There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Dumisani J. Ndlovu is looking for his notebook. It’s not on the desk where his computer sits under the watchful eyes of a DMC statue. Or on top of the electronic whatsis he uses to make beats. He slides open a set of doors that leads to a storage area in the basement of his Springfield, Va., home and rummages through some boxes. Not there either. He gets a little panicked.
He can’t lose the notebook.
It might as well be the third member of O.U.O, the hiphop act that the 33-year-old Ndlovu and his cousin Pep Sanyangore have been working on since around 2000. It’s got lyrics. It’s got plans: lists of folks to call, record stores to hit and talk to about the group’s recently released full-length, radio stations to contact about getting O.U.O on the air. It’s full of ideas: thoughts that bubble up when Ndlovu is driving to or from his day job as a management consultant.
Ndlovu disappears upstairs to keep looking. He comes back down with a bound, black-and-white-specked composition number. “O.U.O” is written on the front, high-school-doodle-style. He hands it over.
“Don’t look through all of these,” he says. “I don’t want you to get all the secrets.”
Not that any of what’s in Ndlovu’s book is really all that worthy of his-eyes-only protection. And Ndlovu sounds like he’s kidding, mostly. But he has good reason for being a bit secretive: He wouldn’t want to give away the details of his comeback before he’s had the chance to make it.
In the early ’90s, Ndlovu and his brother Akim burst onto the hiphop scene just when it seemed to need them most. The Ndlovus didn’t have to create Afrocentric identities for themselves to fit in with the then-dominant Native Tongues movement: They’d spent years surviving on scraps of U.S. hiphop culture in Zimbabwe. They rapped about being “true ethnic brother[s] from Africa” and pondered whether “to bead or not to bead.” For promo shots, Akim wore traditional dress and Dumisani—aka Dumi Right—wore an expression of dead seriousness. They called themselves Zimbabwe Legit, and they were. Zulu Nation? These guys had lived next door.
“People were feeling it,” says Ndlovu of the days when his group was on the brink of stardom.
When the stardom didn’t come, Ndlovu didn’t get hard, don bling, and go solo. Instead, he went back to school and got on with his life, working on his music when he could. He scribbled in his notebook a lot. And he bided his time. “Hiphop always goes in cycles,” he says. “Around when we were coming out with that project, it was the Afrocentric era…and then the next trend was the gangsta trend. It was all about the West and the slow beats.”
Despite the 11-year span between his last major-label deal and the present, Ndlovu doesn’t think the trends have completely left him behind. After all, look at DJ Screw, whose slowed-down style took a good decade to go national, or MF Doom, whose metal-masked profile has only increased since he split with Elektra back in the early ’90s.
“I think now, if anything,” Ndlovu offers, “people are even more ready for unorthodox projects.”
Ndlovu isn’t sure where he first heard hiphop. Or exactly which artist opened his ears to the genre—maybe Kurtis Blow, maybe the Sugar Hill Gang. But he remembers what drew him in: “It was the stories…the intricacy of the words, the wordplay,” he says. “It was more relevant to us than pop.”
It wasn’t easy, but Ndlovu and his friends managed to keep up with U.S. hiphop, trading tapes filled with the stuff, he says, “like kids used to trade baseball cards.” Mantronix, Public Enemy, Grand Master Flash—they’d work together to get what they needed. “A lot of the key, you know, the important releases in the chronicles of hiphop we got somehow, some way,” Ndlovu says. “And it’s not like it was just available. It was like, Oh, LL Cool J dropped. We need to get it.”
Ndlovu had moved to Zimbabwe from Syracuse, N.Y., in 1979, first living in Bulawayo, then in the capital city of Harare. Because his mother had a job with the University of Zimbabwe, he was in the fortunate position of having a family member who could shop for him in European stores. “She’d travel to Geneva or to London,” he recalls, “and I’d be like, ‘Ma, Run-DMC. Go to the store; just tell them. They’ll know what you’re talking about.’”
Sometimes Ndlovu or his friends would score a copy of the Source. It wasn’t yet the heavyweight it would become, but the magazine was a wealth of information about hiphop, providing the teenagers of Harare with another link to the culture they were so enamored of. It also made Ndlovu his first industry connection.
At the end of his monthly column, Source writer David “Funkenklein” Klein listed his home address in New York. When Ndlovu and another friend began writing him letters, in the late ’80s, their timing couldn’t have been better: U.S. hiphop was growing in stature and getting serious—and trending Afrocentric. When Klein heard that there was actually interest on the continent—not just in hearing the music, but also in making it, as Ndlovu and his brother had started to do—he decided to do what he could to nurture it. He wrote the boys back and sent them promo copies of the latest American CDs.
But Klein could potentially offer much more than moral support: The writer was also an A&R man who’d worked with such soon-to-be-legends as Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers. “I was like, ‘Think about it,’” says Ndlovu, “‘This guy’s running a production company.’”
