DJ Tira DJ Tira

After 20 Years In Music, DJ Tira Is Still Taking His Time

The veteran South African DJ sat down with VIBE to talk about the changing landscape of DJing, the everlasting power of gqom, and the process of reintroducing himself and South Africa to the world.

DJ Tira is running late. The early afternoon chill in Midtown Manhattan didn’t stop him from lingering outside for a few extra minutes. He opted for the train instead of a cab. There was no traffic; he just opted for an impromptu iPhone photo shoot in Times Square.

He stops to take a few more photos. This time, inside the building, with the view of the city behind him. He strikes a serious pose before his suave stance disrupted by a smile and a laugh. His eyes are wide and his smile is wider; there’s an excitement on his countenance that feels permanent.

It’s the end of 2019 and he’s a world away from South Africa, his home country, but New York is warming up to him; he performed in Brooklyn at his sold-out show, and stopped by Beats 1 Radio with Ebro Darden to play a mix showcasing some of South Africa's finest talent. He captioned a clip, “Time is Now South Africa! Asibangene!” which, in his native language, Zulu, means “let’s go in.”


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Its time to make dollars

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The veteran DJ, record producer, and label owner is enjoying a 20-year anniversary in the music business, but feels he still has a long way to go. Despite his pioneer status, he finds himself at the threshold of a début, coming off the heels of his latest album release, Ikhenani. This is his first studio album in which he produced every track. After a long tenure in the industry, a collection of compilation projects, collaborative songs, features, and mixes, he finds himself in need of a reintroduction.

Born Mthokosizi Khathi in KwaHlabisa, KwaZulu-Natal, he moved to Durban in 1995 to study Human Resources. Instead, the move gave birth to another career entirely– music. Tira’s future was clear when he started djing at friends’ parties and campus events. He quickly became known on the local circuit, but his popularity was cemented in 1999 when he won the Smirnoff Club DJ competition. He’d win again the following year, and a prize trip to Ibiza secured his opportunity to go global early.

Together with DJ Sox he formed Durban’s Finest, the duo that would go on to change the face of Durban nightlife. Their performance formula was different; instead of simply playing at events, they would host them as well. Partygoers would fly in from Jo’burg, Cape Town and other cities and the duo’s high-end lifestyle would take off among young professionals in Durban and across South Africa.

Tira has found ways to maintain relevance through consistency and expansion. He forayed a DJ career into a full-scope entertainment career. He founded independent record label Afrotainment, where he’d introduce artists such as Big Nuz, DJ C'ndo, DJ Fisherman and Dladla Mshunqisi. He became a brand ambassador, aligning with brands like Distell, Rocka Headphones and Axe. He became a businessman, going on to own the Urban Zulu ‪Cigar Lounge‬ on the coveted Florida Road strip in Durban which he ended up selling to refocus on what got him going in the beginning: events. He became invested in promoting Durban as something of an entertainment hub for South Africa, and as a result, he has been a KwaZulu-Natal tourism ambassador, a symbol for his hometown.

He’s been a part of a slew of songs that mark the soundtrack of South African popular music’s booming success, like the 2018 “That’s For Me” with Vanessa Mdee featuring Distruction Boyz, “Pakisha” with Distruction Boyz and Dladla Mshunqisi, and the 2017 crossover tune “Midnight Starring” by DJ Maphorisa, featuring DJ Tira, Busiswa & Moonchild Sanelly.

His album’s single “Thank You Mr DJ” is doing well in South Africa, but now he’s vying for an American remix or feature. “I’m gonna try all genres, all styles,” he says.

“People do know me, but you just have to find that one special song that's gonna open all the doors,” he says. “I'm making my presence felt.”

The artist is already planning his next album, 21 Years of DJ Tira, in celebration of his storied career in the entertainment industry. But for him, tenure doesn’t translate to comfort; Tira is more interested in a challenge.

It took Tira two years to craft Ikhenani. At 43, Tira is less concerned with being left behind, and more invested in joining the wave as music across the country, and the world, evolves.

On Ikhenani, he bundles a bevy of genres that you would never expect to find in an album by one artist— there’s afrohouse, amapiano, hip-hop, maskandi, gospel, and gqom. Though Tira has been at the forefront of South Africa's house scene for some time. The album sounds predominantly gqom, but moreso, Tira’s interpretation of gqom— he expands it, adding more jazzed up vocals and subtle experimentation. “I try to move with the times, be aware of what’s happening in my community,” he told Apple Music in an album liner interview.

Gqom has already gone global, but DJ Tira was one of its prominent supporters of the sound from the townships of Durban, South Africa that swept the world.

Distruction Boyz are credited with helping push gqom to popularity. Tira even makes a cameo in the music video for their hit “Omunye,” showing his role in advocating for the collision and collaboration of the older generation with the new.

As an elder statesman in South Africa’s music scene, he’s already gained legendary status back home. Now, he’s aiming to become a member of the collective of artists bringing gqom and South African dance music into more American listeners.

Gqom itself means “bang” or “drum” – pronounced with a Zulu tongue click at the beginning and a hushed “om” end. The gqom sound is undeniable and inescapable. Its stripped-down rhythms fuse the traditional with the modern; Zulu chants atop high-octane, looming, broken beats and sinister synths. It’s repetitive and hallowed, not empty but full of the unknown in an entrancing way.

