HHP: The bridge-builder

The cheer and happiness Jabulani ‘Jabba’ Tsambo brought to South Africa’s hip-hop industry will live on.

Hip-hop legend Hip Hop Pantsula (aka HHP, aka Jabba, aka Jabba X, among many other monikers), whose real name was Jabulani Tsambo, died on 24 October, just two weeks after releasing his comeback EP, #FGTBB (Feels Good To Be Back).

The five-track EP is classic Jabba in a contemporary setting. Although the strong kwaito influence is still there, the beats are infused with some trap and a bit of gqom. #FGTBB is Jabba trying to make sense of the current hip-hop scene he and many of his generation helped create.

Adulterating hip-hop with kwaito is a popular trend in South African rap music now, especially if you think of songs such as NgudSpirit and Vur Vai by Kwesta; Gets Getsa 2.0 and Doc Shebeleza by Cassper Nyovest; and Caracara by K.O. These are all mega hip-hop hits embraced for their reference to an authentic South African genre.

But it wasn’t always this way.

From the 1990s until the early 2010s, there was a notable rivalry, even hostility, between proponents of hip-hop and kwaito. The former was considered too American and wordy to be granted a seat at the kwaito table, while hip-hop heads thought of kwaito as mundane, with repetitive and shallow lyrics, and brash beats.


But things began to change in the early 2000s. Among the few artists who loved kwaito as much as they loved hip-hop was an artist from Mahikeng who called himself Hip Hop Pantsula. His name was an oxymoron, as the mention of the terms “hip-hop” and “pantsula” next to each other was unheard of. 

HHP’s duality was weird at first. He released songs such as MafikengSdudla (Mafehle and Anginamali), which comprised kwaito-sounding beats, lyrics that were rooted in hip-hop, and catchy, kwaito-esque hooks.

HHP stuck to his guns with what was essentially a new hybrid style, and collaborated mostly with kwaito artists who were popular at the time, such as Zombo and Mzambiya. In his music, Jabba maintained the jolliness of kwaito, a mood he would run with for the rest of his career.

When the rapper ad-libs on the 2007 song Music and Lights, “What would summer be without Jabba?”, he means it. For several years, Jabba’s hits were essential to any South African summer holiday.

From songs such as JabbaTswaka and Make Monyeke to Show DemMpitse and Wamo Tseba Mtho, HHP epitomised happiness and cheer. From the humour in his lyrics and videos to the catchiness of his beats and hooks, the music Jabba left us with fits the definition fellow motswako rapper Khuli Chana once gave of the subgenre in a 2014 interview: ‘A happiness pill.’

A subgenre is born

Motswako is a subgenre of hip-hop that originates from Mahikeng. It was pioneered by the Baphixile crew. Lyrics are typically in Tswana, English and Tsotsitaal. The word motswako means mixture. This is, in essence, what motswako is beyond the languages used by rappers.

HHP mixed his hip-hop with kwaito. Khuli Chana mixes it with a bit of lounge and House. Fifi Cooper and Cassper Nyovest mix theirs with trap and a bit of everything, from pop to kwaito. Tuks Senganga and Mo Molemi chose to rap over pure hip-hop beats, while their lyrics commented on the ills of society, politics and deeper issues than Jabba would refer to a normal day.

HHP was one of the first artist to popularise motswako, a South Africanised hip hop sub genre, alongside Pitch Black Afro, Zola, Skwatta Kamp, and a few others.

HHP became a rap superstar by the late 2000s. He had paid his dues, collaborating in the mid-2000s with artists such as ProVerb, Amu, Slikour and Tumi Molekane – the big guns of South African hip-hop at the time.

On more serious songs such as Harambe and Darfur, Jabba shows that he wasn’t limited to having fun. But even in that mode, the emcee made sure not to masquerade as a quintessential socially conscious artist. 

For instance, on Harambe, he raps: “I’m not the political type/ Not the type to fake an image for the sake of this whole consciousness hype/ Never been called a k****r before/ Can’t imagine seeing 10 cops and dogs crushing through my front door/ Can’t say what teargas smelled like/ Can’t even imagine what a rubber bullet in your back felt like.”

The song was essentially dedicated to the struggle heroes who fought so that Jabba and many black people could become “the type of brother who can drink in any bar now”.

Rise and rise

Jabba truly came to the fore in 2007. In addition to winning the celebrity Strictly Come Dancing competition, the artist took home the awards for best male artist and best hip-hop album at the South African Music Awards for Acceptance Speech. It was the first time a hip-hop musician had won the award for best male artist.

In 2009, just as many thought HHP had reached his ceiling, he released the double album Dumela. The first disc is pure hip-hop; the second is pantsula with a lot of kwaito. It’s a Pan-African gathering of artists such as Naeto C from Nigeria, Nazizi from Kenya, Zubz from Zimbabwe, Tumi Molekane from South Africa, and American hip-hop superstar Nas on the song Ledimo.

He realised that African artists could accomplish a lot together. With his 2011 album, Motswafrika, he aimed to extend his continental reach. But despite hits such as Bosso, Padapa and Futubolo, the album wasn’t hugely successful. 

Jabba opened the door for South African musicians to work with global superstars, and showed the US that hip-hop is flourishing in South Africa through his collaborations with stars such as Talib Kweli, Asheru, Omar and Raheem DeVaughn, with whom he was reportedly working on an album at the time of his death. With that door open, Cassper Nyovest has worked with Kweli – on the Doc Shebeleza remix in 2014 – as well as The Game, Black Thought (The Roots) and DJ Drama. Nasty C has worked with French Montana and A$AP Ferg. 

By the time he died, HHP wasn’t as popular as he used to be. He had some strong opinions on the new era of South African hip-hop. He once lashed out at “these disrespectful youngsters”. People thought him bitter when he dissed trap music despite having a trap song of his own, Pop Mabhodlela.

In 2016 interview Jabba revealed he suffered from depression, that he had been going for counselling and had attempted suicide three times. It would seem that he succeeded on his fourth attempt.

Rest in peace, Jabba.

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