Dance music pioneer Oscar Mdlongwa is arguably the single biggest force to shape South African pop culture since Brenda Fassie. He’s done it by keeping it kasi, he tells Charl Blignaut over drinks.
"Life is simple. It’s people who are complicated,” says Oscar Mdlongwa as he takes a sip of his Castle Lite, dressed like he has a date with his couch, in shorts, T-shirt and slops.
The light beer, I comment, is a far cry from the Oskido ‘The Big O’ Warona I remember in the parking lots of 1990s nightclubs pouring entire bottles of spirits into an ice bucket and passing it around to keep the party going.
“I used to be naughty. I used to drink a lot. I was very rowdy, but over the years I’ve calmed down.”
On Wednesday, the godfather of kwaito turns 50.
“Do you plan to stay a club kid all your life?” I ask.
“If you take away the club, I think I’ll have a stroke and collapse,” he replies.
“If I don’t have gigs and I try to sit there, I can feel my body can’t take it ... Once you’ve got into the groove, you can’t stop. Music is my life.”
On the table is an epic timeline of the past 25 years of South African dance music, built from cellphones, pens, a notepad, a cigarette pack, a lighter and an ashtray.
(Mine. He doesn’t smoke.)
At each stage of the story – kwaito, South African House, hip-hop, gqom – Oskido was pioneering the post-apartheid disruption of the music industry, or actively supporting the next generation who would.
No one I speak to this week can name another artist who has given back as much as he has.
Born in Brits to a South African mother and a Zimbabwean father, young Oscar was schooled across the border, as far away from Bantu education as possible.
There is one particularly seminal day in his life.
THE BOEREWORS ROLLS OF DESTINY
Obsessed with music, he would return to South Africa with his O Levels and work in the family spaza shop.
“Growing up, we had a neighbour who was a motor mechanic, and all the taxi drivers used to go to him. That guy, he was never broke. But my dad was often broke, so I said, ‘Wow, I want to be like that guy.’
“So, when BMW offered me the opportunity to do an apprenticeship for four years, I took it up. Boom.”
But at the BMW centre in Midrand he was called into the office of his kindly German boss, who wondered if this was his true calling.
Oskido would be blasting music at a ridiculous volume from the sound system of whatever car he was servicing.
He quit after two months.
“I had a cheque for R700 in my hand and I couldn’t go home. No way. I had just quit school. I got into a taxi ... When I got downtown I didn’t know what I was gonna do.
"Then I saw someone with a hotdog stand and I said, you know what, this will make me quick money. I went to him and said: ‘Where do you get this trolley?’”
The trolley could be delivered in 45 minutes and cost R500.
“Boom. And there I am pushing the trolley down Eloff Street.”
After buying gas and ingredients, and finding a corner to sell from, he sold only three or four boerewors rolls.
“I had R30 to my name. What the f*** am I gonna do? It’s around five. I knew there was a popular club called Razzmatazz, so I started pushing the stand to Hillbrow.”
The owner at the club where Brenda Fassie would hang out was happy for him to sell there and he formed a team with the streetkids.
He sold all his stock, but had nowhere to sleep. He went inside the club – and his life changed forever.
Radio Metro deejays Ian Segola and Evidence Kemp were stars at the club and lent Oskido records.
He started playing the closing set, entertaining the staff as they cleared up. This is how he learnt to mix.
“I think by the end of the week I had recovered my R700.
"And I had a trolley. I started renting a place in Hillbrow ... One day, this deejay didn’t pitch up and the owner told me to play. I rocked the house, man. This guy said: ‘Listen, I’m employing you.’”
Earning R1 500 a month, he donated his hotdog stand to the streetkids.
“I actually met one of them at Mandoza’s funeral. He said: ‘Do you remember me? Do you remember me? You gave me a trolley!’”
THE MAN IN THE LIFT
“Boom!” is Oskido’s favourite word. His life has been punctuated by several of them.
Finally able to buy his own vinyls, he shopped at the famous Groove Records store.
Christos Katsaitis was a vinyl importer and he and Oskido started invading campuses with new dance sounds.
Oskido bought his own equipment and quit Razzmatazz, earning in two nights what he earned there in a month.
Then, musician Ken Haycock hired him to start putting out House compilations, reworking tracks off the vinyls.
“I remember them giving me a R20 000 cheque one day. Boom! My tape caused disruption in the market.”
He hosted afternoon sessions at Club Arena in Hillbrow, where he met the members of Boom Shaka. He moved into Highpoint, Hillbrow.
“One day I get into the lift and I see this guy carrying a keyboard. He says: ‘I know you, you’re a deejay. Yoh, you’ve got the biggest tapes.’ This is how Kalawa was born. This guy is Don Laka. He says: ‘I’ve got a studio in my flat.’
"We go upstairs. He says: ‘How do we do this?’ I say: ‘No, there’s this guy who I buy the records from, he’s called Christos...”
Literally, this is Kalawa’s name Ka(tsaitis), La(ka), Wa(rona): Kalawa.
Kalawa would release music by BOP (Brothers of Peace, ultimately featuring Oskido and Bruce “Dope” Sebitlo) and Boom Shaka, and go on to dominate the kwaito market as democracy hit.
They approached major record companies but none of them were interested, so Kalawa printed 500 cassettes and started selling them to students themselves.
“The late ANC Youth League leader, Peter Mokaba, wanted to be a deejay. He would also be buying records from Christos.
"When he saw our movement he started inviting us to perform at rallies. They used to go to the taxi ranks. We would put up our sound system.
"Lebo and Thembi would dance. Taxi drivers started buying our tapes. That thing just became huge.”
Faizel Dajee, who owned the independent Reliable Music, placed an order for 10 000 Boom Shaka tapes.
“Now the phone starts ringing. It’s BMG, EMI.”
Kalawa signed a precedent-setting deal in which EMI pressed and distributed their releases, nothing more. The power had shifted for the first time.
BEAT STREET MADE ME DO IT
Over the next 15 years, as House artists rose from kwaito stars, independent black musicians would come to own the lion’s share of the local music market.
Kalawa made the beats faster, and took kwaito and South African House international.
“When you were 15, what did you think your world would look like when you were 50?” I ask.
A movie he saw as a teenager shaped his destiny.
Called Beat Street, it told of how some hip-hoppers off the street rose to the boardrooms of New York.
As Bongo Maffin, Thebe and Trompies rose with Kalawa, a new generation of House producers emerged. Black Coffee, DJ Cleo, Tira – they all came up through Kalawa before running their own labels.
And the next generation – Dr Malinga, Maphorisa, Heavy K, Black Motion, DJ Zinhle. He even helped new stars such as Cassper Nyovest go large.
Oskido is unsurprised that the commercial rappers with an American twang are fading and gqom is rising, saying: “The secret all along has been to keep it kasi”.
AT HOME WITH OSKIDO
On his birthday next week, he will be releasing his latest album, the gqom-heavy 50 Degrees. “I’m 50 and it’s called 50 Degrees because I’m turning up the heat.”
How will he celebrate?
“My guys are planning something big for me, but I want to spend time with my kids, man. Sit down with them and tell them these stories.”
Oskido has six kids who all live with him, from 22 years old to four months.
He’s neither a nappy changer nor, despite the boerewors rolls, a cook. He likes to boil his meat with just salt.
But he is actively involved with his kids and loves nothing more than taking them to school when he’s in town.
Oskido isn’t into the bling life. He drives a regular sedan.
“My dad always told me that to be successful in life, God is going to reward you for the good you do.
"Whatever you do, don’t value money as the ultimate in the world. I hardly go to church, but wherever I go, my 10% is left behind.”