Interview with Nelson Phetole Mohale, aka 'Dr House'

An influential figure on South Africa's early house and kwaito scene, Nelson Phetole Mohale released a series of albums as Dr House (most notably 'Mix To Groove') as well as Dr Mkhukhu. Cutting his teeth in the 80s as a session player for a host of big names like Volcano, Senyaka and Obed Ngobeni, he moved on to programming for acts like La Viva and Jivaro, also contributing to Carlos Djedje and others. Still barely out of his teens he became one of South Africa’s first rappers as part of PT House, co-written and produced by Danny Bridgens. Their debut album Big World was released in 1991 and followed by Big City Taste a year later. 
The following is a telephone interview conducted in December 1 2023. It has been edited for clarity.

[How did you get started in music and who were your influences?]

Thank you, and I thank God that I’m able to tell my story 

I could play any instrument from the age of 7, I could connect and plug in and play music, drums and everything. My father had a band at Turfloop University [now the University of Limpopo], so he brought all the instruments home. We played church songs, and my father was the one emphasising that I should always be online with everything that is happening [musically] in the house … including with the church songs. So we were always playing instruments, with my sisters and everything. My father actually donated that gene into us.

Nelson Mohale (middle) in Jivaro

My father – in 1950, the newspaper called The World wrote he was the first black man to achieve 99% in a BSc degree. He wrote that candidacy test, he got 98. The white people said to him, ‘you can never [do] something like this’, they made him write it [again] the next day, he got 99 % … The origins of music started from Turfloop, where my father was a good student. He made a record also. So I could declare that I’m a template of kwaito, because the genes that I come from are very strong.

I used to be involved in bubblegum music. I started at 14 years [old]. I worked with OBED NGOBENI & THE KURHULA SISTERS – the original ‘Ku Hluvukile Ka Zet’. I could tell you so much, you’d never believe me! That’s why I say, I was always in control. I could play any musical instrument. I could play anything. It’s just that I’d never held a mic till 1991… when I said, let me [show] the images that come through to me, as God speaks to me and says, ‘Go do this’. It was very new, but remember at that time, the KABELO’s, the MANDOZA’s [future kwaito stars], they were in school, and they were actually miming to the songs during any concert.

So, the bubblegum years – I started playing background keyboards for VOLCANO, I played for PETER MARINGA, I know I played for SENYAKA. But I was an instrumentalist. Then in 1987, I did my first production. We did all the programming for LA VIVA. Then, when you get to JIVARO, we were listening to a lot of BOB MARLEY.  We were listening to UK music, THE CHIMES, K.G.B., we would go as far as German house, before the ROBIN S’s, because that’s where the underground house came from [in SA] – we had exclusive music in Pimville, not in Soweto but in our area. We were sophisticated, we listened to J.M SILK – ‘I Can’t Turn Around’, if you remember, [TIMEX SOCIAL CLUB’s] ‘Rumors’ – ‘Look at all these rumors’. We listened to PET SHOP BOYS, we listened to ENIGMA, we listened to – I played it last weekend, because I DJ sometimes – ‘You take my self-control’ [LAURA BRANIGAN] … 

House, for us, it became house, and we owned it, and we made social parties about the house that we played. There’s a lot of collections that people don’t play in Soweto that we listened to [in Pimville] – LOOSE ENDS, IMAGINATION, ANITA BAKER – OK sharp, everyone listened to that. But remember the [New] Jack Swing that came in, BOBBY BROWN, that’s when the TV started exposing black Africans overseas in control. 

I’ve also recorded CARLOS DJEDJE - ‘Let’s love one another’. I did his album, I programmed it. That’s why I say, people [in the music industry] found me here as a 14-year-old. At 21 already I was in control, to say this thing can be done.. 

I became a template of South African music. But I was pompous [arrogant]. But I remembered the words of Maurice Horwitz [from Music Team], who warned me about it. I don’t regret it though.

[How did PT House come about?]

When I did PT House, I started in 1990, and I did it in the township. I had a small studio with some other friends, putting heads together. We were hoping to come with something that is ‘transitional’ writing, which means using the slang of any language, put together. 