Before gqom, there was kwaito— the sound that sprung from Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. It’s a distinctive variant of house music, hip-hop, dancehall, and South African sounds. Kwaito is an Isicamtho term from SA’s Gauteng townships that originated from the Afrikaans word kwaai, which is slang for hot. The word from the language of the oppressors was reclaimed and redefined by black youth, and kwaito became instrumental in leading post-Apartheid township subculture into South Africa’s mainstream.

During apartheid, musicians faced significant censorship and blockades; black artists were denied access to stages and employment in the arts, while artists critical of apartheid were threatened and reprimanded by the government. South African artists were stunted.

There was a generation of South Africans who pulled from that place of disenfranchisement and plight pre and post-apartheid and created something new to claim. The South African teens of the early 2010’s who extracted a new artform from another period of plight to create gqom did more of the same. This is where the elder statesman forges a connection; that feeling. Genres would emerge that helped mold the musical history of South Africa post-apartheid. Kwaito was one of them. Gqom continued in that legacy.

During the genre’s rise, artists would give their latest tracks to taxi drivers as a means of promotion. It became the literal sound of the South African streets. But gqom wasn’t widely accepted at first; it was too raw.

“Originally gqom wasn't the sound that you [could] play on radio,” Tira says. “It’s a sound that originates [from] what you would call the projects— made by the youngsters. They’ve got messed up equipment, they’re staying at the back of the bedroom at their house, but they make the sound that is so strange, that is wretched, that is hard, that is dark, but with the vocals, it comes alive.

Its origins resembled the reaction to hip-hop before it blew. City clubs didn’t welcome the poor youth-driven musical movement. Producers refused to mix and master gqom beats and radio didn’t play it out of fear that it’d burn their speakers. Though known primarily as a kwaito artist, as gqom gained popularity, Tira welcomed, embraced, and amplified it.

“We need to commercialize this,” he thought. To do so, he says, international collaboration is key.

While on the search for gqom collaborators, Pharrell was introduced to Black Coffee, the most popular South African DJ and producer. The Durban DJ with a jazz background is known for making and mixing house music and modern dance beats with more classical inflections. He took his signature “Afropolitian” style mainstream, becoming one of the world’s most recognized international DJs.

But Black Coffee doesn’t make gqom, so he turned to Tira for his Midas touch. In a video of that studio session posted to Coffee’s Instagram, Coffee mentions Tira’s involvement with the collaboration. It was DJ Tira who orchestrated the could-be-crossover hit that has yet to be released.


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Conversations with King @Pharrell

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Tira lifts his phone and plays the cut of an infectious unreleased song with Pharrell rapping over a gqom beat.

“When Pharell was in South Africa for Global Citizen [festival], he heard this sound. Because this sound is exclusive in South Africa. He heard this sound like, ‘Aye, what’s this sound?!’ He was speaking to Black Coffee. This is not Black Coffee’s style. So Black Coffee’s like, ‘Okay, who am I gonna call? Who that I know represents the sound?’ So he calls me.

‘Gimme a beat. I’m with Pharrell and he’s going crazy. He wants to do something.’ I send him a beat. Then, same day, jump in the studio, Pharrell lays the vocals.

“The fact that an artist like Pharrell went crazy on gqom and actually recorded on gqom, that means there's something special about the sound. If Sho Madjozi is well-received like this, with the ‘John Cena’ song, that means there’s something there with the sound but it’s just a matter of how do we present it and how do we push it? How do we make it bigger and how do we get more of the US market coming to the shows, not just Africa?”

To Tira, connecting and growing his audience online is a pivotal step in that direction; embracing social media now more than ever. He boasts 1.4 million followers on Facebook and 1.4 million on Twitter. On Instagram, his following sits at 1.5 million, just behind DJ Black Coffee who tops him on with an extra million followers.

Tira handles all of his accounts and enjoys it. He uses Twitter and Instagram often — unlike many artists that reach a certain caliber — helming his accounts without a handler, using the platforms as a means to communicate directly with his fans and to help them. He gives away something that people on the continent across generations and genres and townships need.

“You know what I do on Twitter?” he laughs, his wide eyes fixated on his phone screen. “I buy airtime.”

In South Africa, most people don't have phone contracts and data can be expensive.

So, Tira usually buys 2000 rands worth of airtime, divides it up, and redistributes it to people in need. “I say, ‘at three o’ clock, I’m handing out airtime for free.’ I post the airtime sticker with the numbers. Whoever punches the numbers quickly on the phone to enter the airtime gets the airtime. I call it umalume airtime,” he laughs. Umalume is Zulu for ‘uncle’ and umalume airtime has become the hashtag of his makeshift contest, and the hashtag ends up trending almost every time. Brands would see this as an effective social media marketing campaign that organically grows a following while keeping them engaged. Fans may see it as philanthropy. Tira himself just sees it as one of the pleasant parts of social media: connecting.

“Twitter’s crazy. I'm not too dramatic... I’ve got a friend called AKA,” he laughs, referring to the South African rapper who stirred controversy on Twitter last September over a debate on South African xenophobia towards Nigerians.

His thoughts on the situation: “It worked for him.”

With the advent of social media, Tira has seen the roles of DJs change dramatically for South Africa in ways that resemble how the landscape has changed in America.

“I'm from the school of vinyls,” he says. When he learned how to DJ and when he won his first competition back in 1999, he worked with vinyls. But as things changed, he began working with Serato, laptops, and other more modern forms.

“It just became too much,” he says. Now, he sticks to two USBs. He prefers a Pioneer [CDJ] 2000 CD Player or 1000, just “nothing less than 850.” The bigger the number, the better, but Tira is a bit unconventional. “I hate the 2000— the biggest one with the mixer.”

