Hip Hop His-story: As told to Helen Herimbi, SAHHA Honourary Award recipient, DJ Bionic, sheds light on his musical journey

I was born in Pretoria and raised, up until about 12 years old, in this township in the East Rand called Eden Park. I was 10 or 11 years old, when I saw some guy DJing at my school. It was just the coolest thing ever. I loved loud music and, before that, I had no concept of what was behind or controlled the music.

Seeing someone select was powerful.

A year or two later, I would trash my parents’ records and hi-fi practicing and then I hustled a turntable and a mixer from a friend’s house. Back then, house music was big and I learnt how to play and beatmatch with house. It was a good distraction.


I was named DJ Hype by Zweli Badela, rest in peace. He was in a band called Database with Tumi (Molekane, aka Stogie T). Before then, all my friends at school knew me as Mellow Man. In the early days, we just copied whatever was hot in the States or in the UK.

So Mellow Man was a name I copied from a hypeman called Mellow Man Ace, who did toasting in the UK. My first pro-DJ gig came at 14 years old at this club called Q’s on Market Street in downtown Jozi. It was a daytime club for teenagers. Like a matinee on Saturdays. That’s where I met DJ Blaze, Amu, Tumi, Zweli and Isaac Chokwe.

When Hype Williams blew up, because my surname is Williams, Zweli just kind of adopted the Hype Williams thing and would call me Hype. Then it stuck. We all met at Q’s in Hillbrow and it was a room where most of the programme was hip hop and R&B. On another floor was house music.

As a kid, I played and did everything. I used to rap. Ha! I used to breakdance, all of that.

I’d DJ on the house floor then go hang out with Blaze and these rap kids. Blaze and I became friends because of mutual respect. We both killed it! And we would hang out after the club and play records and he would scratch. I was like: “How do you do that? Put me on.”

So it was at Blaze’s house that I got to understand the technique of hip hop DJing and scratching. That was around 1993 or 1994. From there, I started doing a lot more sets in the hip hop room and had a knack for rocking the party. I wasn’t really about lyricism – Blaze and them were like: “These dudes are rapping some real sh*t.” I was like: “The drums on that track!”

About six months into DJing, Blaze and I got into an altercation with the club owner, because we asked him for more money. We used to get paid R80 a session and for every record you played, you had to pay like R50 for it. Blaze and I decided we should go on our own and start our own session.


We looked for venues around town and we came across a couple of places and this one place was called Le Club. On the one side was a tavern with really loud distorted music and on the other side was Rippington’s, a techno club and during the day it was a coloured people and house music hangout.

Le Club was a goth club at night. The official capacity number for Le Club was 200 people, but we’d pack it out every single weekend. Once we found Le Club, we had flyers printed and we were out in the streets with Wikid, Hypress, Blaze, Blaze’s girl, Amu and other kids from the club. We hit Carlton Centre and told everyone who was going to Q’s that day to just come to our club. A month in, the joint was sold out every single Saturday for about seven years.

We became semi-adults through that process.

It became a movement and we were all family. Le Club was a rental agreement with this guy who owned a lot of businesses like chicken joints and corner fish and chips shops. His name was Roy, and he mentored Blaze and I on how to run the space. Around 1998, our event got so big that we moved upstairs (to Metropolis). Q’s had shut down. We had Ready D calling us trying to get on our line-up. TKZee wanted to hang at the club and they performed their very first single while they were still a rap group.

To accomodate the numbers, we moved and that led to bigger parties, more attention. Now suddenly, we were operating at Oskido level, when he was doing those parties at Highpoint in Hillbrow. That attention attracted thugs. Blaze’s investigator friend came up from Cape Town. He loved hip hop but he also helped us with security.

Then we had an armed robbery at the club.

Everyone cashed up after 6pm and Roy went through the tavern and some dudes were in the tavern waiting to rob him. Roy got shot a few times and he died on the spot. I was booked for Boogie Down Nights in Cape Town that weekend and I got a call that Saturday night saying Roy has just passed away. Hectic.

Roy’s wife then told us she doesn’t know how to run this thing. She sold the space and she handed the lease over to Blaze and I. That was in 1999 and we had to learn how to become proper businessmen. That’s when things became serious and less fun and we had more responsibilty so we didn’t enjoy it as much.

