carlos mena

carlos mena“Big in South Africa” is the new “Big in Japan”. The sound of South African House Music has rejuvenated Soulful House Music – in many ways, brought it back from the brink – and Ocha Records has been releasing some of the best of it.

The brainchild of Carlos Mena and Osunlade, Ocha “was getting a lot of demos from South Africa,” he told me, “and a lot of them were really good. I didn’t want South Africa to be the focus for Ocha Records so we started Ocha Mzansi (meaning ‘Ocha South’, as in South Africa).

“The South African scene is evolving, and productions are becoming more and more sophisticated for sure in the last year or two.”

And yet… since “long term vision” has never meant much in the music industry, a bandwagon similar to what plowed through Chicago in the early 1980s is now running full steam ahead. Scarcely concealed rip-offs of Black Coffee, Culoe de Song and other stars of the nascent SA scene have flooded the market, from both Euro and American imitators and not-ready-for-primetime natives caught up in the chase for the latest fad.

“Some traditionally good labels are putting out some below average material,” Carlos observes. “When a finished product comes along from South Africa, sometimes they even come with remixes from other South African producers.

“Listen: some of the labels we love are one man shops with little or no budget. They’re run by folks with day jobs. So it’s easy for a label to sign South African productions for no money, because these guys want to get put on real bad.

“That’s actually one of the things I love about the South African scene. They are hungry! It reminds me of the early days of Hip Hop. They’ve won over my heart for real!” The influence goes both ways: Mena himself is considered one of the most influential DJs to the South African scene.

So rather than scooping up South African productions and slapping an American logo on it, Ocha has been investing in South African talent and helping to break the genuine article.

“We’ve been pursuing tunes that have broken big in South Africa and putting together superstar packages. For example, ‘I Wanna Love You’ [by Lulo Cafe feat. Nothende] was a #1 song in South Africa. When Ocha released it, we brought The Layabouts, Josh Milan and Manoo into the mix.”

Coming up is a new release from one of my favorite South African producers, DJ Qness, who hasn’t broken in the United States yet – emphasis on the word yet, considering the star-studded cast assembled for his first Ocha Mzansi release, “Time”. “Abicah Soul did a really nice remix and Ron Trent murdered it too. The Ron Trent remix is deep!”

And another artist the label is investing in is EnaWadan, with a track called “Forever” that is currently getting beaten in the clubs by Osunlade, Master Kev and several more stateside heavyweights. Due to be released (with a Timmy Regisford edit) as a Traxsource exclusive at the end of November, “It’s one of the hottest cuts I’ve heard in a long time. Atjazz has remixed it, by the way, and created an amazing journey within one tune. It’s one of the best remixes I have heard from him and I love everything he does.”

As for making Ocha’s imports from South Africa stand out against the deluge of mediocre releases: “For me it’s always about the aesthetic of Ocha and the taste level we try to maintain.

“If the shit’s hot, we want it. Otherwise, we give them some advice and move on.”