Droppin’ Knowledge: 03CAS, Hip Hop’s Monet, Creates Painterly, Impressionistic Music That Defies Easy Categorization

When the musician and experimental hip hop iconoclast 03CAS emigrated from South Africa to the United Kingdom, he landed at London’s Heathrow Airport with little more than the clothes on his back.

“It was the first time I was on a plane,” recalled the artist, born Caleb Mateus, as he recently recounted his early days in London. “I kind of went in blindly. I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

Mateus, who goes by the nickname Cas, remembers well the night he arrived. It was raining. He knew three people in the city, none of whom met him at the airport. His phone died. Leaving Heathrow, he bought a ticket on the wrong bus line. Eventually, he borrowed a stranger’s cell phone, called one of the people he knew and his acquaintance picked him up at a bus stop and brought him home to a drab London suburb. There, he spent six months sleeping under a staircase, a scenario reminiscent of a certain and popular teenage wizard. You know, the kid with the lightning bolt scar on his forehead. Mateus’s bedroom wasn’t a cupboard, exactly, but it certainly wasn’t a room in a four star hotel. A half star. Maybe.

Like Harry Potter, the twenty-six year old artist’s time under the staircase ended abruptly, but that end wasn’t triggered by some magical intervention or a visit from a large man with unruly hair and a brushy beard. What happened was much more prosaic: his friend’s mom decided that she wanted him out.

“I didn’t know where to go,” Mateus said. “But then, one day, they just locked me out. I managed to find quick accommodations on-line and I just stayed there.”

Photos by Jiggydontspeak, courtesy of 03CAS

Mateus’s fortunes have changed considerably since that rainy night. He recently signed a record deal with Los Angeles based label Future Gods. He became a father, and named his son after Brooklyn rapper Ka, an artist he admires. And today he released his new single as 03CAS, “Osa Lovely,” a beautiful, atmospheric song, filled with longing and desire, and with an aesthetic immediately recognizable, one that defines the artist he has now become. The single is exclusively available at Backseat Mafia. (On July 2nd, the song will drop on all major streaming services, world wide.)

Scott Smith, who runs London’s A Vivid Line, an art direction and graphic design studio, met Mateus when Smith ran a vintage clothing store with his girlfriend, called Nordic Poetry, on Bethnal Green Road. Smith’s girlfriend hired Mateus to work in the shop. As their friendship grew over time, Smith came to recognize that Mateus possessed an intangible quality, both as an artist and in the art that he created, a quality that Smith summarized as the “forced investigation” of the human condition. Smith believed that this quality was something the best artists nurture and develop over the course of their careers in order to stay true to their art. To Smith, this quality was already present in Mateus when he started to work at the shop. “Cas has an outsider soul in abundance,” Smith wrote in an email.

Over the course of their relationship, Smith began to appreciate that Mateus had embarked on a deeply personal journey with his art. According to Smith, Mateus was engaged in “dissecting the human condition, driving towards enlightenment through self-expression, whether he wants to or not. What you hear [in his music] pushes you to engage with him, and ask questions. “

“Cas won’t give you what you want,” Smith said. “He’ll give you what you need, even if it means he has to suffer to do so. To me, that’s an artist.”

The music Mateus creates as 03CAS has an ineffable quality to it; there’s an ache in it, and a gauzy melancholy that draws you in, but it does so without sentimentality or pretense. The songs are light, but not insubstantial; they’re short, but lyrically dense, with an eye for detail, and a boundlessness, the way a day can feel at the height of summer. Mateus deliberately composes with the intent to defy time and space and epoch. He doesn’t curse in his songs, and avoids contemporary references of the moment, like memes or trending topics on social media.

“I’ve always written with the intention that I want someone to be able to read [the lyrics] one hundred years from now, and say, okay, this is poetry. I’m always trying to do something poetic.”

There’s also a painterly quality to his songs; they’re impressionistic in their prose and in their scope. He’s hip hop’s Monet at Giverny, using color and texture in his music to achieve different responses from his listeners. Mateus’s music is compelling in its quiet power; it seduces you, even if you can’t describe exactly what it is that captured your attention.

This vibe and sound was not a happy accident. For years, Mateus keenly observed life around him. He absorbed the music that he heard, and he read widely, citing the American writer Raymond Carver and the French poet Comte de Lautréamont as major influences. He also cites the bands Yuck and Mt. Eerie and minimalist pioneer La Monte Young as artists who’s sound and feel moved him. Along the way, he borrowed elements from a variety of different genres and artistic traditions and synthesized these elements over time. He laid the foundation before he started to build the house, a characteristic uncommon in today’s fame driven world.

