For the second instalment of Tonight’s celebration of South African music this Heritage Month, Helen Herimbi sat down with the man of many faces: Ishmael.

Sporting a Chicago Bulls cap and Versace sunglasses to our meeting, Ishmael is clearly and comfortably from the old world and the new. This ability to adapt to any situation has served him well throughout his career, which spans almost three decades. He has had hits in hip hop, R&B, kwaito, gospel and even crunk, and spoke at length about his highs and lows.

What was your relationship with music like as a kid?

I was born in a village in Delareyville in the North West. My parents and my grandmother moved to Rustenburg and that’s where I grew up. Music was all around me. My father worked at the mines in Klerksdorp so my mother had to run a sheebeen sometimes. So music was always in the house. My father was a big record collector. I started dancing in Rustenburg and then got into a smallanyana band where we would do cover versions of songs. Michael Jackson, Chicco, whoever was popular. And I was always the lead singer.

 Then you decided to drop out of high school and leave the North West to pursue music in Joburg.

Yeah! That conversation with my parents! (Laughs) I got here and started going to school in Tsakane on the East Rand because my uncle lived there. But while I was doing that, I was also working at a burger joint. It was too difficult. What made me forget about school is that, initially, I didn’t come to Joburg for school or to work with burgers. Music was going to happen, eventually.

So how did it happen?

I moved to Hillbrow and as an artist in Hillbrow, you had to hustle to get jobs as back-up singers or whatever. So I met Sbu Maloya and together, we ended up doing back-up for Sello “Chicco” Twala. I don’t remember how much he paid me, but I remember that that was the first time I could afford to buy myself a pair of jeans and a shirt. I wore the heck out of those jeans!

Mandla “Spikiri” Mofokeng used to play for Chicco. Then in 1989, Mandla and I got together and I ended up being the lead singer for his and Mdu Masilela’s band, MM Deluxe. During that time, I became friends with Junior before he was in Boom Shaka and we used to go to clubs and enter dance competitions. There was this club called Razzmatazz and they had a dance and rap competition. Even Oskido entered that competition. Ramone from Prophets of da City (POC) saw us dancing there and told us they needed dancers for their tour.

You went from dancing for POC to being the lead singer.

Yeah! Once we started to go to the studio with them, they discovered I could sing. After that, I travelled a lot with POC. We’d always share a flat or stay at a friend’s place when we were overseas. I remember one time, we were sharing a flat in London and myself and (beatboxer) Jazmo had a fight. I actually stabbed the guy.


No! We happened to be in the kitchen. It’s not like I walk around with a knife. He hit me with a pan and I had to defend myself. It wasn’t a bad fight, no one had to go to the hospital. It was just friends who got into a small fight.

Okay, so then you left POC and started Skeem?

Yeah, with POC I saved up a little money and got a flat in Yeoville around 1996. I was staying with a few friends and together, we became Skeem. I was in a hip hop band, but my proper real life when I wasn’t on stage was a kwaito lifestyle. Skeem was heavily inspired by Trompies and that’s why our group also had four guys. We were signed to Ghetto Ruff and released four albums. Our big hit was Waar Was Jy and we performed it everywhere, even in taverns. We loved that song.

So how did you feel when you were left out of the kwaito tribute at the 2014 Metro FM Music Awards, even though your voice singing Waar Was Jy was the thread that strung the tribute together?

I forgot about that! I was in the crowd and it was the weirdest thing. The way I grew up prepared me for this. I had to be strong and expect any situation. If something happens, I’m not easily shocked. I know sh*t can happen so I don’t get traumatised if it does happen. In 2001, you had left Ghetto Ruff and signed to Arthur Mafokate’s 999 Music label.

That’s when you released your biggest hit, Roba Letheka.

I went to the studio and heard Technic playing that beat. I wasn’t even there to record! But the beat was so hot, I had to make it my song. So I wrote Roba Letheka right there. It’s probably the song I wrote the quickest. It required me to be a singer-slash-rapper.

After four albums under the 999 banner, you returned to Ghetto Ruff for a spell that included the iconic Muthaland Crunk album, as part of Jozi in 2006. Why the move?

Lance (Stehr, Ghetto Ruff owner) was working hard to poach me (laughs). Lance was there from POC so we had a family-like relationship. Sometimes we make decisions based on that. Now you’re back at 999, gearing up to release the Ke Waka album at the end of this month. This album makes me so excited! I used live instrumentation on every song. The singles that are out are called Ke Waka and Ibhanoyi. I can’t wait for people to hear the whole album.