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Olmeca MDBP Interview: Ruffest

I visited Ruffest in Gugs last weekend to discuss their beginnings, their dedication and their spot at this weekend’s Olmeca Tequila Mad Decent Block Party. They’ve been hard at work since 2007 and it’s finally starting to pay off. Along with their performance at Mad Decent’s first ever block party outside of North America, they have seen previous success in collaborations with UK electronic trio, LV, as well as studio sessions with Red Bull. Their dedication to their Cape Town flavour of more popular Joburg-and-Durban based Kwaito is truly admirable. They are fully aware of the hard work and perseverance their success requires which, considering their circumstances and what they’ve already had to overcome, can act as a really good lesson for all of us. 

MR: So you guys met through dancing, hey? How long ago was that?

Sello: Ja, we lived in the same street. It was easy for us to meet and we used to meet almost every day. We grew up together, so I always knew what he was doing and he always knew what I was doing. The music, that started a bit later.

Max: Around 2007, yeah. That’s when the group was formed.

MR: And who did you guys grow up listening to?

Sello: We grew up listening to Ubuntu, B.O.P, Tronkies… All those guys, the kwaito legends. The thing is kwaito was big in South Africa, house music came later.  And your afro-pop and hip-hop were still growing. So everyone was into kwaito, it was the music everyone loved. All the big parties played kwaito the same way they play house now. Everybody dreamed of becoming a kwaito artist, it was the young-boy-dream in the township. So that was our dream which we’ve stuck to. You know, as a dancer, you would play Boom Shaka’s song and dance to it and mime it and imagine yourself as them or TKZee and that’s what we wanted. To be like them.20140204 The Ruffest Matt 2MR: Ja man, it has to start with a dream hey. Along those lines, it’s difficult enough for me as a kid from the suburbs to imagine making my music dreams come true and I have access to basically everything I need. For you guys, it’s a completely different story. I can’t begin to imagine how you would have had to hustle to get things started. How did you do it? 

Sello: Ja, you know, if I had access to equipment I would have been a DJ or an artist much sooner. It was very difficult for us in the township to find access to equipment or even just to people with equipment. And the other side to it is that here in the townships there aren’t any… activities – so a lot of our friends are now in jail or dead because there was nothing to keep them out of trouble. So we knew that even though it would be hard, we had to stick to it otherwise we would also end up in jail or dead. Our friends would tell us, “No, don’t waste your time with the music stuff, it’s going nowhere”. But we believed in our dream and we stuck to it.

Max: Ja, we both wanted to be artists, so we studied and studied and studied and then we started an events company and started doing local gigs. We would DJ at parties and then meet Ace V, a producer, who told us he had a beat but no one to sing over it. So we thought “Hey, let’s give this a try!” We did one song, but we didn’t really believe in ourselves then. Because at that time (2007) kwaito was big in Joburg and Durban. But after we did that song we played it to our friends and they were like “Ei! Who did this song? Are these guys from Joburg? Durban?” They couldn’t believe it was us, guys from Cape Town.

Sello: Ja, so that’s when we started believing in ourselves, when we realised that we could compete with guys from Joburg and Durban. But the first three years were hard for us. We didn’t have the resources, but then we did a track in 2010 before the World Cup, called ‘Make Me Happy’. Then we came to Mzoli’s and they were playing it and everyone was going crazy. That’s when people started following us, wanting to be a part of the group and wanting to interview us. That’s when we knew we could do it. And that we were going to work hard and if we worked hard, only good things could happen.

Max: Ja, but we knew it would be difficult. People would say, “Guys, we know you have talent, but music in South Africa goes nowhere.” And we knew of guys that we thought should be making it that were going nowhere. So it was quite scary but knew we just had to keep going with dedication and patience. We had to believe in ourselves.20140204 The Ruffest Matt 5

MR: So once you guys had decided that music was what you wanted to do, what steps did you take to make it happen?

Sello: Ja, you know, we knew we had to have a plan. We actually wanted to build our own studio, but quickly realised it would be too expensive. But, you know, when you believe in something you have to have a plan. There is something we say in Xhosa, “if a man doesn’t have a plan, he is not a man”. So, a friend of ours was studying to be a producer at Cape Audio College. We asked if we could record with him and he said that we could come, but only on weekends. But we didn’t have a car and Max is in a wheelchair, so it was very difficult using public transport.

Max: Ja, but we did it. And our first properly recorded song was called ‘Siyabenzela’ and we did 3 other tracks. They came out really well and our friends couldn’t believe it was us.

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MR: And since then you guys have got your sound out there, internationally as well. Your track with LV , ‘Uthando Lwaka’, is great and shows how kwaito can be an internationally accessible sound. How did you guys hook that up?

