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#25 DJ Sabby – The Power of Consistency, Communication, and The Value of Traditional Education

PODCAST: Episode 25

DJ Sabby – The Power of Consistency, Communication, and The Value of Traditional Education

A story from the perspective of a South African DJ. We loved chatting to DJ Sabby in episode 25 of the Future Minds podcast! This episode was brought to you by Smartick, register for a FREE trial here.

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About Our Guest: DJ Sabby

DJ Sabby is a well-known South African DJ, Radio Host, TV Presenter, MC, and content creator. Passionate about South African creative culture, DJ Sabby commands a healthy listenership to ‘Top 40′ on MetroFM allowing him to reach a wide audience of young South Africans.

*At the time of recording DJ Sabby was hosting ‘The Best Drive’ radio show on YFM.

DJ Sabby

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Topics Discussed

  1. The dynamics of the entertainment industry.
  2. Celebrating and rewarding creativity.
  3. Challenges that he overcame.
  4. Advice to today’s youth.

Full Episode Transcription

Guest Introduction

Philip von Ziegler: In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with DJ Sabby. DJ Sabby is a well-known South African DJ, radio host, TV presenter, MC, and content creator. Passionate about South African creative culture, DJ Sabby commands a healthy listenership on ‘The Best Drive’ radio show on YFM, which allows him to reach a wide audience of young South Africans.

In this episode, we discuss the dynamics of the entertainment industry, celebrating and rewarding creativity, the challenges that he’s overcome, advice to the youth of today, and a range of other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with DJ Sabby, and I’m sure you will, too. Without further ado, I bring you DJ Sabby.

DJ Sabby, thanks for taking the time. Appreciate you coming on.

DJS: It’s a pleasure, my brother. Great meeting you, great to be here.

PvZ: So to get started, just for those who don’t know who you are, maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself, and what it is that you do.

DJS: That’s one of the hardest questions to always have to answer, having to introduce yourself. It’s a big moment and I love it. Real name Sabelo Mtshali, that’s how I pay my taxes. DJ Sabby, I call myself a media practitioner because I pretty much do it all. All the facets that exist within the media industry, be it radio, TV, curating content, podcasting, what we’re doing right now.

Conceptualising ideas, be it voice-overs, commercials, anything that comes to content, I like to say I play a big role in that. The timely moments before we get to execution, I’m a big fan of that. I’m a big fan of continental music, that is African stars, I pioneered the sound at the highest level in SA radio. I’m a big fan of traveling. I do it all, man, outside of making medicine, I’m your guy.

PvZ: Amazing, amazing, so medicine’s the next step?

DJS: No, I need to fix my physics, my physics, and maths, and bio is the worst thing ever!

PvZ: [laugh]

DJS: So I can invest in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Start of DJ Sabby’s Passion for Music

PvZ: Well, look, it sounds very interesting. You’ve obviously selected a pretty unique career path. It’s a combination of everything in the media and content creation space that you’re involved with. How did that start for you? Where did that initial passion come from with regards to content creation, media, and music?

DJS: As cliché as it may sound, I grew up around music, so music was always a thing and talk was a big thing in the family. So my mom was a fan of just being open and being transparent and I’ve always been a fan of that. I always knew how she felt, also through the songs that she played. When she played Kenny Rogers, I knew that she had a great night. When she played gospel music sometimes I felt maybe her soul was troubled, or something was going on, and she was seeking some form of energy to move forward. So music was always around me.

But when I was 14 years of age, LoveLife opened a Radio Wise center, or a LoveLife center in my township, eMandeni, that’s where I come from. And part of the LoveLife center there was a radio-wise program.

Now, they came with totally different alternative ways of us having fun –  a news source, new information, new methods of learning, a computer education. So their entire space was just an escape from my own ordinary world. So I got a chance to learn about computers, got a chance to play basketball, volleyball. In my township, all of that was just a totally different [inaudible]. It was like exposing yellow to a community that was so bright, and basketball became one of my favorite sports.

So when the dudes would always play basketball, I was always one of those guys that would commentate on the sidelines, saying, ah, that layout could have been done better, and I’d always get into their psyche.

And then one day, the program manager who was heading up the Radio Wise program, reached out and said, hey, it’ll be cool if you did this commentary on the radio. And at first, it just sounded stupid on my end that you’re going into this room, you talk to a microphone and you supposedly entertain people.

And growing up in a family where I always heard people on the radio, I just always thought my mom was hiding people inside the radio. So being inside the radio it was a weird moment. I took up the opportunity, got the radio bug when the center was given an ICASA broadcasting license for 30 days. And we had a 50-kilometer radius because we were a narrowcasting station, which means you’re broadcasting into a proximity where you can see the audience, you can feel them. If there’s no one in the center, there’s no one listening to you.

