Interview: Sketchy Bongo is taking South Africa – and the world – by a storm
Written by Ariana Assaf
Born and based in Durban, South Africa, genre-bending producer Sketchy Bongo has become a household name in his home country, and is spreading his influence across the globe. We were lucky enough to talk to him about his love of Kanye, how he scored the same record deal as Calvin Harris, and his reasons for incorporating a mysterious ski mask into his performance wardrobe. Read on, and stay tuned for updates on his plans to take some American stages later this summer!
Festival Squad: I’ve only recently become familiar with your music, but it sounds like you’ve dabbled in a lot of different styles. Can you walk me through your genre progression?
Sketchy Bongo: I’ve been producing music for about 12 years now, since I was 13 I’ve been doing a whole lot of different genres. Mainly with hip hop to start off, I was really influenced by a lot of producers in the early 2000s, like Pharrell and Kanye. I progressed from there to doing a lot of house music, because in South Africa house music is a very prominent genre. But I also still did hip hop, producing for a lot of local acts, and obviously with the hip hop stuff you get vocalists coming on. And then I started doing pop singles as well, which did really well. I kind of fuse all the styles together now, so the single “Let You Know”, which just came out on Ultra, is a blend of mid-tempo house with a little bit of electronic influences, and a lot of soul influences as well.
FS: That’s with Shekhinah, right? How did you two link up?
SB: I was working with another artist, Kyle Deutsch. He and I do a lot of collaborations together, he’s a really big pop act in South Africa, and he introduced me to Shekhinah. We did this record which was pretty big called “Back to the Beach”, and I started working a lot with Shekhinah on a few records. We work together as a collective called The Wolfpack, which includes myself, Aewon Wolf, Kyle Deutsch, Shekhinah, and a few other Durban-based artists. We decided to put out a whole lot of singles for free, and “Let You Know” was one of them. We came up with that song because Shekhinah came to my studio, and we couldn’t think of anything. The vibe just wasn’t right. I thought we were just hungry, so we ended up going up the road and getting some chow, and while we were talking—I hadn’t seen her for awhile, she lives in a different city—she was telling me something and just kept saying the phrase “let you know” as she was talking to me. We were driving back to the studio and she started singing “let you know” just joking around, and I was like, “That’s the song!” She thought I was kidding but we got back to the studio, I put down some piano chords, she sang, and it ended up really great.
FS: Was “Let You Know” one of the songs that was nominated for a South African Music Award? You got three nominations, right?
SB: Yeah! I got three nominations but that song just came out, so it wasn’t up for nomination. It will probably get a nomination next year, but the nominations were for “Back to the Beach”, and two other projects. “Back to the Beach” also got nominated for another award called the Metro FM Awards, it’s a big radio station in South Africa. So the South African Music Awards are like the American Music Awards, and the Metro FM Awards are like the Grammys. We were nominated, but we didn’t win any of those.
FS: Well, congrats anyway! You were also recently signed to Ultra, which is so cool. How did that come about?
SB: “Let You Know” was play listed on BBC1 radio in the UK, and somebody from Ultra heard the track and went on to my Soundcloud page. They really liked everything they heard…the internet just brings the world so much closer, the world is so much smaller now because people can reach any artist anywhere in the world. Anyway, I got an email—no, I got a Facebook message!—from someone at Ultra, and I thought, “This is some fake stuff.” So I just gave them my management’s email, I didn’t really care, I thought it was a joke. Then they emailed, and I still didn’t believe it, I thought it was somebody messing around. But my management followed up with them and it ended up being a legit deal. They just found me on the radio and on Soundcloud.
FS: How crazy! When did all of that go down?
SB: This was a couple months ago, must have been November last year. That’s when we started talking about it, but we signed the actual contract about a month ago.
FS: That’s so great! So do they have ideas for you in terms of touring or making new music, or are you just kind of going to keep doing what you’re doing with their support?
SB: They signed me as an artist, it’s actually similar to the deal they did with Calvin Harris when he first got signed to Ultra. There will be three singles that they’ll release, the first one is “Let You Know”, and I’m gonna be doing another single, and another after that, and I’m going to be dropping an album this year with Ultra. The next single is gonna be another collaboration, I’m not sure yet who’s gonna be on it, but it may nor may not be a really big international pop star. That’s still in talks at the moment, but that’s probably going to be the big breakout single, you know? So we’re trying to work to make that happen. For my album, it’s gonna be a mixture of everything that I produce. I don’t really believe in genres, I just like to make music. I make a lot of mid-tempo stuff at the moment, a lot of tropical house kind of sounds, and a lot of hip hop/trap sounds. So it’s going to be a complete mixture with a lot of great collaborations with artists from all across Africa and the rest of the world. With touring, at the moment I’m playing shows all over South Africa and in other African countries. In July and August I’m going to be looking at doing some tours in the US and the UK. I don’t want to talk about dates and venues just yet, but I’ll have more details…when I have more details.
FS: Talk to me about the mask…why do you wear it, and when/why do you choose to not wear it?
SB: I wear the mask every time I perform. It creates a persona, it gets me in the zone and it also gets the audience in the zone. My performance is a mixture of live electronic instruments, I do a lot of finger drumming, I play live and I DJ, so it’s a live experience. The mask gets me in to character and gets the audience involved in the performance. It’s like a character for them, and gets the crowd going. I also do performance poetry, but the mask is super hot, and I live in South Africa, it’s really hot over here so I can’t wear the mask all the time.
FS: Very practical answer. Back to your breakout single idea, with a big pop act: I know things are still up in the air, but do you personally have an idea of people you’d like to work with?
SB: I do have people that I’d really like to work with. I’m not saying these are people I’m going to be working with, but I really like what Zayn Malik is doing at the moment, his music and his whole vibe, the lo-fi R&B kind of sound. I like The Weeknd, and Kanye West is a huge influence, but I don’t know if that would ever happen. If I ever get to collab with Kanye West, I think that would be the greatest achievement for me.
FS: He made an appearance at A$AP Rocky’s set at Coachella. I didn’t actually see it, but apparently he just stood there.
SB: He doesn’t have to do anything, he’s Kanye West! Did you see Black Coffee at Coachella? He’s another really big South African artist who just got signed to Ultra as well. He’s like one of the top 30 DJs in the world.
FS: I didn’t see him, but thank you for educating me! Any last thoughts before we wrap up?
SB: I’m really happy to be signed to Ultra!