Sello: Ja, that was great man! That was in 2011. It was such a great opportunity for us, we loved it! We were performing at Madoda’s and they saw us there and asked us to do the track with them. We couldn’t believe it.

Max: Ja, it helped us lot for exposure. Because, you know, even white guys from town, producers, who are starting to play more African sounds, they heard that track and started approaching us to do tracks.

MR: And they also did stuff with Smiso (Okmalumkoolkat) and (Dirty Paraffin). Have you guys ever worked with him before? I really want that to happen guys.

Max: Ja, he was actually in the studio when LV were recording with us. We really want to collaborate with him. We have actually spoken to him about it before but it’s just one those things we need to actually do it and not just talk about it (laughs). Whenever he’s been in Cape Town he’s always been busy and we’ve been busy. But it must happen soon (laughs).

MR: Ja, for me, what’s great about stuff that you guys and artists like Smiso are doing is making original, authentic music. You know a lot of the hip-hop artists from Joburg tend to Americanise their sound, especially by using the accent, but you guys keep it real.

Sello: Ja, you know, we worked quite a bit with Spoek (Mathambo) recently and said to us “Guys, what I love about you is that you aren’t trying to be anything else. You are you!” And that’s what’s killing South African artists. A lot of them just want to be like Drake. But if I go to Musica I will buy Drake, not the South African Drake wannabe. What’s the point? And I always make the example of Ladysmith Black Mambazo; they sing in Zulu and they win Grammys!

MR: Ja man. And you guys must be super excited about your performance and the Mad Decent Block Party! Who approached you for that spot?

Sello: Yoh! We are so excited man. It is the first time the party is going to be out of America, so it really means so much to us. It’s history. The first time out of America, and they come to South Africa. So we are the first kwaito artists, South African artists, African artists to perform at this party. And the guys who approached us… it was Seed (Experiences) that approached us, ja.

Max: Ja, it’s an honour for us. We are representing South Africa here, we are representing Africa! It’s history!
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MR: And are you guys working on new stuff at the moment that you’ll be playing at the party?

Sello: (laughs)… Ja, we are busy with new stuff but it’s still under wraps for now (laughs again).

Max: What we can say is that we will make an announcement soon about what we will be doing. And it’s big!

(Word on the street is a possible Soul Candy signing. But we’ll have to wait and see. – Ed)

MR: (laughs) Cool man, that’s really exciting! Another thing I really like about you guys, especially from you bio, is that you’re really keen on collaboration. It’s such a big movement at the moment, and is so important for Cape Town from an integration point of view. How do you guys plan to go forward in terms of your own work and collaboration?

Sello: Ja, you know, we’ve done collaborations with quite a few people now like LV, Sibot  and Mix n Blend. And we’re just trying to say that music is not about where you come from, it’s universal. So it doesn’t matter if you’re from the townships or the suburbs, music is music.

Max: And it’s not just a race thing. Because it’s even rare for a kwaito artist from Joburg to collaborate with a kwaito artist from Cape Town. But you know, we want to take it further than that. And I think we’re the only kwaito group that is as open to collaboration and to different genres. We like to think broad, out of the box.

Sello: Ja, and if we just play kwaito by ourselves all the time then we are only catering to the black guys here in the township, but Cape Town is a diverse city and South Africa is a diverse country. We have to be open to trying different sounds and working with other artists. Music is universal, but it’s also a business. We have to be clever about it.

MR: Ja man, and you can see how African music and aesthetics are starting to filter their way into international pop culture and trends. So people are looking to Africa, as an unexplored market, for artists doing great stuff.

Sello: Ja man, you know, we get more messages from overseas than we do from people here. But we don’t want to just leave and make money overseas. There is money to be made in Africa. We need to make it happen here, before we go anywhere else.

MR: Exactly man! And along those lines, with the music industry picking up here, are there set ups here in the townships where young guys can go to learn to produce and make their own music? Or is it still really tough? Like if you guys had to start all over would it still be as difficult?

Max: Ja, it’s still difficult. But you know, we have actually made it more possible through our music. We bring workshops into the townships. Even today, in Gugs, and last week in Nyanga, there are workshops happening. Phindile, our manager, has played a big role by contacting all the DJs and artists that we know to help and get them gigs through the workshops.

Sello: Ja, the other thing is that everyone still thinks that you have to pay to get stuff recorded. But we are now able to tell them “No, you must just make a demo and then you might get recording for free! You just have to try!” And we are going to start going around to the schools to give talks and tell them that they can become artists. We will tell them our story and give them some of the tools that helped us. If they work hard they can make it.

All images by Stewart Innes


Get your tickets for the Olmeca Tequila Presents Mad Decent Block Party here to see Ruffest represent Africa on Sunday. We’ll see you there!

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