Sheree O’Brien – SA Music’s Power Lady
Sheree O’Brien is a name you would instantly know if you have a good knowledge of who’s who on the South African house music landscape. From her humble beginning in East London where she confesses the scene was almost non-existent 15 years ago when she started hosting events, to being head-hunted by the biggest independent house label, Soul Candi Records, to building her own management company, Splakavellis Management into a veritable tour de force, one sentence sums her up best;
Whoever said the music industry is dominated by men has probably never come across Sheree O’Brien” – Harael Salkow, Founder of Soul Candi Records
Currently managing a diverse selection of high-profile artists from rapper and TV personality, ProVerb, to R’nB and house producer RJ Benjamin and even gospel artist, Chad Alexander, Sheree is a busy lady – currently also involved in Spring Fiesta coming up next moth – but busy as she is, Sheree still found time to chat to us about life in the fast lane…
Let’s take things back to when you first got into the business of artist management and starting Splakavellis Management. It all started in your home town, East London, which despite its own musical history the scene must have been pretty small there. How and why did you get into the music business?
Sheree O’Brien: Oh yeah, the scene was practically non-existent at the time, which is where I saw the gap and took all the big acts to the city for events. You know for me, as a young girl, I always knew I would be in the entertainment industry. I was obsessed with music, in fact everything to do with the arts, theatre included. I never actually dreamt of doing anything else. There was no backup plan. I heard my calling at a very young age.
Your move to Joburg. You don’t seem like the person who looks backwards too much. Did you deliberate long about the decision to uproot and move from the place you grew up?
Sheree O’Brien: I did not actually. For me it was the only logical move to make if I wanted to grow my career and really get into the thick of the scene. Besides, when the biggest house label headhunts you and gives you an opportunity, you don’t just turn that down. [Laughs]
When you first arrived in Joburg full time – the first year, say… Did you every second-guess yourself about whether the city was for you, or was it an easy transition?
Sheree O’Brien: No second-guessing – I KNEW then and I still know now, Joburg is not for me! I can do the city in small bursts but living there is not my ideal. It was not an easy transition. It’s so far removed from who I am and where I’m from. I will always be a small city girl at heart. I hate the traffic and that everything is so far apart, everything is more expensive, the permanent rush which equals to stress and mostly I hate the lifestyle. It’s so fake and materialistic. Everyone is trying to be a cool kid, trying to get THINGS just to impress others and wanting to be on every guest-list just to be seen as relevant. Also, people there are so cold – you can be stuck on the side of a road and no-one will stop to help. I get that everyone there is hungry, hustling and trying to succeed, but I see no reason in needing to be another version of yourself to do so. I believe I’ve done well because I’ve always kept it real and just done me. I never tried to ‘fit in’ or be cool or be relevant. For me, if you’re good at what you do and respected for what you do then that reputation will keep you be relevant. Besides all that, I always feel extremely lonely in Joburg. I am a homebody and come from a very big close knit family so to not have any family around does get me down.
You’ve managed a host of House DJs/producers – in fact this is the foundation of where Splakavellis started – House is almost the pop music of South Africa – but back then it was more of an underground bubbling scene. What made you believe in the genre at the time?
Sheree O’Brien: I was doing club events at the time and the first house DJ I booked was DJ Christos. In my eyes he was like a Godfather of the SA house scene. We spent hours just talking about the sound and what the local producers and DJ’s were doing with it. In the meantime I was slowly just falling in love with the sound man. The Chicago house sounds of Frankie Knuckles, the sounds of Louie Vega, Ralf Gum and Rocco – my soul was just touched. A lot of music can make you move your feet and bop your head but some deep, vocal house will move your soul! It was however when I heard DJ Mbuso’s ‘Maf n So’ that I fell in love with the local house sound. Things took a turn when I booked Mbuso and he was telling me all about Soul Candi and the scene in JHB and somehow he convinced me to book a plane ticket and return to Joburg with him for a few days so he could introduce me to all the big cats at Soul Candi. I took the leap and did that. I’ll never forget walking in to the Soul Candi Record store underground in Rosebank – that was a house lover and DJ’s heaven – all the latest vinyls from the biggest international labels you can ever imagine. Mbuso grabbed some records and let me listen to some he thought I would like and he was spot on. After spending a few days with him at the label and attending some events he played at, I knew without a doubt the House sound was about to explode in this country and I wanted to be a part of that. I have Mbuso to thank for that. In fact, MANY of our big SA artists, not just in the house scene, were given a helping hand by Mbuso, and I feel like he really doesn’t get enough credit for the role he has played in our industry.
