Tweaking 50 cent, Tumi Molekane smiles and rhymes to no-one in particular on the balcony of the Valve club in Cape Town. He's acting like a prize fighter, Mohammed Ali in the jungle. He's high on the whooping, and screeching applause he just received on stage. He's bouncing on the night's vibe and smiling ear to ear.
It's late at night around the corner from Parliament, the bergies are all huddled in a heap in a doorway across from the club. Cars pack the narrow street. The club is packed from wall to wall, Samuel L Jackson reclines on a beanbag making out with a beautiful girl, surrounded by not-so-famous VIPs. Its the biggest hip hop gig Cape Town has seen since the abortive Black August in 2001. The crowd is integrated, by Cape Town standards, which means it's a clean 50/50 split between black and white.
Two white kids look up over their spliff and smile at the large black man in his brown velvet tracksuit and Timberlands. It's a look of pure admiration. Tumi and The Volume are perhaps South Africa's most exciting hip hop act with a unique sound beyond the cloned Americanisms that tend to typify local South African hip hop. But to merely label Tumi and The Volume 'hip hop' is a backhanded compliment. With their jazzy meanderings, dubby soundscapes and spoken word poems, they are bigger and more complex than the hip hop genre will allow. And they are laaities to boot, no one in the outfit is older than 25.
The band started off as a strange concept outfit, made up of half the Mozambican dub quartet 340ml, with lead guitarist Tiago C. Paulo and drummer Paulo Chibanga. Playing the bass for The Volume is classically trained and irrepressibly cool David Bergman and on violin the beautiful and also classically trained Kyla Rose-Smith. And on the mic, with the voice and the lyrics is our man Tumi Molekane. A man more famous for his exploits as a poet than an MC. When you plug them all in together, what comes out of the PA is something entirely original and new. Like a funky acid jazz, dub style with lyrics that start out as poetry and become refrains, then raps and rhymes and then return back to spoken word poetry. It's live and spontaneous like jazz, with the undeniable hook of big bass and hip hop rhythms. Tumi steps in and out of the soundscapes created for him to rhyme in. His voice keeps all these diverse musical forces united. His lyrical content reaches the lofty heights of poetry and his rhyming style and sense of phrasing and timing set him apart from the unpolished m'rappers that dominate the local scene. Unlike any other MC Tumi uses his voice like an instrument, not content to just simply rhyme along with the beats he pushes his voice and lyrical content to enhance and expand upon them, creating entire universes of groove.
But hang on a second, if this Tumi cat is so damn good, why haven't you heard of him? Well chances are you have. Tumi was the face and voice of the original YFM ads on eTV. You know the one with the guy doing spoken word poetry - the original ad concept that Metro cribbed wholesale and turned into their 'I am beat' campaign.
Possibly the greatest influence on the young MC is his mom, having grown up in exile, under the wing of the revolution.
'I lived in Zambia most of the time, was in Mozambique, was in Denmark, um, we stayed in Zim for a while - but the headquarters of the ANC were in Zambia, Lusaka. So we stayed there most of the time.
I was an only child, so I did a lot of reading - and then with toys, it was like, an only child has to make whole cities in the living room. And after a while you get too old to play with toys - and my mom kept bringing in books from places she'd been. And I always say this, it's not hard to move from Mzwakhe Mbuli to KRS1. It's the same story, just KRS1 is more visual and more dynamic and more hip hop. That's how I started listening to rap. Writing was just a cool thing to do. Like the first time I wrote what people would call a poem - I was writing a rhyme - and I was always pissed off that people wouldn't hear. Because I always thought I had things to say and you know when you're in a dingy club and the music is loud and the mic is fucked and the only thing that happens is people come at the end of the set and go: "that was deep!"
So I really got pissed off that people weren't hearing me, so one day I wrote a rhyme without a beat and my mom in the next room was playing Tchaikovsky and I noticed I was getting louder and more aggressive when the music got louder and I slowed down when the music did. Then I took the CD and played it in my room and did the poem to it - and I was like shit! So I went to the Le Club - it was this place in Joburg, a hip hop club where people could battle or just get up on stage and freestyles. I actually played Tchaikovsky in front of this stunned audience and did this rhyme of mine. It was the kind of thing that I would have wanted to hear.
'But I don't even listen to a lot of hip hop anymore. Unless it's new and has something fresh to offer. Like OK, let's look at 50cent. I think that shit's boring. I've heard that story, I've been hearing that story since Public Enemy, right. It's fucked up that story still exists. The American ghetto. From drug dealer to rap star. From rap star to dead. To legend to martyr to spawning another generation of gangster rappers.'
As a vegetarian Tswana who speaks with a faded American accent, one of Tumi's recurrent themes in his work and rhymes is the question of identity.
'Have you ever heard about the theory of cultural inbetweenity?' he asks. 'Let's say you have an African, like me, and I go to a model C school and I start speaking with an accent and that phase would be called "capitulation" - where you want to assume other people's cultures and you want to belong, because you feel your culture to be inferior, or perhaps it's not a feeling that your culture is inferior so much as your culture is not as prevalent as the dominant culture. It's a multicultural society and that line between cultures is blurred. And then you question that and you get to a level where they call it "revitalisation" - where you go fuck that, I'm going back to my roots, Back to Africa and you look at your indigenous culture uncritically and assume all of it - that romantic view of African culture. And then you get to a point called "radicalisation" - where you realise that there's good things and there's bad things to every culture, and you start finding a line and it's basically the right to determine your own fucking identity.
'Now I've gotten a lot of flak for that. I mean people deny that my story is South African because I don't speak with an accent that they associate black people with. I don't talk or think of things that they associate black people to think of. I went through this shit in high school, I went through this shit in college. I am going through this shit with everything I do. But it's cool, I understand that hip hop comes in a package. It comes in baggy jeans, a fucking accent, dreadlocks, haircuts, fubu chains. It comes in that package. But people can't help but be themselves.
'That's what I like about kwaito. Kwaito was slated as bubblegum, they said "this is crap" - but look what it's doing now. Drawing from old South African culture, appropriating Drum culture, maskandi basslines, kwela rhythms. And that's because they don't give a shit. They're like, "fuck you". Look at local hip hop now, people are rapping in Zulu and Sotho - but people were trying to kill it before it even took root.'
Tumi nods and strokes his chin sagely, 'It's the truth. I think that fucking Oliver Shmidt said it best "the central theme right now is identity and you really have to know yourself better.'
What is your greatest inspiration? I ask.
'Probably my mom, and she is very political. I was basically brainwashed as a kid. That whole ANC freedom charter school.'
What does your mom do?
'NIA - CIA baby. In fact she's listening to this conversation right now.'
Really, so she's a spy, does she have gadgets like James Bond?
Can I say in the article that she's a spy?
'No you can't.'
Will it blow her cover?
'No but what relevance will it have?'
It's who you are.
'It's who she is.'
But you saying all the time what a big influence she is on you, and what I have to say is don't fucking piss off Tumi Molekane, 'cos his mama's gonna get you.'And all of a sudden Andy was no more.' [Laughs]