Producer Danilo 'Danny' Bridgens established himself in the 1980s as a session guitarist for the likes of Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Margino, also releasing as The Stone and Leroy Stone. By the early 90s he was experimenting in his studio with new house influences, including working with Nelson Phetole Mohale on PT House. The pair drew influence from US & UK hip-house contemporaries but were determined to give their sound a local flavour, as well as a positive vibe that looked forward to a brighter future as democracy dawned in South Africa. Bridgens currently lives in California, US. The following is a Zoom interview conducted on September 20 2023, it has been edited for clarity.
[How did you get into music and production?]
I grew up in Linmeyer, an area in the south of Johannesburg ... I started in garage bands and stuff like that. And in those days we all had to go to the army, so I went to the army. While I was in the army, it was the weirdest thing, I managed to wangle a transfer to the entertainment unit, where I met a lot of guys… and then as we left the army, there was a guy called Gary van Zyl, who was starting a band, and he was about 10 years older than me.. he’d had success in the club scene… I don’t know how they found out about me but he came to find me and Franco Del Mei, a drummer I played with, and Eric Bush (?), and we started a club band. That’s when I got into the professional thing.
Gary was the best guy to have as a leader of your first band, because he would kick your butt! We were gonna get ready for our first gig, and we gotta learn 40 songs or whatever, and boy, he would hand you the cassette, ‘know these songs by tomorrow’. You’d do your homework at night, and the next day, you’d know them. I still remember the first solo I took, I took a solo – I think it was on ‘Baker Street’ – it was one of those songs… and he stopped the band and he said to me, ‘What the hell was that?’ And I said, ‘It’s my solo’. And he said, ‘Don’t play crap, man’! He’d crack the whip! And it was professional. We started at 10, we had lunch, and we had tea. It was so pro, it was the best education into the professional world I could have. I’m still grateful for that, to this day, because he just whipped me into shape.
So I was doing clubs, the usual club thing, I played in PE, Durban, the usual thing. But I got married, and while we had our first baby, we could still travel. But when my wife fell pregnant with our second baby, we knew we couldn’t stay on the road, so that’s when I looked for opportunities to try and get into the studio, by becoming a session player. And that took a while, it took almost a year to get the first call, before I could even get in. And then it slowly progressed from there. I was a session player for quite a few years. But I really wanted to be a producer-writer guy. That’s really what I wanted to be. Once I discovered that studio world, it was like, ‘Playing is great, but there’s so many good players.’ So I really wanted to get into writing and producing.
We had a little band in the army, because you know we were the entertainment unit, we were playing all over … and a friend of mine, the keyboard player in our band, wrote this song.. and I thought the music was great but the lyric wasn’t so great, and whatever. I couldn’t remember what it was. But we wrong this song, and we started playing the song live. And I don’t know if you remember a guy called Richard Loring, back then we was like a cabaret kind of guy. We played this song, and he would hire us to back him up on different gigs. And he said ‘man, I really like that song, can I record it?’ And so he put it on an album of his. Zane Cronje was the producer at the time, and he invited my friend Craig, who’d written the song, to the studio on the day they recorded. And the thing about it for me was, they were playing the song and I realized that because I’d done the music, they were playing a wrong chord in the one part. So I went to the producers, when they were playing, and said ‘this chord’s wrong, it should be this and not that’. So he said, ‘Just go quickly into the studio and tell the okes to change that chord, while I carry on doing some stuff here.’
I went in there, and they were all my heroes, playing in the studio. All the guys that I was going to watch, they were all in the studio. And I said to them, ‘by the way, that chord..’ So they all went, ‘ja, sure, we’ll change the chord’.
I realised when I was standing outside that door at that moment that I was nobody, but because I’d written the song, they had to listen to what I had to say … and so the power and influence of the writer/producer just hit me like a ton of bricks that day. So once I got into studio, that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be in that writing/producing role., so that I could have that influence, so I could be part of that.
