|Quentin Foster (l) with US DJ Danny Tenaglia at the 1995 Winter Music Conference in Miami.|
The following is a phone interview on 14/2/2023 with QUENTIN FOSTER, producer of CITI EXPRESS - Living for the City (AFS055):
[Tell us about the scene at the time and how Citi Express came about]
I was a DJ at the time, I used to play in nightclubs around Joburg, mainly in the kind of alternative dance clubs, like the Junction, that was really my core base of playing, but I really played everywhere.. from Plum Crazy through to the likes of Idols, Babylon, many many different clubs… but more on the underground scene, rather than the commercial - like Caesar’s Palace, I stayed away from places like that. I was more sort of into the indie dance, indie style.
Junction was originally Deco-Dance. It was owned by a guy named Shane Leith who is still around, he actually lives in George. I think he’s probably retired now… but Shane was very prominent in the clubbing scene, he was involved in Zips and Zanzibar, which were very prominent gay nightclubs.. Gay clubbing was very big at the time. And actually that’s how I met Patrick van Blerk was through those circles. I got involved in the music industry through Patrick, and Patrick at that time was involved – both Ronnie (Robot) and Patrick – were involved with Roots Records. Roots Records did basically the jazz stuff – so Blue Note and GRP Records – they did a lot of the jazz stuff, they released that in South Africa. And then at then at the same time they basically had little sister, umbrella, fledgling companies, like Ronnie On Records and Patrick van Blerk’s PVB Music..
I was more involved with Patrick van Blerk rather than Ronnie. I sort of came into the industry through Patrick. Patrick recognized some abilities, behind the turntables I guess, almost as a fledgling producer, and he saw that I had a flair for it. And kind of got the ball rolling, at that level, he took me under his wing. I worked with him for PVB Music, I was involved in production for him.
This is mid to late 80s. That was sort of the waning of disco, and we just started getting into the house scene.. so Ital-disco, or Ital-house, started coming to the fore. And a lot of those influences you could already start to see. You call it bubblegum, that was pre-kwaito.. and a lot of those sort of Ital-disco sort of things were very much used in a lot of the bubblegum-type music that was around at the time.
Now, you must also bear in mind that Ital-disco, there were two kind of strains – mainly the western, sort of American house, American disco sort of thing that was going on… so Paradise Garage, up into Chicago, those areas, Detroit at well… so you’ve got that big, American feel going on … and then you had the Europeans which were doing their own thing, so the likes of Germany, but mainly Italy – Italy was very big, they obviously did all that Ital-disco stuff.
And if you can imagine, South Africa has traditionally been — the music industry has been kind of — forgive me for bringing colour into this, but — it was really, a lot of the white people had studios. Those were the guys that had the resources.. So you can see already that a lot of our inspirations were drawn from more European than it was from the American side of things. Even though 90% of the country was black, and there was still a community or fraternity of people that were very into that American thing … but a lot of the productions that were being done, a lot of the releases that were coming out, were all driven through Europe, and through European eyes, if that makes any sense.
I was very much a rebel in the scene. I wasn’t very well liked by a lot of the producers … a lot of the community. I was always trying to do things differently. I was playing alternative music. I was a straight guy playing in gay nightclubs, and just trying to do different things. And I had very much adopted that sort of American feel. For me it was all about the soul – the soul in the music. And the European stuff just didn’t do it for me. There was no soul in that European music.
And all the stuff that came after that.. you’ve got that whole acid-house thing, which was derived originally from America. In fact, almost all the sources always came from the American side. Even that whole acid-house thing that was a huge wave in Europe at the time, which again had massive influence into bubblegum, and even kwaito as well, there’s some elements of acid as well.
But [I was interested in] more the America, the Detroit scene – they had it going on with that acid house thing as well. It was basically called Detroit techno… the likes of Juan Atkins… there’s some really good DJs still around now … that are still producing, that came out of that acid-house era. Todd Terry for instance, he’s a classic one. Todd Terry was behind Everything but the Girl..
