Label of Love: Super Beat
Written by Grace George on 22nd May 2020
Brought to you by record collector and DJ Grace George, Label of Love is a series that tells short histories of music labels & their legacies. For this week’s Label of Love, we head to South Africa, for a look at a label that provided a vital creative outlet for black musicians during the Apartheid era.
Super Beat was a small label releasing boogie, kwaito, bubblegum, folk & reggae records during 1980’s Apartheid South Africa. Now defunct, mysteriously and potentially swallowed up by major South African label Gallo & then Warner, Super Beat released its final record in 1991, following Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 and preceding his election as SA’s first black president in 1994.
Apartheid was the legal & racial segregation enforced by the (white) Afrikaner ethnic National Party (NP) after coming to power in 1948, eventually collapsing in 1994 after Mandela’s election to power. According to SA history the ideology behind Apartheid (meaning ‘apartness’ in Afrikaans) wasn’t hugely different from previous racial segregation under similar governments, however, this time it was cruelly enforced as part of the law. Despite the white Afrikaans being a minority, the NP used power & fear to enforce the separation & fierce punishment if disobeyed. These laws denied inter-racial marriage, social integration and work opportunities benefitting white Afrikaans and denigrating black communities to discrimination, inferiority & poverty in their own country.
Imposed divisions lead to racial groups living separately. Black South Africans & other non-whites were condemned to townships, “dormitory-style” communities on the outskirts of urban centres made up of inadequate government housing which were already in existence pre-Apartheid. Many people lost their homes, jobs & families under the inhumane Apartheid administration.
Many groups fought non-violent & eventually physical resistance to the NP’s racist rules, most notably the African National Congress (ANC) founded in 1912. As early as 1919, the ANC leaders travelled to the UK to request fairer treatment for South African black communities. After NP’s rise to power in the 1950s the Cold War saw further repression across the world, countries divided & freedoms trampled upon. The NP utilised the Soviet interest in South Africa to continue enforcing its unjust laws & win support from Western governments by inventing the term ‘total strategy.’ This term suggested uprisings against NP’s draconian laws were Soviet doing & therefore a danger to SA’s stability & western governments interests.
Skip decades of tyrannical repression, undemocratic rule & fast forward to the 1980s. Many musicians had left their home country including trumpeter Hugh Masekela & singers Letta Mbulu & Miriam Makeba, all unable to work without mistreatment. The persecuted black LGBT+ community had developed its own secret language ‘Gayle’ to communicate safely in public creating underground clubs & parties to freely express themselves & in a Nazi-style onslaught, many books had been burnt in an effort to punish opposition to authority. Despite the difficulties faced by anyone of colour, let alone artists & intellects, a new sound was brewing in the townships.
For years, the NP had tried to use music as a tool of oppression, allowing ethnic groups access to broadcasting only in their own language via their propaganda channel Radio Bantu and its subsidiaries. However, radio could also be used as a tool for subversion with the ANC setting up its own Radio Freedom. Speaking of how black South African presenters could play the Apartheid system through radio:
“Black announcers… quite wilfully subverted white control by slipping in unseen messages to their listeners through the thicket of language… the founding of Radio Bantu created opportunities for upward mobility… despite the racism they endured… During the apartheid era, radio provided an outlet for intellectual skills that could not easily be employed elsewhere.” (Lekgoathi, ref below)
After disco had arrived on SA shores in the 1970s, the modern sounds of American funk & soul groups in discotheques encouraged black musicians to record & perform their own distinctive boogie with a subversive message. Soon crowds started to boycott American artists who would perform under regime regulation, leading to an upsurge in support for local African music allowing home-grown labels like Super Beat & Music Team to flourish.
Bubblegum was the sound of SA frustrated youth, inter-racial groups making electronic-pop with satirical lyrics & subtle political subversion running rings round the censors with its seemingly innocent appeal. However, with the dismantling of Apartheid in 1990, SA’s oppressed started to openly speak against the authorities, meaning bubblegum music became quickly irrelevant & outdated for a modern black South Africa on the long walk to freedom. Many of its artists fell into poverty and records gathered dust as the new black majority government of the ANC settled in and the fresh kwaito style gained popularity amongst the townships.
Now Super Beat records mostly fetch large sums on Discogs where available but thankfully for the rest of us, recent reissues on Rush Hour, Cultures of Soul, Soundway, Invisible City and the dedicating digging of South African DJ’s Okapi, Esa, Lakuti and more mean we get a taste of bubblegum even after its first bubble burst.
Sounds of Super Beat
Poosh – Say Something (1991)
An early kwaito thumper from one track wonder Poosh & seemingly the last release on Super Beat. Kwaito is a distinctively African sound drawing inspiration from hip-hop & Chicago house, derived from the Afrikaans word kwaai & translating as “angry” in English. Very popular today across South Africa “Kwaito is about the township, knowing about the township, understanding the township, walking the walk, talking the talk and most importantly, being proud of these things.” SA history on Kwaito.
V.O. – Mashisa (Dub Mix) (1990)
V.O.’s first and only album. The title track was reissued on Toronto’s Invisible City Editions in 2016 getting a 12” treatment, burning up dancefloors but this time worldwide.
Abafana Be Sidlodlo – Ilanga Lishonile (1985)
A singular slow synth-pop bubblegum LP from mysterious artist Sidlodlo, apparently produced by Enoch Lerole. This deserves a reissue!
All information in our articles is based on research & references. We have the utmost respect for all musicians & people mentioned & if an error has been made, please correct us. ☺
“’You are Listening to Radio Lebowa of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’: Vernacular Radio, Bantustan Identity and Listenership, 1960-1994” – Sekibakiba Peter Lekgoathi, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 01 September 2009
Thanks to John Armstrong too for the insight.