I’m sitting at a salty pub in downtown Durban, when a fellow barfly yells through the clattering of glasses and bottles, “Hey outie, remember that hip hop group T.R.O.?” I hadn’t heard so much as a whisper about the seminal 90’s rap crew from Newlands East, Durban, for years. “Oh ja! Whatever happened to those guys?” I ask above the ramblings and ruckus of the pub, “Hey ouens, whatkind!”
“Well I heard that they are still together,” continues the barfly. That couldn’t possibly be true… where did they go? When I was a teenager, this definitive local rap crew was public property. A lot of people had their singles or full lengths and it didn’t matter if you were into punk or death metal, everyone knew the lyrics to ‘Hey Ouens’.
It’s about time someone tracked down the legendary cats from T.R.O.
Soon after, I find myself cruising down South Coast Road on my way to Winklespruit, not far from Durban, to meet Daniel Jooste one of the founding members of the T.R.Oues. I arrive at a plush seaside apartment, where a gangsta-looking emcee is waiting for me. Now I’m skeeming: is this the guy I’m looking for? Or am I getting myself into some kind of trouble? He certainly fits the profile of a Newlands East hip hop head. He introduces himself as “Chuckie” and opens the frontdoor to his pad with a smile (as I breathe a sigh of relief.) We spark the conversation and I can tell he’s dead keen on telling his story.
“I started rapping when I was a lighty because of Kriss Kross. I even used to wear my clothes backwards, like they did. I then met Fabian Peters aka Funky Fabian at school and we became great friends. I used to see him beat-boxing in the hallway during lunch breaks. I started free styling to his beat-boxing, and soon we decided to form a group. Paul Ogle aka T.S.O. (The Short One) lived two doors away from me, and I knew he used to rap gospel, so I got him into the group as well. Then Emlyn ‘Barlow’ was just someone who used to hang out with all the guys. He wasn’t really into rap or hip hop or anything like that. Back in the day when we did variety shows as T.R.O., Emlyn did all our intros.”
T.R.O. officially hit the streets in ‘94, hustling community areas like Newlands East, Wentworth and Marion Region. Chuckie says he couldn’t have been older than 16 at the time. It didn’t take long before these four gully lighties were rapping professionally, signing a recording deal with CSR Records and releasing their debut album African Hip Hop in ‘96.
“We won the Durban leg of the African Hip Hop Competition. Then got invited to the finals in Johannesburg where we competed with rappers from all over South Africa. We won first place and that’s how we got our recording deal.”
From then on, everything seemed to fall into place for the Newlands East partisans. Their debut record sold over 25 000 copies. They were under the same management company as award-winning artists like TKZee and Mandoza. They were touring and playing high-profile shows all over South Africa, Swaziland and Botswana. In 1999, their second album Playtime’s Over was released under Gallo Records, and sold 20 000 copies. Nowadays these kinds of sales are unheard of for local underground acts.
“At the time we were one of the only, if not the only hip hop act from an area like Newlands East. People looked up to us; they respected us and they wanted to support us. It was tremendous, an exciting time,” Chuckie says, beaming with pride.
But in 2001, tragedy stopped them dead in their tracks. Instead of putting their community on the map and achieving the widespread success of contemporaries like TKZee, they drifted off into obscurity.
“We got paid a big royalty cheque from the record label… some of us decided to invest the money in houses and such, and Fabian decided to buy a car. Not long after that, he had a car accident and passed away. His brother also died in the car. I couldn’t see T.R.O. moving on without the person that started it with me. We all went our separate ways and the usual record label politics added to the situation, so T.R.O. went downhill from there.”
Sometime after that, Daniel ‘Chuckie’ Jooste appeared in another act; East Coast Flava. Paul Ogle formed an entertainment company with DJ personality Trevor Williams called T.N.T and is still an emcee as well as being an entrepreneur and working for the SAPS! Emlyn Barlow became a family man.
“I had a good run with East Coast Flava, we did about three years of touring. And then in 2005, I packed up and I moved to the UK. I lived there for six years with my wife and we had a kid over there. We came back to South Africa in 2012.”
The three remaining members performed only one show together in 2012, before Barlow decided that music wasn’t his thing anymore. “You have to respect each other, you know. But Paul and I are keeping T.R.O. alive, and that’s where we are now.”
He’s surprised there is still an interest in T.R.O. at all when on occasion they get booked to play a show in Durban or some other part of the country. He laments that most of the general public aren’t aware that T.R.O. are still together, yet alone playing shows, and he hopes to regain some of their former glory. Spurred on by social media and the T.R.O. reunion, Chuckie has started his own management and entertainment company – Bfoked Nation. Bfoked works with local artists like Jet Wentworth (one of Durban’s premier rappers, well-known for his solo joints as well as his involvement with the short-lived but popular Durban/Wentworth-based hip hop group, Big Idea).
Jet gives a lot of respect to T.R.O: “Ja, the oues were massive back in the day! If you were coloured, you had to follow them! They were the only group representing us back then. And they were doing it on a national level. They made us believe we could do it too.”
Jet isn’t the only emcee that hails T.R.O. as forefathers of Durban hip hop.
Emcee and poet, Raheem Kemet also grew up in Newlands East area and remembers T.R.O fondly: “Since I’m from Newlands, we were crazy about their maxi single – played it constantly in the taxis. Didn’t matter what race you were, you would be screaming, ‘Hey ouens! What kind!? We vaai-ing to Wrapp It Up!’ They were the only musicians out there at the time that used Durban landmarks [like Wrapp It Up – a takeaway joint at the beachfront], and made it sound cool and authentic.”
Raheem describes life in the Newlands East ‘gully’ back then: “There’s so much to tell about the section. From gully cul-de-sac football to the fights and crazy stories, the ladies (yoh!), the close-knit living situations of the houses and families. Everybody knew almost everyone. It’s like a village out there – either the village made you the villain or your family just made enough to help get you outta there. It was home and there was no place like it. I loved it!”
As a family man, Chuckie acknowledges the problems kids face in areas like Newlands East and gives insight into why gangsta rap is often glorified: “Most of the kids, they go to these government schools where they don’t even pay school fees and the standard of education isn’t great. They don’t have a lot of prospects. A lot of them look up to people like 50 Cent who didn’t get an education and was basically a gangster. The kids will tell you: ‘50 Cent got shot nine times, he went to jail, he was selling drugs, but look at him now! He did music and he’s a multi-millionaire.’”
These days, Chuckie runs a catering business with his wife and you can tell he now makes music for different reasons. It’s his passion that’s keeping the flame alive, not the few royalty cheques and recording contracts.
So now we know what happened to T.R.O.
They were an act that weren’t afraid to be proud of where they came from. This bold locality is what gave them their edge. They appropriated the American hip hop style to suit their own backgrounds and experiences. Much like Brasse Vannie Kaap were doing in Cape Town around the same era, or what Fokofpolisekar did with rock music in Belleville many years after. T.R.O. even invented their own genre called “Bruinfunk” which is a mixture between funk, hip hop and kwaito.
T.R.O. proved that the limitations of coming from the margins can be overcome by staying true to your roots and creating a fresh, unique style. Through death and heartache, record label politics and skeptical critics, The Real Ones keep moving forward, because this kind of small town passion doesn’t die easily.
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