So you can see, all of these inspirations, it’s all interlinked.. I think one of the epicentres of it all, it comes down to a place called the Winter Music Conference, which is in Miami.. In the early 90s … in fact I was one of the first people (from SA) to go to those Winter Music Conferences. I went to two of them, I think '94 and '96, somewhere around there. It was basically a symposium or a summit, a gathering of dance tribes from around the world. The Europeans were very strong in going to Miami, and there was just a really amazing week-long party, but the essence of it was really around understanding and attending a conference, the Winter Music Conference, which is typically in one of the main hotels in Miami. You’d have composers and remixers and artists, all different kinds (of people), everything related to dance – all different genres and cultures and everything. It would all come together and [people would] share understanding and inspirations. That’s kind of where it all started. It’s still going today, for sure.
There’s guys who were producing in my era who are still DJing, guys like Danny Tenaglia, still making hits. The likes of David Morales, who’s probably one of the greatest dance producers on the planet. Those kinds of guys have always been inspirations of me…
We couldn’t really get access to what they had at the time, through apartheid we were very much boycotted in terms of the music we got.. so one of the reasons why I got into music was well, it was one of the only ways we could spread our wings. We had to literally create cover versions of some of the American tracks that they refused to get released, but there was still a demand. The demand didn’t go away. We had the demand, and especially within the black community.. the demand was there, they wanted the music. But we couldn’t get it. We couldn’t release it. So what did we used to do? We used to cover it. We used to take those tracks.. Like (his other project) Vision, the main tracks on that were covers, they’re not actually original songs, they’re songs that were released overseas that we could not get licence to release. And back then we didn’t dare step outside the lines and do what the guys do today.. they don’t even care anymore. They take stuff that’s not even their’s and they put it on their labels and they release it.
The first choice was never to do covers.. but we had no choice. There was a demand. Where there’s a demand it needs to be taken care of.
Even now, I still produce and I still do music at that level. If I have the slightest, subtle hint of a demand, I go after it. And things have changed hugely to now.. I stepped away from the business side of music.. that kind of killed it for me. I got very disillusioned with it back in the early 2000s. One of the albums I did actually won a Sama award for best pop album of the year – there was an artist by the name of Kaylin Thomson Woods, it was an album we did called All I Am.. I think it was back in 2003 or 4. She won best pop album of the year, and I produced that… that was done between myself and neil snyman, also a very good producer at the time.. also his dad was very much involved in a lot of the uprising of that post-bubblegum into kwaito…
…. At the Leading Edge studios in Bryanston, I forget the name of the guy who ran it but he basically had all the publishing for Abba in Africa… and from the fallout from that, he basically made a lot of money. And you can see that’s all European-driven money and it worked it’s way into recording studios. And that recording studio became CSR Recordings, which was owned by Chris Ghelakis, he ran the Thunderdome, involved with bands like The Rasta Rebels and Syndicate Sisters. He was an icon in his business, in the music industry.. in fact I used to work for him for a period of time. The whole thrust of his original business was all around covers.. 100% dance, 100% pop, you name it, everything was covers. He ran a whole team of producers, and I was one of those. When I came back from the UK.
I actually went to live with Neil Snyman and had a recording studio in the UK together, and when I came back I actually winded up working for Chris Ghelakis for a period of time, and I got really good at doing covers back then, because that’s all we did. And that was even just after apartheid had ended. But because the cover scene was working so well — you must remember, that being an industry that had been going on for a decade already, and probably even beyond that — but from the mid-80s to the early 90s, just to when apartheid fell, and even when apartheid went, there were still these record companies that were driven into doing covers. Like Chris Ghelakis (at CSR), the majority of what he did was covers, but then he had a great facility, and he would also do the likes of Soweto String Quartet on the side, and there were other albums that were originals that were done. So it wasn’t just covers. Covers made money, and the money sponsored a lot of other stuff, so it was a beautiful kind of ecosystem that was going at the time. One fed the other, one hand washed the other.. it was a beautiful synergy that was going on .. with everything. Although it was kind of a dark period.. being apartheid and all that other stuff. But we tried to make hay while the sun shined. We did the best that we could with what we had.
[Were nightclubs at the time defying apartheid or mostly segregated?]
