Zimbabwe Legit: a House of Stone built to last


This article © 2008 by Juma4 for Africanhiphop.com

On the occasion of the release of their all-new album House of Stone at the end of last year, we finally had a chance to chat with Dumi RIGHT, one half of the legendary diaspora Zimbabwean hip hop crew, Zimbabwe Legit. He speaks about narrow definitions of African hip hop, the cold record industry, DJ Shadow and a posse cut with African emcees.



Please introduce yourself in a few lines?
This is Dumi RIGHT from Zimbabwe Legit. Way back in the early 90’s my brother Akim and I came together and put out an EP with a US major label that served as a pioneering project representing African hip-hop. I've been in the rap biz since then doing it all from performing to recording and putting out underground and progressive music.

What happened between putting out that first EP and then re-releasing the Zimbabwe Legit album project in 2005?
First ZL project was 92/93, essentially it was a long form single or what they call an EP. The lost album that we had worked on but never released back then finally came out in 2005. During the hiatus, in fact we stayed very involved in making music and performing and just never had a label deal. After that I finished school and my brother went into becoming a full time performance artist.
My brother ran an open mic cipher called ‘Elevated’ for a while and continued to perform in the US and around the world and we linked up to perform at various venues. He also had a prominent role in the hip-hop documentary Freestyle that also featured the likes of Mos Def, Supernatural, Grand Master Caz, The Roots and so many more.

Did you put the name Zimbabwe Legit to rest immediately? We heard from O.U.O. (Of Unknown Origin) over the past years but initially it looked as if ZL was past tense.
Zimbabwe legit was essentially in limbo due to the label politics and uncertainty. We didn't put the name to rest but tried to figure out how we would proceed and what entity we would make music under.

While studying did you have to move hip hop to the background? I was still making music and working on stuff but I was a little bit removed from the scene and didn't necessarily have the time to dedicate to it but I performed and recorded at school and even hosted a weekly radio show. Hip-hop is part of how I grew up so it always remained with me even if it wasn't the focus. We opened up for groups like the Roots, Redman when they played at our school, and had some shows, etc.

Where did your cousin come into the picture - he's a part of OUO right? Was he already close at the time ZL came out?
Yes, my cousin Pep and I formed the group O.U.O. He actually didn't come over to the US until later in the 90s. Things move in cycles though - actually him and my brother used to rhyme together (not as a group per se) back in Zimbabwe and did stuff on the radio station there and around town. We were all also in a breakdance/b-boy crew together and used to enter contests and challenge other crews. This was all before Zimbabwe Legit event dropped. When we did the ZL it was just my brother and I.

So he must be of the same age as you and Akim?
Yeah roughly, he doesn't tell me how old he is, ha ha.

Haha ok... but he witnessed the same era(s) of hip hop as you Yes definitely, we all came up together and got into hip-hop, breakdancing, then eventually rapping together. We all saw Beat Street 10 times in the movie theatres and would run to the front and break dance when the movie ended, etc. I entered dance contests even as far back as electric boogaloo days when I was in 6th grade.

OUO did not profile itself as a group of immigrants with a Zimbabwean background - from listening to the music and looking at the promotion, it was blending in more with other groups on the independent US hip hop scene, am I right?
Yeah O.U.O was sort of a different identity for us. Being Zimbabwe Legit, there was some expectation of what we should sound like, talk about and what people wanted us to do. With O.U.O we were essentially free to just let it loose. It was good as well because it allowed us to explore a different facet of who we are. The O.U.O album was thematic but more around just being an emcee, we still spoke on issues but it was definitely all about underground emcees spitting fire.

Looking back, do you feel that the way the music industry works, you were being boxed in and limited in how you'd be able to develop as ZL, while signed to the Hollywood Basic label? Were people ready to see that other side of you? Looking at the sticker that was on your EP at the time - 'real African lyrics by real Africans' I got the impression that the label would not have accepted the way you came out with OUO?
I think with Hollywood Basic, the problem was they didn't really know what to do with an African hip hop group. Even that slogan was kinda sending mixed signals, it’s almost like they were calling out people in the Afro centric era of hip-hop in the US instead of embracing them which is what we were doing. And since African hip-hop at that time wasn't as wide spread as it is now, they kinda dropped the ball in capitalizing on our uniqueness and letting people know about us. Months after our EP dropped we were meeting DJs who were asking when it was coming out and people were telling us they wanted to buy it but couldn't find it anywhere.

