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Reporter's Notebook

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Friday, March 11, 2005
What a Friday. I went to Ghetto Ruff, which is in the midst of a big move to Parkview North, a bit of a swankier neighborhood than where they currently reside in Sunnyside. These are all suburbs of Jo'burg. I got there early, and sat in this room filled with half-packed boxes and papers strewn on the tables and desks. Rolls and rolls of packing tape. A couple of people were there doing officey tasks, checking e-mail and what-not, playing YFM on the stereo. A girl named Portia swiveled around in her chair for the first several minutes I was there, speaking, apparently, to no one. It took a while before I noticed the tiny cell-phone dangling around her neck, attached to the wire that snuck up to her ear.

Portia was bubbly and funny. When it was clear Lance Stehr (Ghetto Ruff's Managing Director) was running late she sent him a text message. When he still didn't show she said, "When Lance says five minute he usually means longer. Zola told him once 'if you guys were perfect you wouldn't be called Ghetto Ruff. You'd be called Botanical Gardens or something." (She said Zola has the loudest whistle that always precedes him when he enters a room. I mentioned that I'd watched his reality show last night and that for a lot of it he was wearing a Zola t-shirt, a giant picture of his own face covering his torso. She said, that's Zola, always selling himself.) Then she told me "Don't be surprised when Lance walks in. He's not your average boss." Very laid back she said. Definitely has the presence of "Yeah he's the boss." But very relaxed.

Lance Stehr
Ghetto Ruff Managing Director Lance Stehr and artist Ishmael talk about the label's first kwaito hit.
Sure enough he arrives with a kind of entourage, a few people at his back that fade into the woodwork once they're in the room. Lance is a very large man with black loopy curls bunched up on his head, kept back in a black band. Caramel colored skin, black t-shirt and khaki shorts and flip-flops. Throughout our interview he kept getting interrupted, having to get up and see about a show tonight at Monaco (which I'm going to go to) giving instructions by cell-phone that he wants as many artists there as possible and that each is just to do one song. "Just the hits." He's very much a record label manager. Work is never done. He's also the only person who talked to me about the negative side of kwaito, i.e. drugs. It seems every artist has to go to rehab at one point or another. One kwaito artist even made a joke about it saying that he was going to rehab early to get it over with.

Now, I had read something about Lance before the interview that I thought might be enlightening about him and, somehow, though this may have been wrong-headed of me, about kwaito. I don't feel as though I'm telling tales after school or spilling any secrets because I read it in the Economist. That is not to say it is empirically true, just that it has been stated publicly in the past. The article said that Lance had a nose-job when he was 12 years old in order to be designated as white so he could go to an exclusively white school.

Since kwaito seems to be nothing if not an amalgamation -- of languages, of music styles -- and since post-apartheid South Africa seems to be a lot about the intermingling of races and playing with racial identity, I thought it might be interesting to talk to him about this little event from his childhood. The question is, how do you ask someone if they had a nose job when they were 12 years old?

At one point, we're sort of dancing around the topic of race. He brought it up first I think, saying his parents were colored. "When you say colored," I said, "What do you mean? Part black and part white or part Indian or..." which sent us spiraling into a rabbit-hole of misunderstanding that was often punctuated with him saying "Don't you know the history of apartheid?" or "Don't you know the history of the coloreds in South Africa?" He briefly went over how everyone had been designated by the National Party as White, Black, Colored or Indian. Whites went to white schools, blacks went to black schools, coloreds went to colored schools and so on. Each race was segregated into its own area. "So you went to a colored school?" I said. "Oh look it's really a long story," he said "I think it's a different story than the one you're doing." Which was probably true.

So after the interview I was waiting outside the building for a cab and Lance came out with another journalist, a friend of his it seemed, who had been hanging around the office while we were talking. He asked if he could give me a lift so I canceled my cab and shoe-horned myself into the back seat of his car. The front had been pushed and tilted all the way back like a hospital bed. The other reporter, who's white, climbs into the front and practically falls down. "Oh you blacks, you always do this," she said, yanking the seat forward and cursing about "why do you always do that? what's the point?" Lance said the last person who sat there was probably having sex. "Yeah I wonder who that was," the reporter said.

When we dropped her off I got into the front and just launched into trivial small talk, asking him if he still had family in Cape Town, where he's from. He said yeah Cape Town, Johannesburg, London, Canada. "Where in Canada?" I asked. But he couldn't remember. And we just yammered like this until finally he started telling me the whole story of his up-bringing. He told me that in 1956 the National Party made an announcement that some coloreds could be reclassified as white if they could pass a test. Your skin had to be a certain complexion, you had to have white friends, and so on. Well his parents passed the test, but some of his aunts and uncles didn't, which lead to a big rift in the family. Then Lance was born and, as he said, he came out a bit too brown. So here are these two reclassified coloreds living in a white, affluent suburb with what amounts to a black baby. "So my parents," he said, "in their infinite wisdom... this is where we record our records." I looked at him. He was peering out my window and pointing. The car had stopped, had pulled over at the curb in front of a big black gate in a rather pretty, leafy, quiet neighborhood. "Really?" I said, expecting him to get right back to the point. "Yeah," he said. "Do you want to see it?"

Ghetto Ruff recording  studio - Engineer
Ghetto Ruff recording studio - Engineer Mpho Pholo aka 37 MPH working on Ishmael's latest release.
"Sure," I said. And we get out and go up into the studio where I proceed to interview the engineer of what will soon be the latest Ghetto Ruff release (by Ishmael) and Lance is so knackered from staying up all night working on the album that he's passed out on the couch even though one of the tracks is playing full blast and even though he's still supposed to drive me to Rosebank. He never got back to the story. He never ended up telling me what his parents did in their infinite wisdom. And he never ended up driving me to Rosebank, asking me to take a cab instead.

I was headed there because I wanted to interview kids and Sarah Nuttall had suggested The Zone at Rosebank was a good place to find them. The Zone is a hip trendy mall and the home of YFM's studio's. It is not to be confused with The Mall at Rosebank, even though one blends seamlessly into the other. I hate walking up to total strangers with a microphone. It's a lot like telemarketing. You're going to get a lot of "no." So I procrastinated for a little while and then just told myself I was going to have to plunge in and stop some passers-by.

The guys I picked happen to be these two totally decked-out, American-style gangsta-rap guys. Sideways hats, too-long sports shirts, the whole 9 yards. They tell me they're more into hip-hop than Kwaito, and are beginning to explain why, when I notice that a security detail is standing at my elbow with this curt, tense smile on his face. I ignored him of course, until another one came up and stood beside him. Finally I asked them what they wanted and they said "You can't do interviews here without permission from management." We were outside. But apparently we were on the part of the outside owned by The Zone. So GQT and his "homeboy" Andre Andre and I crossed the street and continued our interview. They were really great. Very funny. Sometimes intentionally.

[LISTEN: to aspiring rappers GQT and Andre Andre critiquing kwaito. Sean Cole ran into them outside The Zone, the trendy mall that houses the YFM studios in the affluent suburb of Rosebank." ]