Trouble was, the techniques Ndlovu and Akim were using were pretty primitive. A friend would bring over a boom box, which the brothers and their friends would use for playback as another was used to record the raps they laid down over the prerecorded music. “I don’t know what he’ll think if he hears [it],” Ndlovu remembers thinking of Klein.
So the Ndlovus headed to a “rudimentary” studio to record a batch of demos to send to Klein. The writer was impressed with what he heard. Still, he couldn’t really offer help until Zimbabwe Legit got stateside. “‘As soon as you get over to the U.S.,’” Ndlovu says Klein told him, “‘look me up.’”
In 1990, Ndlovu enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va. Again, he found himself nowhere near the epicenter of the now-exploding hiphop movement. But at least there wasn’t an ocean between him and his passion. And Ndlovu’s brother was already in Binghamton, N.Y., less than four hours from New York City. When he could, Ndlovu took a Greyhound north and recorded with Akim. They used an analog four-track and made beats with a Roland drum machine. Other sounds came from keyboards, not samplers or computers. They got together another tape and contacted Klein.
At the time, Klein was about to begin a stint at Hollywood Basic, a subsidiary of the major label that’s currently home to the likes of Hilary Duff and Breaking Benjamin. Klein’s label was to be the outlet for Hollywood’s hiphop artists, which then included the Digital Underground–related Raw Fusion, Pharoahe Monch’s Organized Konfusion, and a young Peanut Butter Wolf. He signed the brothers, soon to be known as Zimbabwe Legit, found a producer—Black Sheep’s Mista Lawnge—and sent them into a real studio: Calliope, the one De La Soul used.
A four-song EP was released on Basic in late 1992. Klein had tapped the then-unknown DJ Shadow to do a remix. A video and a trip to Japan followed. But by then, the Ndlovus’ mentor was succumbing to the cancer that had afflicted him for the past eight years. He was soon unable to function as the advocate for Zimbabwe Legit, and though Ndlovu and his brother had recorded an album’s worth of material while under contract for the major, Hollywood declined to release it.
“We went to L.A.; we were chilling at the Soul Train Awards,” says Ndlovu. “[But] that label ended up folding. The guy who ran the label ended up passing away. [There were] just a lot of complications to where things just kind of never quite blew up.”
Ndlovu walked away in 1994. He finished his undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech and, in 1997, began graduate studies at George Mason University. He got an MBA, got married, and had kids. Akim headed for New York and a career in multimedia performance art. Their album went into the vaults.
Hiphop historian and writer Peter Agoston says that Klein’s illness was the only thing holding Zimbabwe Legit back. “I think that if they had the right platform…they probably could have developed into not just an average rap group,” he says. “[But] I don’t think the industry allowed them to grow and mature as artists.”
There is evidence for Agoston’s assertion. The success of other artists close to Klein is part of it. So is the legendary status Zimbabwe Legit’s music has earned among the heads—not only the EP, which last year received the ultimate record-nerd tribute of getting bootlegged, but also the unreleased album. “If it had come out in ’93, it would have stood in the cannon of the great hiphop albums of the early ’90s,” says Jay Sonic, owner of Los Angeles–based Glow in the Dark Records.
Sonic had heard through the indie-hiphop grapevine that there were Zimbabwe Legit recordings that “had never seen the light of day.” At first, he was interested only in hearing the stuff. But conversations with Ndlovu eventually led him to give the great lost Legit album, Brothers From the Mother, a legit release. In June, Sonic pressed 6,000 copies; a Japanese licensing deal brings the worldwide total to somewhere around 10,000. Sonic admits that these numbers may not allow for “widespread impact,” but he does promise, “Now that it’s here, it’s here to stay.”
On Aug. 4, Dumi and Akim took the stage as Zimbabwe Legit for the first time since the breakup. The show was on a Thursday, and Dumi Ndlovu had to be back at work that Friday by 1 p.m. But he says it was worth it: He got to see some old friends, there was a “decent turnout,” and the group got to perform tracks such as the Ndebele-laced “Doin’ Damage in My Native Language” (“Uyabhaiza, that means ‘You’re trippin’”) to folks who could actually buy the product. Another date is set for Nov. 25 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Ndlovu hopes the return of Zimbabwe Legit will focus some attention on O.U.O—which finally released its own full-length this year, too. There’s nothing all that revolutionary about Of Unknown Origin. It’s a throwback—a reminder that there is more to hiphop than posturing and posing. In other words, it’s exactly the thing fans of Dumi Right might like to hear. And he still believes he has a shot at breaking through. Ndlovu says that taking his music to the top is still “one of the driving forces behind it.”
Of course, the O.U.O album didn’t get the splash it might have with the help of a publicity agent, but Ndlovu doesn’t mind. He’s been there before. “Getting close to the mountaintop is not easy, but you can get there,” he says. “And then it’s like that next step is as hard as getting all the way to where you got.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.