Pioneering beyond just the Unit
There are certain names in South Africa that the media are entrenching into Hip Hop households nationwide. Names like BEN SHARPA, DRIEMANSKAAP, RATTEX, RAIKO, and other such heavy weight titles. There is an apparent quality of product and performance in the reputations of these various artists that serves to satisfy everytime. This quality is most apparent in the label that houses them all. Life Check massive, from the mouth of the main man himself, Damian D PLANET Stephens, we introduce to you, PIONEER UNIT…
Thank you. Non-mainstream South African hip hop has got a bit of a stigma attached to it – it’s often seen as amateurish. As much as we want the music to speak for itself, you need to take advantage of every competitive edge you can get.
We try to bring as much quality as we can into every phase of the production process (from mixing and mastering, to album artwork and videos). We work within pretty tight budget constraints but we try to make the most of what we’ve got – that’s an art in itself.
To answer your question, we pay attention to every detail. There is no real key focus; song concepts, audio production, packaging, marketing, artist management, business development – they are all equally important. It’s also important to realise that there’s always a lot of room for improvement.
- Pioneer Unit comes with its own authentic flavour. How would YOU describe it?
I’m not sure I can come up with a catchy one-line answer to this! Everything we do is based on our belief that hip hop has taken an epic journey around the world from its birthplace in Africa. Our mission is to keep that journey alive by making innovative, politically and culturally conscious, distinctly African Hip Hop that is at home anywhere in the world.
On a practical level, we set out to work with artists who have demonstrated their commitment to, and mastery of, their artform over many years before they signed. They have also demonstrated that they understand the cultural significance of representing the reality of life in South Africa.
Our sound mirrors the various influences that created hip hop, as well as the influences around us in South Africa. We have also taken those influences and tried to push them further in all directions.
- There is an apparent offensive (as in ready-to-attack) style to the Pioneer Unit productions, with an almost apocalyptic personality, coming across as very realistic and serious. What would you say your message might be through this type of consistency?
We have a clear philosophy that guides everything we do. We want to be beacon of hope in the pop music void for like-minded souls. You have to take a militant stance against the forces that push artists to conform to the pop-culture norms or they suck you in and crush you. We’re sending out a clear message that it’s not going down like that.
- What has been the Pioneer Unit journey up until now? A brief look at your progress from initial conception to early releases to current status?
We have set ourselves huge goals that we know will take a long time to achieve. We have definitely come a long way since Pioneer Unit was founded, but we’re also aware that we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve learned a lot along the way. We’ve refined our business processes and built a really strong team of artists, producers, DJs and collaborators. We’ve also made some important international connections that are beginning to really work for us.
It’s really important for any new business to maintain momentum, even when the odds seem insurmountable. We’ve had to invest quite a lot of money, and a huge amount of time in Pioneer Unit, but part of the reward is the journey itself.
- There can be no question as to Pioneer Units establishing a solid presence in both the SA and Global industry. How would YOU describe your impact on your immediate scene (Cape Town) and on the national scene?
Being realistic, I’d say that we’re still bubbling under the radar both locally and internationally. It’s so easy to get gassed-up because you’ve appeared in Hype magazine or had your video played on Music Lounge. However, building an artist’s career takes a lot of work and nothing happens over night. Persistence is the key. With each new project we release our presence and reputation grows exponentially. With that comes more media attention and the opportunities that follow.
Being based in Cape Town isn’t great for national exposure, but we don’t use that as an excuse – you have to attract the limelight to shine wherever you’re at.
We are working towards getting greater national exposure and a lot of the media have been really supportive. We have a national tour planned for early next year and we’re going to keep pushing videos hard. We’re also going to be starting our regular club night in Cape Town in late October. We’re on a long journey, picking up fans and friends along the way. There’s not going to be any overnight success, but we’re in this for the long run.
- Where do you draw your inspiration from, as a musician and a label head? What keeps the PU fire burning through the rough times, and what maintains the edge through the plush times?
The main motivation in both good times and bad, is our belief in the mission. There are definitely dark days when you feel like you’re not making any headway or when doors keep slamming in your face. I have always had total belief in the quality of the people I work with – that never changes. It’s impossible not to stay motivated when you hear the music we’ve got lined up.
We also get a lot of nice emails of support from heads around the country who feel what we’re doing. The response at the performaces, both in SA and internationally, also keeps us going.
- If you looked at Pioneer Unit as a brand, where would you source the appropriate brand ambassadors? Outside of the stable of artists and your immediate crew, who represents Pioneer Unit?
Pioneer Unit represents a philosophy. We do this to represent the people, reflect the reality of their lives, and make them feel proud of where they come from. If we can educate and entertain along the way too, even better. We welcome anyone who is down with the cause. We know that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for something to believe in, and, in turn, to represent.
- On a more practical level, on a share-the-knowledge tip (without asking you to give away your personal tactics), what is your production process when starting a new project with an artist? Could you briefly break it down for us, all the way from lyrics to launch parties?
We have a detailed Excel spreadsheet that covers every phase of the production process. This helps us keep track of time and expenses. It would be a bit tricky to break it down briefly though.
One of the most important lessons we have learned is to create a realistic schedule and be professional about sticking to your deadlines. Treat it like you would any other professional job. It’s easy to lose momentum on an album project if you don’t keep the whole team focused and motivated. If you’re serious about getting the album out there, you can’t just focus on the production phase. Marketing, promotion and distribution are equally important.
Never go around telling people that you’re album is ‘coming soon’. Wait until you have everything in place and you have a confirmed release date!
- We don’t get much of Dplanet outside of Pioneer Unit PR, what keeps you keeping on? Outside of the label, where do your interests lie?
I have an 8 year old daughter who I love to hang out with. I’m a big Arsenal fan so I try to watch them as often as I can. I like good food and the occasional beer.
I love music. I love working with artists and collaboraters. I’m pretty obsessive about running the label so I spend most of my time on that. I love travel – nothing beats visiting new places and sharing our music with people around the world.
- Take this time to say whatever is on your mind, shout outs and any info we should know on forth coming Pioneer Unit activity…
Firstly shout out to you for putting me on this interview! You’re keeping the flame burning down there in Durban – big up. Shout out to the whole Pi-Unit. Keep it locked to www.pioneerunit.com. Watch out for forthcoming projects by Jaak, KONFAB, Gin-i Grindith, Bruinstormerz, Cream, new Ben Sharpa ’4D’ live show concept, Planetary Assault 2 and much more! Support your local product and buy Bread and Butter by Rattex, Igqabhukil’ Inyongo by Driemanskap, B. Sharpa by Ben Sharpa and Planetary Assault. If your local music store doesn’t have them on the shelves, ask them to order for you at the counter. Follow Pioneer Unit on Twitter: @PioneerUnit. Follow me on Twitter: @Dplanet. Friend us up on Facebook, Myspace and all that stuff.