When Robbie Malinga arrives at our offices on a hot Friday afternoon, dressed to the nines (unsurprisingly), the only thing running through my mind is how quick I need to be and get the most out of him, given how awfully busy he is. But his calm and relaxed nature wouldn’t allow me to be suspended in a state of anxiety for long. I couldn’t help it, it’s contagious.
”Do you ever take off your shades?” I ask him, while fixing my gaze on his Tom Ford sunnies.
“Have you ever seen me without shades?” he quips.
He makes a good point. Robbie without sunglasses, is not Robbie. He is adamant on always making a statement. And this has always been the case. When he started out in the industry, he was just a simple boy who had dreams of pushing boundaries, unlocking new levels and reaching new heights through one thing he’s always been passionate about: music.
“I’m one of the guys who was there when kwaito started. We wanted to say something. It was shortly after liberation, 1997 to be exact. Which is when I released my first album, Intsimbi,” he recalls.
“I was fresh from varsity, and lucky enough, I had told my parents after matric that I want to do music. And then they took me to school to study music. Those days, we had energy and drive. When you are young, the sky is the limit. You’ve got drive to do anything.”
And luckily, he had friends, kwaito legends Spikiri, Mahoota and Mdu, who had the same vision.
“We. Spikiri, Mahoota and Mdu Masilela, grew up in the same neighbourhood. We were a clique of these young boys who wanted to make a mark. We would visit each other, because we were working in different studios. Those days, jo, it was nice.
“We wouldn’t mind sleeping in the studio. The way we were so driven to do this. That time, we didn’t even have money for taxi fare. But we wanted to see ourselves out there, making music. We wanted to do music and nothing else. We never knew about money and other stuff, like gold or platinum albums.”
But unfortunately, they were later signed to different labels. But that didn’t break their friendship, put together by the love of music.
“All we would speak about is music. However, we all went different ways. Mandla and others were signed by Gallo. I was signed by Cool Spot, and luckily I had the backing of my academics. So, I had an advantage above the rest. So I thought of being a producer. Well, I always wanted to be a producer.”
Although he has always dreamt of breaking into the music industry, being an actual singer was not part of Robbie’s plan. All he actually wanted to do was produce, and when he’s not doing that, he’d rather sit in a corner, have a drink and watch the scene.
But as fate would have it, he made it as a singer.
“On one night, it’s a Friday and we’re in studio fooling around, we’re drinking hard (because, we were young),” he begins explaining how he actually started becoming an artist. He also jokes that at this point, they had a bit of money because they could at least afford a taxi.
“Then I did the beat to Intsimbi, Sfiso came and sang the hook, and then we were poking fun at each other in studio, I was working around the song and just fooling around. And then on Monday, the boss of the record label asked what we were doing on Friday, because when he left us we were drunk and partying in studio. He said: ‘I heard the track that you guys were working on. Who is singing here?’ I said, ‘It’s me,’ but then I told him that I was just fooling around. Then he said that we can’t fool around with such a song. So he suggested that we put it out there, and see how the people will receive it.
“It was October. By November, the song had gone platinum.”
In the midst of the celebrations, he was terrified at the thought of having to maintain his newly established career as a professional singer.
“And now that means I had to start singing professionally. And to be honest, I was not keen on that idea, because I feared the stage, doing interviews and having to do music videos. I just wanted to be in the background, behind the scenes, producing hits. So, my career as an artist started out like that. By default.
“After being big, you have no choice, but to follow through with what you have started. Till today, I don’t regard myself as a performing artist. The guy who always has to be front and centre.”
Well, even though being an artist wasn’t part of his plans, he definitely enjoyed the money that it came with.
He says, like any other young person, he splurged his first pay cheque on a car and living from one hotel to another.
“I got my first big pay cheque after Intsimbi, and bought myself a Gusheshe (BMW). And I didn’t sleep at home for over three months. I slept in hotels, dude (laughs). Because now I had real money. It’s part of the fun of growing up and making those mistakes.”
But the lavish living didn’t last for long…
“I got broke after that, and for a long time. It’s very awkward. What made me broke was peer pressure, because after becoming a celebrity and well-known, when I got to the hood or a club, people had to see that I’ve arrived. We’d buy expensive bottles and wore clothes and watches that we could barely afford. Which was just unnecessary pressure if you ask me.
“But those things make you a better person because you grow. I got to respect the value of money.”
Luckily, when more copious amounts of money came his way, he was a much older and therefore, level-headed.
“I’ll be honest with you, the biggest success of my career came when I was much older. This is when I started doing big albums and so forth. I was the maestro behind Ntando, Brown Dash, Zahara, Kelly Khumalo and all those big names. They, fortunately, came at a time when I had a wife and kids. So I was very grounded.”
Speaking of the late Brown Dash, the two were almost inseparable at one point. They shared a close bond. So it comes as no surprise that his death brought heavy pain and sorrow into his heart.
But not enough to take away a glow on his face as he recalls the memories that they’ve shared together.
“Brown Dash and I had so much fun. There was a time when me, the late Jabu and Brown followed each other in our cars going to Jabu’s place. Jabu unexpectedly stopped his car at the robots. So I crashed into Jabu’s car and Brown crashed into my car. People were laughing at us. It was the funniest and the stupidest thing ever.
“It was one of the saddest moments in my life when he passed on. I won’t forget the day when his mom called me, in tears, to tell me that Sphiwe (Brown) had passed on. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
As he starts looking at his watch, I immediately remember that he has to rush off to another meeting. But I couldn’t let him go, without at least trying to get him to sing a verse from one of his current hit songs with Musa Sukwene, called Mthande.
“First, do you have auto-tune software?” he says.
“But your voice is perfect,” I respond.
“On some days,” he says, as he slowly walks away, suggesting that I should give up on my dream of that mini free performance.
Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.