By day he is a prominent music critic working for some of London's best-read broadsheets. By night he is an inspired lyricist, a formidable hip-hop emcee, a notorious turntablist, sound engineer and podcaster.
Rob One (Real name Rob Boffard) graduated from Rhodes University's School of Journalism and Media studies in 2006 and has since then achieved the career of his dreams.
After years of insightful written analysis into the art and craft of contemporary urban music, Rob One has successfully entered the hip-hop genre as an artist.
This self-confessed skinny Jewish boy from Jo'burg began flexing his lyrical fitness and dabbling in radio during his student days where a stint at Rhodes Music Radio provided invaluable experience and saw him pioneer the now infamous Hiphocalypse radio show.
To release his own album has always been a burning ambition. African is the gloriously realised manifestation of that ambition.
Rob's vocal delivery is sufficiently passionate and edgy to place him at the forefront of local rap. Imaginative narratives are delivered with impeccable cadence and a rhythmic elan. Rather than affecting a faux-American swagger (think Locknville), Rob retains his English South African accent throughout the album. (The trend for white South African rappers these days seems to be to embrace the rougher Afrikaans accent, used to devastating effect by the likes of Jack Parow and Die Antwoord).
Some local listeners may find his colloquial tones somewhat strange, even dull and off-putting as its not an accent which has featured on a great number of legendary hip hop releases, but I find this openness refreshing. For all I know the average international listener might find his mlungu inflections to be genuinely badass. This honesty about heritage is especially apt since the album interrogates the true meaning of African-ness and the lived realities thereof.
His lyrics are more poetic and more cerebral than your average commercial “money, cash, hoes” hip-hop offering. His emceeing is fraught with a certain narrative flair, and each track tells its own unique and wildly imaginative story. Rob's poetry (because thats what it is) also displays mythic undertones, as well as a sci-fi bent. Creative song writing and lyrical witticisms abound which will leave listeners gasping “Jho” and “too dope, son.”
The production on the album is fresh and diverse, with a disparate blend of flavours and sounds. Rob collaborated with a range of talented musiciuans including Grahamstown-based producer Alias.
Other noteworthy collabs on the album include Nyambz – who is heralded as one of the South Africa's champion beatsmiths – and local rap heavyweight Zubz.
Many of the album's soundscapes are experimental and abstract, fraught with emotional subtlety and melodic innovation, vaguely reminiscent of the kind of otherworldly electronica for which Bjork is known. The attention-seeking commercial pop sound is entirely absent, although many tracks make use of the old-skool, big band style, of the sort commonly utilised by the likes of 50 cent and Jay Z (for example, Empire, State of Mind by Alicia Keys and Jay Z).
The album's title track is an anthemic feel-good banger with tightly-coiled production and up-beat pop vocals. This one will surely inspire an emotional twinge of patriotism in even the most stoic rap heads.
Flames also proclaims the artist's endless pride for who he is and what he does. This unselfconscious patriotism and cultural pride threatens to become cheesy and sentimental at times, but fortunately Rob stops himself at these moments and interjects a healthy dose of irreverent humour or simply drops a swear-word or two, thus maintaining a mood that is sufficiently thuggish to warrant street cred.
Prodcued by ProChrist, Broken Language features some sick scratching (what hip hop album would be complete without a bit of cheeky turntable wizardry?) as well as an intriguing poetic exploration of language and identity.
This lovingly crafted debut will impress even the most zealous hip-hop heads with its rich musicality, attention to detail and wildly original narrative voice. His efforts display startling professionalism as well as an unyielding devotion to the art-form that is hip hop.
Quickfire with Rob One
Jo'burg has obviously had a profound influence on your musical voice. Has Grahamstown wielded any similar influence over your art and work?
For sure. Obviously I'll always be a Joburg boy, but I had some of the best experiences of my life in Grahamstown, hip-hop-related and otherwise. I tried my best not to be a total tourist in a town where a lot of people did not have the kind of upbringing that I did. So far, most of the locals are still taking to me, so I think I did OK there. More than anything else though, the hip-hop scene in Grahamstown – particularly the guys coming out of the schools – just blows me away. Also, working on the Hiphocalypse on RMR was a gift. That show, more than anything else, shaped what I'm doing in my life. After getting to host that show, I knew it was hip-hop or bust. And it's still going, so shouts to Shadrack and Keagon. And above all else, I think the pizzas at The Rat were the biggest influence on African. I lived on those things for four years.
How is the London scene treating you? How smoothly did the transition from South Africa to England go?
I was very, very naive and very dumb when I came over here, so I made a lot of mistakes, especially with prospective employers (I sort of assumed getting a job here would be similar to getting one in SA. Fail.) Moving countries is always rough. I'd been there before, but trying to get involved in another music scene was not easy. It's not just a simple matter of going to gigs and hoping for the best. It took a long time to build up my contacts and get the writing commissions that have helped me stay alive out here. But I've accomplished quite a few of the things I've set out to do over here, like making the album.
Will you be gracing us in South Africa with your skills anytime soon? Any plans to perform at National Arts Fest?
2011 Arts Fest, sadly not. I am due back in December for a bit though, so hopefully I can get some shows sorted for then. And the living overseas arrangement is far from permanent – I'll be back in SA for good before long. Then it's shows, limos, groupies and champage. Ballin' outta control.
How much of your time is spent writing music, and how much is spent writing about music?
Damn good question. Writing about music is my job – it's what I do when I get up in the morning, and it's what I'm usually doing just before I go to bed at one in the morning! By its nature, I spend a lot of time doing it, which I never mind because it's silly that I get paid to do it in the first place. I don't spend nearly as much time writing music as I'd like – I might write a song once every couple of weeks – but if a hot beat comes through from Alias or ProChrist and it grabs me, then it's on. I'll sit and write until I get a track done. I usually spend much, much more time tweaking and refining the verses and recordings, getting things exactly how I want them.
An ardent advocate of hip-hop, you've always wanted to release an album of your own. What provided the impetus to actually achieve this?
I was bored one day. No, it was something I wanted to do for a long time. I'd released an EP previously in 2009; while the content was dope, I cringe when I listen to it now because I screwed up the mixing so badly. I've wanted to make a full album since I started rapping age 15 – I was always going to call it African, or at least, I don't remember ever wanting to call it something else – and last year, when I put the finishing touches on a really good studio setup with a proper mix room, I decided it was time to stop talking about doing it and actually get on with it – I had no excuses now. I had a collection of amazing songs, some great people backing me up, and there was no way I was going to wait any longer.
African has obviously been a labour of love from the start. Your readers and listeners may not know that you're also a sound engineer. Would it be correct to assume that you played a key role in the production, mixing and mastering on each track?
Correct. I arranged, recorded and mixed every single track. If you'd been around my area at 2am on any given night last November-December, you'd have heard me tweaking drums. Each track (and there were a good twenty-five to pick from) went through about seven or eight different mixes. Mastering, which is of course taking the final, mixed track and polishing the overall sound, wasn't something I could do on my setup – you need seriously high-end gear for that. I used a man named Chemo, who's mastered quite a few UK hip-hop classics in the past and has worked with guys like Jehst. He made me sound awesome.
Any future releases in the works?
I'm starting work on a series of producer EPs – just me and a single producer on each release. First up is one with Alias, which I can't wait to get into. There's a track with Ill-Literate Skill on that one too, which is bananas.
Best of luck and many thanks!
Rob One links
Rob One Bandcamp site where the album can be purchased and previewed: