On Bad DJing & Ghana’s Ever-Changing Sound

Andre-3000-Nike-Feature

“Rhythms change every generation. The intensity and the drums change. And I’m not on the pulse. I can’t pretend…” – Andre 3000

Sometime last year, I screwed up one of my few public DJ sets.

I’d been invited by the mighty Keyzus to play the No Requests set at an event appropriately called A Memorable Night. The idea was simple: what songs would a DJ play if – free of crowd expectations – they could play whatever they liked?

It’s a good question here in Ghana.

While a good DJ combines songs people know with songs that they don’t, a great DJ establishes so much trust that their audience is willing to musically go wherever the DJ leads them. I’ve been to clubs elsewhere in the world where people danced all night to songs most of which they didn’t know, simply off the vibe and strength of the music. It’s harder to do that in Ghana. I believe this is because of radio.

Radio stations the world over are aware of the balance to be struck between playing what is already popular and breaking new songs and sounds, but I feel many Ghanaians radio stations lean a little too heavily towards popularity. It makes (short-term) commercial sense but results in a relatively limited musical diet for Ghanaian listeners: one we have become very used to. DJs – whose job it is to be exposed to more music than most – often find ourselves casting aside great songs because we have learned (from hard experience) that our crowds only want to dance to what they know. For a DJ, this can be more than a little frustrating.

Inspired by the younger DJs I shout out at the end of this piece, I decided I would use No Requests to step outside of my comfort zone. I come from a time when most songs were somewhere between 90 to 120 beats per minute (bpm: the unit by which DJs measure music).

Back when I was in early 90s Mfantsipim, most songs had a simple 4/4 pattern and you could do the Running Man to them. But something happened after hip-hop escaped New York and fled to the American South. You couldn’t run to it anymore, but you could snap your fingers to it, do the step (and do it all by yourself). Two decades later, the hip-hop sound is dominated by trap: a sub-genre that often moves somewhere between 70 to 80 bpm (or double-time at 140 to 160 bpm).

This was going to be a challenge.

What Happened

I got a selection of songs ready, arrived on time, plugged in in the corner of the room like a good little DJ, and started playing to the few people who were there on time. I was really pleased to play what I felt was a great set. However, I would later learn that No Requests was a way bigger deal than I had thought: I was scheduled to play later on. In the centre of the room. With the spotlight and cameras on me. While the crowd danced behind me.

Yie.

I could have just replayed the songs I had already played, but it’s not my style to do repeat sets so I tried to diversify. Unluckily for me, I QUICKLY RAN OUT OF OTHER 70 TO 80 BPM SONGS TO PLAY. And so, I started playing my more familiar 90 to 120 bpm songs.

Wrong move.

I mean, my set was okay but it wasn’t great. It didn’t connect with the crowd as much as it could have. It’s partly a generational thing. Three Stacks is right:

The rhythms have changed.

The Mix That Emerged

I put this mix together a few months after the event because of how dissatisfied I was with my set that night, and – while some of my transitions are a little jagged – I was really pleased with how it came out. I was even more pleased when Harmattan Rain – who do a magnificent job documenting new sounds – agreed to host it.

What surprises me about the mix is that – although I’m channelling my inner Eff the DJ – it’s still me:

Never Not Eclectic

Do not be fooled by the Daisy Age/De La Soul graphic accompanying the mix. While I remain massively Native Tongues-influenced, I hop between many non-Native sounds here (which is actually a very Native Tongues thing to do).

I’m particularly proud of what I did to Adomaa and Robin Huws‘ ‘Shii the Song‘: a gorgeous song that didn’t get the airplay it deserved when it came out (because such songs don’t: it goes back to what I was saying about radio). I was surprised to find that it too fell in the trap bpm range and so I slipped it in between some old drum and bass (because I’m old like that)… and Chris Brown’s ‘Look at Me Now’. Weird, but it works.

This. Is. The. Remix

I grew up in a golden age of remixes. Artists wouldn’t release singles without Puff Daddy (as Brother Love was called back then) or someone doing something dirty to them. I wish more Ghanaian musicians would release singles in that format:

  • The Song
  • The Instrumental
  • The Vocals (no instruments)
  • A Remix

There are so many more people who dabble in creating music these days. Giving them access to your instrumentals and vocals will allow them to fiddle and experiment with your music, which not only publicizes your music but sometimes results in gold. Take for example this blend I did of Efya‘s ‘Getaway’ with Breezy’s ‘Loyal’.

Instrumentals

I have become a big fan of Joe Kay of Soulection. One of the things I love about his DJing style is how many instrumentals he plays, allowing listeners to appreciate the work put into songs not just by the artist… but by producers. A great example of this is Beyonce’s ‘Ego‘: there’s this brief but sublime piano solo towards the end (it’s at around 43 mins 30 secs into the mix) that you don’t pay much attention to when you hear the song.

African/Diaspora DNA

I travel far beyond the African continent for this mix, but there’s still some African & diaspora DNA in there, including Yasmeen Helwani (Ghana), Ibeyi (Nigeria/France), The Weeknd (Ethiopia/US), Adomaa (Ghana), Robin Huws (Ghana. Check out his new project), Sarkodie (Ghana) & Samini (Ghana), Wanlov (Ghana), and Odunsi (Nigeria).

I’ve spent much of my DJ career in Ghana supporting underground African music, whether writing about it, playing the music during my stints on Vibe FM, Joy FM and YFM, DJing at underground events, or even DJing – for free – for some of my favourite artists. There are more platforms now (like Harmattan Rain) for such artists and this is a great thing, and I hope it continues.

However, I continue to be obsessed about broadening our national musical palate. Like I said in my last post, Ghanaian music is one of fusion. If you follow where highlife has been, you will find its roots in the merging of local music with styles derived from Caribbean calypso (think of Koo Nimo‘s palm wine guitar) but then it has gone on to fuse itself with whatever genre of music has been most popular with black people across the world. In Nkrumah‘s era, jazz was what was poppin’ in the streets and all of a sudden, highlife sounded like ET Mensah. Then James Brown and (early) Kool & the Gang funk comes along and highlife became afrobeat, captained by Fela but championed in Ghana by the likes of Gyedu Blay Ambolley. Later, we got the electric pop boogie of a post-Jackson 5 Michael Jackson and highlife gave us Charles Amoah. Somewhere in there, Kojo Antwi championed a reggae variant of highlife, no doubt inspired in part by Bob Marley, who remains iconic out here. Hip-hop comes along and we get hip-life, but then American R&B artists discover European-style dance music through the likes of David Guetta and Calvin Harris. All of a sudden, Ghanaian music speeds up and you get azonto (which falls within the same bpm as most dance music). And now, trap is all the rage and suddenly, we have the likes of pappy kojo and more recently, La Meme.

Like most great music (and like us), Ghanaian music is adaptive. It absorbs and evolves and changes. I am increasingly obsessed with what other formulations our music can take. There are so many other music forms out there and I want to know what highlife would sound like if it mixes with less popular genres and artists. As part of DECAF, I try to give space to these broader sounds within the Ghanaian space, in hopes that we will absorb, evolve and change it into newer forms of Ghanaian music. In this regard, the work that the likes of VI Music are doing – particularly on Robin Huw’s sonically expansive EP HUES – warms both my ears and my heart.

I dedicate this mix to Keyzus, to K3V, to Eff, to Steelo, to Michy and all the DJs younger than me here in Ghana who are out there taking risks and pushing musical boundaries. You all inspire the heck out of me.

And apologies to Aubrey Graham, who somehow has two songs on this mix without actually featuring in the mix.

 

Church for Music Geeks

photo6042128244070788060

A while ago, the homie Eli Tetteh and I started exchanging songs with each other; two geeks communing, ten tracks at a time, followed by some great conversation/argument about what makes music good or bad. A few months later, two more friends – EDWVN & Oku Tetteh – joined in. We came up with a format and started recording our conversations. That became a podcast: DECAF.

The day we launched the podcast, we decided to do a live version to introduce people to the format. It was so successful that we have since made it a regular event that has already seen us outgrow two venues.

Highlife music has always been about fusion: from calypso through to jazz, funk, reggae, pop, hip-hop, dance and – most recently – trap, highlife has always, always been influenced by foreign sounds. But while we’re heavily exposed to popular sounds, what would happen if we started drawing our influences from a broader palette, mixing it up with all the musical gorgeousness that exists under the radar? Both with our podcast and our live event, we shine a light on some of those underground sounds in the hopes that it influences some of our very own. And even if it doesn’t, it makes for endless fun and debate, both preceded and followed by a DJ set by Eff the DJ.

It’s basically lit.

If you’re in Accra and feel like hearing some sounds you probably haven’t heard before, drop by (follow @nkenten on Twitter to know when). And if you can’t, but you’re as geeky as we are about music, do tune into the podcast.

What I’m Feeling: the August 2016 Comeback Edition (Part One)

It’s been awhile since I did one of these.

Regardless, here it is: my monthly occasional once-in-awhile rundown of music that I’m feeling right now. Today’s edition is all local (to avoid clashing with something I’m a part of on another platform that will reveal itself in a week or so. I’ll update this post with a link when it drops). A couple of these are a little dated but – like I said – it’s been a long time. Besides, dopeness is timeless.

Warning: it’s pretty packed. Up next, I’ll do a non-music one. We’ll see if I can keep it up. Here goes.

Kuvie

Kuv-1

A couple of months back, I wrote my thoughts on how I thought Kuvie had low-key invented a new genre/subgenre of music or something. I would later see him do a live music set as part of DJ Keyzzz’ BeatPhreaks Live gig at Alliance Francaise, and it exceeded my already high expectations. I would definitely pay money to go see Kuvie headline. He hasn’t let up since then, especially on the named ‘Grind’: Vision DJ’s collaboration with Ayisi Ican (AI). One of my favorite tunes of the moment by my favourite producer of the moment under the auspices of one of my favourite DJs.

RedRed – How Far

The most important/topical/urgent song on this list. Awhile back, RedRed – the outfit consisting of M3nsa (who is still cedi-for-cedi the most complete Ghanaian artist in existence and needs to bless us all with another solo album ) and ELO – dropped a video with a live performance of what sounded like a sparse, next-level electronic rework of the Ghanaian national anthem. It got a lot of my people excited. After it finally premiered on Ms. Naa’s Ryse & Shyne – suitably on independence day – Malaka wrote a whole blog post about it. There was awhile there when I thought the lyrics would date because the President ‘solved’ dumsor bi saa.

False alarm.

VI Music

The admiration I have for Adomaa extends to her entire crew, really. VI Music is fast becoming less of a label than it is an entire creative movement encompassing Adomaa herself, and the collective dopeness that is Akotowaa, Robin Huws, Reynolds the Gentleman, Tronomie and more. More than just their music, I like the whole ‘squad’-ness of their operation and how they really are not about fitting into modern Ghanaian musical templates; even with each other. Their sounds are actually diverse as heck. No artist here sounds like the other. And even their artwork drips with attention to detail.

The Gentleman could be Ghana’s Wizkid. He sure has the energy (as anyone who was at the Afraba concert can testify). Unlike Wizkid however, he is also a producer, which might be why he sings about more than just how he wants to part with his money on account of someone’s ass/body/waist/dancing/whatever (And the occasional song about poverty. Don’t get me wrong: I love Wizkid. But daaamn… he always sings about the same things). I don’t know how my people will respond to that, but it works for me.

Robin Huwes is all about love, stripped-down acoustics and a genuine vulnerability rarely heard around these parts:

My (adopted baby cousin) Akotowaa beautifully blurs the lines between spoken word, rap, singing and the good old fashioned art of actual songwriting on IWITP. And I love it:

Adomaa’s brother (& my former student) Tronomie just dropped his debut track, ‘Breaking Bars’. I’m hearing Kwabs and Gallant influences (at a time when few musicians out here have probably even heard of those two): not a bad thing at all.

VI gives me hope.

DJ Juls feat. Mr Eazi x Eugy x Sarkodie – Teef Teef

It’s beautiful to see a good thing come together. Juls has been crafting this African-sample-heavy sound for years without getting the due he deserves. For awhile, I thought he’d left it behind to explore other (equally dope) sounds with his homeboy Mr. Eazi (their creative collaboration is to Ghanaian music what Martin Scorcese’s partnerships with DeNiro and DiCaprio have been to Hollywood). But then he comes back with this. Beats 1’s Julie Adenuga named it the sound of the summer and she’s right. If this is not on your playlist, you’re failing.

Cina Soul – Julor

I was late listening to Cina Soul’s brilliant single, only doing so after the homie Paa Koti schooled me to it and my mind’s twin, Debbie Frempong insisted to me that it features what may be the most flawless vocals she’d ever heard from Ghana. And then I learned that it was produced by Elidot’s former student, Odunsi and that it also features different-sounding raps by the man M Dot. Cina (who really is the sweetest human being in person) just dropped her EP, and while  I don’t think it quite matches the brilliance of this track, it’s clear that her potential is crazy. Watch this one.

IFKR ft. Odunsi – Omo Gbono

I should be mad at Ashesi’s finest two DJs – K3V and Franklin – for keeping from me the fact that their Major Lazer-loving asses are also creating original ‘afro-EDM’ tunes. But by the time that synth-y sound drops after the chorus, all is forgiven really. Fun track. I’m curious to hear what else they are cooking up.

Odunsi ft. