What do video games and electronic music have in common? One would say visuals, interactivity, sound, and music. Video games like Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, DJ Hero, Minecraft, and Rocket League are just a few examples of how electronic music has become the go-to soundtrack to get you hyped-up to press that controller and finish the ques; and let’s not forget the special appearances of DJs DJing in the games.
By playing video games and watching his friends produce music on FL Studio (Fruity Loops) 31-year-old, South African producer, Siphe Tebeka began his electronic music career. In 2007, Siphe got a copy of Fruity Loops from a friend. He became obsessed with learning the software to the point of driving his mother crazy because he played every sound non-stop. His obsession led to teaching music production for the non-profit organization Bridges for Music and lecturing at SAE Institute.
His work for Bridges for Music led to the opportunity of a lifetime, to play Belgium’s famed festival Tomorrowland. 2014 was a year of firsts for Siphe. It was the first time he applied for a passport, a visa, it was the first time he traveled on an airplane, and it was the first time he played in front of thousands of people at a festival. After Tomorrowland, Siphe began touring the world regularly as DJ/live act. Today, Siphe is part of South Africa’s new generation of Afro House and Afro Tech ambassadors bringing new energy and sounds to electronic music.
March 2021 saw the release of Siphe’s debut EP ‘Ndiyekeni’, meaning, Leave Me Alone, on Shimza’s iconic record label, Kunye. It features haunting vernacular vocals from talented South African singer Toshi, one of the most accomplished African vocalists. The 3 track EP also delivers a remix of Ndiyekeni from French brothers Mozaïk and the closing track Bayeza, invigorates the senses with its playful yet melancholic synth line, chant-like vocals, and a growling bassline that accentuate the rhythm and help brings the EP to a climax, ending things off with a well-curated celebration of South African House music.
On a cold July afternoon, Siphe spoke to The DJ Cookbook from his hometown of Umtata, located in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. We talked about South Africa's response to the pandemic. His production process and his early musical influences. Siphe explains the difference between South Africa's Amipiano and Gqom music genres and shared his favorite family recipe, a Nelson Mandela favorite.
Q: As a musician, how has the pandemic impacted your work?
A: First of all, nobody was ready for the pandemic. We were not aware that it would last this long. We were thinking this might last maybe 2 months? We didn’t have any gigs and we stopped doing the live streams too. Nobody was going out because bars, restaurants, lounges, and clubs were closed. It was a tough time for us, DJs and producers.
Q: In your opinion, how has the South African government handled the pandemic?
A: Here in South Africa the handling of the pandemic has been very tricky. The government has not helped artists very much, we haven’t gotten the support we need. When it comes to society as a whole, so many people have lost their jobs. South Africa receives aid from wealthy countries and the funds have not been handled properly.
Q: Are you vaccinated yet?
A: No, not yet.
Q: Have you performed in front of an audience this year?
A: At the beginning of the year I did a few gigs with a limited capacity of 100 to 150 people outdoors. The gigs were very intimate. Luckily, everything has begun to reopen and we are back to work.
Q: Did you work on music during the lockdown?
A: Yes, I did. I’ll be going back to Cape Town to record new tracks with some vocalists. I’m working on a new EP, I’m just not sure when I’m going to release it.
Q: Let’s talk about your new EP Ndiyekeni. How did your collaboration with Toshi happen?
A: I met Toshi, the vocalist, six years ago. I met her through a friend. She was recording vocals at a studio that I was at. After her recording session, I played her my songs, and she liked them. We recorded the song six years ago but I was not ready to produce the song so I kept it in my archives. Last year, I began to revisit it and decided to finish it. It was a great journey because I never thought I would finish that song.
Q: How long was the production process this time around?
A: It is very funny because when I first worked on this track six years ago I spent weeks working on it and I just couldn’t finish it. This time I was able to finish it in half a day. It is amazing when you can finish a song in a few hours!
Q: Do you think it had to do with feeling inspired and that you felt confident about your producing skills?
A: Yes, I was very inspired. My music production skills have gotten better, I have learned a lot of new technical workflows and workarounds throughout these past years.
Q: Most of the track is sung in Zulu, how did you go about making that decision?
A: Toshi wrote the lyrics and they are a mix between Zulu and English.
Q: Ndiyekeni’s tells the story of how the only thing that matters in the world is money, do you think the world only cares about money?
A: Yeah, definitely. Sad but true.
Q: Do you think electronic music can be used as a tool to help others in need?
A: Yes, I definitely do. For example, kids in the townships can learn FL Studio. This software allows them to learn how to produce music, film soundtracks, and video editing. This is a great tool to get them excited and prepared for the future should they want to pursue a career in these areas. Let me say this, the kids in the township love music, Africa as a continent loves music. This is an easy way of connecting young people in the townships. Electronic music per se is a bit difficult for the kids to understand, there are more dominating music genres being played there.
Q: What’s being played in the townships?
A: The dominating genres are Amapiano and Gqom. Amapiano is a slower-paced version of deep house and gqom is also a subgenre of house music but with edgy stripped-down rhythms.
Q: Where is the future of Afro House heading?
