Johannesburg - TRIBUTE: #Trending remembers one of the greatest rappers this country has ever seen, Pro.
Last week, South Africa suffered a monumental blow. Linda Mkhize, better known as Pro and formerly known as Prokid, died after a seizure. He was just 37.
Pro was, by and large, the rapper responsible for the stylings of vernacular rap that are still used today. He was a formidable wordsmith with the allure of street essence. Very much a proud Soweto resident, he often stated in his music that he was Soweto’s number one boy. He was your rapper’s favourite rapper and, although a decorated musician, he never got the recognition he deserved from the music industry.
It’s no wonder that Cassper Nyovest and AKA referenced a Kanye West line on Twitter after his death: “People never get the flowers while they can still smell them.”
Always, the streets remember. We remember that his talents extended beyond the microphone to his apparel line Dankie San, which aimed to embody the spirit of the kasi. A fusion of pantsula and hip-hop culture reflecting the transformation from hopelessness to prosperity.
We remember how he sampled the sounds of a children’s clapping game and turned it into the smash hit Uthini Ngo Pro. This playful sample was offset by a menacingly rebellious opening line: “Nina ingathi niphelelwe ama-government condoms anina-choice [It’s like you’ve run out of government condoms, you all don’t have a choice]/ One way or another, you gon’ feel my noise.”
Whether this video came on at your house or in the club, that line would always provide a shock of lyrical pleasure.
We remember his proficiency in freestyling. Often, Pro and his right hand assassin of the written word, Red Button, would go bar for bar on stage, completely off the top of their heads. They would set each other up for the perfect punchline, which the DJ enhanced by stopping the track right when it landed. This would always leave the crowd in a tizz.
A few years ago, every emerging rapper styled their verses to sound a lot like Pro’s. As hard as they tried, it was still easy to tell where they got this. These fly-by-night rappers are perhaps the reason his style subsided not too long after 2007.
His contemporaries have been left shocked by his sudden departure.
TS for life
We touched base with DJ Sbu (pictured), who was at the helm of TS Records, one of the biggest record labels in South Africa, which signed Pro
under a two-record deal that gave birth to some of the spitter’s best work.
Sbu takes us back to the beginning of their partnership: “I met Pro through Wandi Nzimande from Loxion Kulca [a famous Soweto-based clothing line]. He told me he was looking for management as his manager was heading to the US. Pro was signed to Gallo at the time.”
Sbu was holding down the morning radio slot at Ukhozi FM.“I would visit him at home and we would talk about the music for hours because I was already a fan of his.”
Sbu challenged Pro to rap more in the vernacular because the audience would relate. Pro took this suggestion on board and his run at this label was prolific. “We then started with a few collaborative projects with the likes of the Ivy League with AKA and Kamza, who now does sports presenting. We also had a phenomenal producer, a guy from Diepkloof, Dome.”
Dome was the man behind the beat for Sekele that Pro shared with a group called 985. I recall there being some kind of controversy when this track was released. Pro’s version did a lot better than 985, but Sbu assures me that the exchange was amicable. Then the hits came.
“We had hits like Bhampa, which had more of a kwaito influence, but still with that poetic side to it. He was a ghetto poet celebrating life in the ghetto, not unlike a Jay-Z or Nas. He could say one line and it could be interpreted three different ways. The term ‘pressa pusha, phanda’ was his idea.”
Sbu explains how the phrase has been commercialised, but the thought came about in a studio session. Sbu says Pro took rap to a place he didn’t think it could go.
“I was blessed to have worked with him, to have witnessed his art first hand.”
Giving it raw
A leader of street culture in her own right, Radio 702’s Lee Kasumba, who once hosted the infamous radio show The Bridge on Yfm, put it quite simply and says: “Pro was an era in South African hip-hop history in that he changed the game forever and an entire generation was birthed through him.”
Kasumba also brings up a moment she shared with rapper Stogie T at the Slaghuis memorial to Pro last weekend.
Stogie told Kasumba that “people say that Pro made vernac rap popular and famous, but that it wasn’t just him. There were a lot of people who were doing it before, but what he did is give it to you raw, no compromise. The way he gave it to you at Slaghuis is the way he would in the north.”
A good omen
(Photos: City Press)
Omen the Chef is a gifted producer who was behind some of Pro’s early work, back in the days when he still had the “kid” attached to his name.
“Pro and I used to see each other at the now defunct Le Club in Jozi. He was this skinny kid with a small voice, but he was a beast with the rhyme schemes. From the moment I heard him, I told him I was going to work with him.”
A few years passed, then Omen bumped into Pro while he was working at a retail store in Southgate. “I told him I needed him for a single I was recording for my project. A song called Wide Open was born from that, which went on to chart at Metro FM.”
Omen says Pro’s largest contribution to the culture was making local cool. “We used to be called names by the masses like ‘ama-punka’ [punks] for the fact that most of us rapped in English. And here comes this kid who made township lingo so cool. His poetry was so entrenched with the streets that it gave us a voice and opened doors for a lot of these kids today.”
Everyone we speak with touches on how Pro gave the game kasi appeal.
Pro City-heads reminisce
Osmic Menoe is the mind behind the largest hip-hop festival in South Africa, the mecca of the movement to some, Back to the City. Pro played this festival many times and was even honoured at the last instalment of this event.
Says Osmic: “My interaction with him starts way back when, before he became a popular artist 17 years ago. It was during the Le Club days. He was with Asylum Tribe; he actually got the name Prokid from another one of that crew’s members, Profuse.”
Osmic considers Pro’s main contribution to South African hip-hop as being his move from spitting in English to isiZulu.
“He managed to create an image that a rapper in South Africa – in Soweto – can articulate this culture in an authentic and home-brewed manner.”
Osmic says that Pro’s legacy enriched the scene: “The culture has been empowered by what he’s left behind. At the last Back to the City, we did a heritage piece on him. When he stood up and said ‘Soweto’, he was overcome in that moment by the love the crowd threw at him.”
I remember seeing the man walk through Maponya Mall one Sunday at the height of his career. I nodded nervously at him and he halted, then warmly shook my hand. It was a fleeting moment, but it truly felt like it mattered to him when I said I messed with his music. He smiled and thanked me. As he walked away, shop owners and other shoppers received this treatment from him – it must’ve taken him ages to reach his destination.
Pro’s life was celebrated in emphatic style at Slaghuis, where the foundation for his art was laid. Hordes of heads showed up to salute a pro, a master of his craft and a blueprint to emulate. Go well, OG, and, although you’re no longer present on this plane of existence, your art lives on through the rhymes and timeless music you gave us.
We will still gasp in disbelief when we hear you snapping on a scheme and smile broadly when you hit a punchline. And you’d best believe Soweto still knows that you’re its number one boy, Dankie San!