The writing’s on the wall: Aewon Wolf’s debut, M.U.R.A.L., is the artist at his most diverse, writes Helen Herimbi
Having failed to meet about a week ago, Aewon Wolf finally made time for our first interview on a balmy evening in 2015. At that time, the rapper, whose real name is Arnold Phillips, was blowing up all over the country thanks to his hit song, A Week Ago.
Catching up as Dreamteam – the rap group who, like Aewon Wolf, is from Durban – ran late setting up their album’s listening session at Hard Rock Café in Johannesburg, it was clear that Aewon Wolf had no plans of being viewed as an overnight, or over-a-week, success.
Back then he wore a traditional Zulu headdress over short hair. Two years later, his dreads cascade down the side of his face and a bandanna is snugly tied around them. It’s 2017 and we’re back at Hard Rock Café where he is running late setting up a listening session for his debut album, M.U.R.A.L.
“It’s crazy that we get to do the interview here again,” he shakes his head as we settle into a booth that has screens playing VH1-worthy videos on them. So while a lot has changed since the first time we had an interview at this place, a lot hasn’t. For starters, while the posse he came up with has signed international record deals – notably, Sketchy Bongo and Shekinah – Aewon Wolf is going at it independently. I ask him if he was passed over for these international deals.
“I was offered plenty of deals,” he exclaims and then bursts out laughing. “I wish I could show you my e-mails. Not everybody can do this – choose to be independent. I don’t want huge hype right now. I prefer steady and slow because it allows me to experiment and be myself and have fun rather than have pressure and expectations. That’s part of the reason why I stay in Durban as well, I get to do what I want.”
This is explained in M.U.R.A.L.’s lead single, To Live and Die Ethekwini, which is inspired by Tupac’s To Live and Die in LA and features Zakwe and Tbo Touch. Pearl Thusi, who has a motivational speaking part, initially wanted to rap on the song, but Aewon Wolf thought it better for her to just be herself.
Being true to oneself is at the core of M.U.R.A.L., which is an acronym for Most Under Rated Album Listen. The 21-track album, which was four years in the making, traverses a myriad of styles that are mostly rooted in him rapping or singing. For someone who is only now dropping a debut album, I ask Aewon Wolf why he would call it underrated when no one has even heard it yet.
He leans into my recorder as if this was the question he’d been waiting for all along. He answers: “It’s a prediction I made in the way that I structured the album.” “Because I made a decision to make a 21-track album,” he explains, “it’s kind of me understanding the industry and that the game has changed and people don’t have long attention spans anymore, which is why most albums are short.”
“Social media has made things very superficial. The way I structured the album, if you listen to it in the context that I just explained, you won’t appreciate it. I know you’ll underrate it because of how long it is. So you’ll miss certain things. Maybe years from now, people will go back and listen and realise there are some timeless songs on this album.”
Most of the songs are produced by Sketchy Bongo, while Tellaman and Gemini Major – who also appears on Thinking of Ways – have production credits. Nostalgia reigns on Kids featuring Shekinah, introspection is on WTF, featuring Jimmy Nevis, and on songs like Perfect, Aewon Wolf is candid about being scared of what will happen when his parents get too old.
In the second half of the album, he also doesn’t mince his words about his Christianity. This is the most revealing Aewon Wolf has been since he broke into the industry. What’s the motivation for showing an imperfect side? “To be honest, that was unconscious,” he admits. “I made those songs because they are honest to me. I’m a strong believer in God and a firm believer in being saved, but I understand it differently from other people.”
“I don’t concentrate on hell. People push that agenda because fear inspires people to spend money in church and feel they need to do that to get to heaven. It’s a love thing for me. God is love. So in my music I try to keep that perspective, so maybe that’s why I sound spiritual.”
As a founder of Run DBN, a movement that spearheaded making hip hop a force to be reckoned with in KwaZulu-Natal, Aewon Wolf has had experiences that are the stuff memoirs are made of. After hearing his R&B-tinged song, Radio, I ask him if he remembers hearing himself on the radio for the first time.
“Yes,” he says excitedly. He’d sampled Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse’s Burn Out for a song called Burnt Out and sent Mabuse and his manager the song. They were happy with it and wanted to talk further but, seeing this as approval, Aewon Wolf sent it off to radio and 5FM played it.
“Someone told me through social media that I was on radio. We listened on a friend’s car radio. So I hit Mr Mabuse and his manager up to tell them I didn’t know it was going to get playlisted,” he remembers. But Gallo, which owns the publishing for the original song, weren’t happy. They called Aewon Wolf to “tell me they own the song, but I’m like, I already spoke to Mr Mabuse so can we just sort out the paperwork. They ask me who I am signed with and I tell them I’m independent. So then they ask if I would sign with them and they will fast-track the whole Burn Out sample process”.
He continues: “My instant reaction was ‘no’. I think when I said no, they said they’d get back to me. Next thing? I get a cease-and-desist e-mail, so I had to remove that song from every single place it was. Even Soundcloud. I was disheartened.” But that harsh reality didn’t kill his dreams. “I then made another song that got playlisted and things started moving for me,” he smiles. “The rest is history.”