A week after releasing their boundary-breaking joint album, Helen Herimbi caught up with rappers, Solo and Buks of BETR Gang

It’s 12:42 on a scorching hot summer day but Ntokozo “Buks” Mazibuko is slowly eating a bowl of oats. He’s just returned to his half-eaten breakfast after a snack run for the select few gathered for a preview of his and Zothile “Solo” Langa’s joint album, We Need a Title (WNAT).

Together – as well as with Solo’s band members, Al Da 3rd, Subrocc and Solid the Gifted who go by The Dreamcatchers – these two rappers are known as BETR Gang.

Their album was conceptualised and recorded in just over two months at both Buks and Solo’s home studios and for this session, we gather at Buks’ house.

“Buks and I have a unique belief when it comes to the direction that South African hip hop should take,” says Solo as Buks leaves his oats yet again, “not in sound but in principle. But then we have to show and prove.”

Then they play the majority of the album and it’s clear the pair have showed up to show out.

I meet with Solo and Buks again seven days after the album has been digitally released on their website and their outlook is the same, but they seem more self-assured. You would be too if someone bought your album for R1 000.

WNAT was released on the premise that one could download the album for free or buy it for an amount of their choice. Someone decided it was deserving of a stack. But that’s not a reflection of their worth as artists.

In fact, WNAT is a reminder of how being different can be used as currency in an industry that pushes more of the same.

Themes like identity and spirituality are skilfully explored over beats that are sculpted by Buks – who was a producer in the now-defunct Ivy League crew that included AKA.

And the best part is that they actually rap. The wordplay sometimes feels like a lyrical Easter egg hunt and there isn’t a trace of that Skhanda-popularised biting of old kwaito jams that’s prevalent in songs that aren’t even dust-driven. Phew.

While the general public is already familiar with Solo thanks to his debut album, Dreams.A.Plenty, they’re really only getting to know Buks through a few singles and now, this full body of work.

“People obviously know me as a producer,” he says, “so every time I write something I get conscious of the fact a lot of people haven’t heard me rap, so it’s still an introduction.”

Straight off the bat, he wants you to know he’s not playing that archaic rapper prototype that dictates one must mention certain icons as influences in order to be legitimised.

Wu Tang may have been for the kids but it wasn’t for Buks and he was never into POC – all things that emerge in WNAT.

“Unashamedly, this is who I am.” He emphasises the I, “It’s like I’ve got to say I came up on Biggie and Pac and for me, no, this is my story so the first hip hop album I messed with was Puff Daddy and the Family’s No Way Out and I’m not ashamed to say that.I think it’s important to let people know who you are on a personal level.”

The sheer determination and fierce finesse with which they approach the WNAT songs seems to have finally unshackled Solo from comparisons with Tumi Molekane and from carrying the baton passed on by Proverb.

Solo chalks this up to intentionally wanting to leave the insecurities and alikeness on Dreams.A.Plenty so that “When I start putting out new material, I want you to feel that growth as soon as I hit it.”

This level of honesty and bucking the mainstream shines through on songs like Come Back Down to the Ground and the cleverly structured The Heist.

The latter is a tale of two crimes: car-jacking and bars-jacking. The pair first rap about stealing a BMW 320 to stop being broke and then flip the script to use similar words – cadence and nuance included – in the verses after the chorus to rap about stealing popular song styles and structures in an effort to stop being broke.

The Heist is a coup on the norm and a word nerd’s wet dream. It’s also followed by the succinct Catch Me If You Can which not-so-subtly gives examples of what’s considered popular by very quickly winking at AKA’s Composure flow. And by using the phrase “Do Like I Do” which you’ll know as the title of the famous DJ Sliqe song.

And although they don’t admit to these specific names, Solo explains their view this way: “I was hoping this would ignite some kind of nervousness in you if you feel like: ‘are they talking about me? F*** those guys!’ And when you’re sitting alone, maybe you’ll have an honest conversation with yourself, so that you do more.”

Or maybe so that people do better – which is how BETR is pronounced – but that remains to be seen.