CREDO August 2010
The Once and Future King?
Moja Records' hitmaker has been in hiding for almost a decade. Evan Milton pinned him down for his first one-onone interview in forever to talk teen pop, new club culture and the second coming of Odi Huron.
"I believe in second chances," Odysseus Huron says, sitting behind the mixing-desk in his analogue/digital studio, an airy bunker built into the koppie at the back of his house, which is the base of operations for Moja Records. Necessary, as the notoriously reclusive Huron hasn't set foot outside this rambling Westcliff property since 2001. He's not talking about himself, perhaps because he's already on his third or fourth go-around of chances. This is a man who has been dogged by controversy and tragedy through four decades of music-making, who has somehow managed to rise from the ashes again and again. He makes light of his past – and his recent return to prominence. "I don't think anyone walks through this industry unscathed," he muses. "The only thing you can really do is become better equipped."
Every era has its reclusive musical genius; every genre has its behind-the-scenes starmaker trailed by hints of controversy. Brian Wilson disappeared for decades before returning with Pet Sounds; James Brown always surfed a little too close to the law; and let's just say the name of the Death Row Records rap empire wasn't entirely coincidental. Closer to home, Africa's world music stars have been accused of human trafcking, embezzlement and involve ment with blood diamonds, while the Nigerian government slapped Fela Kuti with a currency smuggling rap.
Mzansi has Odysseus Huron, the multi-platinum selling producer behind No. 1 sellers like Lily Nobomvu, Detective Wolf and Moro, and the man who launched Yeoville's ill fated Bass Station nightclub – as close to a South African Shrine or CBGB as we've ever had. It used to be that Odi Huron made hits and created stars effortlessly. He's been part of South Africa's ever-evolving cultural fabric since the dark days of apartheid, right through the Rainbow Revolution and into the post-"Born Free" era. He's also the man who disappeared almost entirely from public view amidst rumours of ill health and depression after the Bass Station tragedy and Lily Nobomvu's death.
He is not an easy man to meet with or speak to. In fact, there's almost nothing easy about Odi Huron. For starters, he had to consult with a sangoma for an auspicious date to do the interview. This was followed by a credentials check to rival a visa application. Three weeks later, Odi's bodyguard/dogsbody, James, ushers me into the house and hands me a bullet-pointed list of no-go zones. "He doesn't want to talk about it," James warns. "Come in, come in, what are you, a mugger lurking in the doorway?" Huron gestures me impatiently into the lounge. He has a jokey way of putting people down, keeping them in their place.
Odi lives alone in this vast house. He orders his groceries online. Prospective artists email him their demos. For everything else, there's James.
The house has seen better days. This is no Ahmet Erte gun palace of genteel music-mogul diplomacy, but then, the man who started America's mighty Atlantic Records didn't get drafted into smuggling guns across the borders of apartheid-era South Africa for struggle activists. Odi's past has been checkered to say the least.
In the '80s, he was one of a handful of white producers (think Gabi le Roux and Robert Trunz) who were willing to take a risk on black artists at a time when the apartheid government frowned sternly on such "crossover" projects. Odi saw the musical potential of black artists – and their commercial possibilities. It would turn out to be a savvy career move.
Inside, it's not all pop-rock'n'roll. Perched on the edge of a chair, holding her handbag and looking very out of place among the swinging '70s décor is a middle-aged lady. She stands up to greet me and introduces herself as Primrose Luthuli, fumbling to explain that she's the twins' legal guardian.
The twins are the reason I'm here. S'busiso and Songweza Radebe, aka iJusi, aka Odi's latest flash of musical genius, aka the latest recipients of the platinum touch. They're also the "second chancers" he's talking about, the raw-talent pair who spurned his production and management offer to enter Starmakerz.
"It's total trash, demeaning to real artists," Odi says of the show. And based on the increasingly embarrassing performances by winner Sholaine Pieters, he may have a point.
Odi approached the twins again just before the semi-finals, and this time they inked a three-album deal. There's not a sentient soul in South Africa who hasn't heard "Spark" – the sound of a million ringtones, according to the download stats. Infectiously catchy music is one thing (earworm, anyone?), but star status requires more than that, and Odi's touch could be seen in marketing coups like licensing the track for the Chevy Spark ad cam paign. If the buzz is anything to go by, the new single, "Drive-by Love", looks set to propel them even higher.
