I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for this one. I can already hear the ‘get over it’ ‘it’s been over ten years bro’ – and it has, but allow me to explain why I ask if we’ve really heard a better album than Pitch Black Afro’s Styling Gel in South Africa.
No matter where he is today, or how his career sort of just faded as quick as his journey to stardom, Pitch Black Afro is a South African music legend, period. I was pretty young in 2004 and will admit to not knowing much about Hip Hop back then. See at that time, for me, everything was either Kwaito, House or Afro Soul as these were the main commercial genres in SA. But during that time there was a huge renaissance happening in the music industry.
The likes of Tkzee, Trompies, Mandoza, Bongo Maffin, Brenda Fassie, Mafikizolo were facing a growing genre that was only in its birth stages. While many may argue that Kwaito is technically a ‘poor man’s Hip Hop’, I beg to differ. I think the two genres definitely do cross paths and compliment each other, but there is no way I would call Kwaito a Hip Hop sub-genre. Thus this is why I view the likes of Zola 7, H20, Selwyn, Pitch Black, HHP and Pro Kid as the new school of commercial Hip Hop that was at its renaissance stage during the years of 2000 – 2006. It would be shortsightedness of me not mention that Zola and Amu kick-started this entire revolution at a time many least expected it, even though his music was strangely titled as Kwaito. Zola was a breath of fresh air, a hard rapper who combined both vernac and English lyricism, combining quick wordplay, punchlines, and storytelling in his songs. It’s no wonder today artists like Sjava still have great respect for him. His album, however, felt like an artistic extension of his character Papa Action, from the controversial TV Drama, Yizo Yizo. Oguluva ekasi embraced and related to uMdlwembe and Khokhovula more, and it felt like Zola was speaking to the young generation of black men growing through hardships in South Africa.
Back to Pitch Black. To those that aren’t familiar with him, Pitch Black Afro’s style is similar to that of American MC’s, citing Redman as an influence, but he raps in English, Zulu and a slangy mixture of different languages called tsotsi taal.
While Zola introduced us to this new sound, I would say it was Pitch Black Afro, with the great help of his producer back then, DJ Cleo (yes, the same Cleo who now produces mediocre Gqom tracks) who championed it by giving us a full body of work that would be enjoyed by the masses in South Africa. DJ Cleo produced his best album with Styling Gel. The album features uptempo, groovy, tracks such as A Day in my Life, Matofotofo, Pitch Black Afro (remix) and Pidipidi, while it also has low tempo soulful jams like Anginandaba Nawe and Let’s Make Love. With this album Pitch Black Afro sold over 50,000 copies in South Africa which made Styling Gel the biggest ever selling African Hip Hop album (at the time).
The album is very musical, and one can pick out the authenticity of its production from the mentioned tracks. The one song I’d single out as the best for me will have to be A Day in my Life, featuring Selwyn. From the first verse by Pitch Black, his delivery, flow, and context (storytelling of his day) are abstract; playful but very nostalgic at the same time. Selwyn comes in with a dope rapper’s verse, but the most amazing passage is when they share the third verse together, literally talking to each other in their ‘preparation’ for a braai. Still the track takes you in by the inserted recorded studio session talk that took place when Pitch Black made a mistake in his verse, which he eventually ends by him practicing singing ‘it’s a day in my life’ and telling Cleo ‘isiyakhinya le ndaba’ when he kept asking him to sing it on higher peach.
Ntofontofo is another worthy mention, simply for it’s amazing soulful, groovy feel, which is appropriate considering the song is about wanting a thick girl, and a comfortable lifestyle, a nice life. Also, huge on the track is the theme of storytelling.
After this his career sort of fizzled out, with the only notable mention on his second album, Split Endz, being Never Let You Go (ft Verd).
Since then, his sales record has been smashed by Cassper Nyovest with his debut album Tsholofelo in 2014 which was the first to sell platinum sales since Pitch Black. Emtee would also go on to break Cassper’s record after he released his album Avery, which went double platinum, and that was a first in SA hip hop.
Now the question that remains is; is Tsholofelo and Avery better albums than Styling Gel?