November 28, 2020

How Kalawa Jazmee lost control of Kwaito

Kalawa Jazmee logo
Image Credit: Kalawa Jazmee

Kalawa Jazmee is one of the most recognizable brands, not only in kwaito but in the South African Music Industry.

Kwaito music birthed many a boutique labels dating back to the 90s, but the majority of those labels could barely survive ten years in the industry. But then again it’s understandable if you consider the size of the market in South Africa.

Kalawa Jazmee somehow became a market leader by virtue of gaining a first-mover advantage. Sure Kalawa did not invent kwaito nor were they the first label on the scene. But the label was founded at a time when the genre was still in the development phase.

When Kwaito blew up, names such as Boom Shaka, Brothers of Peace (B.O.P), Thebe and later Trompies were dominating the charts – all these acts belonged to the Kalawa Jazmee stable. They had a roster that any aspiring label owner could only dream of.

In this article, I’m going to explain to you why Kalawa Kazmee eventually lost control of kwaito at a time when they had an edge over other boutique labels.

Let’s start from the beginning

In the late 80’s Mandla Mofokeng a.k.a Spikiri (Founding member of Kalawa Jazmee) and Mdu Masilela were experimenting with bubble-gum and dance music and had produced a sound which had similarities to Kwaito. The duo known as MM Deluxe would go on to release two albums, namely Where Were You? And Be Free My People in 1989 and 1990 respectively.   

Those albums were released under the now-defunct Cool Spot Productions, an Independent record label headed by Ken Haycock and Mally Watson.

During that period, Cool Spot was known for releasing bubble-gum and gospel music but they didn’t really catch on to kwaito until the mid-90s when they put out albums by the late Robbie Malinga, Doc Shebeleza and Ma Willies. So the market was pretty much open for other labels to come in and compete for market share.

Early entry

Kalawa Records as it was known then, entered the market in 1992 and started generating a buzz almost immediately. At the time no major record company was handling a kwaito act and the movement relied heavily on a DIY attitude and approach.

After successful independent releases by the Supergroup Boom Shaka and BOP, the major labels could no longer ignore Kwaito and Kalawa Jazmee.

A Big fish in a small pond

I always ask myself what could have happened had Kalawa Jazmee turned down a major record deal with Universal and chosen to stay Independent. 

Some might argue that Kalawa wouldn’t be as big as they are had they turned down an offer from the major and maybe there might be some truth to that.

The major label deal did steer kalawa Jazmee and the kwaito movement quicker than they could on their own.

But on the hand, let’s not forget that in the early 90s there were only a handful of prominent kwaito labels and some of those labels were 100% Indies competing on a similar scale as the majors. Some those Indies include:

  • Ghetto Ruff Records (Motherland Entertainment)
  • Bulldawgz Records
  • Mdu Records/ Wolla Music Entertainment
  • 999 Records

Of course with the exception of Ghetto Ruff and Bulldawgz Records, the remaining two labels were signed with major record companies.

But kalawa Jazmee was the biggest fish in a small kwaito pond and they had a multi-platinum selling catalogue and roster compared to the mentioned labels.

Even though Kalawa Jazmee thrived under the Universal deal, but they also hit a ceiling from a business standpoint. They became more of a music production house than a fully-fledged record company and as a result, the business could not be scaled any further. 

Controlling the production and marketing but handing over distribution and manufacturing duties to an independent distributor would have allowed them to make more money per record sold.  A distribution unit could have been set-up for other emerging kwaito labels, and therefore replicating a system similar to that of the majors.

For example, Ghetto Ruff Records had a deal Bula Music for distribution (another independent label). And Bulldawgz Records was distributed by Cool Spot Productions.

Both labels were successful in their own right and did just fine without the support of a major record label. Ghetto Ruff had Ishmael, Skeem; Zola came later. Bulldawgz had Mzambiya, Mshoza and Msawawa on their roster. All the mentioned artists also went on to release platinum-selling albums and became superstars in the process.

Final Thoughts

I know that it all sounds easier said than done. But the music industry in South Africa is too small to even consider licensing your music to a major. Kwaito was a niche genre at the time and Kalawa Jazmee was one of the first Indies to spot a gap in the market.

They got in at the right time, produced stars and gave us hits year after year and got the whole nation dancing. However, being content with the status core or the industry norm is part of the reason why there are hardly any black music distributors.

And I think Kalawa Jazmee could have controlled the entire Kwaito catalogue instead of the majors, because they understood the culture better. But nonetheless, you can’t take away what they did for the movement and also their ability to stay relevant after so many years in the game.

I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions. Please comment below