This interview was originally published in 2001 at Africanhiphop.com
The current overflow of Tanzanian hiphop releases doesn’t exactly remind of the situation in the early nineties. At the time there was hardly any local rap on the radio, and only one tape in stores. Hiphop afficionados had to go out to catch the few local artists in competitions like Yo Rap Bonanza, or at disco nights like the Kilimanjaro Poolside or New Africa’s 7th floor.
That one legendary tape that was blasting from cassette hawkers’ systems all over the country was ‘Ice ice baby – King of Swahili rap’ by Saleh Jaber, and though it can’t be seen as representative of all the different crews at the time, it certainly reached a lot of people and thus its influence must not be underestimated. All these years, ‘Ice ice baby – King of Swahili Rap’ sat in my record collection and with its msela style cover it remained somewhat of an enigma.
We’re talking 1992, and only shortly afterwards and at the height of the craze, Saleh J had to leave the country to go and live in the United Arab Emirates. He’s been there ever since, making it hard for the new generation of emcees to get an idea who’s behind this name from the old days.
Time for Africanhiphop.com to check him out and listen to some stories of how the industry worked in the early 90’s… have things changed for the better? Let’s see as Saleh J replies to our thousand-and-one questions through a web chat program.
Pic to the right: a recent photograph of Saleh J
Saleh was born in Dar es Salaam, 29 now and lived in Dar until 1993, then left for Abu Dhabi. Part of his family originates ‘Arabuni’, as is mentioned in one of his lyrics. We asked him what the situation was like as he grew up in TZ in the eighties; what kind of music did he listen to?
I used to listen to a lot of LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and many others and I was good in rhymes (Swahili) so I came with that invention… that was late 80’s, well, in 86. But ever since I was at the age of 8, I had even been singing some few Swahili songs and added my own funny lines to make people laugh.
Can you name me any other artists from that era in Tanzania? And what did they do with their music – any performances?
I remember late Nigga One, who used to be number one in Tanzania rap (Yo Rap Bonanza) rapping in English, Eazy B and others I don’t recall. Even Rhymson is new to me, I only came to know him after Kwanza Unit but he was not there at that time.
What school did you attend back then?
I started my kindergarten at Independence nursery school at Independence street, and Bunge Primary School from 79 to 85. I used to hang out with my big nephew who is now in UK, every Sunday we used to go to Oysterbay, then Kilimanjaro Poolside. That time Tanzanite were performing, then New Africa, they used to call it the Seventh Floor, there we used to party till dawn.
What kind of music did they play, and did you get to hold the mic there?
A lot – Tanzanite they used to sing almost all new hits at that time, so, I used to hold the mic and rhyme and they liked me a lot.
How did you get to take the next step to recording your music? Yaani you were the only artist in those days to have a tape out, right?
Well, I was so encouraged by many – I will tell you a short story… As I told you, this just happened as a talent inside of me, I didn’t know that I have this gift and at that time was every time just music and me and me and music and nothing else. Especially in my room I had one supra double cassette with mic and I used to do my own stuff in my room so loud, they used to bang my door for noise that I used to make, anyhow…
My first record of my own in my room was “The Power” by Snap… then that was late 80’s but it was just for fun and some of my friends did like it and took it with them to listen at home… At that time nobody knew who I was… Until 91 when a friend of mine who was a dj, ‘Mr. A’ at Hotel Continental Disco Tec… he used to call me up and gave me a mic because he knew what I had and he saw me a couple of times at Pool Side… One day when Ice Ice Baby came out, I listened to the rhythm and I liked it, I asked him if I can have an instrumental version – he said yes!
I came up with a bomb – can you believe it took me 8 hours to put lyrics on Ice Ice Baby? OK, the story goes on…
Well it wasn’t easy to come up with a Swahili lyric since you wanted to stick to the original rhyme and flow, right?
Really not easy! That’s why people are shocked how I could put Swahili lyrics in original version without losing the concept… then I knew it was just a gift…
Ehh now some people when looking back they criticize you, saying ‘why didnt he use his own beats/rhymes’ but it seems like that wasnt part of the concept right?
As I told you, I did it for fun and not for money… and from that, the people who criticize me now they are benefited!!!!!!! You tell me what do I deserve?
Right. They don’t sit down and think how now they are doing it how they started… anyways, my friends who used to come at home they went crazy when they heard it and asked me to have the copy so I gave them blindly.
Did you put all those songs on one tape?
No! I will tell you… I don’t know which one of my friends went to the Indian distributors and sold it only as a single… One day one of my friend came and told me that your song is heard all over Uhuru street… I didn’t believe him…
What year was that exactly?
End of 91. So my reaction was feeling great! I felt like I’m on top of the world… And I didn’t care about the money… that was enough for me, as one of participant of Yo Rap Bonanza which was out of my knowledge. I released a full album after the competition… and O.P.P. gave me a really hard to time to put the lyrics but it didn’t take long also…
Was anybody making their own beats at the time?
No, only the cultural and tradition bands like Sikinde, King Kikii, Marquis, etc… and Tanzanites with their hit Kidude.
So as a rapper you had to ask a dj to give you instrumentals. Did you have access to the more underground ones like Big daddy kane’s – or just the very commercial stuff?
