Last Thursday, at the venue formerly known as Bassline in Newtown, Johannesburg, the South African hip-hop community gathered to pay their last respects to the rapper Pro, who died on 9 August from bleeding in his gastrointestinal tract.
This was the same venue in which Pro, then ProKid, launched his debut album, Heads and Tales , in 2005. Artists and industry insiders familiar with the MC related their fondest memories of him, and spoke about his contribution to South African hip-hop.
Ernest “Enzo” Gololo, founder of the popular Soweto park jam Slaghuis, spoke about meeting Pro for the first time at Lé Club, a seminal venue for the South African hip-hop scene. Enzo recalled how Pro used to come to the Sunday session with his Bible because he would go straight from church to the venue.
“Something special happened at Slaghuis,” said Enzo. “He started realising that by rapping in English, he wasn’t connecting with the people. Then he came through the following Sunday and said, ‘I wrote something in vernac’. And he spat it. And I think that day South African hip-hop changed forever.”
Enzo said Pro wasn’t the first artist to rap in isiZulu – the likes of Amu, Mr Selwyn and a few more, were already incorporating African languages into their lyrics. “But he did it in a way that made people think, ‘Entlek! Le out le , how does he think?’”
“He would come up with lines like, ‘Indaba awugcwali njenge komishi elivuzayo’, [the problem is that you’re rarely satisfied / you’re like a cup that can never quite fill up because there’s a hole in it] … imagine that. Double entendres and great rhyme schemes. He took the Zulu language and played with it so dope,” Enzo went on.
When most of us encountered ProKid in 2005, he was already razor sharp from years of practise in sessions and battles. The three hit singles from Heads and Tales–Soweto, Ungaphel’ Umoya Son and Wozobona showcased his rap ambidexterity in both English and isiZulu.
Kasi rap explodes
From Enzo’s statement, Pro gave birth to kasi rap – the aggressive subgenre of hip-hop that is characterised by witty vernacular punchlines and vicious delivery. Kasi rap artists such as Siya Shezi, F-Eezy, Red Button, Mickey M, MT and more all admit that their style was influenced by Pro.
In the mid-2000s, South African hip-hop was struggling to find its own voice. The people weren’t buying a South African rapper spitting English rhymes with a twanging American accent while wearing baggy jeans and a doo rag. Skwatta Kamp, widely credited for being the first South African hip-hop crew to achieve mainstream success, had to use more vernacular in their music to be accepted.
Pro’s rise to stardom further proved that South Africans just needed something to relate to. Pro was that guy. His song Ungaphel’ Umoya Son was a motivational anthem that made fans feel they weren’t alone in the struggle. His aggressive delivery and clever use of language won him legions of hip-hop fans.
He was one of the first South African hip-hop artists to achieve mainstream success while still keeping his hip-hop pure. At the time, sprinkling some kwaito sensibilities into your hip-hop was a sure ingredient for success as a rapper, as Zola showed us so emphatically.
Pro still represented the hood to the fullest. All of Pro’s five albums – Heads and Tales, DNA, Dankie San, Snakes & Ladders and Continua – had a song about Soweto.
In the intro of Heads and Tales , Pro recorded himself walking in the streets of his ’hood, greeting neighbours, and eventually getting into a taxi to the studio in town.
“He didn’t make an intro about driving a Bugatti or going to Pallato. He was reflecting about being from the ’hood skillfully to try to address the issues,” said Sipho Sithole, owner of the indie record label Native Rhythms, which was once home to rappers Zuluboy, Zakwe and F-Eezy.
Sithole, when he worked for Gallo, signed the likes of Skwatta Kamp and Pro to the label, ushering hip-hop into the mainstream. Pro’s second album, DNA, released in 2006, is his most criticised. He admitted to it being rushed.
He once told Hype magazine that he was still collecting beats when he was told his deadline was in a few weeks’ time. “That was not a ProKid album – it was Gallo’s album,” he was quoted as saying.
When he released Dankie San in 2008, he had dropped the suffix from his name, stepping out into the world simply as “Pro”. It was part of rebranding, and also because he was no longer a kid. Dankie San is one of his strongest albums. The rapper worked with the production trio IV League, comprising AKA, Buks and Kamza. They produced, among other hits, the single Bhampa.
“Pro gave us our start as IV League in 2007,” said Buks during the memorial service. IV League would go on to produce hits for the likes of Khuli Chana ( No More Hunger, Tswakstikem), Reason (Tla K’ Obone ), ProVerb ( Kimberly Diamond) and AKA (I Want It All, Bang, All I Know ).
AKA, who’s now among the elite of South African hip-hop, spoke during the event about how Pro inspired him, and that he used all the recording sessions for Dankie San to absorb from him as much as he could. “I asked him, ‘Do you think I can do this thing in English?’ He laughed at me and said, ‘You can do anything’. I took that advice and ran with it.”
Dankie San was the first album Pro released under TS Records, the label that brought us Mzekezeke, Brown Dash, Ntando and Zahara. Owned by DJ Sbu and TK Nciza, TS was seen as anti-hip-hop because Mzekezeke, DJ Sbu’s asinine alter ego, was overtly against the genre. Remember his song Amakoporosh?
Pro signing to TS was the beginning of hip-hop’s rise to the zenith of the South African music scene. For DJ Sbu, it was a matter of realising that if he couldn’t beat them, he’d join them.
Pro would release one more album under TS, Snakes & Ladders in 2011. The album boasted the hit single Makasana , which blended hip-hop, kwaito and house. Even though not many credit him for pushing the genre into a new direction, South African hip-hop would, a few years later, become obsessed with sampling kwaito and house.
Pro felt underappreciated. He felt the new school wasn’t paying homage to those who paved the way. He told TimesLIVE last year: “The ones who came after HHP, I don’t think they embraced him. They didn’t treat him right or appreciate him. They are quick to forget the people who put them there. People who were once your friend don’t fuck with you any more. Fuck them all! I learnt to just focus on my music and write more verses. I went into studio and just made proper music. I forgot the backstabbing and the nonsense, and tried to find myself again.”
But in the past few years, Pro wasn’t as prolific as he was in the mid-2000s and early 2010s. His last album, Continua , was released in 2012. He did guest features and released a few singles sporadically, but he wasn’t as sharp as he used to be.
His 2016 single Pholas , which featured KO, was a dud. So were his verses on DJ Switch’s Now or Never remix and the Sebentin remix by Zakwe.
His performance at this year’s Back to the City festival was also questionable. The rapper, who used to strike fear in all his peers (even Stogie T admitted Pro used to intimidate him), had lost his lustre. Fans responded to his performances only because of nostalgia.
At the time of his death, he was working on a comeback album, but who knows if we’ll ever get to hear how far he got. One thing we know for sure is his contribution to making hip-hop mainstream in South Africa, and showing artists the power of rapping in languages other than English.
As Kwesta, one of the many rappers whose music embodies a heavy kasi influence, said during Pro’s memorial service: “I wouldn’t be rapping if it wasn’t for Pro. I want to make it very clear, the only reason I exist, the only reason, there’s absolutely no other reason, it’s that groot man. What I loved about him, he smiled.
He was the same in real life as he was in the bars. He never took off the fact that he’s Pro from the township. He wore that very proudly. Until this day, I embody that, I want you to understand that whatever I do, what I’ve done and will do in future, the blueprint was laid down by Linda.”
Rest in peace, maqhuzu we’y’namba . Rest in peace, Pro.
A tribute concert for Pro will be held on Sunday at Zone 6 Venue in Diepkloof, Soweto.