great project, it flows really well. What part of Zuko has been encapsulated into this EP?

Some people know that I can rap because they have heard me rap as part of the creative collective called Dank Neighbourhood and so when I put this EP together I wanted it to be more of a table of contents on who I am and what I can be as a rapper. Each track on the EP shows a part of me, not like multiple personalities but more like different skills that I show in each song. The EP goes from bar spitting to more honest and emotional tracks. By the end you’ve gotten a bit of my life story.

The first track is an Intro. I love intros and I have great appreciation for people who take care of their intros, it does a lot for me; so I was intentional about showcasing my rap skills in the intro. Hold that is where I show that I can get down and dirty if we’re trying to make that kind of rap. Feeling Away is probably the best song on the project, and Nobody can stop me leans more towards the kind of music I’ll start making at a later stage. Nice beat, great hook and punchy meaningful verses.

At my launch I said that you might not like it all at the same time but you’re lying if you say you’re not going to like at least one of these songs at some point. I feel like I have great music taste and I make music that I like so it’s definitely good music.

December 19 is heavy, albeit the happy ending, does the calendar date trigger you?

I don’t think it does. Granted on the day, there will be a lot of introspection, but I don’t think it triggers me to the point where those feelings resurface, but to be fair I’ve only lived through one December 19 since that one but I’m good.

The track might be oversharing to a point but I don’t know what oversharing looks like or what sharing at the right level looks like. I was rapping about an experience I had, and I needed to flesh it out otherwise it was going to fall over two or three songs and it wasn’t going to have the same impact and depth that it has now.

Dead or Alive feels like a bold statement from you post December 19, is it your victory song?

Dead or Alive is a statement from my inner rapper, it’s a statement from my inner being. I have had a few near-death experiences and I overcame them. I was in a coma on December 19 and when I came out of that hospital, I couldn’t walk, talking was a mission, everything was just difficult so being able to come back from that and be able to jump on stage and move a crowd is proof to me that I’m meant to be here doing this thing. If there is one thing I know for sure it’s that life will stop when it stops but I’m going to make it before it does.

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