Now, moving into a space where you can now interact with people that you don’t see was a totally different mind switch on my end where the theatre of the mind had to take the onus of what we’re doing.  And, yea, man, to cut the story short, that’s when it all started. Fast-forward to where we are right now.

PvZ: Yea, super-interesting. Just to go back one step, with regards to your academic career, did you follow that traditional path, or did you decide, once you’d connected with music, once you’d found this is your passion, is that what you went full into ignoring the rest?

Because traditionally your parents, or any parents, want you to go: school, university, get that degree and then move on. And after you find some form of stability, go and chase your passion down the line. But it seems in your career you found that passion earlier on and you doubled down on it.

DJS: So I knew what I wanted to do and a part of me sometimes feels like I could have done better. So when I realised what I wanted to do, I was at the age of 15. At 15, I made that decision that this is it. I found my passion, I want to do this radio thing. And my mom was very supportive of the idea.

I lost my dad when I was ten, so a father figure in my life was, in Zulu, they say umalume wami. I guess in English translated as ‘my uncle’. He played an instrumental role, but at the same time, when I told him what I wanted to do, for him it just didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense that I want to spend money on learning how to talk.

So for him, it just didn’t add up – that you want to take money to learn how to talk is just so stupid, man. Figure out what else you wanted to do because it was just a stupid idea. Fast-forward, I was like, okay, cool, fine, do what you’ve got to do. It affected my studies because then they moved me eMandeni and then I went to go stay in Vryheid, which is further north in KZN. It took me out of my comfort zone, took me out of everything that made it easy for me to study, exercise, this radio thing, and it affected my results immensely.

So when I moved to Vryheid I was in a new community, new school, everything was just totally different. So to keep the passion going, I listened to Trevor Williams on East Coast Radio, record all the songs he played because I loved them. And then I would practice my links, record myself just to keep the passion going. And every time I used to visit eMandeni, that’s when I would keep the passion going behind the microphone. Because without practise and without consistency, you start becoming shakier. I could have literally stopped doing this whole radio thing.

Then I took an eduloan through Edu Loan, to study radio production at the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa, which is NEMISA, based in Parktown, Johannesburg. And the reason why I did that or took that decision, I just always knew that my entry point might not be behind the microphone. So I wanted to further see what else about this thing that I want to do, which is radio, could possibly have.

Because working at the center, I was aware, okay, there’s a program manager, there’s a station manager, then there’s a producer, but there’s got to be more. Doing radio production exposed me so much to what radio is. It equipped me with more knowledge as to what you need to have and some of the entry points within a radio station, so that gave me more knowledge.

So just in case, I didn’t get my break as a radio jock, I was like, okay, I could get into the technical side, I could get into marketing. I could get in [inaudible] because I was aware and I had this certificate to back me up.

So I did take a traditional route, but I took that route to expose myself to more, to learn more about what I’ve made a decision about that will be my career. And it was also the most affordable route because [inaudible] Media House was also very expensive. And also I was only going to enter the studio in the second or third year. For me, I wanted something more practical, something more practical with theory and NEMISA offered that. That’s when I came to Johannesburg in 2008, and it’s been a journey ever since.

PvZ: Amazing! You mentioned something super-interesting there which was doubling down on the idea that communication is so important. Earlier you said maths, science, chemistry, that wasn’t your strong suit as a child.

However, what you have done, is you’ve almost gone the other way and said, well, if maths, chemistry, and science isn’t the thing that you’re passionate about, let’s figure out how to communicate. Let’s figure out how to take my personal … and most people overlook this, I think. In communication, that ability to communicate, to articulate yourself correctly, and to connect with other people. I think that even goes a little deeper when you’re trying to connect with people without actually seeing them, so over the radio, or through music, and so on.

How did you go about building that skill set? Because I think it’s so overlooked, whether it’s in young people today or in any career path, we think academically, and academics are important. But we never really think about those soft skills and those communicative skills that we need in order to get our message across to connect with people, to sell an idea. That’s so much more powerful and so much more important than people may think.

The Importance of Communicating Well

DJS: Hmm, I also think reading comes into play. If you want to articulate or you want to communicate better, it’s very important for you to at least read something a day. It goes a long way. It increases your vocabulary. It makes it a little bit easy for you to articulate your points when you have to. So I’ll just tell the jocks that I get a chance to chat to that, even if you read a page of a magazine in case books are not your thing. Just make an effort to just consume words every single day.

