‘Too many emcees, not enough fans’ is a phrase oft-used in hip-hop circles to describe the over-saturation of rappers in the scene, the consequence of which is a diminishing pool of people who are willing to be listeners, to ‘support the cause’ in a sense. What happens, then, when this affirmation does not hold? What then gives when one is both an active participant – brilliant writer narrating scintillating hip-hop tales with absolute brilliance – and borderline manic listener/supporter? Does the hip-hop culture and its ‘we-and-them’ paradox espoused by the statement above hold for them too? What happens when one straddles both worlds (fan and emcee) with the swiftest of ease?







Rob Boffard (alias Rob One) is one such person, an avid hip-hop fan who has written about the culture in a vast array of publications, favouring finesse over cheesy journalism in the process. He has added flesh to a sometimes-misunderstood activity (The mixtape culture in Y-Mag), provided impetus to a scene which really needs to grow wings (South African hip-hop in The Guardian), and offered readers an insight into the functioning of rap heavyweights (interviews with Sean PricePharoahe Monch, etc. on Okayplayer). Not only that, but he is quite the ardent listener and lover of all things hip-hop; his 20/20 podcast, now in its 150th episode, stands as testament. Of late, his twitter rants (see here and here) should – in an ideal world – be elevated to legendary status, trending for weeks on end!


Based in the UK, this South African-born emcee studied Journalism at Rhodes University. It was after graduating that he packed his bags and went to the land of warm beer and gray weather – apparently – to find his way around life. He does however seem to possess the superhero ability to keep track of what is happening in the land of his birth. A die-hard Jo’burger, Rob One has recently released his debut LP, African, and I caught up with him to discuss the evolution of its artwork, and whether it in any way encapsulates the contents of the album.

What are your favourite album covers of all time (non-genre-specific)?

Okay, I’ve got one very specific one. My favourite album cover of all time is probably Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Mos Def and Talib are Blackstar. The Blackstar album has a wood effect like it’s on a… I don’t know, like an old crate somewhere or something, and just then you go ‘this is gonna’ be fly.’ Then you flip over, it’s got that same effect on the back. You pull it out, and they’ve just expanded it into still what I think are the best liner notes of all time. It’s super-detailed, breaking down every single track. So Blackstar’s up there. Um, I think I’ve [also] gotta’ give it up to [Nas’] Illmatic; it’s predictable, but it’s gotta’ be up there just purely because you haven’t…  there’s no other album cover out there that’s established such a trend for a rapper. I really like Brother Ali’s album cover of Us. I don’t know why, it’s not a particularly striking image; it doesn’t stand out on the shelf. But I look at it and something just goes ‘that makes me feel good.’ I don’t know what it is.


Who worked on the album cover?

Er, that is an interesting story. I’d originally hired a South African artist to do it, a guy who I was a fan of named Silas. I hired him and he quoted me a very reasonable price, and his stuff is WILD, it’s out there, it’s crazy! I just thought this is the guy who’s got the imagination to make this happen. But as things turned out, he couldn’t stick to deadlines and couldn’t communicate on e-mail. After a while, I just got gatvol with him and went somewhere else. And I went hunting around for artists; it was that situation where I had a budget, I had to stick to the budget. There was a Singaporean artist called Stanley Lau who… literally his art just took my breath away; I e-mailed him and he quoted me the equivalent of R20, 000!

[Then I] came across this website by a woman named Sandra Lanz [who] lives in Rhode Island in the States. I don’t think she’s ever left the States – she’s certainly never been to South Africa. So I got in touch with her, and she quoted me a really good price. I thought okay, her art’s not quite a hundred percent what I’d been looking for previously, but let’s give it a shot. [For] someone who’d never been to Jo’burg, she just nailed the look of the city! I was talking to her about it; she just went out and got as many reference photos as possible and just sketched until she had it right, and she was an absolute pleasure to deal with. The whole idea behind the concept art thing (available with the digital download of his album) was well, I’ve now got all these really awesome sketches that she sent me; to show how this thing developed, let’s make this as a funky little bonus thing.


Is there a theme to the album?

Um, in the sense that the theme is telling African stories that aren’t traditionally considered African. All the storytelling is sci-fi, it’s got government agents, it’s got alien themes…all those [things] you don’t necessarily associate with Africa and South Africa, and Jo’burg in particular – although District Nine kinda beat me to the punch a little bit. But that’s the over-arching theme of the album, to tell those particular stories. The cover itself directly relates to the very first track, ‘The sky’, which is about suddenly gaining the super-human power of flight. What I asked Sandra to capture was the moment where the character suddenly gains control of his ability to fly. He’s not just flailing around and going ‘oh shit, I’m actually flying’, he goes ‘okay, I got this, I can actually move now’.

What inspired the colour scheme?

Although what I originally wanted was a very gritty, dark kind of, you know, hardcore comic book-style cover, after some thought I realized the album is not a massively gritty album, it’s not super-dark. So, let’s have a compromise; let’s have very thick black ink used to draw the buildings and to get the outlines, but let’s combine it with a colour scheme that shows off the kind of positive power of this album, and shows off what the location is like. So that’s why you get that beautiful, brilliant blue sky. I specifically said ‘listen; make sure that that is an African sky, that it’s something you see over Jo’burg’. Ja, I don’t know why but she’s…she’s got a real gift for colour, that’s here biggest gift. And she nailed it! Ironically, she made the hoodie bright red – I think just as a contrast – but I have a hoodie that exact same shade.


How easy/difficult was it to realise your vision for the album cover to its completion?

Um, working with Sandra was the easiest thing in the entire process. I’ve never worked with somebody who [was] just so eager to get it right. I said ‘okay, how long do you need for this?’ and she’d say ‘right, gimme a week and I’ll come back to you next week with some sketches’, and she did!


Do you feel that the artwork accurately reflects the contents of the album?

I do, and I say this knowing full and well that I made the damn thing! But if I was not familiar with [the artist] and I was buying this album, a few things would immediately spring up from the cover – I’m assuming for the moment that I actually know it’s a hip-hop album. Okay, I’m seeing comic book artwork, [so it’s] probably gonna be an indie emcee; there’s something interesting happening here; this guy’s floating over the city. It looks like a massively bright album with gorgeous colours jumping out at me; that city looks like a place I’d like to explore; I wanna find out what goes on in that city, I wanna find out what goes on in that story. [So] imagine that image as an entry point into the music, it’s a snap of a single moment of a single story in that entire album. It’s saying to the person who looks at it: this is the cover of the comic, open and flick through to see what the story’s about.

What can people expect from the album?

Uh, you can expect an album unlike any album you’ve ever heard before. Er, a lotta’ rappers would say ‘there’s something for everyone’. Well, on this, there’s not something for everyone; this is not for the Lil Wayne listener, this is not for the person who throws on 50 Cent while cruising in the whip down…I don’t know. It’s hip-hop that is enjoyed by sitting back, telling a cool story, and having a blast. So, if you go into it expecting a radio track, super-massive features or a posse cut – not that there’s anything wrong with those – but that’s not what this album is about. This album is about some cool stories and some great music.


Any last words?

Ha! I was very amused that Sandra thought I was black! That was so strange; I didn’t even think to tell her. We’d been communicating on e-mail, we hadn’t Skyped or anything. But to her credit she was like ‘uh, er, yeah, I’ll fix that for you’.



Twitter: @robboffard


Bandcamp: http://robone.bandcamp.com

words by: biz-ark-human