A&R Spotlight #02: Pulsator (SA) on his A&R & Curatorship Journey so far in the South African & Global Music Landscape with Gallo Music & Black Coffee

Pulsator shares insights into the ever-evolving South African music scene. In this exclusive interview, he delves into the dynamics of his role as an A&R, the transformative impact of genres like Amapiano, and the nuances of cultivating talent beyond the confines of social media metrics.

A&R Spotlight #02: Pulsator (SA) on his A&R & Curatorship Journey so far in the South African & Global Music Landscape with Gallo Music & Black Coffee

Contribuiter - Akriti Guha

In the pulsating heart of South Africa's music industry, Pulsator emerges as a guiding force, intricately shaping the rhythms of the nation's diverse soundscape. With a keen ear for hidden gems, Pulsator, an A&R associated with both Black Coffee and Gallo, shares with us his journey as an A&R and Music Curator through his musical evolution. From the rich influences within his family to pioneering collaborations with renowned DJs and playing an instrumental role in Black Coffee's brand & label, Pulsator shares insights into the ever-evolving South African music scene. In this exclusive interview, he delves into the dynamics of his role as an A&R, the transformative impact of genres like Amapiano, and the nuances of cultivating talent beyond the confines of social media metrics. Read more as we explore the rhythmic intricacies of Pulsator's extraordinary journey and commitment to reshaping the narrative of music discovery in the modern digital age.

Srishti Das: Why don't we start with how you got into music in the first place?

Pulsator: The story is quite intricate. I hail from a profoundly music-centric family. Born in Harding, I lived in Durban for a few years before returning to Harding. Our household had this fascinating gadget called Omega—a dual-cassette radio, complete with station presets. Despite living under the same roof, we had vastly diverse musical preferences. My mom favoured Gospel, my sister immersed herself in Maskandi and classical tunes, while my brother was drawn to rave music. Being surrounded by such varied tastes sparked my interest.

The turning point occurred when my brother began amassing a collection during the MP3 and CD boom of the early 2000s. He'd mix music onto CDs, a process I found captivating. Our disagreements over the shared CDs led me to start my own collection. Even without a computer in town, I became the town's foremost music collector—accumulating everything from Maskandi to Jazz, House music and Pop.

Upon returning to Durban, I initiated a Facebook group with friends from South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Though technically illegal, we shared unique music within our circle. This led me to collaborate with DJs, supporting them with music. One such collaboration introduced me to D-Malice, a UK DJ with a label called DM Recordings. Impressed by my work, he invited me to join him officially.It was a freelance job, but I wanted to learn and take things to the next level.

The journey continued as I collaborated with DJs like Merlon, working on remixes and signing diverse producers to the label. Notably, Felo Le Tee, who has since become an Amapiano sensation, started with us in the Afro House genre. Later in the label, we worked on a remix package for DJ Merlon featuring Black Coffee and other renowned artists.

In summary, my journey evolved through a blend of family influences, personal passion for collecting, collaborations with DJs, and, eventually, formal roles in the music industry.

Srishti: How did you decide that DJing wasn’t your primary preference?

Pulsator: It's not that I dislike DJing. I view myself as multi-talented and capable of various things. While I can DJ, I choose not to produce simply because I excel in sitting with producers, appreciating their work, and suggesting elements that can elevate their music. I enjoy the challenge of advising and navigating the creative process. My decision to focus on this aspect doesn't stem from any dislike for DJing.

In fact, I've always loved it. Even as a kid, I frequented Jet Music on West Street in Durban to listen to music after school. However, my role extended beyond being just a listener. I found myself recommending music to the shop, guiding them on what to stock and introducing them to new DJs. This passion for guiding musical choices continued at The Workshop in Durban. I relished the experience of being immersed in music, always armed with information about upcoming releases, noteworthy producers, and more.

While I acknowledge the spectacular nature of DJing and would certainly embrace the opportunity whenever I’m ready to, my true passion lies in working with artists, discovering new music, and building diverse connections. For me, that's the truly spectacular part of the journey.

