The Adventures Of Uno July

South African hip hop audiences blatantly ignore Ill Skillz’ craft because they're from Cape Town.

Uno July

Have a conversation with any hip hop head about Cape Town duo, Ill Skillz and it’s likely to devolve into a comparison between Uno July and Jimmy Flexx’s potential on the mic. Yes, we all know Flexx is a god of some sort but just like Big Boi from Outkast who is teamed with Andre 3000, Uno’s efforts often get overlooked. He has also played the duo’s spokesperson, and if I may frontman, which has seen them performing abroad and embarking on innovative ventures such as their two 24-hour albums and being part of the Ill Beings showcase, among others. Uno and Flexx have been rocking as Ill Skillz (Ill-Literate Skill) for the past 10 years.

On his first solo offering, the seven-track Best Kept Secret EP which precedes an album due for release on July 1 2015, Uno wasn’t trying to prove a point, even though he’s still hungry. He was making music he would enjoy listening to, he says. Apart from producer Maloon’s jazzy embellishment of Nas’ “The World Is Yours,” the beats on the EP aren’t what you’d typically expect from Ill Skillz.

The duo updated their sound while managing to keep their traditional boom bap sensibilities on their sophomore album “Notes From The Native Yards” in 2013. The sound on Best Kept Secret, on the other hand, consists of ethereal pads creeping under pulsating basslines and pattering 808s provided by J-oNE, and of course some beats were borrowed from the interwebs. Uno zones out about sneakers, the rap game and life from his personal point of view.  

Ill Skillz has, over the years, remained mavericks of the hip hop artform. Their peers – the likes of AKA and Reason – have become superstars over the past decade while the duo remains tucked away in the pregnant serenity of The Mother City. A move to Johannesburg, where the South African music industry is monopolized, could have “exposed” the duo more. According to Uno, after they had made that joint decision to move to The City of Gold, Jimmy Flexx became a parent and was also busy with academics. Uno, a teetotaler of note, is also not a fan of the fast-paced Joburg lifestyle – you know, “sipping champagne like it’s Kool-Aid” and thinking about JC Le Roux sitting up in his room.

The emcee is openly bitter about how Ill SKillz is slept on. About two years ago, flanking Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) as Ill Skillz at a meet-and-greet in Cape Town, he expressed how they have faced gatekeepers especially when it comes to the duo getting their shit played on radio. He expressed his disappointment in us the fans. “Do you guys know Ill SKillz had a ballerina on a music video before Kanye West did?” he said to the crowd of hip hop heads and cool kids who were just excited to be in the same room as Yasiin Bey.

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His main focus, after a 12-year long relationship with hip hop, is still the music in its purest and most personal form. According to him, Ill SKillz has turned down mainstream artists for collabos because the duo didn’t resonate with the current soundscape. “My life could have changed a long time ago,” he says and admits that many times he has pondered succumbing to the industry’s invitation to “dumb it down”. But his passion for the artform is deeper than the desire to blow up. And the road to blowing up takes more than just good music. Ill Skillz had solid singles from their sophomore album Notes From The Native Yards in the form of “To The Beat Y’all (TTBY)”, “7’s Clash” and “Hip Hop Jones”. “”Hip Hop Jones” got played on Channel O,” Uno says. “It [also] got played on MTV Base [but only] once, because we didn’t have that brown envelope and it wasn’t a party song. That’s just how it is, you can’t defeat those things.”

As I converse with him during the third outbreak of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, he reminds me poignantly that Driemanskap made a song about xenophobia in 2008 but nobody gave a fuck. In short, we are sleeping on our own.

Uno wore his heart on his sleeve on Notes Fom The Native Yards. He bled over their new-found producer, J-oNE’s jazz-influenced keys and atmospheric pads. His personal frustrations seemed to be the focal point of his lyrics. He appeared to be dealing with a mother who’s questioning if rap’s going to bring him some money, a South African hip hop audience that seems to blatantly ignore Ill Skillz’ craft and a country that just seems to be suffering from the ugly repercussions of its oppressive history. He reveals to me that the biggest source of his frustration is that he has daddy issues, “serious, serious daddy issues,” he emphasizes, lowering the pitch of his normally sonorous voice. The emcee never met his dad – who was part of Umkhonto Wesizwe (the armed wing of the ANC during apartheid) – until Uno was 20 years old. On “The Best Kept Secret,” he’s slowly coming out of his woeful phase and experiencing happiness again. And nothing seems to make him happy more than music does. Uno is a music lover of note. His Twitter timeline is always flooded with quotes and references from rap songs, both old and new. And he’s a regular attender of gigs around the city even when Ill Skillz is not on the bill. Last year, he started the Fxck Your Day Job monthly series of parties, a move which earned him a King of The Western Cape nomination at the South African Hip Hop Awards. Ill Skillz, however, never got any nomination for their music.

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Apart from releasing the album in July, he’s relocating to New York. “I’m no longer in a relationship,” he reveals. “All I do is just music. I chill in studio and just record all the damn time. I’m taking this EP with me and shopping it around. So I can get the fuck outta here and rep the Native Yards abroad because Jo’burg doesn’t give a fuck!”

Some facts about Uno

1. His real name is Unathi July. Uno is short for Unathi. Even his mother calls him Uno.

2. The only rapper he looks up to is MF Doom.

3. He is a die-hard sneaker head, which is why he doesn’t have kids yet. He couldn’t pay rent for two months after buying the Kanye West Louis Vuitton Dons which went for R8000.

4. Mawe2’s “Saved by the Music” is one of Uno’s favorite South African hip hop songs.

5. He was a solo emcee for two years before he became a member of Ill Skillz.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.

And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in ‘Time’ is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.