That’s how Le Club got to the point where it shut down.

I think it had run its course. Imagine starting this thing at like, 15 or 16 years old and it running for so long? I had other things I was interested in. My friend Mr Bigga and I used to DJ at 206 and we spoke about what the local music scene could be and we started this independent label, Eargasm, that was modelled after Rawkus.


I was also working for Voice of Soweto and used to call Rawkus all the time on some: “I want to speak to Mos Def!” Ha! I became the unofficial agent for Rawkus here and would sell those to DJs. I had this vinyl business, an indie label and also wrote for City Vision newspaper reviewing rap records.

I was also studying Microsoft Certified Engineering because my mom said I had to study. I didn’t even think about that. From running the label, the celebrity DJ thing started to happen – where I was booked for three gigs in one night at places like Vogue in Fourways.

The first artist Eargasm had an agreement with was Database. Then Mizchif had a way in which he really understood the artist brand and people took to that because he knew how to communicate those things. First we released Spex’s Rhymziwrote – we released the first solo South African record ever. We signed Mizchif and put out his Life From All Angles debut album. Mizchif took off and did really well on radio.

Around 2000 or 2001, Rage was starting out with their label and Dzino and Maria McCloy called to say they wanted me to DJ on the show. I really sucked on screen. It was really hard for me and we were in those keep it real days. But the music was still on track. It was the first time we were doing those video mixes – no one was doing that. I think that show was a little too alternative for mainstream TV. In all this time, I promoted these shows. We brought Bobbito Garcia out. Dead Prez.

Then we did Black August.

I had the worst experience with brands during Black August because Sprite promised us all this money and Lauryn Hill was on the line-up. Lauryn was going through her stuff and three days before our show, she missed Black August Jamaica but Mos Def and them had held it down.

This was 2001 and half-a-million rand had gone to Lauryn’s costs. In the end, I had a breakdown. We didn’t recover that money. We lost The Dome as our venue when she pulled out. Gearhouse told me I needed R100 000 that day if they were going to set up at a new venue. Raphael Benza took out his last $3 000 in his account and I had R5 000 and that wasn’t enough so we drove to my mom’s house.

We convinced Gearhouse to hold onto my mom’s policy for this thing. Something she’s been putting savings into her whole life. On that night, we got hustled by everyone but the first R80k we made from the door, I took that straight to Gearhouse so I could get my mom’s policy back. I still ended up in debt.

The next day, I had to go to Cape Town and couldn’t afford flights so Hypress and I got on a train and I had one of the most impactful conversations with Shaheen of Prophets of the City. Sprite still got the value from all this and he said: “We must be careful not to sell our culture to these brands.” I took that with me and I replayed that moment for years after.


I don’t have any regrets about artist dealings because it’s near impossible working with artists. But also: coming from that context of being on the stage and then backstage or off-stage, I really understood how to give direction to talent.

I think the big lesson for me (during co-ownership of Motif Records and subsequently joining Sony Africa’s Sound African imprint as a GM, before leaving to pursue full-time consulting) was dealing with people. Everyone is different.

There were a lot of unspoken things about the rules of engagement in the “keep it real” world, but getting into the broader business of things, I had to understand this individual’s context better and it’s not about me. I think the respect I got from artists was not necessarily important for me. It was about the work. Doing amazing shit: That was the most important thing for me.

The relationships that have gone wrong… I’m not stressed about. We dealt with it. There were fallouts – maybe the Reason thing and the Riky Rick thing – and they were all because of artists and their egos and me and my ego. It was like: well, we disagree about things but I do think there was acknowldgement and mutual respect for what we brought to the table for each other. The value we added to each other.

I think it was a lesson about how invested I was in the record label business. Tumi and I didn’t care about the record label business and because of that, we didn’t do as good a job as managers – in the formal sense – with these artists.

Maybe that could have been done differently.

When I went into the serious music business at Sony, there were formal structures that helped me do what I do best, better.

It’s really weird to be receiving the South African Hip Hop Honourary Award. It feels strange because for the longest, I was still practicing as a DJ and felt young – I’m 39 now – so it was weird to be called a legend. But it makes sense now because I think the SAHHA guys do get it now. Not just for having Blaze and my name up there but because it feels good when you’re potentially placed in the history books for this new generation to see.

This conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.