Fast-forward, my wife and I went overseas to America in 1980 for one year. We were gone for about 18 months. And then I came back. And you know, when you live in America, all you hear is American music. It’s amazing, but it’s all you hear. And of course I’d grown up with rock n roll and all that stuff, the usual – the Beatles and all that. But when I cam back, I ran into my friend Gary van Zyl again, the guy who was playing bass (in the army band). And he was playing bass with JULUKA — Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. He said, ‘We’re playing this gig, man, you must come and watch it.’
And I went, and it blew me away. African music, and in particular South African music, that blew me away. It’s like from that day on, nothing else mattered … The realisation of the power of that, especially when you’ve been so inundated for the longest time by all forms of American music. And you hear that. For me — I guess not everybody responds to it that way — it blew me away. That’s all I wanted to do. I sat down and started trying to play Zulu guitar, trying to do all of that.
I had a band called TAXI … Taxi was my first attempt at getting into that space. But I couldn’t be an imitator; I had to kind of go in the way I knew how to go in, at least. Attie (van Wyk) produced our first album. And our first gigs were all like in shebeens in Katlehong township and places like that … and eventually we were playing all those things – we were playing Soweto and Alexandra, we were playing Thembisa.. New Brighton in PE. That was all that we were doing. It was among the best experiences of my life, just playing.
And it was really weird, you know. I still remember in Ga-Rankuwa, we were playing there at the University in Bophuthatswana, and in this sort of sea of black South Africans, and us four were the only little white guys in the whole place — and loving every moment of it. And even in those dangerous days — because they were dangerous days, in the 80s — they looked after us. I remember we were playing a club in Thembisa, and we were doing well. But some of the guys in the crowd came to us and said, ‘listen, the bad types have just showed up here. We think you should go’. So we packed up our gear and left. So they looked after us and they kind of took care of us, while we were playing the music.
Eventually, as part of that whole progression, I ended up starting a little studio. I started at a little studio in Joburg from a guy called Adrian Strydom. He had this whole studio and it had a little room at the bottom, he was subletting that studio.
I started a little demo studio so that guys would come in and record their demos. And that’s how I learnt to record. I learnt how to actually work the desk and do all the stuff. I was programming, all that stuff. I called it Kitchen Sync. Because the very first demos I did were in my kitchen… that’s how I came up with the name. The first year, I took over the breakfast nook in a kitchen. I took all the furniture out and put some gear there.
And it was actually after that, the progression was out of Taxi and that, then working in studio, then eventually I started my own thing. So all my original demos there in the kitchen was stuff I was doing with Taxi.
Then I ended up moving to something a little bit more professional. The studio was called Syntrax. He gave me the opportunity. He said ‘look, I looking to rent this space’. So I took the chance and I moved my gear in there.
I started to do demos. And I particularly wanted to be involved in South African black music. I wasn’t into the rock and roll thing, or anything like that… I started to slowly make connections with different record companies
[You worked at Dephon with big names like Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Margino, what was that like?]
I was on YVONNE'S first track, ‘I’m in Love with a DJ’ – I’m the voice of the DJ.. I pretend to be this DJ: ‘I’m Leroy Stone…’ So I thought maybe we could use that character (for a solo album). And it actually did well. I remember doing a tour of Zimbabwe with Yvonne, I played with her and we did a tour of different parts of South Africa… I would do Taxi. She was always the headliner. And then for those songs, she’d call me up and it was always this big shock that it was me who was the voice! For a while we were MARGINO's backing band. It was all coming out of that record company, Dephon. Attie was working for them, and Yvonne was signed to them, Taxi – they were distributing our stuff. So it was that connection. And Margino, Attie van Wyk had been producing her. So when she starting going live, for a while we were her backing band. So we’d back her, then we’d do our set.
|The Stone - Guilty (1985)
We were very fortunate — I know we got in the top 10 a few times, two or three times maybe. And she [Margino] was big for a period of time. But Yvonne was just the queen of it all. She came into that scene and she took off like a bullet. To this day, she’s like that… all over Africa, not only South Africa.
