WORDS BY LESIBA MANGKA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY XAVIERREBELLION
So my interview with Vaughn was scheduled for 11:30… I was late, but still on time, arriving at Hallmark House at 11:32. Through the window, I saw Vaughn sitting at reception waiting for me. Seated with him was Fred Kayembe, writer and creative director. Needless to say, I was nervous about being around pioneers of this magnitude.
As I approached the entrance of the hotel, I was greeted by a receptionist. Emanating from my right shoulder was the buzzing of clippers from the barbershop. To my left is the reception area, where I received a warm greeting from Vaughn. “Let me show you to my office”, he said, leading us down a corridor. The right wall of the passageway is covered with beautiful art pieces, and to the left of the passage is an intimately lit restaurant. I hadn’t even reached the Steyn Entertainment offices, yet and I was completely taken away by the aesthetics of the place. Keep in mind that this would be the first interview I would be conducting for The Daily Capsule, so being in that kind of environment was confirmation that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Vaughn’s office is situated at the very end of the space, tucked away in a corner. His office is what I expected a [STAY LOW] office would be like, all-black walls with the word “[OFFICE]” on them. In front of me is a mini table with a bottle of Hennessy and on the other end is Vaughn’s desk. At that moment, I felt his presence. Seated within touching distance of me is a man whose career I had been following for a number of years, and he has permitted me to pick his brain for an hour.
Any great artist will tell you that they didn’t do it by themselves… There is always a mind behind the scenes. Crafting and polishing the product. Sought of like the A$AP Yams to the A$AP Mob… The Rick Rubin to the Def Jam… I find it interesting how these characters play a huge role within culture but choose to remain out of the spotlight. Hidden but still felt. The name Vaughn Thiel may not sound familiar to those who aren’t fully tapped into the industry but the golden & current [STAY LOW] label head & artist manager “has worn so many hats in his career” to sum him up in a neatly wrapped sentence. Vaughn is a cultural architect. A pure creative. A risk-taker.
So, to those who will get acquainted with him through this interview, meet Vaughn. The brains behind [STAY LOW].
How would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as dedicated. I live my life on principles that I don’t deviate from. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and I’m not averse to taking risks.
I watched your interview on DEAD. Radio, and you said that you pursued a career in Football. What is it about an athlete’s mind that speaks to a creative?
I think it’s about wanting to travel the road less traveled and being in a field where I could express myself. I lived in a hostel and I got to mix with people from different walks of life, so I gravitated toward fields that allowed me to maintain that.
People instinctively take the path of least resistance. How did you stay faithful to your calling in your journey to becoming who you are today and how did your family take it?
One thing that’s kept me motivated when things got dark is reimagining what a successful person looks like… Growing up, I didn’t have someone to look up to that fit my version of success. I want to change the perception of success for kids who have big dreams that don’t fit into a box.
How did you deal with the anxiety of taking the road less travelled?
I still deal with that. The process of taking responsibility for the outcomes of your decisions, whether good or bad, creates anxiety and those feelings of anxiety are heightened when you’re starting out because you don’t know anything. You’re just working off intuition. In my experience, the feelings of anxiety multiply when you don’t fully commit. When you commit yourself completely, you realise you’re not made of glass.
In previous interviews, you mention selling your personal possessions to buy studio equipment. What were some of the things you were telling yourself in moments where you sacrificed comfort in exchange for the growth?
I just trusted my intuition. I felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing with my life, so the decision was easy for me. I asked myself, what would I regret more? Not pursuing this thing I am deeply passionate about or losing this money. Going to sleep every day knowing I didn’t fulfil my potential was worse than the thought of losing 100K.
What does [STAY LOW] mean to you?
After selling my shares in Eagle Entertainment, I focused on my agency with my business partner, Fred Kayembe. We were working with lordkez and exploring things with Mars Baby when Dale De Ruig, director of Steyn Entertainment, approached us. It took a while to figure it out because it would mean that I would need to trust Steyn Entertainment and I would also need to add the value they require. It was a unique opportunity to run an independent record label with the support of a company with an established infrastructure. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. [STAY LOW] means everything to me.
In your interview with Die Mondez, you talk about the low-end theory. What is the low-end theory, and what does it mean?
The low-end theory is a big part of [STAY LOW]. We’re an art-centric brand that doesn’t care about mass appeal as the core focus. We go against the grain. We don’t want to create distractions in the music. The process of creating a quality product that speaks for itself is the low-end theory.
The concept came about in the making of Priddy Ugly’s SOIL album. We wanted to create a project where Priddy Ugly is at the forefront. We were working on the album for a year and a half, and there was a lot of back and forth with Shooterkhumz, Zoocci Coke Dope, Priddy Ugly, Wichi 1080 and Herc Cut The Lights over how the album should sound.
Independence and collaboration are a big part of your story. How do you find people to trust with your vision, and what characteristics do you look for in the people you keep around you?
That’s tough because it’s an ongoing process, but let me answer that question in two parts…
On a team level, one of the best people I’ve worked with is Fred Kayembe. We developed our friendship through work. He takes himself seriously and there is nothing he won’t do to get the job done… Dale de Ruig is possibly the most important person I have met, he has taught me more about business and life than anyone ever has in the last 2 years. He is someone who plays an important role to any progress you might see from us.
The ability to take yourself seriously and see things through is essential because it speaks to the amount of pride you take in your work. I need people to be clear communicators. I look for someone who is willing to have difficult conversations. If you feel challenged, you should be able to talk to me about it. It’s about giving confrontation and facing confrontation in a controlled and respectful way.
On the artist side, I need to feel drawn to the product they create, but because we work in such close proximity, I like to spend time with the artist to get to know some of their likes and dislikes.
I also need someone who understands how to detach from their ego. Emotional intelligence points to your ability to appropriately assign criticism and credit.
If you could go back in time to talk to a young Vaughn, what would you say to him?
To Vaughn from 5 years ago, thank you for your integrity. Thank you for believing in yourself. I would also tell him that he is on the right path. A younger Vaughn would have needed to hear that.
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