How DJ Cleo Became a Successful Independent Artist

How DJ Cleo became a successful artist

When House music finally solidified its place in the South African music industry, young and emerging DJ’s were on the come up.

In 2001 DJ Cleo was a young and aspiring DJ and music producer. During that period he landed a job at the popular Gauteng Youth Radio station, YFM as a technical producer on the DJ Fresh Breakfast show.

But his stay at the radio station was short-lived after he made what was then regarded as a derogatory statement about the station’s most important client, Standard Bank.

In retrospect, getting fired from YFM was a blessing in disguise for the then young DJ, because that’s when the real DJ Cleo was born. 

In this post, we will look at how DJ Cleo became a successful Independent artist at a time when most DJ’s were synonymous with releasing compilations on other labels, especially major record labels.

The Beginning…..

I will assume that some of you might not be so familiar with the name. DJ Cleo born Tlou Cleopas Monyepao in Vosloorus and is a South African DJ, Musician, Music Producer and former Goalkeeper.

He is one of the most successful artists in this country after releasing multi-platinum selling albums for over a decade.

But how did he get there?

I already mentioned that DJ Cleo got his start by working with DJ Fresh in 2001. In the same year, he released his first official single, Will of Steel which was featured on DJ Glen Lewis and DJ Fresh’s Gate Crasher Double CD compilation album.

The following year he dropped two singles, Zoe (The Blessing), and Tshwane under the moniker All-Star DJ Cleo. Both tracks were released on The House of T-Bose: Baby Steps- Volume One compilation album, mixed by DJ T-Bose (Kaya FM)

His production skills soon caught the attention of Lance Stehr of Ghetto Ruff. During the same period, Ghetto Ruff was working with an unknown Mzekekeke (DJ Sbu) and DJ Cleo was enlisted as a producer on the soon to be successful Mzekekeke debut album, S’ Guqa Ngamadolo.

That album showed us what DJ Cleo was capable of doing behind the boards and it was not a surprise when other big-name artists came calling for his services.

DJ Cleo Eskhaleni

But the turning point for DJ Cleo came when he started working on his own material. This was in 2004. He also founded his own record label, Will of Steel Productions (the name derived from his first official single) officially in 2002. But the company took off two years later after the release of his debut studio album titled Eskhaleni

At the time DJ’s were known for releasing mixed compilation CD’s which featured tracks by other artists (mostly from the USA and UK).  But DJ Cleo took the unconventional route because his entire album (and follow up albums) was self-produced, and mixed.

Credit should also go to his early mentors though because Lance Stehr who was running Ghetto Ruff (Now Motherland Entertainment) was able to provide the infrastructure and support for his first four releases (Including Will of Steel Productions projects). See below:

DJ Cleo – Eskhaleni (2004)

Pitch Black Afro- Styling Gel (2004)

Brickz – Face-Brick (2005)

DJ Cleo – Eskhaleni Ext 2 (2005)

All these albums were released under Will of Steel Productions with early support and direction by Ghetto Ruff Records being the mother label.

Ghetto Ruff was an Independent record label but they had a direct distribution deal, also known as a Pressing and Distribution (P&D) Deal with Bula Music (another successful indie label).

After those four albums, DJ Cleo and Will of steel Productions moved and dealt directly with Bula Music and by then Bula had created a distribution unit called IMD (Independent Music Distributors). So by this time, Cleo had a more hands-on approach to his business and artists after the experience of working with Ghetto Ruff. This was rare (especially for a mainstream artist) because most labels and artists had marketing and distribution deals with major record companies which tend to be less risky.

The importance of knowing your market

Although DJ Cleo is known for being a talented musician and producer, he is also a good businessperson.

After the release of his sophomore album, Eskhaleni Ext 2 in 2005 which featured the smash hit single, Time to Say Goodbye (Andrea Bocelli sample). Will of Steel Productions and DJ Cleo thrived and went on to dominate the digital sales charts.

He knew what his fans wanted and just kept delivering the goods year after year consistently.

Whether his music was good or not is not important. But numbers don’t lie and his fans thought the music was good enough and that’s all that matters.

He had a winning formula.

Final Thoughts       

The music industry has changed, the business model has changed. But inspirational stories such as these show us that it’s possible to succeed as an independent if you believe in your product and talent.

It’s not easy though and you shouldn’t try to do it alone. You might not be able to replicate what others have already done in the music industry, but you certainly achieve success on your terms. The word success is relative after all.

What was your favourite DJ Cleo song, album or moment? I would love to hear some of your views. Please drop your comments below.

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