The teenyboppers in question are messing around in a swimming pool outside, painted a dark, depthless blue to retain the heat. S'bu is sitting on the side, his grey school pants rolled up, his black lace-up shoes next to him, bare feet dangling in the water. Songweza is thrashing around in neon green armbands. She's enthusiastic in the water rather than adept, dog-paddling over to her brother to splash the young heartthrob whose face smiles down from many teenage walls.
The proverbial new leaf is one thing, but to see a man remade is another. Gone is the Odi who pioneered the dark, danger-thump club-swagger of Assegai or the brooding sexual undertones that powered Zakes Tsukudu's biggest hits. Now, it's all bright sunshine and two kids splashing around in a pool.
"No, man, Sooo-ooong!" S'bu yelps at his effervescent twin.
"Well, get in!" she teases. He lobs his school shoe at the voice behind the addictive chorus of "Sparks". She ducks. It plops into the water and sinks without a trace.
"Tsha!" Mrs Luthuli says, springing into action. "Who is going to pay for that?"
"Who said you should never work with kids or animals?" Huron quips. "They obviously didn't have Prim on their side." He yells out the door, "You two, come say hello!"
The pair come into the house dripping, and Mrs Luthuli goes scuttling off in search of towels.
"Heita," Songweza bubbles, "I'm Song and we're iJusi and we're going to be massive!"
S'bu punches her arm, embarrassed. "Song! Be more modest."
Song frowns. "Why? It's true."
It probably is.
But while the twins may be the stars, this is undoubtedly the Odi Huron show. He indicates that we'll take a stroll across the garden to the newly refurbished studio to get a "sneak peek for your ears" of the new iJusi single, "Drive by Love".
"IJusi is more than a band for me," he says, "it's a sign of the future. Song and S'bu are exactly what the new Moja Records is about. It's not about using the new beats in our deal with Babyface; it's not about getting every sub-Saharan Android phone pre-loaded with iJusi FutureSong credits. It's about this. People say the twins shine when they sing. I say that we should all shine; that we can all shine if we just focus, if we just get past what's holding us down."
To emphasise the point, he sips from his bottle of vitamin water, part of his detox routine. It's a far cry from the triple shots of tequila that were the order of the day during the Detective Wolf era. The evidently healthy and clearly still razor-sharp Odi exudes the air of being a remade man, and iJusi represent a new sound that may well see his Moja stable eclipse the already impressive achievements of JumpFish, whose brilliant rekindling of bubblegum Afropop swept both urban and pop-rock charts, and Keleketla, the devilishly clever electro-pop-meets-kwaito street-jam that seemed to pulse along every street corner in 2004, before the band split with Moja over "artistic differences".
And hey, maybe Odi deserves a break after everything he's been through. "Do I regret any of it? Of fucking course I do," he says, adding, "I also regret James not making it fucking clear enough that I didn't want to talk about it."
I press. People want to hear his side of the story. The Bass Station deaths. Lily. He relents, pinching his lip, unhappily.
"You have to understand. It was the fucking noughties, not the easy-swing 1990s. We were worried about people getting in - not someone trying to get out." His brassiness fails him. "Look, there isn't a day I don't think about that padlocked gate, don't wish it had never happened."
What did happen was that armed robbers broke into the Bass Station in November 2001, half an hour after closing. It was still doing good numbers back then, even if it was attracting a seedier, druggier clientele than when it first opened as town's hottest nightspot two years earlier. When the robbers couldn't get into the time-delay safe, they took it out on the manager, Odi's business partner, Jayan Kurian, and a bartender, Precious Ncobo, who was helping him lock up. They tried to escape through the emergency exit, but in violation of fire-safety regs, the gate was locked. They were shot in cold blood.
"It was a terrible shock. That these men could just break in and do this to me? To me! I didn't feel safe. I couldn't cope. I just quit. Walked away. Right out of the business. I was finished with it." He looks over the mixing-desk at the recording rooms beyond, his face reflected on the sound proofed glass. "The doctors diagnosed PTSD."
Practically overnight, Odi disappeared from the music scene and removed himself from society. He locked himself in the house, spiralling into depression and illness. There were rumours of cancer, even Aids. Certainly, the photographs of him back then, in his studio with a fresh-faced Lily Nobomvu, show a man wasting away.
