The Fire

Holy hip-hop! Soul Searching with Raheem Kemet

By Samora Chapman 

A big guy with a futuristic flow, thug tattoos and razor sharp intellect, Raheem Kemet won the Bling Free Battle of the Year 2004 convincingly, cementing his status as battle champ of Durban and signifying the arrival of a Poison City hip-hop legend.

A hallowed time before social media and soundcloud accounts, Bling Free was a Durban institution where cyphers were real and the beer was cheap, and for one Sunday a month every self respecting head in the city gathered at the basketball courts at Albert Park to battle in the dingy space squeezed between the city and the harbour.

A decade later Raheem and I meet at this holy ground to reminisce ahead of the release of his EP, TV Don’t Know Us Yet.

“I won my first battle here,” says Rah as we walk into the empty lot, pointing at the spot where the decks would’ve been set up. “It happened right here. I was up against Kamakazi in the final and cats weren’t expecting me to win. I was so nervous! Battle of the Year was like Captain Planet coming together with all his powers. We had culture man. It was something else. It opened your mind. This is the spot that everyone knew – if you’re into hip-hop you come out here and you represent.”

Raheem hasn’t stopped hustling since those battle years, putting out albums, performing relentlessly, entering competitions, making videos, forming bands, leaving bands... And whether you remember him as a battle-rapper, the frontman of Tree Houses On The Sea, as the underground legend from Percasette, or (more recently) the MC behind Durban rap anthem ‘The Fire’, Raheem’s been in the game for sixteen years now and is something different to everyone.

“I was rhyming in high school, doing talent shows and shit, and I got heavily into hip-hop at about 17, hence the track on my new EP called ‘17’. But even before that, as a young kid, I used to sing and dance to my moms' Michael Jackson records! I grew up in Newlands West, I also stayed with my grandmother in Chatsworth Unit 2, a place known as Zanzi Town. That’s my heritage. I’m Zanzibari. My pops is Zulu, but I never grew up with him, I grew up with my moms hence me practicing Islam from a young age ‘cos she’s straight up Muslim, in fact the whole family is.”

After school Raheem enrolled at DUT to study engineering. That’s where his passion for music really took root after being introduced to hip-hop like Wu-Tang Clan, Black Star, Public Enemy and Common Sense, soon after starting a conscious crew of his own, One Mic Po-siety.

“I left college in second year – I was just like ‘na I cannot do this, I gotta do music full time!’ So I did music full time for a year and fell in love with this one honey who invited me to her church. I had read a lot about alternative religions, philosophies, practices and shit like that and when I heard the pastor speak – he kicked some crazy knowledge - I was like, ‘I wanna find out more!’”

Being Muslim this was taboo, and with both the bible and the Quran, Rah asked for guidance and ended up studying the bible for three years at His Church in Pinetown.

“I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke weed, but there were nights where I’d sneak out and go to the Bat Centre hip-hop sessions and this one Thursday everything switched. I hopped on the mic and tore that shit up… and I was like, 'f***, I miss this feeling dog!’”

Leaving the church but not the knowledge he’d picked up there, Raheem’s next project was inspired by Christian emcees like Mars Ill and Qwel, which managed to put out one fire album For Weeks Later in 2007 before dissolving.

“I’d started doing some stuff with Steve Fataar [Durban folk and rock music legend] where Dane Stops would beat box. That’s when the Tree House parties were going down at the Fataar’s house and we’d link up and cypher. Luca (Penlight/Damascvs) got involved and I taught him how to make beats on Reason. He went so deep, digging for samples, and we’d go hang out at Luca’s crib up in the misty hills of Hillcrest – aka Mordor! – and stay up the whole night making music and raps. That was a dope process. It took us four weeks, hence the name of the album. We recorded it in Dane’s bedroom, mixed and mastered that shit ourselves and were slinging Percasette on the street!”

The Percasette story is testament to Raheem’s DIY spirit - he’s never sat back and waited for a record deal, or been satisfied playing a few gigs, and has been putting out music and collaborating with as many peeps as possible from the get-go with the aim that eventually he’d break on through.

