'Old school hip-hop a stepping stone for me' says Thato Saul
The rising rapper pays tribute to all who played a role in his career
As a lyricist at heart, rising hip-hop star Thato Saul hopes to one day become as big as his idol American Grammy award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar.
The 27-year-old from Pretoria West, whose real name is Thato Matlebyane, is a songwriter who rose to prominence after the release of Never Ride by Mashbeatz – after the eclectic song went viral on TikTok last year.
He later made his mark when he bagged six nominations at the SA Hip-Hop Awards late last year, and he managed to walk away with three awards.
At the weekend, the effervescent rapper performed at Back to the City for the first time. He also paid tribute to AKA, who he says believed in his talent.
"I grew up in an era where hip-hop was all around me. If you had an older brother or a male cousin, you'd always see pictures of Tupac, Biggie or other famous rappers in the '90s hung up on their bedroom walls... Hip-hop was there, as a child, you couldn't miss it," said the budding star.
"It was only in 2003 when I was eight years old that I started paying attention to the genre, all thanks to my dad. He came home one day with 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' album which I was crazy about. I would listen to the CD every time I came back from school or walked around the hood with my headphones.
"... that's when the hip-hop bug bit me and I knew I was in for the long haul."
In June last year, Matlebyane achieved the highest new entry on Spotify’s Top Artists chart after the release of his debut album, Life Is Gangsta.
"I started taking my rap career [seriously] in late 2007 and early 2008 when I was in high school. I would go to The South African State Theatre in Pretoria as a crump dance member until I transitioned into rap battles and competed in [hip-hop] cyphers," he said.
"By then I had already been writing my own lyrics and punchlines. From there, I grew confident in my craft and started professionally making music in 2014, almost seven years later since embarking on my journey as a rapper."
The transition from a backpack-wearing rapper who enjoyed battling people to being a song-making artist was not an easy one. Matlebyane knew he had to put in more work in order to see his name in the lights.
"In 2014, my boy Jarlef, started very low... we had nothing much but a laptop and a microphone. We would record ourselves on the laptop and play out songs. We then started performing these songs... we had the hunger to make it one day," he said.
As a growing teen, Matlebyane was heavily influenced by his neighbourhood mentors who were well-known rappers in the township. His neighbour Frank, who was affectionately known as "Killer" in the streets, was his biggest influence as he gave Matlebyane the courage to sing in his mother tongue, a lingo known as S'Pitori.
"Bizmakey and Killer were one of the first rappers to make infusing our lingo into hip-hop melodies a cool thing, this was in early 2000 but somehow, it wasn't as popular then. I used to rap in English but I knew I could express myself better when I rap in my first language," said Matlebyane.
"Whenever I see Bizmakey, I always tell him if it wasn't for him showing me how diverse I can be as a rapper, I wouldn't be where I am today... so, I always make sure to give him his flowers."
With his stellar delivery and rap ability, Matlebyane's career peaked to greater heights when he was added as a guest feature on late hip-hop rapper AKA’s last and final album Mass Country on the fan-favourite song, Mbuzi.
He also has his sights on one day working with Nigerian superstars WizKid and Davido.
"Sometimes, we do or start things not knowing where they'd take us. You even find yourself working with the likes of AKA – a mind-blowing yet history-making moment. As a South African rapper, it was an honour to have worked with such a legend."
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