“I think the most important thing is the right equipment,” he says. But adhering to the traditional skill-set required for using vinyl, he finds unnecessary.

“In South Africa, we no longer use vinyl,” he says. In recent years, South Africa experienced a vinyl revival, but as interest grew, factors like price became a deterrent for many collectors. There’s a lack of record pressing plants in Africa.

For DJs, it’s about access. “If you’ve got vinyl, that means you’re playing old music, classics,” Tira says. “New music is digital.”

The rise of the celebrity DJ and influencer DJs has sparked criticism for usurped opportunities and displacement of DJs by craft, and a larger conversation on the disruption and oversaturation of the market. Tira sees this happening in South Africa as well.

The industry has changed drastically since Tira first entered it. "It’s more about the likes. It’s not really about the music or the craft or the technique,” he says. “It’s more about how good you look in a flyer or how good you look when you’re up here. You need to represent. You need to come through and entertain. I think you get more props and you get more respect when you really [work].”

“There’s a lot of [people] that think, ‘press a button and be a DJ,’” he says.

As far as figures who come from different backgrounds and who bank more on a following and an image to jumpstart their DJ career and less on skills and talent, Tira says he hasn’t seen many DJs of that ilk grow to take the craft seriously. Tira acknowledges and amplifies the artists putting in the work.

“There's a female DJ that I know called DJ Zinhle, and she's from the school of vinyl as well.”

Zinhle rose to become one of the most prominent female DJs in South Africa and went on to counter the country’s male-dominated industry by launching FUSE DJing academy, empowering women and girls to pursue the craft. Her program birthed the careers of newer female DJ's like the popular Ms Cosmo.

But Tira notes how space in South Africa’s entertainment industry is still being given to those who don’t value DJing, and those who don’t fit the mold are gaining more access to insert themselves into it.

“What’s happening in South Africa is we're seeing a lot of beauty queens switching up to DJs because they've got a really dope following— when you want numbers and you want a person who’s gonna advertise for you, I guess people gotta do what they gotta do to get paid… It's their hustle and we shouldn't hate on them. We should just keep on doing our thing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

With new eyes and ears on African art and music, engaging US audiences has become a goal for acts across the continent. But much of the attention is aimed at Nigerian and Ghanian artists in particular.

“I think they've worked hard to make their presence felt in the US. They've managed to find the right sound— which is afrobeats —and it’s been well-received.”

South Africa, on the other hand, has been tasked with the double-duty of standing out and fitting in.

But Tira doesn’t feel pressure; he feels a responsibility. He tries to keep his ears to the streets and clubs of South Africa while trying to break into the US. He understands how his home market and audience demands are changing and how that differs from what the US audience is catching up to. It’s become something of a crossover balancing act.

“South Africa has got a lot of potential,” he says, "but it's been very hard to crack into the US market. There are people that are managing to find their foot here in the US— Black Coffee, Nasty Cl, and you see Sho Madjozi making her presence felt in the US,” he says on the popular gqom artist. “Funny enough, she’s coming in with a sound that is currently less appreciated at home because there’s a new genre— amapiano is actually dominating South Africa right now.”

Amapiano is a genre generated from Gauteng, South Africa around 2016. It blends elements of electronic dance music, low-tempo 90's South African house rhythms, jazz, kwaito basslines, and signature high pitched piano melodies. “But I’m a full-time member of gqom,” Tira affirms. “I still believe that gqom has a longer lifespan.”

But in order for gqom to retain and grow its appeal, he believes South African artists must continue reinventing it. “The bigger goal is to export our music and make it accepted here, which will open the world to us,” he says. “We are on our way. It’s just a matter of time.”

While he values new, international audiences, he never wants to neglect his home base. “I want to be remembered as a DJ from South Africa who managed to open doors for more South African artists to be heard in the US,” he says. “I represent South Africa.”

He rises from his seat and stares through the floor to ceiling window at a bustling Times Square.

“Moving to the US isn’t part of the plan right now,” he says grinning and gazing up. “I don’t wanna aim too high,” sunlight beams back at him, “not that I’m scared of heights.”

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Ragan Henderson

Interview: Hit-Boy Talks Producing Benny the Butcher, Big Sean & Nas, Plus Nipsey Hussle and Juice WRLD Connections

When you're audacious and cocksure enough to assume the tag Hit-Boy, in a game and industry where you're only as good as your next big single or album release, chances are you have a glaring lack of self-awareness or you're operating at a level of excellence that's unique. That said, Chauncey Alexander Hollis has proven himself to be closer to the latter, as he's spent the past decade crafting some of the biggest anthems for the biggest artists in the game, including Beyoncé, Drake, JAY-Z, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar, just to name a few.

With credits on many of the biggest rap releases during that time, Hit-Boy is considered an elite boardman by most measures. However, somewhere along the line, he felt the need to stamp himself as more than a hit-maker for hire, but a producer with the ability to oversee, compose and help craft a body of work that touches the hearts of the people and can stand the test of time. And if 2020 were any indication, the Los Angeles-based producer is well on his way to putting his name alongside other greats who've built a reputation as sonic architects.

With his work on acclaimed releases by Nas (King's Disease), Big Sean (Detroit 2), and Benny the Butcher (Burden of Proof), all released within a two-month span, Hit-Boy has put the rap world on notice [even with his own duo Half-A-Mil with Dom Kennedy] that he's got the Midas touch and is the current frontrunner for the title of hottest producer in the game.