“Dude if we had to release that shit now, get it re-mastered, it would blow up. But I feel we’re at a different place now as artists. I mean Dammascvs is doing some crazy ass shit in Cape Town with the Quit Safari crew. And Dane is a graphic design lecturer at DUT. If hip-hop taught us anything it taught us to progress and be about knowledge. We can’t get that moment back. But it was legendary.”

After Percasette, Raheem went on to form Tree Houses On The Sea, which fused hip-hop with jazz and rock ‘n roll and saw him step up as a fearless and powerful frontman.

“When I was still in college we all used to hang out at this dilapidated house opposite DUT – there was an underground shop there run by Sean Stretch and my homey Deon. We used to bust scripts and this young ass kid in high school, Kenneth Cele, aka Taktics, who had a razor tongue used to play keys. After our first jam together we went outside for a skyf and there’s Dylan Silk and I was like, ‘This dude looks sick!’ with his guitar and a gwaai, long ass hair... So I’m like ‘Yo bra, we tryna start a band, you play guitar?’ He came through to the rehearsal and ripped shit up. Then Mo joined on bass and Ross came through and laced the drums and we built it from there. I hollered at this one kid called Lee Taylor to do the scratch DJ parts. Today TaylorMade Beatz has got three tracks on YFM and is producing tracks for Cassper Nyovest… He’s got some beats for me for my new album too. I keep coming full circle with the creatives from the old school. I’m not just hitting up Damacvs ‘cos he’s dope now… he was dope from the beginning, but now he’s doper! Same goes for Dane Stops and Lee Taylor. We still family.”

Surviving off one’s art is a long, treacherous road, and Raheem walked that road to Joburg where he slept in rehearsal rooms and worked at a call centre before he had to move back to Durban, where he found the scene had changed, he had to do more tedious work, and real life kicked in.

“I met this girl and we got married. I got back into Islam and went on some trips to remote communities speaking about Islam. At the same time I was chatting to Gavin Dave (aka Dave Audinary), who I knew from way back and who started sending me beats. ‘The Fire’ came to me when I was in Cape Town on a 40-day Islamic trip where, one day outside the mosque in my free time I pulled out my pen and my pad and I wrote the whole track. When I landed back in Durban I hit Gavin up, went into the studio and recorded the track in three hours. Done.”

Raheem released ‘The Fire’ independently, posted it on Datafilehost and got a couple thousand downloads in the first few days, after which DJ Tha Cutt asked him to perform live on Balcony TV.

“After that I get a call from Bradley Williams (aka DJ Bionic, Tumi’s business partner at Motif Records) who says ‘Yo man I’m really digging your new shit. I’m currently with Sony and I’m gonna pitch your stuff at our A&R meeting.’ I put the phone down and just cried, dog. You know what I mean! He hit me up a couple days later and told me that it’s on, sent me some contracts and set up a licensing deal with Sony. That was a big deal for me. F*** man. Like is this it, wagwan?!”

‘The Fire’ was re-released by Sony, got radio play, there was a video, Wes My Meds jumped on a remix… but Raheem felt weird about it.

“I was a signed artist, there was a lot of hype, so I was like what’s gonna happen now? Cats were telling me they saw me on MTV and they heard my song on the radio, but I’m like ‘Yo, I need cash to buy a loose!’ So it was hard. The licensing deal gives you a lot of freedom to do other things. It’s different to a 360 deal where the label owns you. There’s certain tracks that I’ve released through them, like my new EP – TV Don’t Know Us Yet.”

Rah’s diverse musical ability really shines through on the new EP and the production is classic hip-hop with new school flair. At first it sounds quite commercial, but the composition and arrangement is incredibly fresh and his vocal range and change in pace and tempo makes every track an exciting journey. One moment Rah’s singing a seductive harmony, the next he’s flexing heavy punch lines, and you know he’s always digging deep with his writing, letting his life experiences shine through in his lyrics. A life that’s getting larger all the time.

“I’ve got a kid now, my boy is two years old, and now I'm tryna put food on the table and be a good provider and a good dad to my son. The EP is like the intro, that’s why I call it TV Don’t Know Us Yet. I’ve been in this for 16-years. It’s been a struggle, bro, I’m not gonna say that shit’s been super easy, but I’m starting to see the light.”