HHP invited Helen Herimbi into studio to reveal the real Jabba X

Jabulani Tsambo has his back to me. We’re in the studio attached to his home and the second track off his upcoming EP, Feels Good To Be Back, is wafting through the speakers. He is at the sink, washing dishes and bopping his head as though he’s hearing the song for the first time.

He is cleaning up house – literally and otherwise. For almost two decades, Tsambo has rocked the continent as Hip Hop Pantsula or HHP, for short. Along the way, he became known as Jabba – from Jabulani – but always answered to both names.

However, that might change. Soon, he will release his tenth and, he says, final HHP album called Drum. It’s his way of laying HHP to rest so he can give birth to a persona that the masses may not be familiar with: Jabba or Jabba X.

“Hip Hop Pantsula has taken so many shapes that the brand is broad,” he turns around to tell me with soapsuds clouding parts of his hands. “There are people who know the music, others only know Strictly Come Dancing, others know the Status TV show and others only know me for my ideologies – like the daraja walks I do.”

“So the tenth album is a celebration of the work of Hip Hop Pantsula. (Music industry veteran) Vusi Leeuw gave me that stage name from one of my lyrics because it was uniquely South African. But as Jabba, the way that I think and where I’m at right now is different from Hip Hop Pantsula.”

But before he releases Drum, Jabba is testing the waters with a five track EP called Feels Good To Be Back. The tracks traverse a loosely chronological order of the rise of South African pop(ular) music. There are early kwaito influences on the title track, a feel-good dance feel on Mazenke Music, mid-tempo grooves on Boomtown, an undeniable trap flex on Hugo and gqom on Ganda Dance.

“We’d already put in so much work into the Drum album,” Jabba shares. “We recorded more than 30 songs from which we chose the 19 songs on the album.There wasn’t much else to say about me so I just wanted this EP to be a look at music from the perspective of a 22 year old producer and a 38 year old rapper.”

He continues: “We are so naive in thinking everyone knows our music history but that’s not true. In the past, we were trying to catch up to the rest of the world so much that we left behind so much of what we already had. So I was like: imagine if I took different flows, genres and South African songs that have influenced me from 1995 until now and merged them together?”

To create this EP, Jabba partnered with a young producer called Hugo. Yes, the second track – which features the producer rap-singing like Professor-meets-K.O – is named after him. Jabba tells me: “I went to Kalawa Jazmee one night to work on a song and Hugo was sitting in studio, working on another version of Pex Africah’s Slay Queen (featuring HHP, Professor, PRO, Speedy and Zulu Naja).”

“I was just talking to him and after listening to a few of his songs, I said we should link up. I went to go see him one day and the synergy was so organic. We didn’t plan it. We literally recorded this EP in five days. When we were on the third day, he told me this would be his first commercial release.”

In giving Hugo a chance to break out into the mainstream, this motswako OG is also giving Jabba a chance to stand in the light that was bestowed upon HHP. Where HHP cut a clean figure, Jabba is willing to be different. It’s a big risk to take for a multi-award winning, beloved personality in a time when fans are spoilt for choice.

To me, this EP sounds like an evolution, an experiment even. But not one that would taint the HHP legacy. But the way Jabba tells it, this prelude to Drum could cost him some of his base. But he’d be inauthentic if he didn’t step out as his true self.

“Hip Hop Pantsula has got to a point where he is typecast as someone who only raps this way on these types of beats and makes you feel this way,” he says. “Jabba wants to explore more. I want to do things that aren’t conventionally in Hip Hop Pantsula’s space and create a new audience who will appreciate that. As Jabba, I’m at a place where I am just so honest. I would rather have people dislike me for who I truly am than like me for who they think I am.”