Srishti: How do you address artists' challenges and anxieties when releasing music, considering your position as an A&R at Gallo, one of South Africa's major labels?

Pulsator: My forte in A&R is music discovery, driven by a knack for finding tracks before anyone else. I've always been the go-to person for unearthing the next big hit. From contacting producers directly, I've gone to great lengths to seek out new sounds. Initially exploring various genres like EDM, I eventually honed in on my passion for house music. Building strong connections in the dance music scene, my extensive network allows me to navigate the industry effectively. Music discovery is at the core of A&R, and for me, it's about sharing the joy of finding a hidden gem and witnessing its impact. Each song I discover has a unique story, and as a curator for Black Coffee, I’ve only gotten better with time. My journey into A&R encompasses a multifaceted approach, reflecting my love for music and dedication to its exploration.

Srishti: Do you believe that the role of A&R is becoming increasingly crucial for artists, given the constant influx of music, with around 100,000 songs being uploaded daily? Is it not only about providing an external perspective but also ensuring artists feel supported and at ease, minimising overthinking?

Pulsator: Absolutely, the role is vital! However, it's essential to note the uniqueness of my approach. What do I particularly do with Black Coffee? It just evolved organically from a shared passion for music. Transitioning into an official role was a natural progression. Now, at Gallo, a major independent label with an impressive legacy catalogue, my role as an A&R brings a distinct perspective. The industry has evolved, and our aim is to revitalise and enhance it. It's a fascinating journey.

Srishti: How long have you worked with Black Coffee and Gallo?

Pulsator: I started with Black Coffee in 2016, and it became official in 2018. With Gallo, my involvement began towards the end of 2020 or in 2021, gaining more significance in the last year.

Srishti: Since 2016, the music industry has faced a significant event—the pandemic. I have observed a huge jump in the revenues in South Africa last year compared to the year before. Amapiano, although around for a decade, gained rapid popularity during the pandemic. How do you perceive the changes in the music industry, both from a creator's and an industry perspective, comparing the last two years to the previous decade?

Pulsator: Let me delve deeper into the recent years, focusing on Afro House or what some call Afrotech in the African electronic music landscape. As we entered the era of COVID, there was an initial wave of panic and stress for everyone in the industry. Surprisingly, however, the pandemic brought about a positive shift for Afro House. The pivot to virtual performances, such as Black Coffee's Home Brewed series, created a unique platform. These live streams and charity initiatives via the GoFundMe page attracted a broader audience. I mean, even Drake was tuning in. This exposure helped elevate the scene, showcasing the talent to a global audience in ways we hadn't seen before.

Before the pandemic, there was already commendable work happening, with DJs securing residencies in Ibiza. This wasn't limited to just one artist but included a diverse array of talents. Before, only a select number of DJs were extensively touring in this space. Now, the landscape has opened up, presenting more opportunities as awareness has grown. What's truly remarkable is the dedication and hard work within the scene. DJs, producers, and labels have put in substantial effort. The music, which I've always considered niche, has become more accessible. It used to be something you had to stumble upon, and once it grabbed you, you were hooked. The lead time to discover this kind of music has shortened, thanks to various factors like increased content sharing on platforms like TikTok.

Now, when we talk about Amapiano, its rise has been meteoric compared to other sub-genres. Admittedly, there was scepticism initially, with debates about whether it was Amapiano or Kwaito. The genre faced pushback, but it has proved many sceptics wrong. Beyond just the music, Amapiano is transforming lives. Artists are not just musicians; they're entrepreneurs, business owners, and globetrotters, creating a holistic impact.

Srishti: I have noticed in my conversations with people and from visiting South Africa that there's a distinct approach to music evolution, where artists delve deep into their roots to create a unique sound. What do you think drives South Africans to explore their roots and craft their own sound continuously?

Pulsator: Absolutely, it's about the evolution of everything. When you look at the history and culture, what do you have that's inherently yours? South Africa has always had its musical treasures, from the distinctive Maskandi to iconic artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the soulful acapella tradition. These artists, like Mambazo and the Soul Brothers, have carved a unique space for themselves, winning Grammys for being authentically African, among other accolades.