A: Now that the world is paying attention Afro House has evolved from what it used to sound like when it first came out. Now it is not just strictly African instruments, now it is a combination of European sounds like adding new synths, leads, and bass lines. I think it will continue to develop and I am excited to see where it is heading and to be a part of it.
Q: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Johannesburg and I grew up in Cape Town.
Q: Was music an important part of your childhood?
A: (Laughs) My mom used to listen to 90’s old jams! Like Mdu and Trompies.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be an electronic music producer?
A: When I got invited to play Tomorrowland I realized that this was a very big opportunity that not everybody gets. This meant that I had something in me, that people liked my sound and that I needed to focus on making and producing more music.
Q: How did your musical journey begin?
A: It all began with my friends. My friends and I would play video games while listening to music. Some of my friends would be producing electronic music while we played video games. I had always been interested in music and I thought that to make music you need to have a big studio full of expensive equipment. A friend of mine gave me a copy of Fruity Loops and I went home with it and the rest is history.
Q: You’re also a gamer, what games do you play?
A: Yes, I’m a gamer! Hitman is my favorite and I also play Call of Duty. I know, they’re super violent!
Q: So Fruity Loops is the digital audio workstation that you use to produce?
A: Yes, I use Fruity Loops. I started learning Fruity Loops in 2007 when this friend of mine gave me a copy. I would come home from school and immediately turn Fruity Loops on. I wouldn’t eat or anything! I wasn’t doing songs I was just learning how the software worked, I was obsessed with it.
Q: Is this how you became involved with Bridges for Music?
A: Yes, I learned the software so well that I got the opportunity to teach others how to use it. I got involved with Bridges for Music in 2014. Through Bridges for Music, I was invited to play Tomorrowland in Belgium. That was a great experience. Before COVID-19 I was also lecturing at the SAE Institute in Cape Town but it is closed because of the pandemic. Bridges for Music approached me again and we began doing short music production courses in the townships.
Q: Are you teaching at Bridges for Music headquarters or do you guys go to different townships and set up the equipment there?
A: We teach the courses at the Bridges for Music lecture room. They have a room with 20 computers all set up!
Q: What is the average age of the students? Who is more interested in learning music production, boys or girls?
A: The average I would say is 80% male and 20% females. The age range is between 16 to 35 years old.
Q: When you’re in the studio working, what is your favorite go-to food and drink?
A: In the studio, I love to eat pizza and vetkoek. Vetkoek means fat cake in Afrikaans. It is traditional South African fried dough bread. Like a donut but without the hole. You can eat it plain or with a filling. I drink apple and cranberry juice.
Q: What is your favorite plugin at the moment?
A: Right now I would say my favorite plugin is MiniMoog!
Q: What is the most fun part about producing a track?
A: I like composing, mixing, and mastering, I really enjoy that process. It also depends on the mood that I am in and the emotion I want to convey. I can’t say it’s the bass line or synth. I always start with a simple kick drum and I start building from that. I might start looking for a synth sound, or percussion. What I’ve noticed is that when I’m sad or in a bad mood I produce really good music.
Q: Would you say that you are able to drain the bad energy and turn it into something that sounds really good?
A: Yes! I find it very funny when that happens. Therapeutic, I guess!
Q: What is your least favorite part?
A: I hate arranging!
Q: Who inspired you musically when you were younger?
A: When I was younger, I was really inspired by EDM guys like Alesso, Afrojack, and Avicci. Later on, I was also influenced by Stimming and Culoe de Song to name a few.
Q: Do you cook?
A: Yes, I cook! I just don’t do complicated dishes!
Q: What do you like to cook?
A: Chicken and rice with veggies. It’s fast and simple and it always tastes good! I like South African salads a lot. I make a lot of Stiff Pap. Stiff pap goes great with stews and braii meat. You can say stiff pap is like American grits.
Q: What is a favorite family dish that you look forward to eating when you get together with your family?
A: You’re going to laugh but I love my mom’s Spaghetti!
Q: How about a favorite South African dish cooked by your mom?
A: My mom makes a delicious Umngqusho.
Q: Tell us what is in Umngqusho!
A: Umngqusho is made with samp and black-eyes peas. We call it samp and beans! Samp is dried corn kernels that have been pounded and chopped until broken. This is a very traditional South African dish. You have to let it cook slowly so it is very creamy once you serve it. You cook it with onions, leeks, beef stock, butter, spices, and salt and pepper. You can eat it by itself or with a umleqwa which is a type of chicken or lamb curry.
Q: What has been the most interesting dish you’ve eaten while on tour?
A: When I was in Estonia I ate elk for the very first time. I actually liked it.
Q: You’ve toured in a lot of countries and have shared the stage with world-renowned acts. Do you see yourself in the near-future-producing a festival in South Africa?
A: Yes, the experience of what I saw in Europe I want to bring to South Africa. The production value of European festivals is excellent. The sound system, the pr and marketing teams, the hospitality team, the catering, the security everything was perfect. I want that in South Africa. I am coming up with my own concept, I want to do something that has never been done before here.
Q: Siphe, thank you for speaking with The DJ Cookbook!
A: Thank you for having me!