VIBE linked with Hit-Boy to talk about connecting with Benny the Butcher for Burden of Proof, working with Big Sean and Nas, getting music advice from JAY-Z, his relationships with Nipsey Hussle and Juice WRLD, and much more.


VIBE: Rap star Benny the Butcher's Burden of Proof, which you executive produced, was one of the more anticipated albums of the year. In addition to overseeing the album, you've also been promoting it heavily on social media and interacting with the fans. What has the feedback been like?

Hit-Boy: Man, the crazy thing is we put this thing out independent. We were supposed to go through a major, but whatever behind the scenes stuff transpired that didn't allow for it to happen so we still put it out indie. It feels like a major release, so that's the good thing about it. I've just been getting a lot of love, like a lot of people tapping in, telling me how much they respect this shit, it just sounds authentic, you know?

Being that Benny comes out of the Griselda camp, which works closely with their own production team, how did you and Benny first cross paths and what was the catalyst for you to go beyond producing individual records and working on the album in its entirety?

We stuck to them guys, for sure. Obviously, I'm my own type of producer and got my own flavor with this shit, but the first song we made, the very first song we made was "Legend." It's the outro on the album. That should tell you a lot right there. We set the bar up real high with that first song and from there, it just was like the energy was just crazy and we just kept it going. It was song by song, beat by beat, by the time we got to, like, four or five songs, he was like 'Man, you might as well do the whole joint.' His team started pulling up and it just became a real thing.

You earned the name Hit-Boy as a result of your ability to make records that dominate the charts and become anthems. Being that Benny’s production on previous projects was more boom-bap inspired, did you feel any desire or pressure to bridge that gap?

Only a select few people really study me and understand what's going on. Like if you listen to "One Train" on A$AP Rocky's first album, that had all type of heavy-hitting ass rapping niggas on it, so I do this, man.

I did shit on G-Unit projects, I did shit on Game projects. Real gutter, gangster-ass, dark sounding shit, so I'm just a music motherfucker. That's why for me to even be able to have this bag, half of this shit, niggas think that you only got "Niggas In Paris" shit, that's the battle I've been fighting. It's an even bigger thing because I'm like, 'Y'all niggas thinking that this is all I do.

The Burden of Proof intro, I started that in 2007. I added a couple of flavors up to date, but the gist of that beat was done in '07. Fucking "Timeless" was done in 2011, like, I do this, for real, bro. I been doing this shit, but for me to catch the joints I have and they be so simple, it was such a mindfuck for me, man, 'cause it's like I got all of these bags, but niggas don't get it.

The album's first single, "Timeless," features Big Sean and Lil Wayne. What's the origin of that collaboration and what hand did you play in its creation?

So "Timeless," we just started our part, me and Benny and next thing I know, he texted me early in the morning with the Wayne verse. I ain't know what it was, he just texted me the file, I listened, he had a Wayne verse. I'm like, 'Damn.' That shit had me so hype, I'm like, 'This shit sounds like Carter II Wayne all over again, it sounds like he went in a time chamber or some shit.' From there, I obviously got my relationship with [Big] Sean, I put him on the Nas album and I also put him on this album just by being the homie and pulling up. I really just work with motherfuckers who pull up on me and really wanna work, it really ain't too much more magic than that.

On social media, you revealed that only two artists have cried in the studio while making a record with you, Nipsey Hussle when he recorded the second verse on “Racks in the Middle” and Benny the Butcher on “Thank God I Made It.” Touch on what it was like to witness that emotion come out of Benny and what those moments mean to you as a producer.

I mean, it's just crazy that I done worked with so many, so many artists and just, like, the two most thorough, solid two A-1, gangsta type niggas was in this shit, like, really connecting with the music. That was really the point I was trying to get across, it's not like I'm just clout-chasing, trying to tell that them niggas was crying. That's some stupid shit. I'm trying to tell y'all this is not just a nigga fucking making a beat and doing a song, this shit is like peoples lives on the line everyday. I'm putting my life, my energy [on the line]. Benny was doing the same thing...Nipsey was doing the same thing. It's just deeper than rap, this is deeper than the surface.

Another revelation you made involved JAY-Z's post-production assistance on “One Way Flight” featuring Freddie Gibbs, which you say he helped arrange. How would you describe your creative connection to JAY-Z and what made you send that particular song to him?

Obviously, I've got joints with him, but also, me and Benny are managed by JAY-Z, so it's like I just took a chance. I was like, 'Check this shit out if you get a minute, what do you think of this arrangement?' He hit me back and he was like, 'This shit is amazing you should do this, you should try [that],' you know what I'm saying? 'Cause I had sent him the song, so he just helped me overall arrange the song, so it was parts of the beat and parts of the song, he was like, ‘Move that, do this.' And then I sent it back to him and he was like, 'Okay, this shit's crazy, but if you do this one more thing, it'll just take it over the top,' which was giving Gibbs that spacing and letting the verse kinda be a surprise and come in. I felt like that made all of the difference. Obviously that's JAY-Z, man, he done made some of the greatest songs he ever heard, so for him to give me his opinion and help me dive into that bag, that shit was unreal.

Aside from the songs that were already mentioned, what are your favorite songs on Burden of Proof and why?

I'ma say "Sly Green," that beat is just prime-time, what I grew up on. First album I ever bought with my own money, my own bread I made was The Blueprint, so I feel like it's just a fusion of that shit with elements of that with, like, some older Hov shit. A little bit of "Hola Hovito," shout-out to Timbaland, like I just put all my influences into this shit and tried to bring the sound up to date without going and doing some corny shit. Like, 'Oh, I'ma sample "Ain't No Love in The Heart of the City,"' that's some basic shit. I made some shit to where it sounds like, but they know it's original, it's fresh, like I ain't do no basic, surface-ass shit.

