Following the release of Strings and Bling, Nasty C talks to Helen Herimbi about ceilings, scriptures and getting on stage
There is a young man power-walking away from the stage. Veteran producer Alexis Faku has just told him to find a few bottles of water – and to make sure they are not too cold – for Nasty C.
A keyboardist plays the first few chords of SMA, off Nasty C’s much-anticipated second album Strings and Bling. The rapper has his back to his staff and friends and keeps repeating “hell yeah, hell yeah, hell yeah,” over the music.
If he’s excited, he’s not showing it.
The artist, whose real name is David Junior Ngcobo, is focused on the way he sounds. He has a major performance coming up – on August 3 at Zone 6 Venue in Soweto – and it’s the first time he’ll be playing Strings and Bling in its entirety. He’ll also be doing it with a four-piece band that includes Faku, who is also the show’s musical director.
“This will be my second time performing with a band,” he told me before he started rehearsal. “The first time didn’t work out so well. It was in Cape Town and we didn’t get time to rehearse at the actual venue.”
He’s intent on making this time different and has put in place the necessary people to make sure it is.
“Everyone is working super hard,” he says. “I heard the visuals guys are turning down other jobs to work on this and the clips they’ve sent me are f****g dope. The lighting guy is also with me on the same page. I met Alexis when we started working on this show and he knows what he’s doing.”
Back at rehearsal, there is the sense that everyone is pulling together to make sure the show is a success. Colin Gayle, whose company ACA manages Nasty C, shows me the visual clips, some of which they had to shoot from scratch. Sipho Dlamini, Universal Music South Africa’s managing director, has just suggested the separates (the elements that make up a song) be played from computer software for this rehearsal and he does it himself.
Strings and Bling is released through Universal and follows Nasty C’s polarising debut album, Bad Hair, which was released through Mabala Noise. Bad Hair was a refreshing body of work that gave listeners an all access pass to the rapper’s reliance on his squad, his disdain for being put on the spot, his tumultuous dalliances with women, and his complicated relationship with his father.
Strings and Bling presents a transition phase both lyrically and sonically. This time, there is a velvet rope in front of certain subjects as he turns the lens on himself (and sparingly on his real-life relationships) to bare his confidence (like on No Respect), his costly clothing (like on Givenchy) and he clowns Kings over some incredible, diverse beats that also include pop tinges in songs like Everything (featuring Kaien Cruz) and My Baby.
This insistence on presenting a myriad styles stems from his feeling free of labels. We’re talking about whether he’ll perform the sublime part of the extended version of Hell Naw from Bad Hair. In that part, he raps: I’m trying to inspire, man, do it for the youth/ So I can cop a whip and say ‘hell naw’ to the roof/ ‘Hell naw’ to the ceiling…
Nasty C tells me: “The ceiling was probably this little box that I had been kept in for so long, where I was mainly being compared to the other up-and-coming artists. I think I broke out of that box, though. People now compare me to other African rappers and stars. Before, it was just me, A-Reece and Emtee. That was the ceiling then.”
With Strings and Bling, Nasty C feels limitless. But even when he fails, he knows he’s exceeded most people’s expectations. Take, for instance, a ditty called Another One Down, which is ultimately vulnerability over lush piano. I’m not as good as you think, Nasty C repeats in the chorus.
When I bring the line up, he attempts to explain: “I’ll use something that’s a little removed from that but it might give you perspective,” he starts. “I don’t always get 10 out of 10. I don’t win as many times as you see me win. But because you only see the shit I get right, it might seem like I have my shit together but sometimes I don’t.”
On creating the song, he says: “I don’t remember how that mood fell on me. But we were at a show in Durban. I was super quiet, sitting in the car, waiting to go on stage. Because I was booked somewhere else I had to perform there super early, so my slot was super shitty. It was just staff and about two other people there,” he chuckles.
On the song, he admits to being good at playing whatever role is required and finds it hard to trust most people. I choose to trust, I don’t owe it to no one, he raps.
Trust is a recurring theme on the album and there’s a particularly jarring line from the title track. Nasty C raps: I tell my secrets to a bottle/ I trust it over a couple of people that I know/ I tipped over, I really got suicidal/ I felt way too guilty so I read the bible…
Part of Nasty C’s power is his pen game. Even when he is saying some dark things, he’s able to poeticise them.
“When I got suicidal,” he starts, then he adds airquotes to suicidal. I ask him why. “Because it was one very dark moment and it didn’t happen more than once,” he says.
“Dog, I can’t describe it. It felt like the Bible was the only thing that could help. If I could have, I would’ve just moved back home. I would’ve gone wherever Pops was because I needed that type of energy again.”
Instead, Nasty C leaned on key scriptures and quotes “and I felt things changing. I was okay again.” He tells me his life was “full of so much drama. There was drama in my head and I was just overthinking stuff.”
From the Bible to his love for self-help books and even how he puts his real life in his songs, Nasty C always relies on the word. Will the word translate with a band though? The transition from Blisters to Juice Back sounds evangelical, but what’s more divine? They’re performing a fan favourite, U Played Yourself, at rehearsal and, while the drummer is late, it seems like everyone else is enjoying themselves.
The sound is so loud, a glass slides from the glass rack and shatters on the floor. A few of us turn to see what happened, but Nasty C is too wrapped up in the moment…