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Keeping us riveted to the radio

Jul 12 2017 12:05
Glenda Williams
 Thato Sikwane, also known as DJ Fresh, is an ente

Thato Sikwane, also known as DJ Fresh, is an entertainer as well as a radio, music and television producer. (Picture: Supplied)

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Barely a minute after sitting down with DJ Fresh, and I’m doubled over with laughter. Fresh is not only one of the most recognised and dynamic voices on air, he is also distinguished by his unmistakably infectious laugh.

Now 44, the man that keeps us riveted to our radio, first with YFM then 5FM and now with Metro FM, has grown his brand and career beyond that which his parents could ever have imagined.

Born and raised in Botswana, this dynamic man with huge presence is today one of South Africa’s top entertainment personalities.

Apart from an illustrious career in radio presenting, he is a prolific international club DJ, a sought-after television personality, popular social media sensation and successful businessman.

Gym and boxing fit with an imposing physique, tattooed Fresh commands attention wherever he goes. But while he has been part of the SA entertainment industry for decades, it was no easy journey getting to where he now is.

As a kid he was a bit of a maverick and by his own admission, disruptive in class. “I was bored. They were boring me to death,” he tells finweek.

He was just 13 when his parents packed him off to boarding school. “They figured I needed to wake up and boarding school was that. It’s a gentler form of conscription, albeit a conscription of love,” he says wryly.

It was not a particularly happy time and he was bullied at school about his weight. He found solace in music and started deejaying at 13, a passion his parents did not share.
Deferring to his father’s wishes, he studied law at the University of Botswana but failed… deliberately.

Determined to pursue his DJ dream it was the only way he felt he could get out of law and not be forced to return to it. 

“By the time I started law school, my heart was already in another place.” That place was deejaying, happening “undercover” as his father felt it was a waste of time. 
Ditching law culminated in a big row with his father.

“It’s not like deejaying was a career option back in the 70s and 80s so I can fully understand why he felt that way. I couldn’t even give my parents examples of people before me locally who were DJs,” says Fresh. 

His first radio show was for RB2 in 1992 and in 1994 he was voted the Lemon Twist Radio DJ of the Year in Botswana. It was a big tick for the young music maker and galvanised the move to Johannesburg in 1995 to pursue media studies and journalism at Boston City Campus and Media House.

“My mom made me promise to make it work. […] I’m almost there,” he laughs. His father came round and today is his number one fan. 

“I have been fortunate enough to know exactly what I wanted from an early age. It was just a matter of devising plans to get there. But we need to be able to make sure that we can show our parents that whatever rebellion we embark on, works,” he says.

Fresh, the brand and the business

“In our industry if you are not evolving you are as good as dead in the water. And I think that is how I have managed to stay radio-relevant for 20 years. I’ve kept moving. I’ve stayed out of my comfort zones and I’ve allowed myself to be challenged,” he says.

He has been unafraid to reinvent the game, nor has he been afraid to venture into new pastures. And that has allowed him to build a successful brand and business.

As a multi-faceted personality, Fresh has successfully run his own company Big Dawg Productions; partnered with Euphonik to create mega brand F.Eu and formed part of a collective of DJs, producers, media personalities and musicians called DJU, a platform for SA dance music industry practitioners. 

Fresh has won numerous radio and DJ awards but this talented and somewhat reluctant celebrity is not into beating his own chest.

“It’s nice to be recognised by your peers and industry, but I’m wary of buying into awards. I am more likely to focus on the ball than the trophy on the side of the field. The people that listen to me are my reward because without them, I wouldn’t have a radio career.”

Growing his business

“One of the issues with our industry is that a lot of the time we are the businesses and without us the businesses don’t exist. The magic is finding that spot where the business can do other things outside of you,” says Fresh.

In entertainment you can make easy money. But in this industry where nothing is guaranteed and you are only as good as your last radio show or music gig, you need something that generates steady, monthly income.

“If I lose my voice tomorrow, I can’t do my radio show and my income is affected.

“Yes, I’ve got insurance against losing my voice and I’ve got savings, but I’m also pursuing different income streams,” he says.

For Fresh that’s a recently acquired Sausage Saloon franchise. He is also looking around for another franchising opportunity.

First prize is growing his business Big Dawg Productions, a studio and record label that Fresh has used for his own CD releases and that of others, so that the business exists and operates separately to brand Fresh. 

On his bucket list and now in planning is a TV show with Fresh visiting a different African city every weekend for a year. That should get underway next year if logistics allow.

“It’s also about finding the right sponsor to be able to turn it into not just a travel blog but entertainment, especially from a night life perspective because that’s what I do.”

How an entertainer invests

“As much as it pinches and hurts at times, for the past 20 years I have saved 25% to 30% of my monthly income,” says Fresh.

Fresh has a diversified portfolio, both locally and offshore. “I’ve got unit trusts, retirement policies, life assurance, disability cover, etc. I get investment advice from people who are not selling the products who obviously have a vested interest.” 

He also invests in property. “Property is a good investment but tenants are a headache and the law is biased towards them. That discourages me every time I think about getting another property.” 

GETTING TO KNOW THE 'BIG DAWG'

Born in 1972, Thato Sikwane, AKA DJ Fresh, attended Maru-a-Pula, a top private boarding school in Botswana. Since 1995, Jozi has been his home.

Married for 15 years, Fresh is father to four children: a 23-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, a son of 14, daughter of eight and a two-year-old son. Courtesy of his eldest daughter, he is now also grandfather to a two-month-old grandson.

Best business advice?

“That I got from DJ Oskido. I had just started at YFM, was on a TV show and doing compilation CDs. Life was good and I was blowing my money on cars. He pulled me aside and said: ‘You need to slow down. Rather buy property because cars lose their value.’ He led by example, selling his Mercedes and replacing it with an entry-level Mazda.”

Fresh took note, stopped buying cars and started investing in property. 

Favourite holiday destinations

Outside of home, anywhere between Mpumalanga and KZN. Every year in March he travels to Miami for a DJ conference, as he has done for the past 15 years.

“I also love going to Ibiza (Spain). And my wife and I will be visiting Japan in September for our 15th anniversary and to attend the Ultra Music Festival.” 

Reading material

Fresh is an audiobook fan. “I’ve just finished ‘reading’ Trevor Noah’s biography. I enjoy audiobooks that are narrated by the authors themselves. I feel they are telling me their story as opposed to me reading about it.”

FRESH ON MENTORSHIP AND FOSTERING NEW TALENT

DJ Oskido has been his friend and mentor since 1992 when he was a starry-eyed kid trying to get into the industry. “One of Oskido’s biggest legacies will be that he has given so many kids the opportunity to get into the industry,” he says.

“The industry is only as good as the new fresh ideas that come into the industry. We need to nurture and mentor talent all the time.”

What irks him is that young people these days think mentorship is handholding and they forget to take responsibility for themselves.

“For me the most powerful form of mentorship is observing other people and how they do things. I just quietly watched how my mentors went about growing their brands and marketing themselves.”

This article originally appeared in the 6 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

dj  |  dj fresh  |  entrepreneurs  |  entertainment  |  radio
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