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Sketchy Bongo: I don’t want to be famous

2017-04-02 06:03
Sketchy Bongo (Photo: Supplied)

Cape Town - One of South Africa’s most prominent music producers and DJs right now is 27-year-old Yuvir Pillay, who we all know as Sketchy Bongo.

I meet Sketchy (not wearing his iconic ski mask this time) at the Urban Park Hotel in Durban, where the maker of some of the hottest songs on the airwaves arrives with his long-time friend and fellow member of artistic collective Wolf Pack, Arnold “Aewon Wolf” Phillips. New signee Kaien Cruz, who Aewon discovered on Instagram, is also there, and I’m told that another new member of the pack named Khumz – who Sketchy describes as a ridiculously talented future R&B and trap soul artist – will join us later.

You’ll be familiar with Sketchy’s work on worldwide hits such as Let You Know, Back to the Beach, Cold Shoulder and All About It – songs that got the attention of mega dance labels Ultra Music and Sony Music and eventually got Sketchy a record deal.

He’s worked with and created hit singles for Aewon Wolf, Locnville, Shekhinah, Kyle Deutsch, Danny K, Nasty C, Tresor, Jimmy Nevis, Ryki and AKA, among others, and through his work evidently enjoys shaping what South African music will sound like.

I ask him about his name.

“I had the name Sketchy Bongo before the mask. It was a result of rebranding myself and doing Google searches to find a name that had no search results, and at the time, Sketchy Bongo was the one.”

Not too long ago, he released his debut album, Unmasked, which has been doing exceptionally well on digital charts, peaking at number six on iTunes with the single Love Me in the Dark – featuring Kaien Cruz – at number five on the singles charts.

Before the mask

With Michael Jackson as his greatest musical influence, Sketchy started deejaying by playing his own songs in Durban clubs after event organiser and club DJ George Kretsos offered him a spot on one of his line-ups in 2012. But the composer didn’t just start his career a few years ago, he’s been producing beats and making hip-hop with Aewon and Slikour of Skwatta Kamp since the age of 13. “I started playing piano at a young age. My dad actually bought a piano and wanted my sister and I to play it. She didn’t like it at all, but I loved it, and kept it going, and that started my life as a music maker.”

“In 2003, when I was in Grade 8 – that’s when I started producing music. We were working with Skwatta Kamp – Slikour used to mentor us when we were in school. We used to drive to Joburg and stay at his house. He schooled us on everything,” says Sketchy. Fast forward to a decade later, where the digital world has made it easier for those wanting to get their music out there. Sketchy began uploading videos and songs to YouTube and SoundCloud, which garnered thousands of hits online.

Though he may be a major producer in the local scene, the mask was a way for him to shy away from the spotlight. He explains that the masked persona he’s become recognised for was born impulsively before a video shoot. “Sheen Skaiz, who I work with, was shooting the music video for his track Gusheshe [freestyle] – he had a ski mask in the car and I put it on as a prop. That became Sketchy Bongo.”

While many musicians yearn for the fame and popularity earned by making hits, Sketchy takes a more humble approach.

“When artists are seen in public, they sometimes get mobbed by fans who want to take pictures with them. I didn’t have to deal with that. I don’t want to be famous. I’m focused on music, focused on art and focused on business,” he says.

“My fans who follow my social media have seen me without a mask plenty of times, so I chose the title Unmasked for my album because I found this picture that Aewon Wolf took of me in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and I liked it as my album cover. I was unmasked and I thought that would also be a thought-provoking title.”

That Durban feeling

Sketchy Bongo is part of Durban movement The Wolf Pack, a creative collective consisting of local singers, rappers, kwaito artist, video directors and even graphic designers that are putting Durban music on the map.

“I love Durban, so I don’t want to leave,” says Aewon. “I just don’t like the vibes that I get when I’m in Joburg for too long. I feel that, when you’re there, you get caught up and focus on the wrong things. It’s just so business-orientated – meeting after meeting – where here the focus is more on the music.”

The Wolf Pack is also ushering in the era of releasing albums digitally, as many of their songs are available only on online platforms such as iTunes.