Then the label also got cold feet very quickly and told the label heads that they needed a group like Kriss Kross since they were blowing up at the time. They didn't want to spend a dime on our project and kinda just threw it to the wall and waited to see if it stuck. We had to fight tooth and nail to get a video done and it only happened when we found some people willing to work pro bono (free).
But I want to add this and I've heard from other African emcees, sometimes even outside the music business, listeners have certain, unfair, expectations that if you are African hip-hop you have to rhyme over djembe and mbiras only and all lyrics must be in your native tongue and every rhyme has to be about your country etc. That's like saying that west coast rappers should all rap about hitting switches and being pimps, or that east coast rappers should all kick battle raps, if anything that is what's killing rap music these days because everyone is rapping about the same thing, cars, clothes, bankrolls and calling women hoes. And we can discuss that more with the new album, I think we catch a lot of people off guard.



Did you bring some of that liberty to the new ZL album then... from your experience with OUO - is this now more OUO + ZL rather than picking up where ZL left off back then?
Really this album is 100% ZL but what I did do is make sure I made it the way I wanted to make it without regard to any unreasonable expectations anyone might have. When Dumi RIGHT operates as Zimbabwe Legit there is a slightly different mindset that is hard to explain – I think it has more to do with subjects, how the music is crafted and especially in the stories I relate in songs like “Where I'm At” and “All over the Map” and incorporating elements like the African singing on “Mfowethu” (translated: ‘my brother’), and “The Smoke That Thunders” instrumental which takes you on a journey across the Kalahari or the plains of the Serengeti. And even the subjects in “Gotta Do”, chronicling our history and journey through hip-hop. But I didn't pander to try force myself into a narrow definition of what some people would want an African hip-hop record to be.

What made you decide to do a new album with ZL? Did the release of the stalled 90s project, the bootleg, and the fact that the DJ Shadow remix has become legendary have anything to do with your decision to come back as ZL?
Really I have to say: truly it was back by popular demand. The release of Brothers from the Mother certainly paved the way and in fact made it necessary to return as ZL. The guy at the label I did the O.U.O. record with, DJ Fisher, actually put me in touch with Glow in the Dark Records that expressed interest in releasing the ZL Lost tapes album. But part of our decision process was that if we released classic tracks, we would HAVE to do something new to let people know how we had progressed and developed since then. And, when we put out Brothers from the Mother we were really nervous at how it would be received, especially being artists and knowing our skills had advanced since then.
But the reception to that album was nothing short of incredible worldwide. From Australia to Japan to US and all points in between, the feeling was unanimous and many publications from Hip-Hop Connection to Waxpoetics and Blast Magazine in Japan lauded it as incredible. We even did a licensing deal with a company in Japan for an import version with one extra track and a 7" inch single with 2 extra tracks: “Siyabonga” and “Create the State.” The album even sold well on vinyl which was great too. And then everyone started asking when we were coming out with new stuff so we knew the time had come and we had to do it.

And the DJ shadow mix... at the time, Shadow must have been a new name on the scene but by now, his remix for you is hailed as his debut on record?
Yeah our mentor at Hollywood Basic, Dave 'Funken' Klein (see picture to the right, ed.), hooked up the Shadow connection and that is regarded as his debut recording and of course he has gone on to become an international superstar but at the time he was just an up and coming producer working on a 4 track recording machine.

When you were doing this new album, was it clear from the start what it should be like?
I intended the record to be a shot heard around the world and desperate times call for desperate measures. The rap music industry is in turmoil, sales are falling, more people download stuff for free instead of buying albums and the majors are flooding the scene with all the copy cat artists. It’s getting harder and harder to release independent records. ZL hadn't come out for a while so I thought we HAD to do something memorable and compelling. So I thought what better way to come full circle than for the ZL to connect with a bunch of artists that we had met and interacted with over the years and make a bold statement in the face of a flooded market that there is still room to make progressive, uplifting music that has ill beats and dope rhymes and make a mark.
Another aim was to let heads know that these cat and hat (simple, dumbed down) rappers were misleading people on what hip-hop was. This was like a master class in emceeing and so we brought in a host of veteran guest lecturers to show people how it’s done!

