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Get to know Yugen Blakrok, empress of the underground

2019-03-21 12:52

Yugen Blakrok has quietly created herself a lane only she occupies locally. By sticking to an old-school hip-hop sound, she’s managed to move her music forward. Phumlani S Langa speaks to this artist – who appeared on the celebrated Black Panther soundtrack - about her latest album and her journey so far. 

There exists a force in local hip-hop that is seldom spoken about but, when it is, the name of this force is highly regarded and perhaps revered. In a time of synthetic stanzas and uninspired production, artists with a proclivity for going against the grain hardly occupy the limelight.

Artists of this nature seek not to dominate the charts and get features from mediocre rappers from the US.

No, artists of this calibre seek to advance the sacred street art of spitting to a new plateau.

The very idea of hip hop stems from being different and yet, locally, we assign praise to those who imitate sounds from abroad. Fortunately, for the lowly hip-hop head who strives to stand out, the force mentioned has just the thing to cure the curse of the expected.

The force I speak of goes by the name of Yugen Blakrok and she hails from the Queenstown, Eastern Cape. She is now in Marseille, France, where she spoke to #Trending.

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International love and a local disconnection

Yugen says her work has been well received internationally. “The reception worldwide has been amazing, including from non hip-hop fans and non-English speakers. It really cements the fact that music is a universal language.”

Artists like Jozia and Nakhane are celebrated vigorously overseas but not so much locally – and Yugen agrees she falls into this grouping.

“There’s a stronger appreciation for the arts in general here; the industry is bigger and independent artists fare much better. Folks are really big on hip-hop culture and lyricism; I guess it just works for my style.”

Yugen can’t recall when she started rap.

“I’ve lost track of the years. I’ve always just focused on that ‘10 000 hours’ concept and pushing to see what lies beyond. I’m not one of those rappers that started at an early age. I didn’t always know what I wanted to do after I finished school.”

She first appeared on a mixtape in 2004 and only after that did the idea that she could do this professionally dawn on her.

“Before then, I was just playing with words.”

Last year her star elevated to the heights of Hollywood when she appeared on the acclaimed Black Panther soundtrack. She featured on a track called Opps with US rapper and west coast representative Vince Staples, as well as Kendrick Lamar, who produced the album.

The experience for her was something she could not have imagined before.

“By featuring on a release that big and completely foreign to me, I learnt many valuable lessons. Vince is a funny dude and a great artist, live as well. I thoroughly enjoyed performing with him when he was in South Africa.”

The two shared a stage at Zone 6 Venue in Soweto when Vince toured here last year.

The streets had mixed reactions to the performance as the sound was perhaps not at the level it should’ve been. Opps is a street term referring to opponents or opposition and features Kendrick Lamar doing his usual nonsense on the hook. Thankfully he makes way for the two emcees.

This track is very much Yugen visiting Vince in his soundscape and she does it quite well. In my opinion, two acts get faded on this track. Their names are Vince and Kendrick.

Popularity contest?

Yugen has a style that older heads would gravitate towards but perhaps the youngsters don’t fully grasp what she’s about.

“We know the state of hip-hop at home. Everyone knows what’s going on: It’s a tightly monitored industry and often feels like a popularity contest.

“I would love for more South African artists to break into the international scene – this would be great for our industry in terms of growth and finances, real freedom of expression and for the arts in general.”

She is adamant that locally produced art can thrive internationally and she hopes that would motivate the local industry to treat our artists better and increase the chances of lucrative gains.

She is inspired by artists who have managed to shape their own lane in the arts, those who go against the grain, much like she does.

“I draw inspiration from books and films, particularly sci-fi and kung-fu, as well as my surroundings. One of the artists I would love to work with in future is Kanyi Mavi.”

She places a heavy emphasis on the feel behind her music and the energy that drives it.

Are you familiar with the Hindu ideology of prana? Prana involves the life force or energy that flows through all things. This energy can be funneled and put into things such as food, which is why a home-cooked meal is so much more appeasing to the body than takeout. The same can be said of music.

“The vibe, that’s first and foremost. Music is all vibrations and frequencies so, really, what you put in is what you get out.”

Let's take a closer look at what she provides.

Return of the Astro Goth (2013)
4/5

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Allow me to begin with a disclosure. Yugen’s two albums are about to score higher than any other records I’ve reviewed back to back in this publication.

If Shekhinah drops a sophomore album as good as her first, then she, too, will take the honours, with up-and-coming rapper Tyrant. I’m quite pleased that all these artists are sisters.

Getting back to Blakrok, we’ve mentioned this record before as it is a monument to excellence in hip-hop locally. She reaches levels within her art that others can’t begin to fathom. She rides unique sounding loops (that’s when the beat doesn’t sound like every other beat in the world) and her raps match this.

An oddball delivery makes Yugen one of those artists that your ears need time to tune in to, almost like the first time you heard Future, not that the two are anything alike.