Sheree O’Brien: Hmmm…. I managed most of whom we now refer to as the legends of house and they were all pretty chilled, hard working guys. There was only one producer that was pretty new and unknown with a massive hit at the time, that needed to be marketed, but hated doing any form of PR, so often he’d just not rock up to interviews or call me at the last minute to feign an excuse. He is now very well known, as part of a group and nothing has changed. He still avoids media like a plague!
Here’s a story though, because I will NEVER forget this experience – I was touring with an international duo of DJ/Producers that Soul Candi hosted in SA as well as DJ Franky, Giggs Superstar & 2lani The Warrior – that was one helluva week! Those guys drove everyone insane on that tour! In every city, every airport and every hotel all they kept asking was ‘Are we going to see lions here?’ (yeah because Africa is one big jungle and we walk our lions for exercise?!?! REALLY???!) They never wanted to chill during the day and rest, so I wasn’t getting any sleep between gigs. On the second last night at about 10pm, I went to the hotel to change my clothes, and texted DJ Franky to let the driver fetch me. Next thing I knew, my phone was ringing and it was ‘Bozza’, Harael Salkow, saying “Gangstar did you enjoy the gig?” All confused and thinking he’s going mad coz the gig hadn’t even begun yet, I look at the window and it’s broad daylight! I had passed out on that chair and missed my gig! No thanks to them of course!
You’re a renowned go-getter. Describe your morning routine – i.e. when does your day start and what are some of your early morning priorities?
Sheree O’Brien: Oh wow… I really am NOT a morning person and hate every morning that starts before noon! I get to bed at about 1am or 2am when I’m done working and I’m up at 6am after hitting the snooze button about 5 times. Say a short prayer whilst in the waking up process. Then wash, dress and get my son ready for day care and when I’m done with him I then hit the bathroom and get ready to hit the office. So not much different to any other working parent I guess.
Any time for romance in your life or is it head down, business first right now?
Sheree O’Brien: On a scale of 1-10 the romance in my life is a -5! I’m always head down, business first, but I’m sure the right man will definitely be special enough to be able to change that. I always make time for the people I love.
Brett Jackson was a wonderful person and such an amazing artist. Losing him must have been a tough moment in your career…
Sheree O’Brien: Ahhhh man… Brett Jackson! Just you mentioning him makes me emotional. Yeah, I mean writing that press release and having to deal with the media was tough time in my career especially when I was grieving so badly but honestly it’s tougher on my everyday life and my heart. Brett was my brother, friend, motivator, supporter and even a mentor first before being an artist. He took a piece of me with him. 13 years ago I lost my own brother and Brett really filled that role when I moved to Joburg. So it genuinely feels like I’ve already lost two brothers in my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him and miss him. I can still hear him calling me ‘Gangstar’, see his smile, hear his laugh and swearing at anyone that tried to say a bad word about me. A lot of people misunderstood him and took his reserved, quiet ways for being rude and arrogant but that man had a heart of gold and was the nicest person I’ve ever met. He fought like a soldier and was so selfless. Even in his last few days he would call me every day to check on me and my baby as I had just given birth a few months earlier. The House industry also took a huge knock with his loss. I don’t care who says what, BRETT JACKSON WAS THE KING OF DEEP HOUSE. Such a talent and perfectionist, every single one of his albums were mixed live. He would literally sit on his bedroom floor with his CDJs, block out the world and mix his entire album. Listening to it, you hear perfection!