And also something that’s big at my end, I’m a peoples person. I love hanging out with people who come through from totally different backgrounds and different settings. It exposes me to new lingo. It exposes me to new music; it exposes to different life stories, because the radio I love to say I do, is relations radio. It’s not really driven by the studies and the research that is always publicized.

I love to do the radio that, yo, I went through this today. I was hanging out with so-and-so and this is what I saw. I was watching TV. Sharing things that people that are exposed to on a day-to-day basis to create content that I would be the primary source of. So that also helps me to become a better communicator because I’m consistently communicating through things that people know, and also challenging their mindset as to how they normally navigate this whole life thing.

And also, I remember when I joined KFM, for example, it was a totally different experience because I didn’t have a lot of White friends around me. So here I am playing some of their favourite songs, which was my closest source to understanding what my White friend or my Coloured friend could possibly want. Because the station wasn’t predominantly for the Black people, it was an alternative station and that was in 2009. And for me, that was an exciting moment to engage in conversation, to play songs that I wouldn’t play in my own space.

And I remember one day when I had my first racist incident, that was a reminder that, wow, this is the mud I found myself in. Where you’re consistently doing your radio and you create friends and you build relationships, but it takes one person to go on the site and say, oh, I just realised you’re Black. Wow, you know, and they tuned out. And management really made me understand that these things do happen.

And it was also one of the reasons why I decided to leave Cape Town and join 94.7 Highveld Stereo because I just wasn’t ready for that kind of energy. Especially because when in fact that I was still learning and trying to find myself behind a microphone, I didn’t want to be reminded about the fact that I’m Black, or being reminded about race. I just wanted the radio to connect us and build us together through music and through conversation.  And I think that was a best decision I could have done for myself at the time.

PvZ: All right, that makes sense, but I assume that over time, that’s changed? I think that music is one of those mediums that transcends race, transcends gender, and in the end of the day, hopefully, brings people together. Nothing makes me more proud and warm than hearing the National Anthem and the entire country rallying behind one team, behind one cause, behind one moment. So, yea, look, I think that I’m certainly not the musical expert, but I think that music is one of those few and interesting mediums that transcends everything and has the ability to bring people together.

DJS: Music is an energy, man!

PvZ: It is.

DJS: The best way to describe it is that music is an energy. You play Sister Bettina for any South African, and you play Nkalakatha for any South African, no matter where you come from it’s a song that will bring a smile to your face or remind you of a specific moment. But then there’s other songs you play in different spaces. If I play the Queen’s in Cape Town, there’s someone who has memories towards that. If I play Alaska in Johannesburg. So I think that’s the great thing about music, it allows us to connect. It allows us to feel something.

And also, it doesn’t matter sometimes where you come from, and that’s one thing I’ve learned ever since I tapped into sounds outside of South Africa, for example, playing continental music, is that the same way sports makes us feel, whoever you are, wherever you come from when we’re watching soccer, rugby, cricket, whichever sports, we’re so in the moment. Whether you understand the sport, whether you don’t understand the sport, but the energy of the game is what keeps you glued in. And that’s the same thing with music, it’s actually an energy.

The Future of the Music Industry

PvZ: So shifting gears a little bit, something that’s always been interesting for me just to think about it with regards to the music industry, and this translates to many other areas. We specialise in online education, and if you look at the United States, the United States is just huge. So the number of online EdTech competitors that we have in the United States because we do have a footprint in multiple English regions, is significant.

And if you think about the music industry, the United States is massive. You’ve got some SoundCloud rappers and music producers that sign multimillion-dollar contracts without having any significant exposure. And then the South African music space is relatively small compared to that.

But over the last 10 years or so, from my perspective, it’s really grown and it’s transitioning into a point where it is being globally recognised. What are your thoughts on that? And what does the future of music and music production and the music industry as a whole in South Africa look like?

DJS: I think the future of music, number one, is going to challenge the recording labels. And I think we’re seeing more of that happening on a day-to-day basis where recording labels are now just going to be facilitating careers more than finding the artists. So artists are exposing themselves to a bigger community and the labels are just taking them and using their channels to create a bigger fan base for them and help them make money.

The same way artists like Elaine came out of her friend’s sharing, suggesting her music, and that gained so much tractions towards her name, she was one of the biggest artists on so many of these streaming platforms. Fast forward to now, she’s signed to Columbia.

So I think we’re going to see so many of those stories where labels are just going to take what already exists and just elevate it. I think also with the Internet and technology making it easier for artists to connect, we’re going to see a rapid rise of new producers that are going to expose totally different sounds to the industry. Producers that were possibly going to find it harder way back then to get their music heard.

