One word instantly popped into my mind when I met Lady Lea at her beautiful home in Edenvale on a hot spring day: boss. I was visiting to talk to the veteran DJ and owner of Flipside Management about her nomination in the inaugural Dance Music Awards South Africa.
She is up against Abby Nurock, DJ Zinhle, SimStar and Lady Sakhe in the Best Female DJ category. The awards, which are voted for by the public, take place on October 5.
Lea led me inside. The staircase was lined with framed discs and covers of some of her most well-known albums.
Downstairs, two assistants were busy at work for Lea’s Flipside Management company. We headed upstairs where, on one side, a shelf lined with vinyl records stretched from wall to wall.
There were even more framed milestones on the walls and, as we settled on a plush couch, it hit me: this is what 20 years of being a leading lady in dance music looks like.
Lea, whose real name is Lea Barrett, brushed her hair from her face and I saw a black headphone earring dangling from each ear. She makes this functional jewellery - some bracelets have flash drives of Lea’s music so she doesn’t have to carry a CD pouch when going to play at a gig.
These particular earrings were made from actual vinyl for her brand, Lady Lea’s Collection. See? Boss. But first, we have to rewind to how she got here.
“When I was growing up, I was always in the choir, always trying to learn instruments,” she said. “Every birthday, I always wanted a bigger, cooler radio. Eventually, it became a big studio.
“When I was younger, I found myself recording everything from Ace of Base to Popshop to Technotronic to Prodigy. I’d wait for the DJ to stop talking then press record and I’d be cutting up the tapes and using Sellotape to place them together properly.”
“I was also a drum majorette and I think I learnt the sequencing for music from that. Then I became a trainer for Grade 1s and had to put the music together. I knew where we needed an explosion and what emotion went where. It’s almost the same as a playing a set.”
Born in Pretoria, Lea moved to Cape Town after her mom married. At just 14, she would sneak out of her hostel to go to clubs.
“I wasn’t being naughty in the sense of getting drunk and hooking up with men,” she said emphatically. “I really was just there for the music. I was always mesmerised by the DJs.”
“Eventually, I found myself going into the DJ box every now and then and realised what the DJ was doing - all those buttons and the sounds - that’s what I was attracted to.”
That was around the same time that her older brother, Morgan, developed an interest in DJing, too. They ponied up some money to buy CDs and started DJing together.
“We were just messing around at home,” Lea remembers. “We started offering clubs to play in their chill-out rooms for free. We’d bring our own speakers even. Eventually, we got good.”
So good, in fact, that in high school, after her mother divorced, the family moved back to Pretoria, which is where Lea caught her big break.
“There used to be a big club called DNA,” she said with a smile.
“We started bringing our stuff into the chill-out area. When the owner realised we had quite a lot of people coming to see us, he said: ‘Okay, I’ll put you on the main floor but I’ll give you the closing slot.’ That was literally when the sun was coming up. They are already sweeping the floors and that’s when we must play.
“A few months later, that started to become the ‘main’ time for the club. People would come from Joburg, after clubbing all night there, to hear this sunrise set by myself and my brother. They started calling us The Morning Surgeons. I was about 16 back then. I went from being a little girl pushing her speakers into the chill rooms of clubs to releasing albums.”
Those albums included a DNA compilation then A Family Affair as well as King and Queen of Clubs - all with DJ Morgan. Her Catch Me If You Can trilogy became classic material.
After high school, Lea, her then-boyfriend and Morgan opened Flipside Records, a vinyl shop in Sunnyside, Pretoria. They moved to a bigger, better location in Hatfield. But because vinyl sales began declining and CDs were all the rage, it became more expensive to stay open.
Then they started Flipside Recordings where “I made all my music, recorded all my mixes and taught others how to DJ”.
Around Lea’s 21st birthday, she went on tour with two other women as Divas On Decks. “Myself, Kate Sutherland and Lalicia were the main women DJing at that time,” she said. “It was so great. But then Kate moved back to her home in the UK and Lalicia got married and no longer wanted to be a part of the industry.”
Even though Lea was always fully booked, promoters would still ask to book her or, at least, for her to suggest another woman. She held auditions for her booking agency.
“For female DJs, a turning point in their lives is when they become pregnant,” Lea said. “It all comes down to why you are DJing. That is what will make you stop playing.”
I ask her what made her keep going even seven years after her son was born. “I actually had a few people ask me if I was going to stop DJing once I had the baby, but it was never a thought of mine. It’s like: are you going to stop eating? That’s silly. Like, why? I was DJing until I was nine months pregnant.”
Lea then founded Flipside Management, which has the likes of Kyle Cassim and Thulani The Warrior on its books. “I do this because I love it,” Lea said. “I want to take care of these guys because I’ve been through it all.”
“I’ve been through not having a hotel when I arrive to play. Not being paid. Empty clubs. Drunken shuttle drivers. I don’t want to see these guys go through that. So they have confidence in me that I’ll take care of them.”
She paused and then said: “I’ve never messed anyone around, I’ve never been late to a gig or been in scandals so they respect that I’ve kept my career at a good level for 20 years and I’m still going.”
* The inaugural Dance Music Awards South Africa take place in Boksburg on October 5. Voting on www.dmasa.co.za closes on October 2.