"Lily was my angel, my saving grace," Huron says. It's no secret that the music side of Odi's business had been faltering since the mid-'90s. "The club was too distracting. The Hillbrow scene was rough. Gangsters and drugs and gun-running – and the gay scene and the sex that was going on, everyone sleeping with everyone else. I lost focus. The music suffered."
Lily was the turning-point for Odi. After two years of "rattling around in here, feeling sorry for myself", he reinvented himself and adopted a new "life mantra" – his life philosophy. "I decided no interference. No drugs. No alcohol. Clean living," Odi says. "Good music that would reach out to people, touch them here, in their souls," he puts a hand on the back of his head. "People want things that stick. They're looking for something spiritual. They're hungry for that."
He discovered someone who could sate that hunger through one of his talent scouts: a single-mother church chorister from Alexandra township. Lily Nobomvu made her debut in February 2003, with "Kingdom Heart", a solidly built, catchy single that didn't pick up much airplay, but sold lots of CDs out of car boots. Odi persisted, pushing the gospel angle at a time when kwaito was ruling the charts.
In the wake of Brenda Fassie's fatal overdose in 2004, he positioned Lily as the pure alternative to the fast life of sex and drugs and disco soul that had claimed the "Madonna of the Townships". She went platinum within the month.
But on 18 June 2006, two years and two albums later, Lily drove her car off a bridge. She was only thirty. The rumours of depression emerged only afterwards. "What can I tell you?" Huron says. "It was a shock. It's not that we didn't know, it's that we didn't know how bad it was. This industry eats boys and girls in different ways."
Lily's nineteen year-old daughter, Asonele Nobomvu, recently hired as the fresh design talent for the hip hop-inspired fashion label Lady-B, feels differently. "[Huron] pushed her too hard," she said in a recent interview with the Sunday Times. "He was desperate for her to be the next Brenda, but how could she live up to that?"
The bereaved daughter is not Odi's only detractor. Moro, who defected to Sony BMG in 2007, pulled no punches when asked about the man he once described as his mentor. "The man's got expectations a mile high. He doesn't let up, you're in that recording studio night and day, and he's just sucking it up. He's obsessive is what it is. All that time in that big old house on his own, the dying and shit? He needs to catch a wake-up, live a little, is what I'm saying."
Odi scoffs at the advice. "What do you think I'm doing?" And it's true that things are happening for the once and future hit-maker. Whatever illness was dragging him down seems to be in remission, and he's got big things planned for the twins. "They're going to be bigger than Michael Jackson!"
And as part of his comeback, he's just opened a new club, Counter Revolutionary. It's all been done site unseen, but he's quick to point out that he approved the architectural drawings and signed off on every decision, down to "what kind of flusher to put on the shitters".
True to form, the new venue is already drawing a lot of press for the controversial decision to feature animalled dancers. Odi grins as he talks about three separate concerned citizens' groups that have protested outside the club, drummed up Facebook petitions and inundated the newspapers with complaints. It's a provocative move, but then, as Odi says cheekily, "Everyone deserves a second chance."
He's also started getting counselling from a psychiatrist who comes by twice a week to help him deal with the crippling fear that has kept him a recluse these long years.
"Give us a few months to figure out the right medication, and maybe I'll even see you on the dancefloor.
"You ready to hear this?" he says, turning towards the mixing-desk. He cranks the volume and hits "play" on the file called "Driveby". It's an irresistibly catchy head-bopper of a song, sweet and fizzy with dips into a dirty, grungy hip-hop beat on the chorus. Songweza is right. It's going to be massive. And so is Odi, once again.
Like Noxx raps in the remix of Moro's classic "Cul-de sac": Eye on the ball, ma'gents, eye on the ball…
IJusi headline the Mzansi Unite stage on Saturday, featuring HHP, Joz'II (featuring Da Les, Ishmael and Tasha Baxter), Lira, PondoLectro and R amp;B/pop sensation JonJon (guest slots by Mandoza and Danny K), with DJs Chillibite, Tzozo, Jullian Gomes, and MP6-60. The World in Union stage features Mix n Blend, Krushed n' Sorted, Animal Chin, Spoek Mathambo, Dank and HoneyB.
(Grand Parade Fan Park, gates @ 4 pm for big-screen game; concert 7 pm; tickets WebTickets.co.za)