Stereolith occupies the opening slot on this record, but things really get going on the popular House of Ravens. Her grasp of the pen is in many respects unrivalled, case in point, “exhaling smoke through the chest/smoke makes my eyes bleed the colour of polluted sunsets”. You know homies like Da Le$ are no way near as fresh with the metaphors.

Medusa Complex further proves this point. It is so refreshing to see a sister representing for women without adopting the Nicki Minaj or Cardi B mould. There is an array of rappers who are women and inspirational.

Neo Vadar sees her producer, Kanif the JhatMaster, show off his skill with a lifted sample complemented by soft keys and Yugen’s Hymphatic flow. Those in the know will catch what I did there. She does sound a bit like the infamous Hymphatic Thabs. There’s a mysticism in her work, she astral planes from one verse and salutes the gods on the chorus.

This particular song just might be my favourite Blakrok joint.

Besides her sound being particularly niche, I feel she might be slightly shunned by the local rap game because most wouldn’t have an answer for her in the studio. Her voice remains calm throughout, no shouting or eccentric ad libbing, just cold darts that will go over your head if you are distracted for just a second.

Tetra Tarantula boasts what I would say is the beat of the album. The whole thing comprises beats rinsed in nostalgia, which I had to pick her brain about.

Would Yugen ever even consider riding a trapcentric beat?

“Trap is yet another subgenre of hip-hop and represents a certain community.

There is and always has been space for everything in this genre. My style’s not heavily influenced by pop culture so I don’t see myself changing to suit current trends. I’m more interested in exploring and mastering my own style, seeing how far I can take it.”

Anima Mysterium (2019)
4/5

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Fans of this sister waited quite a while for this new album. Yugen sheds some light: “I wasn’t solely focused on making music at the time. Kanif and I started touring Europe and this was completely new territory for us. We started from scratch essentially.”

The pair used this time to refine some of the material on live audiences that would end up on the new project, tweaking the material when necessary.

“It was a learning process in which we grew our fan base outside South Africa, as well as our artistry.”

She took her time in following the Return of the Astro-Goth. She talks me through her creative process. “We usually feel our way through an album: Lots of trial and error, testing out new material in live shows and tweaking it when we get back home to Joburg. We did a few European tours while we were making the Mysterium so the inspiration and energy also comes from our experiences on the road, in foreign spaces, as well as an outside view or perspective of our home.”

This latest opus begins with production worthy of legends like DJ Muggs.

Distorted guitars howl behind her sturdy vocals on Gorgon Madonna. If your vocabulary is not so extensive you may need to listen to this album with a thesaurus nearby. This is by no means for the masses and what I love most is that Yugen isn’t too concerned with that.

Obsidian Night sees this advanced wordsmith dispense stanzas riddled with quotables. I wouldn’t even know where to start. As each line falls, the next one emerges from her larynx, more potent than the last. Not a single syllable is wasted.

What came as a surprise to me was the appearance of veteran US rapper Kool Keith.

This guy is probably your favourite rappers’, favourite rappers’ idol. The two tackle a joint titled Mars Attacks. I won’t lie, dungeon-sounding raps and space as a subject go together like bread and jam. The grungy feel is carried over to the lead single of this album, Carbon Form, which was released last year.

The music has this anime-like feel to it, as if Yugen was in the studio armed with a katana blade and a kimono.

She waits till the bottom of the album to unleash horrorcore (a branch of rap that is inspired by horror films) rapper Jak Progresso who used to embody a suicide killer in his works.

He has since changed his name to Jak Tripper, a play on Jack the Ripper, and his approach to the microphone is still as rugged and perhaps unnerving as it has always been.

Ochre for me is the pinnacle of this album. I have never heard a beat fall into place like this one does.

High-pitched frequencies groan as if being constricted by the beat maker, who eventually lets the drums burst through this disjointed noise and land gently on an acid jazz-like loop that sounds a bit like Flying Lotus.

A look back to the sounds of the old school has aided her sound in becoming avant-garde and off the wall.

I didn’t hear a single snare rattle off in between throbbing 808 drums. No Autotune and no call to adopt some stupid dance move. It is a very dense piece, however. The more I sat with it the more intricate details revealed themselves.

I had to ask Yugen about the vision for this record and what mental images she hopes to paint in your mind when you hear it.

“I wanted to create something tangible that reflected my own, as well as our shared, current state of being.

Anima Mysterium is a shadow-world where we can reflect on our thoughts, feelings, all the secret workings of the mind. Everything that is hidden comes to the forefront. In my upbringing, and I think in most Africans’ as well as other ancient cultures, we’re taught a valuable truth: That the unseen is just as important, if not more so, than the visible world.”

I see more accomplishments and many more albums from this inspired wordsmith. I also see many other emcees sweating in the wake of the astro goth and her poetic prowess. Next time someone utters Yugen’s name in your presence, you won’t have to act like you know.

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September 15 2019