Devoted to the dance floor

Hugh Masekela was at a hot party in new York in 1972 “dancing with some fine lady when, suddenly, the song Stimela just came to me, so I had to say ‘excuse me’ and go to the piano in the room next door, and I started singing it”. Stimela is now a classic. Fast-forward to today and the searing track about the trials and tribulations of migrant workers in South African mines is rocking dance floors across the nation.

“I was so impressed by his vision,” says the jazz legend about Black-coffee, the 30-year-old DJ and producer who beat heavyweight DJs/producers Cleo and Christos, among others, for this year’s South African Music Award for best dance.

“What blew me away was that someone could put Stimela into that kind of a feel,” says Masekela. The 68-year-old Masekela is so enthused he jives in Blackcoffee’s music video and roped Blackcoffee in to produce a hip-hop group on his label, Chissa Records. According to Masekela, “he’s not just a good DJ, he’s a really good musician, too”.

It’s not only Masekela’s track that has been given a fresh new twist. Listen to the radio or go to a club nowadays and you’re sure to hear a familiar track that sounds rather different: Italian opera star Andrea Bocelli, Eighties diva Cyndi Lauper, locals such as Johnny Clegg, Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai, Freshlyground and even spoken word poets such as Ntsiki Mazwai are all house groovy now.

South Africans have loved house music since the early 1990s, so mining deep into music archives has added spice to an already hot genre. This was evident in 2002, when DJ Oskido and Bruce Sibitlo’s crew, Brothers of Peace, created a new version of the Mahotella Queens’ Melodi. They called it Meropa, put it on their Zabalaza: Project B album and watched the dance floors burn. The following year, house DJ duo Revolution’s remix of Philip Thabane’s 1973 track, Vhavenda, propelled their The Journey to bestselling album of the year.

It’s not always a case of new discovering old, though. Years ago Maskandi diva Busi Mhlongo introduced three Durban boys, who call themselves Shana, to the head of Melt 2000 Records. He promptly signed them. Blackcoffee is part of Shana, and the meeting turned out to be pivotal to his career.

Last year, Melt 2000 boss Robert Trunz asked Blackcoffee to remix the label’s catalogue. More recently, Blackcoffee decided to move across to kwaito king Oskido’s Kalawa Jazzmee Records. The result is Black-coffee’s self-titled debut solo album, which features Mabe Thobejane, Busi Mhlongo, Shana and Mafikizolo, Brothers of Peace, Thandiswa Mazwai and, of course, Masekela.

One track he did not manage to include was Simphiwe Dana’s Ndiredi. She heard his remix of her song Ndiredi on the radio and demanded it be taken off air. “I’m trying to introduce a certain sound to the people and that [remix] was contradicting what I was trying to do with [my debut album] Zandisile,” says Dana.

“I didn’t mean for it to be played on radio without asking her,” says Blackcoffee. “I didn’t want to spoil our relationship. I made the song and took it to her label, Gallo, so they could ask her if she was cool with it.” But, before Dana was even approached, the song was already steaming up dance floors and getting radio rotation. “I gave the track to a friend and suddenly it was all over the place,” says Blackcoffee, about how the song was leaked.

Even more explosive was the remix of Freshlyground’s ballad I’d Like. Unlike the Dana remix, an unknown person pressed vinyl records of the song and they were on sale—with none of the profits from this bootleg remix going to the band.

“We tried to get permission,” says the producer of the bootleg, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We did tell someone at their label about it, but they refused. If you’re some unknown DJ, they basically tell you to fuck off. But then it leaked and club DJs started to play it. Fresh (exYfm and soon-to-be-5fm DJ) played it on radio first. If something is rocking on dance floors, then of course DJs are going to play it on radio!” But he maintains that he had nothing to do with pressing the song on vinyl and then selling it at Soul Candi Records in Rosebank.

Rumours circulated around town that Lance McCormack of Sony/BMG sent the cops to Soul Candi because they were selling the bootleg. “I didn’t, but I should have,” he says. “I did, however, report them to Risa’s [Recording Industry of South Africa] piracy department. But as far as I know, they haven’t done anything.”

Illegal products are something of a norm on the dance scene. “All the record stores get at least five international bootlegs a week,” says Soul Candi director Harael Salkow, who claims he doesn’t know who pressed the I’d Like remix.

DJ Euphonik, who also deals with A&R and licensing at Soul Candi, breaks down the way his culture works. “There are hundreds of DJs out there waiting to pounce on songsthey can remix. We all play the same records, so everyone wants something different, which is where bootlegs and remixes come in. If you come with a song people know, but your own remix, and you rock the dance floor, that’s what you’ll be remembered for.”

Even Johnny Clegg is reluctantly in the mix on the recently released Heart of the Dancer. This album has a chilled out, Buddha Bar feel and features electronica with a little kwaito and R&B thrown in. It’s the creation of Hilton Rosenthal. He produced and published the original tracks, so has the right to remix them. He managed to convince his friend, Clegg, who says: “When the whole remix culture came out in the 1980s, I was against it. I come from the old tradition and I used to resist the idea of changing any note of the song just to get people jumping. It’s cannibalising.

“I’m a singer-songwriter who is interested in moods and quality. I’m not a dance music fan but, after a lot of fights, I gave the album my blessing. Rosenthal hopes “that origi-nal Johnny Clegg and Juluka followers will embrace the album, but would also like to introduce these wonderful songs to a new generation of fans.”

Major labels are waking up to the possibilities. They have to when an artist like DJ Cleo sells 160 000 copies of an album propelled by an Andrea Bocelli mix.

Aside from producing a hip-hop crew on Bra Hugh’s label, Blackcoffee has been approached by Joyous Celebration, Mina Nawe and a host of others. “They thought we were just fucking around and making noise before. Now they see that they can make money from this. We’ve been approached by major labels who are giving us access to their catalogue. They didn’t realise the power of the DJ and the power of the streets. They do now.”

Hugh Masekela plays at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, on June 9 and 10 at 8pm

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