And I think that’s the energy that’s going to take the industry to the next level. Because it doesn’t mean that a producer from South Africa just needs to be used by artists in South Africa. And artists from Nigeria can hear beats in South Africa and like it and want to jump on it, and we‘re seeing that with [inaudible] sound at the present moment.

So I think the future for South African music is exciting. As much as the community is so small, artists are now slowly understanding the fact that staying true to myself and being true to my story is potentially what’s going to open up the doors for me in a totally different space. We’re seeing that with the likes of Nasty C. Artists for a very long time in South Africa were feeling like rapping like you’re from America. It’s not going to open doors for you in America.

And here’s a kid, coming through from Durban, sounding like the Americans, but coming through with his own South African flair, finessing the American markets with his music and his story. The same can be said about Shane Eagle. The same can be said about the Beyano sounds with the Dgem operations and Kabza De Small of this world. Davido coming through from Nigeria, Pledam, and Platnumz from Tanzania.

These are all guys who you can easily pick up what their true identity is. Muncha Zinelli hanging out to DiPPLA like it’s just another guy from Pretoria. And that just goes to show the power of being true to yourself is most likely going to open up doors that no PR manager or any air now could do for you.

Those people identify with the truth, and I think that what’s slowly happening in South Africa. We are exposing our truth to the world. We’re telling our stories, and the world is accepting us because they’ve been hearing similar stories for years. America has told a story. Europe has told a story. It’s now time for Africa to bring in this new energy. And we’re seeing it through movies, we’re seeing it through music and arts, and the spotlight is on us.

PvZ: That’s incredible to hear. If you looked across the South African landscape in the music industry, specifically, out of the different areas. So you’ve obviously got your musicians and you’ve got your producers and your representatives or agents, and then you’ve got your music video directors, for example. In each of these categories, do you see shining stars that have the potential to take on the global stage? Aside from those that you’ve just mentioned, like Elaine and Nasty C and so on?

DJS: Yea, there’s so many! I think there’s so many artists that are coming forward and representing and bringing totally different dimensions to how Africa and South Africa has been looked at for years. You look at what Laduma is achieving with this fashion and knitwear in the fashion industry. He did some styling for Coming 2 America, which is dropping this coming Friday, being tomorrow. That is an exciting moment. We’re seeing African fashion in the highest level of Hollywood. I think that’s an amazing moment.

We saw it also at Black Panther. We saw some of our talent in the movie, the music in the movie. I think those are some of the moments to celebrate. Coming 2 America has Nomzamo Mbathato landing her first international debut. I think that’s just a telling story of what to expect next.

A lady who grew up from Durban entered an MTV-based competition. Did not win it, but that did not mean it’s the end of her story. She kept herself moving. Fast forward, now she’s acting alongside the likes of Eddie Murphy. There’s Poppy also, who’s an illustrator, does some amazing work with Nike. LeBron James is rocking her fashion. There’s Nelson also I can mention when it comes to painters who just have a totally different approach to telling their stories.

There are just so many people I can mention outside of the music space that are inspiring myself and inspiring the other young people out there, that tell your story. Be true to who you are and trust me, your talent will open up the door that you’ve been knocking at for a very long time. But it’s not the end, you consistently need to work hard. It’s inspiring, man, it’s inspiring.

Value in a Reward System

PvZ: It’s always inspiring to see creativity being rewarded. I think previous generations’ creativity was never something that was really either rewarded, endorsed, or championed in the same way that it is today. So that’s really cool to see.

So hypothetical scenario, you wake up tomorrow morning, there’s a billion dollars in your bank account. What do you do with the next year?

DJS: The work.

PvZ: You’ll still work?

DJS: I’ll still work. I think it’ll probably take me the first 30 days before I touch it, just to figure out what to do with it. But being honest with myself, I’ll probably spend a million on doing dumb things!

PvZ: [laugh] It sounds totally fair!

DJS: I think I’ll spend a million doing some really dumb things. Live like I’m in a music video. I would literally, I once said this to a mate of mine. Is that, if I woke up and there was a billion dollars in my bank account, I would literally take a jet and fly everywhere that I can where I know for a fact my South African passport can get me there without needing to apply for a visa, and just live. Rent out Ferraris; rent out mansions! Do all these crazy things that you never thought you could do. And then after that, we’ll worry about the serious stuff. It’s a billion dollars, and a million is more than enough to do that. [laugh] It’s enough to go round.

PvZ: [laugh] There’s enough to go around! So, again, if we just come back, circling back to you as an individual. Outside of what you do on a day-to-day, what are you passionate about? What do you wake up in the morning feeling most excited about? Because you cover a whole spectrum of creative channels or creative endeavors that you’ve undertaken, whether it’s music or content or radio. What is it that interests you the most and gets you the most excited?