They needed something local, something for the youth, and at 21 the youth came to me. I took a chance. I met Maurice Horwitz, he was very kind to me, and he saw something in me. He took me [on] as a PRO [public relations officer] for the company [Music Team] … I was always a promotional man. My music thing was that I was always promoting myself, hence I say I was almost the first independent artist. So I was a PRO at Music Team, promoting other artists, from across [all] spheres of genres. Along the line, I’d never held a microphone in my life …  then I decided to write – transitionally, taking the slang, to give this thing of where we come from, as a political youth – complaining, enquiring about things, but using music. Marketing ourselves, politically almost, through music.

Nelson Mohale (in blue t-shirt) in La Viva

Then PT House came through. Maurice met Danny [Bridgens], one of the greatest champions, which I acknowledge very much – and I acknowledge Maurice too, for all this. I’d never done that [make music] before … so those are the guys that gave me foresight into music.

I was always in control. PT House had four songs in different languages [on Big World] – English-Afrikaans mixed together, Zulu, Sotho, Tsotsitaal, mixed… That had never been heard of. Maurice said I was ahead of my time. Party rhythms/social rhythms, and then socio-economic [message], uniting South Africans — that was basically how the album was structured.

Maurice and I did something [with PT House], I appreciate him and I love him, and I’m still alive and kicking. I’m waiting for the day when I get my opportunity, to say, this is what I started – can we finish this?

[Where did you grow up and how did this influence your music?]

I was born in Meadowlands, moved to Mapetla, then we came to Pimville [all parts of Soweto, johannesburg], which had the first houses [in Soweto] with the bathroom inside, that was 1980 or something, I can’t remember. When I grew up in Pimville, the schools were very relevant, it became a more developed area. I grew up here playing soccer and being a good student and athletic; a troublemaker. The most troubled man you could ever meet is me, even now I’m still on a journey, but I never give up.

Years ago I realized, as a child, I really stuck to myself. I could’ve been a statistic. But I’m here. I avoided being a statistic. 

In Pimville, the people around here, we have our own identification per language. It’s not like when you’re in Diepkloof [another part of Soweto] you can speak like a Pimvillian, so the idea [with PT House] was to put Pimville on the map and say, this language I speak – when you go to another place, Mapetla, you find them speaking their own language – is our language here. I’m trying also to say to people, be formal. You should be able to speak to white people, be fluent in English. 

I’m still in Pimville, I’ve got a small little room that I stay in. I’ve got seven kids – I’m separated with the mothers, but beautiful kids. I’m with my mother here, she had a stroke and is in bed, so I’m able to take care of her. Everybody is well and alive. I’m alive and kicking. Made my own mistakes, but I’ve learnt from them. 

Every day of my life, as I walk out of my gates, I hear: ‘Dr House, why are you not going back to the music industry?’ At my front wall, all the time. 

I’m in Pimville right now … I’m enjoying it. My culture, my background, mostly comes from how I’ve experienced life around Pimville. 

[How do you know Kamazu and did he influence your music?]

Before [PT House], we listened to KAMAZU, I loved Kamazu. Because of him, in our country, he was one [artist] that was showing the independence the Americans’ [music] gave us, the Bobby Browns. The people are free out there, why shouldn’t we be free? We were in apartheid.

He’s my brother, he’s older than me, he’s older generationally, but he’s the one who made us balance the United States – what we see, the Bobby Browns, and the UK – with [local influences]. What he gave me as a musician, I could identify myself with him on the microphone. I started making demo cassettes, and trying to sing, as his fan. And funnily enough people used to say I sounded like SOX, more than him! 

But Kamazu drove me, patiently, when my father was not even interested in what I was trying to be — he was against that so much, and I was trying to prove to myself. At the time I passed my matric — he had written me off, he never thought I’d pass matric — I remember, he came and he hugged me and he said, ‘I don’t understand how you passed matric, I never saw you reading.’ He died in 1989, he was … shot and hijacked, and it really changed out lives, altogether. We were supposed to move [overseas].

