South African musicians who wished to record any non-mainstream music did not have many options available to them during the apartheid era.
David Marks had established Third Ear Music in the 1960s, which recorded a number of protest songs by South African musicians, including Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu (who would later go on to form Juluka) and Roger Lucey. However, by the 1980s, Third Ear had become less active and as a result, alternative musicians found it almost impossible to have their music recorded.
Lloyd Ross had been working as a sound engineer when a demo that he submitted to the director of a popular Afrikaans TV series was chosen to be the series soundtrack. A single from the soundtrack received a lot of airplay and went on to become a hit on South African radio.
Ross, whose parents had immigrated to South Africa from Ireland, was desperate to join the popular Springs band, Radio Rats but was continually snubbed by the leader of the Rats, Jonathan Handley. Eventually however he joined the Rats after their guitarist left the band, hitchhiking from Cape Town to Johannesburg in order to attend a rehearsal. The Radio Rats broke up ten months after Ross had joined them and Ross again found himself working at a Pizzeria in Cape Town. His passion to document what was happening in South African music led him in 1982 to set up a recording studio. The money he made from the hit single allowed him to do so.
The studio was set up in an old caravan thus ensuring that it was mobile; hence it was called the Shifty Mobile Recording studio. The first band that Shifty recorded was Sankomota, a band that was based in Lesotho. Sankomota was banned in South Africa because two of their members had been in the infamous band Uhuru, known for their outspoken opposition to apartheid. The recording that Ross made of Sankomota was very popular in Lesotho, but it did not receive airplay in South Africa because the lyrics were in Sotho, Swahili and English and hence the SABC regarded it to be “impure”. Shifty became home to all the artists at that time who wished to record anything alternative to what was being churned out by the record companies in accordance with the directives of the SABC.
Distribution of the records that Ross recorded for Shifty was problematic. The companies EMI and Tusk did this for a while, but without much success.
Apart from the controls set in place by the SABC to manage the type of music that gained airplay there was the ludicrous situation where an EMI employee known as Pietman, took exception to the album “Own Affairs” by the Kalahari Surfers. Because Pietman believed that the material was political,pornographic and anti-religious he refused to master it. Not only did the Kalahari Surfers lose their deposit but it was clear that Pietman had appointed himself as an unofficial censor.
Shifty was thus forced to self-censor recordings because it stood to lose a lot of money if an album was banned or denied airplay by the SABC.
Because of the problems with distribution, Shifty was forced to sell its albums via mail-order advertisements that appeared in The Weekly Mail and Die Vrye Weekblad newspapers. Records were also sold at flea market stalls. Because many of the Shifty recordings were banned for possession and distribution, Ross even resorted to selling albums by using the distribution network of an Indian bicycle shop.
One of the main reasons for the establishment of Shifty records was in order to circumvent the hold that the mainstream record companies had on the type of popular music that was recorded and distributed in South Africa. The SABC and the conventional record companies completely dismissed the alternative movement, these artists were forced thus not only to source an alternative recording company in Shifty, but were also forced to perform in non-establishment venues such as the Black Sun and festivals such as Splashy Fen and Houtstok.
The importance of Shifty in the evolution of South African protest music during the 1980s cannot be underestimated. A few of the bands that were recorded by Shifty included the Kalahari Surfers, the Genuines, the Kêrels, Illegal Gathering and the Cherry Faced Lurchers. All these bands, in their lyrics, challenged the laws that had been set in place by the apartheid government.
Shifty Records did submit records to the SABC in an attempt to get airplay for their artists, however this was rarely successful since the SABC would ignore anything controversial and only played non-political recordings. Apart from struggling to get any airplay, the Directorate of Publications banned a number of albums released by Shifty; Ross eventually stopped trying to get airplay, saying, “It was very frustrating trying to get stuff played on the radio. Eventually I just gave up. I didn’t take stuff to radio anymore”.
In 2014, Shifty Records celebrated its 30th anniversary, for more about Shifty go to Shifty Records
The South African History Archive has created a virtual exhibition that chronicles the history of Shifty Records. View it here SAHA Shifty Exhibition