Two other albums you worked on that made a big splash this year was Nas' King's Disease album and Big Sean's Detroit 2, both of which got an overwhelming amount of praise. What would you say you learned from working on each album and how would you say their creative styles differ?

I mean, they're all their own artists, they all needed different things, so I pride myself on my versatility and just always trying to make sounds to where it's like, 'Damn, we don't know who did this for real.' I mean, I just learned personally, that I'm able to do this shit, that I'm able to see multiple projects through damn near at the same time. And just, I guess, learning to have patience with everything. Everybody in their own pocket, everybody does different things everyday when they wake up, so you gotta be patient with people. You gotta understand it's two worlds, it's your world, but it's also their world. So you gotta have that perfect meeting place in the middle and have that match-up and be perfect.

For King's Disease, how important was it to pair Nas with younger artists like Lil Durk, Fivio Foreign, and ASAP Ferg and bridge that gap between both generations?

Honestly, I wasn't even thinking like, 'I gotta get him with some young dudes.' It was more so these are certain artists I rock with that I'm already working with, I might as well do it. I texted to Durk, he hit back immediately, like I don't really gas this shit. It was simple, the whole process was real organic, so I like how it all shaped up knowing that people kinda put it in it's frame to where it's like, 'This is a really fresh Nas.' That's a beautiful thing.

2020 has been a landmark year for you and has seen you become more of a maestro and conductor that delivers bodies of work than a quote-unquote hit-maker. Has that evolution been a calculated one or was it organic?

It's kinda both, but it definitely was calculated. Like I just kinda got to a point where I'm like, 'Man, doing one or two songs on peoples' project ain't really getting me to where I wanna be.' Like I'm looking at stuff online, I do big joints and people will still be hitting me, like, 'Where's Hit-Boy at, what's he doing?' I got "Sicko Mode" out, I got "Racks in the Middle" out, I got all these huge songs and niggas are still questioning the level that I'm on and what I'm doing. So I just said, 'Man, let me really dial in, tap in and just take a whole different route with this shit.' I'm not trying to do anything. I'm just doing this shit. I'm just rocking with the artists who rock with me and just trying to make the most quality music, everyday.

With Burden of Proof, King's Disease, and Detroit 2 all under your belt, you've put together one of the strongest year's for a producer we've seen in quite some time. Would you say that you've proved yourself to be the MVP of 2020 so far, in terms of producers?

Nah, man, you can't call it, somebody may be looking at it, like, a whole different way. I do see a lot of people, I haven't said that shit one time, I'll let the people decide. That's the type of person I am. A lot of people I respect doing fly shit and I'm just doing mine, so however it lands it's gonna land, period.

2019 was a bittersweet year for you, in the sense that you won your second Grammy Award for your work on Nipsey Hussle's "Racks in the Middle," but also had to mourn his death. [The same with] rap star Juice WRLD, whom you worked with closely on his album, Death Race For Love. What was your professional and personal relationship with those two like?

Man, crazy. Like I was working on Juice and Nip at the same time, at two different studios. I would have Nip at my studio working, he'd be writing a verse, he'd take his time. Juice, on the other hand, young kid, twenty years old or however old he was, we were working on an album, he's doing songs in 20-25 minutes, tops. Crazy melodies, never run out of words. And they both needed two different things, but just going from each session. And losing both of them, that shit was mind-blowing 'cause I specifically just remember those moments where I would see Juice for an hour-and-a-half, do three or four songs and then come back and Nip still be here vibing or he done laid the verse or whatever the case is.

But me and Nip, we started working way back, we did a song called "Thuggin'" with him and Boosie, it was on, I think, Bullets Ain't Got No Name Vol. 2 or something like that. And then we did stuff on Mailbox Money, different projects of his. But "Racks in the Middle," that was just a moment where we connected. He was pulling up nonstop, just rocking with me. And then Juice, he was so energetic anytime we linked up, he would damn near wanna record to every single beat I played. They both respected me creatively and I respected them, so we got a lot of work done.


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Both students of the game my brother nipsey and I weren’t afraid to be our most humble selves when we were in each other’s presence. I remember him as a man who was Always eager to share information to help me think of things in different ways and ultimately grow to be a better musician and overall person. Before I even got confirmation of his passing I felt for nip . I felt for the person who was always positive and always had the energy to light up a room without being extra or even saying too much. I felt for the man who was doing things that were bigger than him in his community. Things that brought people together and ultimately advanced the “naybahood” (NIP voice) I told you that you were a legend while you were here and I will continue to push that on and say your name with pride and love anytime I speak of you brother. Tears running down my face as I type this i sincerely miss and love you bro. Even up there I know you got a smile on your face 💔

A post shared by HIT-BOY AKA Tony Fontana (@hitboy) on Apr 2, 2019 at 7:20am PDT

Did those losses make your professional wins this year even sweeter?

Oh, for sure, but it's crazy 'cause they both did work at my studio and I feel like they both left a piece of [themselves.] They were really giving their all when they was in here, so when I come in, I feed off of that. I feed off of the energy and I can still feel their presence so that just makes me go harder everyday.

You've worked with a number of legendary artists over the years, which ones would you say that you've learned from the most?