As the music scene evolved, creativity and curiosity played a significant role. Genres like Kwaito had their peak, and during that time, house music compilations by DJs were mistaken for original albums. The import of house music gradually shifted to their own creation, showcasing South African artists' creativity and adaptability.

The Amapiano genre, for instance, reflects this innovation. Amapiano was originally criticised for its long, repetitive structure. Artists began experimenting and adding vocals, transforming it into a more dynamic and widely accepted genre. It started as a niche, almost private, but as creativity flourished, it gained a broader audience.

Amapiano's journey has gone beyond borders, incorporating Afrobeats and EDM elements. The genre's success is now measured on a global scale, aiming for recognition on platforms like Billboard, inclusion in top playlists, and even a potential category at the Grammys. This expansion signifies not just a local success story but a genre that crossed all geographical and creative boundaries and gained international acclaim.

Srishti: What skills do you consider essential for someone aspiring to be a successful A&R?

Pulsator: The foremost skill is having a keen ear. While it's okay to have a specific genre you love, being an A&R requires an open ear. You must be able to recognise a good song even if it's not in your personal favourite genre. Secondly, refine your communication skills, both in writing and in person. Be concise, direct, and specific when reaching out to artists or industry professionals. Know exactly what you want and express it clearly. Effective communication is key to building relationships.

Furthermore, engage with people genuinely. Don't just say hi and wait; be direct about your intentions and establish connections. Once you've built relationships, then you can delve into more extensive conversations. Always be willing to research, reach out to others in the industry, attend conferences, and stay updated on the latest trends. Adaptability and a willingness to learn are crucial because the industry evolves, and you should, too.

Lastly, put yourself out there. Attend events, connect with people, and make your presence known. Even in the digital age, personal connections and networking remain invaluable. Read extensively, stay informed, and constantly strive to enhance your skills. These qualities, combined with a good ear and effective communication, form the foundation for a successful A&R career.

Srishti: Returning to the South African music scene, could you elaborate on the strengths and weaknesses you observe in A&R currently? What aspects are thriving, and where do you believe improvements are needed?

Pulsator: Diving into the positive aspects, there's a commendable surge in inclusivity, particularly with more female colleagues making significant contributions in roles spanning publishing and A&R. It's a noteworthy shift towards diversity, such as your role at The Orchard being a prime example of this positive trend. This inclusivity is pivotal for a vibrant and representative music landscape. Additionally, the success of genres like Amapiano and Afrotech is notably benefitting record labels. This success translates into increased opportunities and invitations for industry discussions and seminars, fostering a more collaborative and evolving music ecosystem.

On the flip side, there's a critical need for a paradigm shift within record labels. The current emphasis on chasing trends and fixating on social media metrics, particularly Instagram followers, is not right. While numerical data is important, the fundamental question should revolve around the artist's belief in their music and artistic expression. The industry should pivot away from the difficult task of convincing stakeholders based on social media statistics and instead let the music speak for itself.

In particular, I advocate for a departure from the notion that an artist's worth is defined by their online presence. Throughout my career, I've encountered numerous talented artists who, at the outset, may have had limited social media metrics, but their musical prowess was undeniable. The responsibility lies with A&R faces within record companies to take calculated risks, recognising that success in the industry is not solely contingent on TikTok numbers. This shift would bring a more authentic and artist-centric approach to A&R, fostering a creative landscape that values talent over fleeting online metrics.

Srishti: I completely agree with your perspective. I am on the same train of thought.

Pulsator: There are numerous artists who might never have made it as DJs or gained widespread attention if we solely relied on metrics like chart-topping moments or viral sensations. While having a Tyla-like phenomenon is awesome, we can’t forget that such occurrences are rare and not an annual guarantee. The question then becomes: what about other immensely talented artists who may not experience that viral moment but are exceptional in their own right?