Constant deadlines, the daily music business hustle – I am sure you thrive of the pressure, hence your success; do you ever find yourself thinking – ‘there must be an easier way to forge a career,’ or would you not change this for the world?
Sheree O’Brien: Nah, easy is boring. I need a constant challenge and I need to constantly be learning and growing. Besides easy come, easy go is very true.
Let’s chat about the artists you manage at the moment because they are pretty high profile. RJ Benjamin, ProVerb and Chad Alexander are three quite diverse artists. With house music being the highest consumed music in South Africa right now – and you having promoted/managed house DJs/Producers for almost 15 years – how do the challenges differ from house to soul/hip hop/gospel?
Sheree O’Brien: I’ve always managed diverse artists throughout my career – it’s just that the House scene ‘claimed’ me and I basically got boxed into that role. Which is also why I tried to stay away from working on house projects the past three years because I needed people to understand that House is not all I do. Yes it was my field of expertise I guess but TALENT and MUSIC is my passion, ALL genres of music. The obvious challenge is the fact that House is the most consumed so all other genres has to then fight for their share of the pie. However, I’ve never been one to be phased about how an album sells. That is exactly why I left the record label industry – it is product focused, an artist is only as good as their last sales figure. I come from the complete opposite world of managing and developing talent and building a brand. I go in for the long haul, it’s a marriage that requires commitment, patience and trust. My artists are basically niche market and that’s what I prefer. The market is not big but the fans are loyal and the music is of the best quality. Although RJ Benjamin had one of the biggest house anthems the country has ever witnessed, he is by all means a Soul artist and I’ve been managing him for about eight years now. ProVerb is not just an artist but also an entertainer/personality. Chad is a musician that does Soul and Gospel. They aren’t mass producing music like the house market does. Their music is timeless so there isn’t a shelf-life on it as with house music where you need to be continuously dropping something new basically every year because the market is so big and competitive and you gotta stay relevant.
Some fun: If you were going to spend a week on a desert island what three essentials would you take with you?
Sheree O’Brien: A communication kit consisting of my phone, iPad and 12 fully charged mobile power supplies. My toothbrush with toothpaste and my contact lenses/specs.
And which 3 global (or SA celebrities) would you choose to do it with?
Sheree O’Brien: The Rock, because he’s sexy as hell and strong enough to just carry me around if I get injured. [Laughs]. Oprah, to give me some mogul-making tips. Leigh-Anne Williams, she’s my best friend and we can have fun together regardless of where we are and under what circumstances.
Spring Fiesta is just around the corner and I know you’re quite involved with it. What are you guys doing differently from last year?
Sheree O’Brien: Spring Fiesta is my baby! The brain child of Soul Candi’s, Ricardo Da Costa, we have really put our all into this brand and are so proud of the way it’s growing. Every year we go bigger and better, from production to line-up. This year however we also have a series of pre-parties building up to the main event which is the ‘Road To Spring Fiesta’. Then the biggest fact is that we have more International artists than ever before. Spring Fiesta is more than an event, it’s an experience.
The line-up is massive. A veritable who’s who of the SA dance music scene. Who impresses you most last year and who do you think will ‘bring it’ this year?
Sheree O’Brien: The beauty of Spring Fiesta is that it’s not just a dance music festival. There’s a floor catering to all the popular genres. There’s the Hip Hop Floor, Old Skool, Dancehall etc.
Last question: What does the SA music business need more of and what could it do with less of?
Sheree O’Brien: More local tunes play-listed on radio. More usage of local tracks for sync deals. More government investment. More international exposure.
Less piracy. Less flossing and more grinding. Less copying international cats. Less promoters with “budget constraints” (if you don’t have budget then don’t host an event).
And that folks is Sheree O’Brien. What a wonderful insight into our music world here in South Africa.