Ghetto Palms: Township Palms pt. III / Kwaito / DJ Cleo Exclusive Interview

February 26, 2009

Township Millionare part three! …and yes this is the last kwaito crusade, at least for the moment, because in the three weeks I’ve taken to focus on South Africa, Jamaica has probably released roughly one billion new dancehall riddims for me to wade true. (Seriously, sometimes they actually give the stuff l away faster than I can steal it)

The final installment in the series is an exclusive interview with kwaito super-producer DJ Cleo, given name Cleophas Moneypao. Though he is neck and neck with Elvis Maswanganyi aka Mujava for best given name in the history of names, there is no contest when it comes to DJ personas — Cleo is the known as the Timbaland of kwaito and is definitely the King of South Africa as far as beats are concerned. This is an extremely abridged version of the convo recorded at his studio somewhere west of Johannesburg in November '07 for the South Africa feature in Fader 52. This is because there were a lot asides that just don’t make sense in transcript form, a lot of him playing beats and running ad libs on the music like “Right here, 1:36…uh! Oh shit, etc.” Also the day before this interview was conducted Gerrard “Gee” Foster and myself spotted a local newspaper headline about Cleo raping a dog which was apparently written by one of his rivals. This naturally provided a lot of disgruntled commentary and jokes that won’t necessarily make sense out of context.

One last note: in re-reading this, Cleo comes off a little cocky but I have to emphasize that he is indeed a giant in his own market (also physically rather tall) and his assessment of his own importance is actually pretty realistic. Furthermore, a few months after making these statements about reviving kwaito and taking it back to it’s dance roots, he did exactly that with a track called “Wena”:

Just start me at the beginning of Kwaito and your involvement in it.

When Kwaito started, I was thirteen. When it officially started I was 13. Kwaito started in ’94, officially, because before that it was very underground. You’ve got the likes Oskido, you’ve got the likes of Arthur and M’du…Firehouse Africa — then it was called Groove City records — releasing some remix of some of the house classics and some original stuff but mainly Kwaito instrumentals. Releasing them on cassette and on CD. I’m talking from ‘90s, ’91, ’92, ’93 and so on. Then you had Groove City 1, 2, 3, 4. Mixmaster, which was 1-9 — my favorite one was 6,7,8. Then you had House Masters and then you had LA Beat, Vol. 1-4. You had Dance City 1-5. I had all those tapes. Whooo. And then you had…the list is endless. But, on the other side, you had everyone singing the songs of struggle because as far as I can remember the country was in, like, a turbulent time. Anything before ’90, I was too young to care. I wasn’t directly affected. No one in my family was kidnapped by the government or anything like that. Or shot, anything like that.

Where did you grow up?

In the East Rand. My family and I were affected by apartheid, but as a blanket. In general. We couldn’t go to multi-racial schools, and – you’re from the States right?


And I guess you guys call it Model C schools. How do you guys do it, Model A, B, and C, right? C being the best?

No we don’t do it like that.

If I had to compare to you guys, with the states you’ve got…everyone speaks English, you know what I mean? So there isn’t much of a difference, the main problem then is racism, you see? Even in the ghetto, the guys speak English. In the suburbs, the guys speak English. In the parliament, the guys speak English. And I’m just talking in General now. Forget the Latino, forget the Puerto Ricans, just in general. Now this side we have a similar situation, but white folks speak English, and anything that’s not white – they speak their own languages. I’m northern Sutu, Brickz is Zulu. So, the most spoken language in the country is English, followed by Zulu. I think Afrikans would squeeze in there somewhere as either the third or the fourth and then you’d have everything else.

So, not only was it a problem Apartheid, but also the fact that to be able to get a decent job you have to know how to speak English. Now, we didn’t get taught the best English in the township schools, if any. You know, we were taught English as a subject, not a language. Now I’ve kind of deviated…what was I talking about? Ah yes, yeah. The turbulent times.

So, the music at the time was struggle music. It was very direct. It’s not a secret that it was black against white, white against black. So the music that was sung at the time was…I’ll give an example with one of your guys, “Shoot George Bush. Shoot George Bush.” You know, “One bullet.” What’s that slogan? One settler, one bullet. A settler being the white folk because this is Africa so they came in the 1850s or 1652. You know, so ‘one settla, one bullet’, ‘kill the boers’ and so on. Unfortunately, as much as there was a message behind those songs, a strong message, a positive message, because we were trying to get out of that situation, those songs are nothing to be proud of now. Not at all. To a certain extent and, I mean, like a small percentage yes, because there were like some sort of motivation and mission statement. Now the mission has been achieved. But it’s nothing to be proud of. If anything, I don’t even play those songs. I have them, but…that’s it. If you don’t know it, good. Because its nothing to be proud of, honestly. So ’94, the elections came, South Africa became a free country, democratic, and black people are in power. That was it. It’s like independence day. The music changed completely. Boom!

Now, black people, we have a say, we have a platform. Now we can sing about whatever we want to sing about. Kwaito was born, you know? Who came up with the term Kwaito? I don’t know. Kwaito just means ‘hot’.

So how did you start making Kwaito. You were already making music when Kwaito came out.

Yes, from the time in ’92, with my friends, with three of my friends. And one of them is the guy who taught me how to program. The band fell through, I joined a gospel band and started doing shows, traveling. It was all overwhelming for me. To an extent that I focused my attention from school to music and actually failed that year. ‘Cause I was just doing shows, open air shows but mainly visiting different churches. I was the youngest in the band, I think in ’92 I was twelve, the next youngest member in the band was eighteen at the time. I had these small hands and I couldn’t wait to grow taller or just three, four years to go by to have my fingers grow longer.

I learned how to program in ’95. And that’s when I started making music basically, like recording music, producing music. And obviously I started with Kwaito.