Consider artists like Uncle Waffles, whose success is not solely attributed to a viral moment but rather a combination of serious dedication to their craft, a supportive team, and a continuous effort to refine and perfect their artistry. Take, for instance, numerous talented individuals who remain relatively low-profile on platforms like Instagram yet contribute significantly to some of the most significant albums globally.

From my perspective, A&Rs should never be a part of the studio process at least until a project has reached a certain stage of completion. I often get invited by friends who appreciate my honest input and good ear for music. During these sessions, I maintain a simple process: I listen with an open mind, asking questions about the artist's thought process and guiding principles for the project. I have a notebook with me where I write down the date, the artists, and the vision of the song then input my feedback into it. A&R involvement in studio sessions should focus on reviewing finished works, offering opinions, and respecting the creative process rather than disrupting it. 

My approach revolves around prioritising the ear – liking what I hear is paramount. Visualising the artist's potential and future trajectory follows suit. Questions arise: Who are their musical peers? What genre or lane do they occupy? What might their fifth project sound like? Where do they see themselves in two years? Defining long-term goals aids in making informed decisions. Only at the end do we consider metrics like Instagram, TikTok, and Spotify followers.

Music discovery should centre around the artistry itself. Relying solely on online metrics hinders the potential to unearth hidden gems. The essence of A&R lies in recognising talent, fostering creativity, and not reducing artists to a checklist of social media statistics. Let's not limit our search for exceptional artists to what's trending on our phones; true talent often resides beyond the confines of virtual platforms.

Srishti: Yeah, very true. What are some of the new scenes that you see emerging in South Africa? Are there any interesting ones that you think might break out soon?

Pulsator: Interestingly, there's a new sub-genre in Afrohouse or African electronic music called three-step, and one artist, in particular, is really making waves with it—DJ Thakzin. If you check out his recent releases on Spotify or listen to Atmos Blaq, you'll get a taste of what three-step sounds like. DJ Thakzin is currently in high demand, and there's even a queue forming to collaborate with him. One notable track to check out is his collaboration with Mörda, a recent release that exemplifies the captivating nature of three-step dance music. Another artist contributing to the three-step sound is Atmos Blaq, who has garnered attention for his work. Explore tracks like "Kwa Mama?" and his take on "Gypsy Woman" to get a sense of the unique vibe that three-step brings to the table. Alright, that's all you get for free! Laughs!

Srishti: Oh, it's significant. But my last question to you is, what has been your most favourite project so far that you've worked on with Black Coffee?

Pulsator: Let me consider something more personal. My work isn't a linear process that starts and ends at a specific point, so it's challenging to pinpoint a favourite. However, I can delve into some notable projects. If I'm looking at DJ mixes and compilations, there was a Music Is King DJ Mix in 2019 that stands out. Black Coffee decided on a Thursday night that he wanted to do it, and I received a message while I was in a club. We managed to put it together in less than 24 hours, releasing it on Saturday morning, just in time for the show. The tight time frame made it quite spectacular for me.

Additionally, at Gallo, we embarked on a venture called Gallo Remixed, where we pay homage to their catalogue by bringing in new creators to reimagine songs. Collaborating with artists like Da Capo and Mpho Sebina for re-imaginations of classics like Brenda Fassie’s “Too Late for Mama" and Letta Mbulu’s "There’s Music Is in the Air," a collaboration between Black Coffee and Ami Faku, has been truly special. I've been intimately involved in these projects and learned a great deal. Although we made mistakes, I believe we planted the seeds for something much bigger, even beyond my time in the business.

There are many other projects, some involving close friends or artists close to me, but the Gallo Remixed project has been particularly meaningful. We also worked on an incredible artist, Nathi Mankayi, and his album "Usiba Lwe Gazi”, which has amassed over 20 Million streams, with two gold-selling singles and a SAMA (South African Music Award) for Best African Adult Contemporary Album. I joined the project near its completion, but being part of the process of deciding the lead single, even though we initially got it wrong, has been a source of pride. I can't take sole credit for these projects; they are collaborative efforts. Many people contribute along the way. I can't wait to share more exciting projects in the future, although, unfortunately, I can't speak about them just yet.