Seems like that message has been communicated succesfully, from the reviews and feedback you have been getting?
I think so, for the most part I think people get it. They realize that we've evolved, they love the music and they still see that we're repping African hip-hop. There are a small few who don't understand why every song is not ‘Doing Damage in My Native Language’ and where the kora and djembe drums are on every track but I think the majority of the people enjoy and appreciate the evolution and the fact that this is 2007 and we can just remake the same album we made 15 years ago and be relevant.

Quite a few big names in the history of hip hop came to the US as immigrants like Kool Herc to start with, and even Grandmaster Flash's family, but they are seldom referred to as immigrants. Is that any different with African artists in the game in the US? From what i understand there are more artists of African heritage or birth than you'd know. Maybe they were not proud enough to mention that, or is it simply irrelevant?
Hmm, I think that it comes back to the subject of labels, people like to sticker artists as one thing or another and fit you into a pre-defined box. Hip-hop is universal and so I think it’s an individual thing and sometimes maybe as you said not relevant. It comes up in discussion or interviews but maybe they too don't want people to expect them to rap in vernacular and rhyme over African instruments. It’s a cold cruel world man and an even colder industry - I think I always hear people mention as you did Kool Herc's origins and dead prez will tell you I’m an AFRICAN so on some level I think it’s just an individual thing and just varies by the person.

Recently there have been a few artists who have been more interested in Africa - touring there or wanting to collaborate with artists in the motherland, or mentioning their origins in their songs like Akon did. Is there a better chance in 2007 than back in the days, to be proud of being from Africa, without having to deal with the stereotyping?
I think that people have become a little more open minded and know more about African hip-hop and there are more opportunities with advances in technology to hear artists from Africa even if they are independent via the internet, etc. I think that has given it more attention and the more voices that we hear from Africa and hear different styles and artists the better for those of us that make music. However i think the stereotyping is still there and a lot of people still don't know a lot about Africa and may have pre conceived notions - but who better than emcees to set the record straight.



Do you want to keep recording and performing with ZL after this album?
Short answer: yes. I also have other endeavours. Following the MF Doom (whose family is from Africa actually) and Kool Keith model I am going to drop with other projects/crews to continue to expand my persona. In 2008 I'm doing a record with a long time collaborator Cadence from Raw Produce called Dumi RIGHT and Cadence are Alternate Reality.

Hehe I was just gonna ask you about MF Doom. He is Zimbabwean right? Did you ever meet him?
Haven't crossed paths with the man although i'm a Doom too - LOL doomE right.

Meanwhile Pep (from O.U.O.) is also involved with ZL now? Do you all tour together?
Not so much, I think life and schedules haven't permitted to this point, maybe in the future. For the meantime trying to do a TON of stuff with ZL, shows, speaker series, festivals, whatever opportunities arise, and trying to get out internationally so definitely need to connect with some international promoters - we'll even bring some guests from House of Stone if the right opportunity arises. Mike G of the JBeez and YZ have confirmed that they are down.

So again going back to repping African hip-hop - I definitely wanted to reach out to some of my brothers out there doing serious work and let people know about or discover or re-discover them all these guys are people doing big things in their own right and they are prime examples or representatives of their region/country.

As on the African posse cut on your album - who are all these rappers?
I wanted to showcase some of the best and brightest from the African hip-hop scene. Kenny Majozi and Maggz are ill emcees from South Africa, they came to me actually via a recommendation and then we took it from there. When I heard some of their stuff I KNEW they had to get down and they killed it with their contribution. I connected with Ziggy via a mutual friend (LOL) but I knew of X Plastaz for a long time and respected and admired their work and so as another "best and brightest" rep, I really wanted to get someone from that crew down. That's why I dubbed it the African All Stars, (albeit Africa south of the Sahara).

Final words?
As we say: "No time to dilly dally, need to establish a movement" or Asheru: "There's a movement bubbling under the pavement"! It’s time my brother, bling era soon done, new era soon come.

The album is distributed internationally through Redline Music Distribution. Only on CD at the moment, still looking into vinyl options.



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