When asked how they’ve managed to sustain their careers despite not living in Joburg (which is considered the entertainment hub of the country), or how they managed not to fall victim to the fishbowl entertainment industry like Capetonian music artists have, the two say they think Cape Town is going to catch on soon. “With Durban it was the perfect timing, it’s where the market was focusing. In Cape Town the music is different and it takes longer to get other cities to become familiar with that sound.”

Aewon says the Pack has been able to sustain financial stability because they treat their craft like a proper job. “I wake up in the morning like any other person would for work and the first thing I do is open my emails, taking care of my own paperwork, music submissions, relying on one another’s strength, bouncing ideas off one another.”

“There are so many Durban artists that are blowing up now, Nasty C and Gemini are from here – they are all part of Wolf Pack – and we still work with them. Compared with them, we broke out sitting in a room and simply putting our work out on Twitter. We’d search for the contact details of radio stations and submit our music ourselves. Sure, it didn’t work the first time, until Yfm played one of our songs. We trust ourselves more than to outsource things,” says Sketchy.

The story of Back to the Beach

South Africa doesn’t have big pop artists (besides in the Afrikaans market), so when Shekhinah and Kyle Deutsch’s hit Back to the Beach dropped, it was easy for them to dominate the market across the board.

“That track we entrusted to a label to do all the work for us, and they didn’t do anything. They said the song was more adult contemporary and better suited for a white audience, so they never sent it to the likes of Yfm, Metro FM and Gagasi FM – and that’s when we realised even if we’ve got someone submitting for us, we should still do it ourselves,” says Sketchy. “Anyone not involved with that song in any way wouldn’t understand it the way we do, which is why we decided to push our own label. We also didn’t know what we were doing, but now we do.

“As a pop artist, you won’t exist unless you’re known in the black market by doing a collaboration with a hip-hop artist. Wolf Pack members are all in different markets, so we’re able to get awareness almost everywhere,” says Aewon. Sketchy says: “Okmalumkoolkat was huge on the white alternative scene before he was a hip-hop star. He needed to cross over, and that’s what Gusheshe did for him.”

Labels and those damn contracts

Sketchy says artists get so bogged down in talks with labels and in the end never get signed. “They make promises and treat you like you’re signed, and control you like you’re signed, and then by the time the actual contract comes, you realise that none of it was what you expected.”

“Kaien’s contract is completely different to any other independent artist in this country signed to an independent label. We want to build the label so we had to give her the best possible contract. We’re working hard to make sure that she blows up. We want to be the guys to say Wolf Pack got someone from this generation to those heights. [We want] new artists to know this is the new independent label to look out for. We are not going to buy her a new Lamborghini; if she wants that Lambo she must buy it for herself,” says the producer.

Aewon jumps in and talks about the extravagant lifestyle pushed by the labels that their artists struggle to maintain once they leave. “When these labels make deals with the artists, they offer things like buying them homes, which is a stupid mentality because that’s never going to be your house. A-Reece exposed it in his song [Loyal] because at the end of the day, it’s your money they bought the car and the house with.”

“That’s what happened to the old-school artists,” says Sketchy. “The youngsters don’t even think about what happened to the likes of HHP. Whereas, if you look at Khuli Chana, he’s living nice off other things besides his music and he took his time. He was never the biggest artist during the HHP era, but he was consistently working and building. He had his first album for four years [Motswakoriginator] before No More Hunger blew up. Now he’s reaping the benefits of that patience.” The two say this impractical competition of who is living the largest is going to give rise to the culture of “broke music artists”. “And that’s how labels will own you,” says Aewon.

Make it authentic

“I’ve always worked with Sketchy,” says Aewon. “Regardless of whether I work with anyone else, he has to get involved and give his final touch. If you really want a song to do well, you’ve got to have that Sketchy Bongo touch.”
Sketchy says there aren’t enough real producers in South Africa and way too many calling themselves producers. “Anyone can make beats, but it takes a producer to create a hit record. The two are completely different.

“South African music is going to go back to its roots - bringing back 90s kwaito beats, original Durban House, and hip-hop with more South African flavour. South African musicians are going to realise that to make hits, they need to make music that sounds like them, rather than overseas artists.”

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