Be careful not to get stuck into generalisations and stick to one narrative .. there were many different nightclubs. There were an incredible amount of genres that were done. There was sakkie-sakkie boeremusiek clubs as well.. so you can’t say all nightclubs did the same.. I mean, some of the clubs that I played in, they were very much freeminded, free-willed, free-spirited. Apartheid didn’t really exist in those clubs.. Although you must understand that apartheid worked very well in terms of splitting society. The kind of clubs that we went to… There was pantsula that was going on, there were a lot of black-driven (music scenes), shebeens going on. You had DJs that were very much involved with that - the likes of DJ Christos, for instance. He was very much involved with that scene, the kind of music he was playing, and even the venues he was playing, he did a lot more black-oriented stuff. The kind of stuff I was doing was more for the white, gay community… and although it was kind of open, it wasn’t – I mean, there were black people in the club, but it wasn’t really a black scene.
It’s kind of weird, even now, today, we can’t just think that everything just gets together, and all colours just come together. It was very much based on the type of music that was playing.. and there would be a gathering of those people…
For instance (today) if you’re gonna have your sort of amapiano vibe that’s going on now.. you’re gonna have 80% of those … are going to be black and 20% white. It’s the demographic, it’s not really based on race or colour, it’s just based on style, on music preference. So that existed back then. But the clubbing scene, definitely I think it helped to break down those walls, in the clubs. There was the presence of police, we were raided a few times at some of the clubs I played in, but it was really anything heavy. We weren’t beaten up. There weren’t gunshots and heavy armoured vehicles and stuff like that… we kind of were left to do our own thing, so it was very free-spirited, free-willed stuff going on.
And for me, in the kind of vein that I did, I’ve always tried to be as open-hearted and open-minded, and specific to race and colour and things like that, even now. I work in an environment where 90% of my company is black, and we’ve very much gone after that ideal of trying to do away with any biases that relate to colour. And I take pride in that, and I’ve learnt from that era. I think the only reason why I’m still around in corporate business today is because of some of the learnings and understandings, and what just rubbed off on me back then, in terms of just being open-hearted, open-minded and stuff like that.
So it’s worked well for me… clubbing, I can’t say enough about it. It just opened my eyes, opened my world, opened my views … I think it broadened my capacity as a human being... It was a beautiful period… coming out that last sort of drumroll of apartheid that we came out of… I mean, I went to the army, I did my two years of national service.. and none of anything I ever did.. I believe I never did anything to harm any black people, I never did anything to really reinforce a regime. Although even having said I was part of the military, I never had to kill anybody, I never had to do anything, really, that harmed another human being, let alone one from a difference race or whatever… so I was a bit fortunate in that. And maybe I was a bit protected from the real things that were going on – I never went to the border of Namibia (Angola), I was protected to a point, but nonetheless I went through it all, and I’m still around…
[How did you select the tracks for Citi Express?]
Obviously at that time, it was a moment in time, and you connected. There’s a lot of connections, with the companies and the people in the companies and in the music business, within the clubbing fraternity and things like that. I was quite a prominent DJ at the time, so the selection of tracks came from … well, Ronnie said he had the one Stevie Wonder track in mind… he said ‘I really would love to have this track redone’, and obviously we were going for a certain sound, so we wanted something that would be – you can’t even say that even of that stuff is even close to kwaito, on that album, but it had more of a black feel to it … that house sound… I was into that American house sound,
The early parts of kwaito, you actually took any house record and you pitched it down by -4 or -6 on a Technics 1200 turntable, and suddenly it would go down from 122 down to 100, 104 or 108 bpm, and that was the maturity of kwaito music. Kwaito was all your downtempo house.. so that sound really became that kwaito sound, that tempo, in fact… and because you pitched it down, you must remember what happens with bass when you pitch it down it becomes deeper.. and even the elements of amapiano, that deep bass sound that’s going on, that’s a throwback of kwaito.. so when you pitch down records, you’d detune the bass. And in detuning the bass, that bass becomes deeper, and that’s what you’ve got in amapiano right now… so you can see it’s all interconnected, and interlinked.
Again, the interconnection between people.. there were tracks that were happening at that time, and those tracks, those sounds, we’d try and emulate those sounds, and we obviously had a barrage of equipment.. old Roland analogue synthesizers and things like that… I was a sound engineer and programmer, that was the guys of what I was into. I was a DJ and I was into the engineering excellence, the sonic excellence of that sound, and trying to go after that sound.. and even in the arrangements and the production and everything… so it would be taking some of the music that was popular at the time, bring it together, listening, as reference – ‘ah, let’s go after that sound’, ‘oh, that bass sound is really cool, let’s take part of that bassline’, or ‘this is the kind of keyboard progression that we need’… we’d take that, invert that, and and and.. we came up with similar, but different … and that’s how it was done.
