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A Shifty Story


...there's been this force... fighting for the liberation of the people, of the music, the freedom of music; the freedom of people mingling. And that force has been Shifty...

Simba Morri

Ivan Kadey (right) and Lloyd Ross (left). Photographer: Barry WhiteFounded in the dark beginnings of the turbulent 1980s, Shifty Records was a fiercely independent maverick label intent on recording original South African music - sounds that spoke about what was actually going on in the country, songs that the government of the time more often than not did not want to be heard.

The Shifty origin story can be traced back to the burgeoning alternative music scene in the late 70’s and early 80's. Ivan Kadey, guitarist of the provocative mixed race punk band, National Wake, and Lloyd Ross, of Radio Rats and Happy Ships, were both becoming frustrated with just how difficult it was to get original music recorded. When Lloyd stumbled across lvan's Parktown commune by chance after following the sweet sounds of a Fender Stratocaster, they started to hatch a plan to thumb their noses at the establishment and go it alone, hoping to make alternative music a force to be reckoned with. They stockpiled equipment and pooled their resources to set up a simple eight-track studio inside the claptrap old caravan that was to become the Shifty symbol for years to come.

In their quest to capture those sounds that, if left to the major record companies, might never have seen the light in the control room, the fledgling label asked three simple questions:

  • Is it original?
  • Does it have quality?
  • Does it occupy a time and a place in this country's musical development?
  • By sticking to these rules, Shifty produced almost all the seminal "alternative" music of the time. From the release of its first full-length record in 1984 until the early years of democracy, Shifty averaged an album every two months, resulting in one of the most comprehensive and diverse collections of South African political and social commentary music in existence. From kaapse goema, mbaqanga jive, rock and folk, through avant-garde, isicathamiya, spoken word, boere punk, jazz and maskande, to controversial cut-ups of political speeches and traditional workers songs, this eclecticism in the Shifty catalogue is easily explained - no other label dared to record such diversity in the face of apartheid censorship, so Shifty virtually did it all... just so long as, Lloyd explained at the time, the music:

    "oozes originality, is thought- or jol-provoking - makes us sad, happy or promises to upset an apple cart or two in this turbulent land of ours."

    While Shifty struggled to gain exposure on SABC radio stations, its anti-establishment stance was appealing to young, politically marginalised South Africans, as became clear when Shifty joined forces with left-leaning Vrye Weekblad to take the Voëlvry ossewa on tour into the heartland of conservative Afrikanerdom in 1989. Distribution remained a perennial challenge but Shifty just kept on recording on a shoestring, often overshadowing the majors in its commitment to innovation.

    Shifty's release schedule slowed considerably after the arrival of South African democracy in 1994. But the Shifty legacy lives on in its back catalogue. Awarded a tongue-in-cheek "Feedback Award for Outstanding Service to South African Ears" back in 1985, by now the feisty record label surely qualifies for a lifetime achievement award - for tracking down those seditious sounds that continue to "shake the cobwebs from the conservative mind attic", for documenting the soundtrack of a revolution that might otherwise have been completely ignored. 

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