Feature Review

Ahead of their debut album, NLite unpack their deep-rooted hip hop influences as they lead the African electro jazz-hop sonic revolution

Originating amongst African-American and Latino communities in the 1970s, hip hop has been the expression of the streets through poetry, turntablism, beat-boxing, fashion, graffiti, DJing — it wasn’t just a genre, it was (and is) a lifestyle. 

Around about the 1980s, hip hop music became more complex, with jazz and soul elements being sampled into the music. Think: A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digable Planets, The Roots. More and more it began to spread across the world, evolving and manifesting as each culture expressed their experience of street life. 

Half a century after its origin, South African electro jazz-hop trio NLite — comprised of Robin Fassie (trumpet), Daev Martian (keyboard, rapping, production), and Crunchy Sweater (real name Chenoa Nwokedi — bass and guitar) are hours away from dropping their debut album, NLite, reinterpreting the genre by fusing all the vast musical knowledge the trinity share amongst themselves. 

I spoke to the trio earlier this month, ahead of their first single release, and I needed to know, from each of them, just exactly where their relationship with hip hop began. 

Crunchy Sweater goes first. “So I think, over the last two years, the hip hop influence, like J-Dilla is obviously there, like he has to be there, so… basically everything J-Dilla and the Soulquarians did, that’s a big thing for me… And Questlove,” he explains. He thinks for a second before adding, “And now bringing it to NLite, I feel a very big influence is like, Robert Glasper and Taylor McFerrin — these two cats are pushing a modern jazz sound with that hip hop root that’s really deep in there and it’s got that bounce to it, and we try — we kind of emulate something along those lines.” 

Martian, probably the most well versed in hip hop of the crew, talks with swag and respectful authority. “Yeah, well for me, I’ve always been hip hop from the jump. The reason I started making music was hip hop. So I was rapping, then I decided to make beats, so I could rap on them, and then I’ve just always carried that through to every single song that I have ever made. There’s always a hip hop thing in it, so that was always there when we met. And even the rapping on the song, it’s just an extension of myself that was always there and that I was there to offer.” He nods, a metaphorical mic drop, and it’s Fassie’s turn. 

“So for me, hip hop has always been there, always listened to hip hop. When I was at school, I would say Lil Wayne was like my favourite rapper, there was no one godlier than him at the time. But I would say I had a stronger R&B/soul background. But hip hop, like even when I studied jazz, I felt like there was this connection for me between jazz harmony and the groove base of hip hop. So when I met Daev, I was like, ‘Yoh okay, this is what I can vibe to.’” 

You don’t have to look very hard to find all of their influences blended beautifully into the album, which flows seamlessly but intentionally from one track into the next, kicking off “iLLusions” with Martian spitting muffled bars over the building soundscape in an am-I-really-here sort of confusion. 

“Call it the Way” — the reason they decided to turn their jamming into an official album and project — features the lyrical stylings of Mr Kudakwashe, whose flow is laid back, over a forward-moving beat in a kick-push kind of manner. 

“Thokoza” sees Fassie picking up his instrument at just the right time, but rather than blast his presence onto the track, comes in smooth with a muted and remarkably controlled warm trumpet tone, layered over Martians reverberating keyboard. Rapper ASAP Shembe lends his lyrics to the track and it’s great to hear vernac over such polished production, something I don’t hear all too often in South African hip hop. Crunchy Sweater plays us out on his bass and subsequently tugs at my soul. 

Soul songstress Sio features on “Between Realms” but what surprises me is that she sits between the arrangement with carefully placed oohs and aahs, as opposed to dropping her signature poetry on top of the track. But it works, beautifully.

“Get Widit” is an interlude that invites the listener to “Get in the Lite” and between the guitar and the rhythmic instrumentation, I’m getting a Mumbai-meets-hip-hop Indian feel. 

My personal favourite is “Too Much Schmoke” and by the time Martian drops in with lyrics “I just think there’s too much schmoke, baby roll your window down”, I’m ready to spark up a fat blunt and cruise to and through all of his hip hop realness. 

“Lickkc” opens up on a trippy but playful keyboard riff before settling deep down into the beat, as Crunchy Sweater lays down a fat AF bassline, setting a foundation once again for Fassie to float above, keeping his lines simple and it feels like a preempted jam — nothing too frilly, nothing too fancy, and everything just right. 

“Shoden Monk” is a whole stank face, shoulder bouncing bop, building up to ironically named closer “The Beginning”, which rounds off the album with similar tensions built up in the intro. 

For such accomplished musicians to create an album with so much space in the music is indicative of each of them putting the music before themselves. They listen to each other, they feed off of each other, and rather than ever feeling overcrowded, they build around each other.