And then there were people.. Nelli features a lot on that album… she was actually signed to Tusk music, which was part of Warner … [run by] Benjy Mudie ... Nelli was signed to Tusk. She did do sessions and stuff… [the distinctive vocals on 'Victim of Love' were by Russel Poth 'Sun' Nkotsoe, Foster confirms later]. So all the stuff that I was doing was DJ-based… it was more a studio concept than band… so you’d have one guy that would basically deliver the entire sound.. I would be the bass guitarist, the drum player, the keyboard player … everything was done by me, because they were all samples … and it still is, in fact.
It was a collaboration, it was with people… who were very much role models for me, as well. The likes of Stephen Cooks, one of the programmers and engineers of Mango Groove at the time … The likes of Marvin Moses, he was also very much involved with Chris Ghelakis’ recordings at CSR. Marvin was also involved with the kwaito scene, did a lot of good music, keyboard player, session musician, a very good producer as well. All of these guys, we’d all mingle and do stuff together..
But that specific album, that I did in my own studio.
I used to work in other people’s studios, and use their stuff. But it got to a point where I wanted my own stuff. So what I did is I jumped on an airplane. The first flight I ever took out of South Africa, I flew to the UK. We used to have a music magazine called Sound on Sound, I think it’s still around actually.. there was a music shop called turnkey music, off soho, in Shaftesbury avenue in the UK.. and I went and I bought.. remember, you’re coming with South African rands and we were teenagers or whatever, and I didn’t have a lot of money, but I went and I bought all second-hand gear. I bought all the stuff I needed, I bought it all back (to SA), and I set up my own recording studio. It was based on a 16-track, sort of home studio type thing, Fostex 16–track, multitrack reel-to-reel machine, and a Soundcraft set, and a TR909, all the stuff that was really current at the time in terms of generating those sounds. And that’s what I did, I programmed it all on that. I recorded it in a bedroom and that’s how the album came about.
I was busy with a lot of stuff at the time.. Ronnie (On Record) was a little satellite label at Roots Records, which was run by a guy named Robin Taylor, he owned Roots Records, and we all sort of fell under him. I was actually working at Roots Records as one of their producers. I would take masters , I would take all the artwork. We were distributed by EMI, so I used to take all the masters through to the pressing plant, so we’d go and sit while the pressings where done. I’d take the digital masters.. I was one of the first people to have Digital Audio Tape in South Africa … and I used to get masters, put them through digital tape and send them off for CD mastering … and a lot of the money that I made, the bread and butter type money — because remember, producing you were lucky to get an advance, and you never really earned any royalties, so it was not easy to make a living out of music. You really had to make money from other things.. And one of the ways I did was I used to master digitally and I used to edit as well, for companies, on quarter-inch masters and stuff like that… and that, as an engineer, as a programmer, that kind of thing, that’s how I kind of made money as well.
Ronnie had this idea, he wanted to release an album, and he had in mind the cover, he had in mind one track [living for the city], and then he said, well we need a little bit more than that, he wanted to do it in a kind of extended dance format, three tracks a side kind of thing… and that’s kind of what we went with.
Some of the artists I was working with, guys who wanted demos done or whatever and we said ‘well, we’ve got space on this album, let’s put one of the tracks on there’. So ‘Open Invitation’ … that was just a fill-in type track that I had an artist who came along wanting to do a demo with me, that I had some loose recordings done with no real outlet for it, well, now we had a space for it.
We relied on one or two tracks on that album to really drive it.. The Stevie Wonder track [living for the city] was really the main track behind it. But then we had – I always try to do the deep, underground thing, so there’s one or two beautiful tracks there … those were we we took inspiration from the US, some of the early US house stuff that was being done but we couldn’t get released in South Africa, and I took them and reworked them to give them more of a local feel … we were really starting to see the fallout of bubblegum and into kwaito, and I could actually say that I was one of the forefathers of that early kwaito sound… if I could be so bold!