Not really. You see, what I was doing was only the hits like top 10 ones in the States. I knew people would like them…
By the way, did you have an official ‘artist status’, did you have to subscribe with the BASATA?
OK go on… so what exactly happened with the Yo Rap Bonanza competition and afterwards?
So he showed me the paper and it was true my name was there with the intro… because at that time so many people in Dar and other regions started to hear the song, so he did this without informing me because he knew that when I will see it I will have to find him because he found me but he couldn’t get me – “very tricky”! And true, I had to find him to see what’s going on…
When I saw him he said “You boy what are you doing behind the doors, we need you on stage and I’m sure you can make it because all these rappers here in Tanzania don’t have what you have… and he promised if I’ll become number one, he will publish and promote me for a full one week on the paper…
Yeah so he sent your tape to the radios? or did he just convince you to go on stage at the bonanza?
After that I had to work so hard to come with at least four songs in order to participate in two different days… So I came up with Now that we found love, Ice ice baby, Everybody dance now, and The Power which I didn’t sing on stage… And for people request they asked me to finish with Ice ice baby, everybody in the hall was shouting “Ice ice baby, ice ice baby… ”
Did you win?
Ah so that’s when you went on to record the tape.
Yes, I was so persuaded by friends… and I came up with that.
Was the album all done in one take? Or was the album a combination of what you recorded at home?
It was done in one day and just hours at continental hotel…
Who took care of distribution of your album back then? did you have an exclusive deal with one distributor?
No, it was distributed to all Indian shop owners.
Did you ever keep a master tape?
Can you believe that I don’t have one of my own? I had one master, and one of my friend here asked me to listen I trusted him and carelessly he misplaced it…
Did you influence others to rap in Swahili?
Ohh yeahh! There was one kid I never saw him but I think he was from Zenj and he recorded Ice Ice Baby with his own lyrics and mentioning my name and so on… and others followed the stream…
Really… ! and what did you rap about ; you say it was a lot of fun but at the same time you did talk about problems like Aids etc; did you believe that you had something to teach the audience?
I would like to say that as I told you I used to rhyme funny lyrics at the age of 8 of my own and as I grew up I started to learn about the social life and the knowledge about the world through experience, until now if you are going to hear my songs they all make sense not only stand there and just rap… nipo.. hahaha
It’s simple like this you can’t rap a street rap unless you have been in the street… you see and I have both through experience…
So what changed this, did you see after you came out that all over sudden everybody started doing Swahili rhymes?
One of my success of my songs is my tongue, you see, Swahili […] it is attractive as you can hear my songs how I flow in Swahili, I can go fast with sensation of the rhythm along with my voice…
Did your local popularity lead you to get involved in new projects?
I didn’t tell you that I even had a chance to go to Sweden to make a song with Neneh Cherry… There was this guy, his name was Rajab, he was there for almost 20 years but originally from Tanzania and when first he heard my album – early 90’s he said “this is the one I was looking for…” because Rajab had a lot of influence with big people in Sweden and especially in Neneh Cherry’s management and at that time Cherry wanted to release an album and wanted one song to be featured by a male artist so he was searching for me, and finally got my home tel. number and when he called I was not home and he set up a time so I waited for him and talked to him and asked if I’m ready so that he can arrange everything….
Can you believe it… I was only 20 at that time… I think the album was that with Youssou N’dour but I’m not so sure which one that was…
My closest friend at that time Eddy Raza in Bongo, I also mentioned his name in “Now that we found love” if you listen carefully, but now he moved to the UK, and his father is a great artist, I mean paintings he even used to go to the States and teach one of the college on how to put African arts onto canvas, so one lady her name was Lyn she heard my tape when she visited his home – she is from the States in one of the Arts institutes in Illinnois, she was so impressed and she said she will try to do something about me…
Despite all these opportunities, Saleh’s environment was not very appreciative of his budding carreer as a rapper. This was a time when hiphop in Tanzania was still seen as ‘uhuni’ or gangsterism, associated with crime and drugs. This situation has changed only recently! There’s an entire generation of Tanzanian rappers that had to cope with disapproval by their families, teachers etc. Instead of working on a second album or touring abroad, Saleh moved to Abu Dhabi to continue his professional life.
So when you moved to UAE did you find it hard to leave hiphop alone and to get accustomed to life in a new country?
At the beginning it was so hard for me to live here but then I got used to it… But there are so many discos here where sometimes I go and hold the mic – mic ya umeme… hahahahaa
Ah so you never stopped rhyming?
Yes… but the environment in this country is different from there… do you know what I mean…
There’s probably not too many people down there that both understand Swahili and also are into hiphop?
There are a lot and even more crazier…
So what’s up with your new album? You are preparing a come-back, right?
I just want them to know that it’s going to be the bomb! It’s totally a new style, a new me and own rhythm, above all that the lyrics is crazy… I have 6 songs already so far, so one side to go…
But which artists are you inspired by these days?
Well, Wycleff, still Dr Dre, Snoop…
Last year I have been to UK, in September… and some guys they bring whenever they go on leave, and you asked me when I have been to Tz? Well, it’s three years now and almost two months!!! I’m expecting to go there before my big trip…
Hey did I forget to ask anything or is there any other info that you think people should know?
Well, just tell them like Jordan like Saleh…
Interview © Thomas Gesthuizen/Africanhiphop.com, October 2001