Mateus struggled for years while he patiently worked on his art, experimenting with his voice, his writing and his music, until he finally settled into a sound that felt true to his vision and stood on its own. With encouragement from Scott Smith, for example, Mateus decided to emphasize his South African accent when he rapped and sang, instead of smoothing it out. As an artist, and with an artist’s eye, he searched and he listened, and, with his first single, “Moscow,” he realized that he had found what he was looking for, a sound uniquely his, distilled from everything he had learned. With “Osa Lovely,” he began to perfect that sound. Or, as Mateus put it, “I stumbled on the voice I needed.” He may have stumbled, but it was accidentally on purpose, a product of his dedication and vision.

Mateus was born in Durban, a port city on South Africa’s east coast, on the Indian Ocean and home to almost four million people. His parents are devoutly religious and church was a central part of his life until he entered high school and he began to question some of the things he had been taught from a young age. When Mateus was twelve, his family moved to Pietermaritzburg (PMB). (The city’s local phone code is 033.) In 1892, PMB was made infamous as the place where Mahatma Gandhi was kicked off a train for sitting in the white’s only section. Up until high school, Mateus regularly attended church and weekly prayer meetings, as well as church’s youth activities. His parents aren’t fanatical; he was allowed to listen to music, but the church played a large role in the life of his family, and much of his free time was devoted to church events. To this day, his parents send him recordings of prayers and scripture, and many of those recordings end up as samples in his songs, adding an affecting poignancy and heft. The title track of the EP released in April, Cindy, features his mom reciting Psalm 91: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

In high school, Mateus staged a relatively modest rebellion. He implored his parents to let him leave the expensive religious school he had attended for two years and switch to another school. He was getting into a bit of trouble, growing out his hair and challenging the beliefs on which he had been raised. He ultimately transferred to an institution he called a reform/correspondence school, where there were no teachers and students were responsible for educating themselves. The experience was a shock, culturally and academically. “That was probably the worst decision I made in terms of education,” Mateus said. In terms of his growth as an artist, however, the change in schools seemed to have been a tipping point and it led to a kind of epiphany. He reassessed who he was and where he was going and became determined to pursue his artistic ambitions.

Mateus then made a brave and radical decision. He would leave behind everything he knew, venture out and pursue life somewhere else; in his case, he would follow his muse. Every day, all over the world, people make similar choices at great personal risk, to go forth into the unknown, but this fact doesn’t make the choice any less brave or radical.

Most of us, as Thoreau said, lead lives of quiet desperation, but Mateus was not quite ready for that yet.

“I decided, let me move out of South Africa,” Mateus said. “There’s nothing going on [there]. There was nothing really career-wise, or anything. I just decided to leave.”

Jiggy don’t speak. Jiggy-don’t-speak. But Jiggydontspeak, the artist born Issa Kunda, can rap and sing, and he skateboards and talks, too. One day, the London-based artist, who is originally from New Zealand, walked into Nordic Poetry, the vintage clothing shop where Mateus worked. He noticed that Mateus had a skateboard stowed behind the counter. The two began to chat and they discovered that they had similar, eclectic tastes in music. They both listened to bands such as Fall Out Boy and blink-182, and were fond of other pop punk groups and emo, as well as hip hop. The friendship developed into a modest, but promising mutual musical support group. “We first started recording in my flat, with a cracked version of Logic, [with] some Apple earphones as the mic and [we] used a bandana as a pop filter,” Kunda wrote in an email. Around that time, they also met two other emerging London artists, Lingani, another South African transplant, and Elijah Aike. The four musicians started to regularly hang out. Eventually, they decided to make some music together, and to support and inspire each other’s art as much as they could.

“I would [say] Cas’s music [is] very experimental, lyrical rap. His word play is poetic and [he has a] strong influence of South African and London culture, [which] makes it a lot more digestible and interesting compared to other  ‘experimental’ artists,'” Kunda said. Mateus also came up with the idea of a lifestyle brand and record label called BOUR. “[S]ince 2018, we have been documenting and representing ourselves under those four letters such as BOUR RECORDS or BOURWORLD RECORDS or, as a tag I say in some of the intros to my tracks, ‘Yo this is that BOUR shit.’ BOUR is not us represented as a group,” Kunda explained, “but an idea we wanted to push and propel into the future, whether that’s in music, fashion or both.”