I was really against apartheid. I got a gunshot in my body, to prove that I was at the forefront of the COSAS [Congress of South African Students] movement. We were fighting the struggle. And the music of PT House has that influence.

Americans had their own thing … but the way they planned it, that’s how I structured it this time, this side [with PT House]. Not do what they do, but structure the visuals that they show us, and do it in our own pronunciation. 

[What inspired the lyrics in PT House ‘Big World’, why was there such a positive message?]

Why I did it, it was the time. We were angry. We were students that come from school, and the system was stopping us, shooting us. Actually, 1990, that was the year I was shot, and 18 others. When we were fighting Inkatha (IFP). We were positioned in the corners, and I remember it was my sister’s birthday. A few of us were willing to cross the border to go [join the armed struggle outside SA], it’s just that my father was wise, he discovered that I wanted to cross the border and he stopped me by telling the guys I’m not here. 

Coming from him, and learning from him, and being somebody who is not group-orientated, it’s easier for me to write from this background. Because I don’t boss anybody, and nobody bosses me. I love everybody equally, I listen to people, and I make them run a sentence [I hear them say something], and take another person, and combine with this one. Because the only way I know life is to help and by saying that, this was a plan. I was working hard, researching around with everybody, singing to my family, sisters, coloureds, I had to go to the Xhosa people [for Xhosa lyrics], say ‘this is how I want to say this in this song, with this type of punch’. 

Transitional writing — finding words that are musical — was a tactic on the rap, and saying it, flowing, in an African’s way. That’s how I saw the language.  Because we were breaking away from the [older] generation. In my family, I’m the first generation to be born in Soweto. My father came from somewhere else, when they ran away from other things. I’ve got creativity, that I could play around so easily. When the call came that they [Music Team] wanted someone who can give a rap in our local way, I believed in myself so much, since I’m the only one who’d had exposure at that level to do this. So that found me already with an intention, that God rated me. With PT House I was working with a plan, and the plan was really to give it in a way that it’s so Sowetan, so Pimville. 

What Americans are doing, daily, experiencing in their own lives, they don’t have different languages. But we have different languages, so I have to be flamboyant somehow, and also arrogant [confident], so that when I go to KwaZulu-Natal or Cape Town or anywhere, I can speak a little bit of Afrikaans, a little bit of everything. I was like a combined, complete South African, and looking at how our youth should actually send a message and address themselves. It’s a white-collar Tsotsitaal, this one.

Now, when you listen to it, or if you give it to young guys [to listen to], it’s the same language they are speaking [today]. We tried not to be personal, but put strong feelings on the topic, and we became emotional about our music, and the template was about that. That’s why nobody could touch me. I was very direct; I didn’t discuss useless matters.

[What was it like working with producer Danny Bridgens?]

I was in a boat, in an ocean, going this way. So everything, I pressed. I started with coffee in the morning. Danny would like me, because I’d come with the present of humbleness. I’d never tested a microphone before, so I had a lot to go through. I couldn’t even wait for us to rap and do the songs, because they were buzzing in my head. Then I find this excellent guy [Danny] who’s willing to organise FELICIA MARION and all these guys as backing vocalists. He actually made sure. I also played some [instruments] there, I was always part of the playing. 

He excelled, Danny, to a level where I remember Felicia Marion telling me that this is something amazing, and for the future, this is how now this thing will work. Remember, Maurice said I’m ahead of the times, people will never understand. But the lyrics and everything, they are really informing, and complaining, and inquiring — and they are marketing us. In a way they are still doing the same thing. 

I was actually not doing it to be a celebrity. I was doing this because there is music in me …. Two cultures coming together, basic chemistry. PT House was blended, I made sure it’s a template.

Artists should be into HR, administrators, within, PR, not just performing, so it’s easier. We are not celebrities but we are workers – building things, part of it. That’s at least what Maurice gave me, and really I love it. And working with Danny, somebody who’s not part of that bullcrap, you know I didn’t see it with Danny. Big ups to Maurice!

© Afrosynth Records 2023

Big World (AFS056) will be out in early 2024, reissued by Afrosynth Records. Pre-order it here.

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