DJS: Firstly, I think what I love the most about what I do is it’s solutions-driven. I get excited to wake up and find solutions on what I’m going to do today. Because I’ve got all these problems and all these meetings to attend, and all of them require some form of mindset and energy.

When I go to the gym, the solution is to keep my brain active, to keep my body feeling good. So everything I normally do, the mindset is how do I find a solution to the problem? It’s even my approach to conversations on the radio is, yes, we are tackling serious issues, but it’s pointless if we’re all going to be shouting these problems. What’s the common solution at the end of the conversation?

And that’s also my approach now with other things that I’m trying to explore, especially in the world of business outside of what I’m doing. To say, okay, cool, if you can offer solutions to people’s lives, in which other worlds can you also play in that space to offer these solutions?

So every day, man, I wake up in the morning and I’m always excited because my days are never the same. Sometimes I’m on a TV set, sometimes I’m on an audition room where I’m back to the bottom. And that’s one thing I appreciate about my world is that tomorrow I can be at the highest level and wake up tomorrow and I have to be in front of these dudes that I’ve never met before and convince them why I deserve this job, or why I think I’m great enough to do this job.

So it always takes me on a rollercoaster journey. And I think that’s what always keeps me on the tip of my feet every single day because there’s never a day where I’m like, yoh, I’m the best thing ever and I deserve everything. I’m always consistently having to remind myself, remind everyone, because you’re literally as great as your last show.

Advice for Today’s Youth

PvZ: South African youth, we always refer to the South African youth, the next generation, as this demographic that we have to help. The South African education system has had its challenges. Coronavirus hasn’t helped in that regard. And there are a lot of youngsters out there who simply feel lost in that traditional academic classroom environment, and they want to pursue a career that they’re passionate about.

And I think a lot of young South Africans are passionate about doing something creative, whether that’s art or music or film, or anything in line with that. What would your advice be to the 15-year-old version of yourself that’s out there, kind of lost and not feeling drawn to going that traditional academic route? What would you tell him?

DJS: Number one, I’ll say definitely finish your matric. I’ll go like, get your matric certificate and then follow that kick in you that has always been there. If you’re passionate about drawing, you’re not weird. And also, growing up when you’re a fan of something that not everyone is a fan of, people call you names. People like myself, we’re a fan of hip hop music, wearing baggy jeans, pants a little bit lower down the bum. People would call us names.

Don’t be scared to stand up for what you truly believe in. That is what sets you apart, being unique. So if that’s what you want to do, as soon as you’re done with your matric, go for it, explore it. I was telling a mate of mine the other day that we need to get to a point where we encourage gap years in the Black community.

I think whether you come from a family that’s fortunate to take you to ‘varsity or a family that doesn’t have the funds to take you to ‘varsity. If you have the luxury of time, I think gap years should be encouraged because that’s the year where you can get a chance to explore everything. Be a waiter, try out auditions, try out music if that’s what you want to do. Explore, do as many things that you want to do.

And then when that year is done, you’re not going to go to ‘varsity and change your mind after the first or second year. And I think of so many young people, they find themselves in that position where your parents want you to do this and you do it for the sake of the parents. But one year in, or two years in, you’re like, nah!

Let’s encourage people to explore and find themselves by taking a gap year. It will save them more money, it’ll save their mental health, and it will help young people to fully be aware as to what they truly want to do.

By the time that I graduated from high school at the age of 17, I was ready to jump on a bus and go to Durban or go to Jo’burg, and that’s what I did. I didn’t care about any other thing when it comes to the luxuries of life. Got to Jo’burg, stayed in the hostels with men that work in mines.

And that was the beginning point of my journey because I knew what I wanted and there’s no one else that could have argued with me differently because my life would have been miserable. I’ll probably have seven kids by now.

PvZ: [laugh] So to end off, we normally ask guests one or two questions. And the first one would be, what is your most gifted or recommended book?

DJS: It was a Bible that was given by my sister. I revisit it every now and then when my soul is troubled. I’m not saying I’m big on Christianity, but I think it was a precious book. And there’s just something about the Bible.

PvZ: Ah, that’s a great, great answer. And then to end of, what do you believe about education that most people would disagree with?

DJS: I think there’s different forms of education. I think the schooling institution is something that needs to be really looked into. And I think that’s what came out of this pandemic. A lot of things that became known, there’s so many layers to this conversation. But I think education needs to be updated because so many questions are on the table at the present moment.

PvZ: DJ Sabby, thank you so much, man. DJ Sabby, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

DJS: Thank you very much, man, great meeting you.

PvZ: Likewise!

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