Man, I learn everyday, bro. I learn from every artist so I can't even say, but you know what, when I was having my run with Kanye. Just learning that this shit moves fast and it's at a high level if you wanna really succeed, like, you gotta really focus and you gotta be on your shit times ten so that era, I learned a lot. And still being managed by JAY-Z, anytime I get to interact with him or talk to him in any capacity, I just try to soak up whatever game I can. So I would say those top two, but anybody I'm around I try to learn, whether it's a producer, writer, artist, whatever it is, I'm trying to just soak up gems.

What's next for Hit-Boy for the rest of 2020 and in the new year?

Freddie Gibbs' first single dropping, [4 Thangs] produced by me featuring Big Sean. That shit's coming real real soon, sooner than y'all probably think [laughs]. Man, I got a bunch of shit, I can't get too deep into it, but I got some high level stuff coming.


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4 Thangs featuring @bigsean & @hitboy. Friday. Drop a 🏆 if you’re ready.

A post shared by Skinny Suge (@freddiegibbs) on Oct 27, 2020 at 9:00am PDT

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Free Marie Talks 'Team Cancer Free' Foundation, Teaming Up With Slutty Vegan And Importance Of Voting

TV personality Marie 'Free' Wright is back in her hometown of Boston balancing work with good deeds for the community. This month, the radio host partnered with Buzzfeed, Cocoa Butter, and fellow BET 106 & Park alum Rocsi Diaz to co-host And Still I Vote, a digital TV series that shares important information on voting for the 2020 election.

Free's non-profit organization, Team Cancer Free, is also hosting a fundraiser in Beantown on Wednesday, October 28 from 4 pm - 9 pm at Darryl's Corner Bar and Kitchen. The event includes an official 'Slutty Vegan' pop-up shop, to give residents a taste of what they've been missing from the popular Atlanta based vegan burger joint. This event is in support of Breast Cancer Awareness and Research. Log on to for more info.

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(L-R) Flex Alexander and Shanice attend the Soul Train Weekend Kick-Off Party on November 5, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Photo by Earl Gibson/BET/Getty Images for BET

Interview: Flex and Shanice Talk 'Virtual House Party,' Staying Together And That Call From Aretha Franklin

Shanice and Flex Alexander are ‘90s Black pop culture in the form of husband and wife. Shanice was an R&B ingenue with a hypnotic smile and powerful voice beyond her years when her sophomore album Inner Child propelled her to pop status thanks to the 1991 hit “I Love Your Smile.” Flex was a background dancer for acts like Sal-N-Pepa, before becoming a comedic actor and a mainstay on our TV sets during the golden era of Black TV in the ‘90s through early ‘00s.

After years of pulling in approximately $25K per week (according to Alexander) and not knowing how to properly manage the income, the couple lost their home, liquidated their assets, and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. They chronicled part of their journey with their reality show Flex and Shanice on OWN from 2014 to 2016 and are now positioning themselves for their respective next career chapters.

A big part of Flex’s next chapter was announced in July, when Netflix revealed they were bringing a slate of UPN shows from the early ‘00s arriving to the app this Fall. The line up includes Girlfriends, on which Flex originated the role of Darnell Wilkes; and One on One, which features Alexander as a single dad to teenage Kyla Pratt (and also features Shanice singing the theme song). Following the eagerly met premieres of classics Moesha, Girlfriends, and The Parkers, One on One and Half & Half (Essence Atkins and Rachel True) premiered on Thursday on the video streaming platform.

The couple, who celebrated their 20th anniversary this year, talked to VIBE recently about adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic, growth as a married couple, and that time Aretha Franklin asked her to play a role in the upcoming Respect biopic.


VIBE: How have you all been doing with everything that's going on?

Shanice: We're hanging in there. (Flex) doesn't like it when I say, "We're hanging in there."

Flex: We are doing exceptionally well. We are alive, we are healthy. Just dealing with it like everybody else, taking it one day at a time because you can't really plan too far ahead.

Did you ever think that we would be going through something like this?

Shanice: No, never. Flex said he kind of...Didn't you say over the years you thought...No. You said you read a lot of books and stuff.

Flex: Yeah. I do a lot of reading and stuff from my college days. Just stuff that talk about this stuff that's going on I like to get into. Everybody thinks it's conspiracy or whatever, but I just didn't think it would be in my lifetime. It is an adjustment for everyone. Like she said, we try to find the positive in it. We sit at the table, we eat dinner at the table, we can sit down. I say, "Baby, do you want to watch a movie?" We sit there and just hang out. Before, we were just crossing [paths where] everybody's hustling and grinding, hustling.

With the senseless police killings, racism seems to be at an all-time high. What type of conversations are you guys now having with (teenage children) Elijah and Imani now that they're older and this could happen to them or any other young adult? What are you telling them?

Flex: This is something I know I've been talking to Elijah about not just since this. When he was younger, just explaining him as a young Black kid, being a Black teenager turning into a young Black man, just the crosshairs that's on their back. You talk to them about if you're pulled over what to do, what not to do. We don't like to let him ride. He has friends that have cars and I'm like, "No, four or five of you all in the car? No. That's an open invitation." It hurts us because their regular daily livelihood has just changed. They would just walk down the street to the store. Now, we're like, "No."

Shanice: He [Elijah] has one friend that we allow him to be around. One of them wanted to play basketball and wanted me to drop them off at the park and I said no. There was a noose in our area.

Flex: Less than a mile from our house.

Shanice: Less than a mile from our house, there was a noose at the park. I sat in the car and I just watched him play. Normally, I would just drop him off and come back and pick him up, but I don't feel safe anymore.