I was at least in the periphery. Because I think Attie produced that album. And they just needed someone to do that voice, you know. And at the time, one of the things I was doing was voiceovers. Because living in South Africa, you’ve got to do a whole lot of things if you want to make a living [from music]. So I was doing voiceovers, and because I’d lived in America I had a passable American accent — although when I listen back to it now, I think tjerrrr… terrible.. but ja —so Attie knew that I was doing that, and he said ‘listen, we need somebody to do this thing’. So I made that all up.. that part wasn’t written for me… he just said ‘we just need like a DJ kind of thing… So I came up with all that, Leroy Stone, just in the studio, we kind of did it there.
[Were you learning production from Attie at that time, like Chicco said he did?]
I was a beginner producer at that point. So by being in the studio with guys like that, that’s how you learn. You picked up, you started to learn how to do it. You started to learn about the engineers, and you learned how to do that. And I was always curious about that, so I used to ask a lot of questions, and I used to really pay attention. I used to love being in the studio, I really did. Because I’m an introvert, so the studio feels safe and small, as opposed to the stage. So I used to love being in the studio. And I loved everything about it. I loved the vibe of it, and I loved the collaboration and the interaction, love ‘how do we get that sound? How do we get the kick drum to sound like that?’ …
And my session days helped me a lot with that… because what would happen is we would do the session, and a lot of the musicians would leave after they’d played, but I’d go hang out in the studio to listen, because I really wanted to know, I wanted to watch the guys working and doing their stuff.. and that’s how I learnt...
So Attie, certainly, I learnt a lot from him. Especially I loved the way he ran his sessions.. everything was really relaxed, but professional.. ‘OK, we’re moving on to this next thing’.. stuff like that. He was one of the guys I learnt from, among others.
[Were politics front of mind in studio, or not so much?]
Look, it was impossible to live in South Africa at the time and not be aware of what was happening… Especially, once again, being out of South Africa, and you come back and suddenly everything looks really stark, the way it is. But you kind of feel helpless, you know, like what can I do? What can’t I do? And I fell in love with South African music. For me, it was a natural progression to get to know guys and to do music together… For me it wasn’t a political statement; it was like, I’m meeting these guys, we’re having such a good time..
I remember doing a bunch of recordings of traditional music, like traditional Zulu guitar, and Sotho musicians, and stuff like that. And just the vibe of that, just being connected to all of that was amazing. And the conversations.
I remember being on a plane once, going to Mozambique, I was filling in for PJ POWERS’ band, I was playing guitar in her band, and we flew on a little private plane, with Sipho Mchunu’s band. So it was just us, PJ’s band and Sipho’s band. I’d been listening diligently to a lot of this stuff [traditional Zulu guitar music] and he was one of my heroes, you know. So I couldn’t believe I was on the plane with him. When you listen to Zulu music, a lot of Zulu music, there’s like an intro that doesn’t seem like it’s got anything to do with the song, it’s like a little thing [of it’s own]… So I remember going to Sipho and saying ‘excuse me, mr Mchunu, I’ve always wanted to ask you this question – what is that about? How does that work?’ And he just laughed, and he said to me, ‘Listen, all I’m doing is I’m saying I’m beginning here, now you must get in. Now you must get in, I’m just letting you know we’re going to play, and now you must get in’… So it wasn’t like a heavily rehearsed thing, it’s like a setup, and then he’d give the nod and the band would come in.
So it was always unbelievable. I learnt a lot from his records, the Juluka records. And because I was recording like Zulu guitarists and Sotho [musicians], the influence was huge. I couldn’t get enough of it, understanding how that all worked together … because that stuff had a certain way of working together. Whereas a lot of things in sort of pop music are ultra tight, there’s a looseness in that music that without it, it’s not alive, it’s not living. So it’s just awesome.