Everything I did, I tried to do things which were similar and not too far removed from the original composers, but at the same time try to give it a more South African feel. And that’s what I think we always tried to do…
Even with kwaito music, and bubblegum, pantsula, and post that.. even to now, when we have amapiano and things like that … and your tech-house thing that’s going on as well. Even what Black Coffee’s doing right now.. trying to take what’s being done on an international platform but do it with a local flair, local flavour, trying to bring local elements … because you must bear in mind, we have a very strong local heritage and history, where the music industry has stolen from Africa, stolen from a lot of parts of Africa …
It’s still dark in the music industry, there are things going on that are not cool … It’s soul-destroying.
I never professed to being one of the greatest, or anything like that. But I definitely touched the industry in my own particular way, and there is depth and some beauty in what I’ve done. You can’t win a Sama and not have any integrity, you must be pretty good to be able to do that … Forgive me for blowing my own horn there!
Citi Express was probably one of the earliest productions I did, so in my book it’s not one of the best that I’ve done.. So I appreciate you say it sounds good but I kind of cringe when I hear some of the stuff … I went on to do a lot more detailed.. products of integrity.. I produced with a lot more integrity, I think … This is one of the earliest productions I did in a very minimalist, very raw studio — so not some of the best that I’ve ever done … I was born in 1964, so I was 26-27 [at the time].
[How did you feel about ‘bubblegum’?]
There was a lot of people trying to make money out of music where they could. It was patronized, I feel that a lot of bubblegum music was really just trying to make some commercial music, and try and make money from the black masses, if I may say that … so for me, I didn’t really like bubblegum at all. I saw it as a commercial takedown, I found it a little bit diluted.. there are some elements in there that were kind of unique to South Africa, unique to us, but I think we — the likes of Christos .. they tried to really improve on that. I think as human beings we just want to improve what we have us around us, and we’re here to do better, we’re here to do good. I don’t think that anybody is inherently bad or anything. I think even with the sound that we were trying to do, and people like Christos — who, really, the love he has for music is just untold, it’s unbelievable, and I’ve got a lot of respect for Christos in terms of his love for music. And I sensed it at the time, I saw it with my very own eyes … but people like him, they really wanted more, and they grew…
The current state of music, people like Black Coffee and things like that, they have people like Christos to thank for it because they were groundbreakers, they truly were pioneers of breaking out of that mould, breaking into a new, free world that we live in now … breaking down those walls that existed at the time.
There’s a deep, deep love – and that’s really what it comes down to, their deep love of love. And me included in that … there’s deep love for music, that’s really what it comes down to.. that deep love. With that deep love is wanting to improve, wanting to make it better. Not just our own stuff better, but make the industry better, make our sound better, ‘our sound’ being south Africa… the southern Africa sound..
[What is the story behind your studio ‘Tone Def Inc.’?]
Tone Def was basically [in the] late 80s ... Patrick van Blerk actually came up with the name Tone Def … So I worked with Patrick a lot, under his label PVB Music.. I was busy installing sound in my car, I had a little gold GTI and was putting some sound in the back, and we went into a sound place, think it was corner of Bree/Klein/Mooi (Street), I don’t know, somewhere there in deep town (Joburg CBD). It was a famous car sound installation place. And we went into this underground vault, and inside there it was like a store room, and they had these big-ass car sound, speakers and amplifiers and whatever. And Patrick came up with the name ‘Tone Def’, it was like ‘Tone Def Incorporated, right here’ … and I was like ‘wow that’s such a cool record label name, let’s do it!’ … so that’s how it was kind of born … it was Patrick’s idea.
But Patrick was doing his own thing, he was just wanted to see me get off the ground, so I went with the name … and Tone Def Inc kind of evolved. We moved on and away from each other, I went away and had my own studio, and from that though I need to remove myself from Tone Def, so I gave it another name, which was Rhythm of Life. That was inspired by Oleta Adams, she did a track called ‘Rhythm of Life’. It was such an amazing track and I actually give my studio a name, and my record label a name, all based on that kind of – not only the song but the sound she was getting at the time, it was just amazing.
Rhythm of Life was my studio and a record label. That was me. Vision was done on that. Again it was done through Roots Records. So just like Ronnie has On Record, I had Rhythm of Life Records.. as well. But I didn’t do too many releases.
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