Flex: And we have to have the conversation with Imani as well because it's not just relegated to just men and boys, women, too. We get ahead of the conversation, but they are very keen. Listen, information is traveling fast. They got these phones, they see stuff as well. A lot of the time, they tell us stuff and we're like, "What?" We just try to instill in them the best that we can and just pray over them.


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Throwback photo of @flexaforeal and I ♥️ We look like kids Flex lol

A post shared by shanice (@shaniceonline) on Sep 21, 2020 at 7:22pm PDT

Shanice, nobody sounds like you. You were a young pop icon, not just as an R&B artist, but also in pop - and paved the way (for other young crossover singers). How does that feel today?

I just feel blessed to have longevity in this industry. I've had my ups and downs. You know how crazy this industry is and sometimes you get frustrated and it's like, "Why am I doing this? I want out. I don't want to do this anymore." But then, when I get online and I talk to the fans directly on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, it keeps me going. I get emotional because I've had some great moments in the industry, but then I've had some very low moments and it gets frustrating sometimes. I love music. I love singing. It's in my blood. I've been singing since I was seven months. I do it because I love to sing and I love my fans. I have the best supporters out there.

You both are such a likable couple and people gravitate to you from all walks of life, from all nationalities. What is it about you two that they can identify with Flex and Shanice?

Flex: Just being us.

Shanice: I think we're just being ourselves.

Flex: We're just being ourselves. I'm on here deejaying on Instagram and she's here dropping it like it's hot. (Shanice laughs) That's what she does. We just try to be ourselves and we show a little bit of that doing the reality show and sharing what we went through because we wanted people to know what we went through and that you can come out of it. We just don't, I'm going to say a real old school word, we don't put on airs-

Shanice: Airs. (Laughs) That is real old school.

Flex: ... for anyone. We're in here every day. I want to throw it back to her real quick. I see the pain and stuff that she goes through the ups and downs and disappointments. Even through all this, you're still like, "Man, is it a place you want to reach?" She feels like, "I didn't get there." I said, "Listen, you've had more success than a lot of people and it may not have been here, but people love you." Whether they like to hear it or not, she's paved the way. There's no dig against anybody because a lot of them have said it. You paved the way for the Monicas, the Brandys. Beyonce even spoke to her and told her Solange sang your song (“I Love Your Smile”) at a talent show. I try to tell her just, "Hold on to that and just keep doing what you're doing," because you see where everything is going in the business, in the industry. And to have a good name and people that love you, I think, is a great thing. That brings longevity.

You guys have been staying creative. I see you’ve been doing virtual house parties. Who came up with that concept?

Flex: It came from me starting deejaying back in 2016. I was doing it once a week. Every Thursday I was doing, and she would be in the bed. When we got here, I started doing it again. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic. I just jumped on, and then she came over and then just started—

Shanice: I was like, I said, "Let me be your hype girl." (Laughs)

Flex: It worked. It's at a point now where if I get on it by myself, people are like, "Where's Shanice?"

Shanice: I like to drop it like it's hot. (Laughs) It’s fun.

Flex: It helps our mind because we didn't know what ...I'm talking about when it was like March when it was cold and rainy out there and all of this gloom and doom...we didn't know what was happening. The people that came in and people that were on our page, people said, "Yo, this helped me so much get through the night or helped me get through the week. Man, that meant more than anything." I didn't care if there were 10 people on there or 10 thousand. We just go on there. We shout everybody out.


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Thank you EVERYONE for rocking last night!!! We appreciate your undying support, to our day one #LockdownwithFlex family you already know!!! And my fellow New York brother @lilcease thanks for hanging last night we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane✊🏾✊🏾

A post shared by flexaforeal (@flexaforeal) on Jul 24, 2020 at 11:39am PDT

Flex, you’ve written and produced your own TV show, you’re a comedian....Are you working on any other current TV projects? Will we see you on a screen again soon?

Flex: Before I mention that, I'm excited about Netflix releasing One on One. It was through the Strong Black Lead who really pushed for us to be in more places and to have another life. This is crazy because two years ago, I wrote the reboot. I had it ready to go, and then that happened and I'm like, "Man, This is perfect."

Shanice: It's perfect timing.

Flex: This could lead right to it. I'm thankful for that. I just wanted to throw that out there. We have an animated series that we're working on now. We just got a showrunner attached and we're working on that. I have a drama that I've developed right before the COVID hit. We also worked with a Black-owned company called Ceek, where we do the Flex and Shanice Virtual House Party. They have great programs and they do live concerts. They've had Elton John, they've had Lady Gaga.

Shanice: Jennifer Lopez.

Flex: They have DL Hughley on there with Chris Spencer, [and] we're on there now. What they're trying to do is create this virtual experience [where] I come in, I deejay, [you] put your (VR headset) on and you're in the party. It’s great to partner with them and just continue to stay active and creative. It just keeps you going.

Shanice: And I've been doing live concerts in my living room.

Flex: Yeah. It's crazy because we've worked a lot.

Shanice: We've been doing so much in this living room. (Laughs) Like Flex said, we were working before the pandemic, we're working our butts off more now.

Tell us how you balance being in the entertainment business, being stars, having a family and being married. You're probably going to tell me love, but there has to be something else besides love that has kept you together. What do you think it is?

Flex: Honestly, praying is the first.

Shanice: Praying. Yes.

Flex: And communication. We can agree to be disagreeable.

Shanice: We've had our ups and downs. It's not like it's been all great, but we do love each other and we don't go to bed angry. We're mad at each other and we try to talk it out, and I just feel like you’ve got to try to make it exciting and you can't get too comfortable. People, after a while, they get bored in their relationship.