Now, the only political music I did was — I was and still am a Christian guy — there was a bunch of guys who invited me to a kind of collective called FRIENDS FIRST, in Durban. And that was squarely aimed at making a political statement. It was a multiracial band. We had guys – one of my best friends to this day is Victor Masondo – a producer and writer and killer bass player. And so, that band was created specifically to make a statement… And actually the band was on the radio. We toured heavily, all over, all the townships.
[How did PT House with Nelson Mohale come about?]
So I’d already started doing some little projects for Maurice [Horwitz of Music Team]. And there were some projects where guys came to me to do demos. And if I thought they had something, I would go to somebody like Maurice and say, ‘Hey, I think this guy’s got something’. And they would listen and decide whether they wanna release it or not. I can’t remember if that’s what happened with Nelson, or if they sent him to me. I can’t remember how we met, but we did meet in my studio. The first time we met was in my studio.
He had this idea for PT House. To this day, I still don’t know why it’s called PT House! I was just listening to the tracks in preparation for us being together, and I thought, but why was it called PT House? My job was to try and capture what he was thinking, this kind of sound, and then to try and create something that leaned South African. Because he was a rapper, right. So he’s rapping – and actually one thing I really remember was that he was [initially] rapping all in English. And I said to him, ‘Dude, you must actually do some stuff [that shows] where you’re from, man.’ And so he started to throw in what eventually kind of became a kind of street pidgin, where he was mixing up English and Sotho, where he was mixing up that kind of Soweto slang, and things like that. And I think that made it really unique.
I loved the fact that I felt like we were doing something a little new, because there weren’t a lot of rappers around then. I loved it because I thought we were kind of doing something that’s a known thing, the rap genre, and we were leaning it [to SA]. So that was kind of the challenge for me, to kind of create a musical setting for his rap ideas, and then move them into [SA]. Sometime he’d have an idea for a bassline, but I could never tell you who thought of what, because we worked so intricately together.
I know that probably my biggest influence was just like in a lot of the bridges of the songs, Felicia Marion on some of the tracks, and when you get to the female vocal, like in between the verses and stuff, you’ll hear that female vocal … those tended to be part of my contribution to kind of break the song up, so that it had these sung parts that created a particular atmosphere.
And then of course I kind of programmed everything. I literally wrote all the keyboard lines, the basslines, the drums, everything. I kind of came up with the majority of that. But sometimes he’d say, ‘Wait, I want something that feels like this’, and he’d play me something from a cassette. And I’d kind of take that and we’d adapt what we were doing to make it African.
(Was Mohale learning about production?)
For sure. I’m pretty sure that was his first – if not the first, one of his first studio experiences.
[He was younger than you, right?] Ja, about 10 years younger, at least.
[How was ‘Big World’ received when it was released?]
I’m not sure what happened with that. I did the first two albums.. I did Big World and Big City Taste. Actually, I like Big City Taste (more)… of the two albums, that’s the one I prefer… I think they’re both great, don’t get me wrong … If I listen back, it’s very 90s — you can hear the sounds – the sounds were very hip in the 90s..
I’m proud of what we did. If I had to do it now, would it be exactly the same? The sounds would be different, whatever. But if I listen back to it now, I think that’s good work. I think we did good work, between him and I. there’s something to be proud of. There’s always room for improvement. But when you listen back with the perspective of what that was — you can’t have today’s ears and say, compared to… — you have to say, at that time, what was that like, at that time? And I think it had a space of its own, I think it was unique.
It got some play… [but] I think it was his third album, when we changed to Dr House… I think the first two kind of knocked the door open, and then the third one was the one that kind of took it bigger. So I’m happy to have been the guy to be part of the beginning of that journey.
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Big World (AFS056) will be out in early 2024, reissued by Afrosynth Records. Pre-order it here.