So what did you start on? Some drum machine? Software?

I was working on a…fuck I don’t remember…I was programming with a Technics keyboard, it’s actually locked up in the other room. ‘Cause I bought the same one six years ago – then I was using my friend’s keyboard. They started making keyboards with sequencers and them, so he showed me how to operate that and I started making music on that. That was it. That was just me doing that over and over and over. So I was convinced this is what I want to do, right from the take, you guys call it…the last year of school…O-Levels or something like that.

Senior year.

Ok. Yea. Um…Then I decided this is what I wanna do. So I went and did my own investigations into what I was gonna study. I came across one of these institutions that offered sound engineering as a course. And prior to that I was interested in doing marketing and doing business management. I don’t know why, it just sounded like the most popular course at the time. So I thought, “Hmmm. What he’s doing. I might as well.” So I came across sound engineering and that was the best revelation. And that was it. Excuse my French but, fuck everything else. This is it. Sound engineering. The pamphlets, it was so…I mean I was sold. Then I went through it and I thought, “Mixing desk. Studio. That’s it.

What was the first track you ever did that came out?

Well, OK, I didn’t sound engineering in ’99, did my second year in 2000. Same year I started working for YFM. He was working at Y at the time and Y was the biggest thing since the elections [laughs]. Since democracy. Even then I wasn’t really working for Y FM. I just got an opportunity to be a guest DJ on one of the shows. And then 2001 I joined Fresh, DJ Fresh, and music had taken a back seat because for me then I was just making contacts and connections. You know, networking. And I met the right people at the right time and I did my first Kwaito beat in 2000…like professionally in the music industry…in 2002. Twelfth of November or something like that. That was with an artist formally known as Mzekezeke the Masked Man. I mean, I listen to the song and it’s actually…it’s a nice song it’s a popular song, but the production on it, it’s not the best production, but I knew nothing about studio time so I worked...the approach I took in producing the song was the simplest and most basic. But the song worked, you know?

So what do you say about the state of Kwaito right now…?

Yea man. I did an interview for Kwaito, all about Kwaito about two weeks ago. I was asked, “Why do you think Kwaito is dying?” And unfortunately, I’ve always been one to say, “Kwaito will never die. Oh, Kwaito will never die.” I still stand by that – Kwaito will never die – but, yes, Kwaito is weak right now. Some people goes, “Guys are just not creative enough. Guys are not putting as much effort into it.” Guys are not putting any effort into it.

Do you think there’s something else that’s hot – house music or something that’s taking over the market and do you react to that?

Well, I do Kwaito, hip-hop and house. In my personal capacity I do house, and then for my artists and used to do for other artists out there was Kwaito and hip-hop.

Does that make you wanna get inspired through house more?

No, no, it’s inspired me to wanna do Kwaito more. And release my own Kwaito album.

I guess I kind of want to get a sense of…’cause I think Kwaito is going through a stage that – not that they’re the same or parallel – but hip-hop has been through something like that. Where there’s an underground music and it was for a small community and then became a big phenomenon and had to find itself with a mass market – what does that mean? At some point, it was the club music and then it became pop music that people listen to and watch the video. It’s gone through changes like that. So I guess, as the guy who’s making it and saying, “No, fuck that. I’m making Kwaito.” Like what direction do you think it’s gonna go?

Whatever direction I take it to.

But that’s why I’m asking you. Like, where are you going to take it to?

I took it to the left, now I’m gonna take it to the right. [Laughs— Brickz’ “Left, Right” produced by Cleo was the biggest kwaito song in SA at the time]. I don’t know, man, I can’t describe it in words man. It’s just gonna happen, you know. The market is at a point where unless I release something, guys don’t release. ‘Cause they’re waiting to see, “What’s he gonna come up with. What’s he gonna come up with.” And it’s not me being arrogant, it’s a reality, it’s just that maybe guys won’t admit to it. It’s reality because I do the same. I wait and see but I don’t wait forever, till November. I wait till I can’t wait no more, then I drop. It’s just being strategic, that’s why in sports you have spies. Spies to see who is Alex Ferguson gonna field this week. Let’s go to the training session, you know?

Do you hold stuff back? Like, I mean, some producers ask something like, they’ll do a beat and it’s too out there and it’s too crazy for people and then they wait for like two years and then people are ready for it.

I’m at a point where I don’t have to. I can drop and fucking lead the pack, you know.

So you think where you’re going now is kind of stripping down to that essence.

I’m taking it back. I’m honestly taking it back. I think the impression that my music has given the masses is that we’re taking Kwaito back to where…cause that’s the feedback I’m getting, you know. We’re taking Kwaito back to its roots. When Kwaito was Kwaito. It was danceable, not just a song to listen to and listen to the message. Kwaito is dance music. It was a beat before anything. Kwaito is one-liners. “Ay! An-Day!” (repeats) That was Kwaito. Five minute song, that’s all the guy sings.

But it’s since changed because after awhile it came under heavy scrutiny. “It’s cheap music! It’s one liners!” Then guys started the whole hits…what is like a classic…

It worked because the music was new. It was dance music.

[Keeps shuffling through beats]
So you wanna take it back to that simplicity or just to that club feel?

Beat, music-wise, take it back to that era. And then simplicity…maybe just one or two songs. Just to reminisce. But, you know, it’s true that Kwaito is dying. It is dying a slow death. I just want to revive it, throw the dance and just put as much effort into it as it needs.

(plays a marching beat on the table) I think that’s the nicest groove ever discovered on planet earth. You know, ‘cause the kick just gives the rhythm and the snare in-between. That’s the simplest, nicest groove.

From The Collection:

Ghetto Palms
Ghetto Palms: Township Palms pt. III / Kwaito / DJ Cleo Exclusive Interview