Flex: There are times that she ain't checking for me; she doesn't like me right now, so I'll come downstairs and she'll be up here. There's time's out like that. We go to different parts of the house and we figure it out.

Shanice: And we try to give each other a little space to breathe. We may come back to the situation and talk about it.

Flex: Every day you figure it out, you grow. I think I'm understanding who I am more now at 50 than I did at 30 or 35. I just love being here, being with my family, us having fun together, the kids. It's a beautiful thing, man. It's a beautiful thing.

Flex, what’s one thing that Shanice has taught you about being married? What have you learned from her?

Flex: Growth. I would say growth because if there's anybody that I've seen grow is her. If there's anybody I've seen with perseverance, it’s her. Her patience, her kindness, her. It has really taught me to listen more because as the man you're like, "I got it." She says, "Something ain't right," and I'm like, "I got it." Learning how to cut that off in my brain and go, "You know what? I need to listen. I need to listen to her. I need to hear her." I think that was probably one of my biggest hurdles is not that I didn't listen, but listen and go out, really listen and apply it. I've just seen so much from her in 20 years that I'm just like, "Wow, man. We've got 100 more to go." I just want to grow some more, and we’ve got more fun to have and love to have. We're done with the babies, though.

Shanice: Right. No more babies.

Flex: We're done with the babies.

Shanice: No more babies.

Flex: No more babies.

Shanice, what one thing Flex has taught you, or that you’ve learned by being married and connected to him for so long?

Shanice: I've learned that people over the years grow and they change, and sometimes you have to learn how to go with the change. I've learned to try to adjust to the change because we're not the same people we were 20 years ago.

Flex: Not in a bad way, though.

Shanice: Not in a bad way.

Shanice, you’re an international pop star. You started in pop and then crossed back to R&B, and can travel the world with just “I Love Your Smile.” That's big in itself, but can you share some of your greatest accomplishments? 

I think when I got nominated for a Grammy, that was like a big highlight for me because when I was a little kid I used to always look in the mirror and I used to practice my speech. I used to always dream about getting awards. I have several moments: the Grammys, (Aretha) Franklin, rest in peace—when she turned 50 the Queen of Soul reached out to me and flew me and my band and my dancers down to her house. I did a whole concert in her living room with a band and dancers and everything. That was so big for me.

Meeting Michael Jackson, singing on three of his records. I sang in the background for like three songs, and that was big for me. Just being able to travel all over the world. “I Love Your Smile” was No. 1 in..I believe it was 22 countries. I've traveled all over the world and I'm still traveling the world because of that song. “Saving Forever For You” was a big record for me as well with Diane Warren and David Foster. That went to No. 5. It didn't go No. 1, but it was almost number one. That was another big pop record for me. So you're right. I came out pop and then I crossed over to R&B.

I’ve got another Aretha story. I have to say this. I was having one of my moments when I was frustrated about the industry. I was home and I was crying and I said, "God, I don't want to do this anymore." I was feeling really low. I was like, "I'm done. I don't want to do this." And then, Flex came home and he was like, "Somebody reached out to me.” I think it was Aretha’s sister-in-law saw Flex and said Aretha wants to get in touch with Shanice. Here’s her cell number. So Flex comes home and says, "Miss Franklin wants to get in touch with you. This is her cell number." I'm like, "Me? Really?" I called her and we talked for like probably an hour. We talked for a long time, and she said, "I reached out to you because I want to tell you I know real talent when I hear it, and you got it." This is when I was feeling down. This was nothing but God telling me keep going.

So she said, "We had auditions. I'm doing a movie about my life, my life story." And she said, "Most likely Jennifer Hudson is going to play me, but I would love you to play my sister." I’m sitting on the phone like, "Yeah!" They'd been talking about this movie forever. Even when she was alive they were talking about the movie, and I said, "Anything you need. I would love to be a part [of it]." We talked several times over the years about the movie. Unfortunately, she passed. I think God wanted just to encourage me to keep going. I think that's why that happened. It was just to tell me to keep going. I just had to share that story.

Flex, what would you say to the younger Flex as he’s just starting out in the entertainment industry?

Take everything in more. Enjoy it. Don't fly through it so fast. Tell the people you love that you love them while you have them. I would have learned more about the business on the financial side to plan better. Those would probably be the things I would say, but I think overall, it would be to take it all in, sit back and take it in more. I think things happen so fast and it's like, I'm here, I'm there, I'm dancing, Salt-N-Pepa here, boom, traveling the world. And then, you think it's all going to keep going. You think it's all going to just last forever. And then, next thing you know, you look back and the time has passed and all you have is maybe a picture. I think that would be the thing I would tell myself.

Shanice, what would you tell up and coming talent that is trying to break into the entertainment business?

Shanice: I would tell them to definitely do it not for the money, do it for the love. The money and all that stuff will come. Believe in yourself. Back when I started, you had to get the approval of a huge record exec to put you out there. And now, because of the internet, you don't have to wait on somebody to tell you if you're good or not. You can put out your music on iTunes and get out there and create an audience online. I would say just don't give up on yourself, keep trying. It may not happen overnight. It might. There are people like Justin Bieber. He got on YouTube and he's one of the biggest stars in the world. Everybody's story is different, but you just have to keep trying and keep believing in yourself.

Flex: Yes.

Shanice: Just don't give up. You’ve got to keep going. Even when it seems like it's impossible, you just gotta keep going.

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