Jiggy sang the hook and bridge on an unreleased song, “Ice Cream,” and Aike contributed a memorable, last verse on “Osa Lovely,” Mateus’s current single.

the song “Moscow” established the template. “Dirt Bike – Demo,” the second single Mateus released in 2021, reinforced Mateus’s new found aesthetic. The song features a similar woozy, off-kilter sound, and it’s bright, but with a hint of sadness and loss which lingers just below the surface. In “Dirt Bike – Demo,” Mateus uses repetition when he raps – “summer ’19 my eyes, summer ’19 my eyes” – until the phrase becomes a mantra; It steels him and helps him maintain his equilibrium in the face of the personal challenges he confronts. “When I wrote it, I had really bad OCD. OCD affects your relationships,” Mateus said about the song. “For me, I was trying to speak words of affirmation about my relationship.”

“Osa Lovely,” Mateus’s new single, which you can listen to here, is where years of work, study, patience and sacrifice came to fruition. It is where he fully realized his sound as an artist, at this place in his life, and in this moment in time. Mateus has always been self-conscious about his art and like many artists, that sense of self-doubt can gnaw at him and undermine his confidence. When “Moscow” became available on streaming services, Mateus initially found the experience “nerve wracking. I was nervous. I was super, super self-conscious about my voice. I was thinking ‘no one’s going to fucking like this.’ My voice is too high. No one can even listen to the lyrics.”

Then, “Moscow” generated some buzz, particularly at one, well known music publication. (Editor’s note: Or, as we say at BSM, “the music site who must not be named.”) “For the first time, someone listened to it and tried to understand it,” Mateus said about reactions to the song. “I felt really appreciative of someone listening to it and taking the time to try and decode what I was saying.”

“Osa Lovely” came about almost by accident. Mateus recorded the song before “Moscow,” and his friends tried to convince him to release “Osa” first. “It’s a good song,” Mateus said to his friends, “but it was not the exact sound I’m going for.” He had been laboring over some songs, including “Summer,” an unreleased track which uses Mateus’s singing voice to great effect. He went to see his friends with the hope that they could jar his creative brain, and shake things up. When he arrived at the house it was “hot” with the smell of weed. Mateus joined his friends and waited for the inspiration to flow. “I was out of my mind,” he recalled. Mateus doesn’t drink or use drugs but the weed smoke was so loud, he felt like he had a contact high. Or maybe, the moment is simply illuminated in his memory, lit by the force of the creativity that visited him that day.

“We were on the internet, searching for beats and we found the beat that became ‘Osa Lovely.’ I said this beat fucking sucks, and then Elijah [Aike] said, ‘nah, this is a good beat,'” Mateus remembered about that day. “And I said, ‘okay, I trust your ear.'”

“After I recorded that, I was in a room full of people and I saw everyone’s reaction to it. I try not to be swayed by people. But that was like, wow, I think I’ve stumbled upon something. People were telling me it was such a unique voice, you really stand out with it. To me, it sounded like me, but it [also] sounded like an alter-ego of me.”

“Osa” begins with a gently plucked guitar, loaded with reverb. Then an airy keyboard loop rises and falls while Mateus finds his voice. Gentle percussion kicks in over the loop. The sound is ethereal, graceful and warm, an idyll for a summer day. But at the twenty-five second mark, when Mateus raps the first bars of the song, the tension between the sound and the lyrics is palpable: “Fat from the blood/You cats/Come/Rats by the drum/Snubbed, B/Slaps/Waps to your tum/I cried liters, B.” The song is beautiful, painfully so, with a sense of yearning and pathos, that seeps under your skin and settles there. Somehow, when the song ends, the quiet in its wake feels deeper, your senses feel more acute, and ripe with purpose.

“I was going through some stuff,” Mateus said about the song. What it means, “I’ll kind of leave it up to you.”

Mateus is working on new music and he envisions an album’s worth of material, where he sings and incorporates more “noise” and samples into his art. He’s been listening to bands like Slowdive and Galaxie 500 and even Tom Waits. The tentative name of the project is Immigrant, a word that is especially evocative to him and is, in many ways of the moment; “immigrant” can mean different things to different people, the word threatening to some, but filled with promise to others.

“All the times I failed to imitate someone else,” Mateus said, reflecting on his journey, “I found myself being the most original. But now I’m no longer imitating. I know how I sound, I know what my voice sounds like. It’s not something you can teach, or even explain. It just comes naturally.” And with hard work.

As 03CAS, Caleb Mateus is finally home. He’s not sleeping in a cupboard any more.

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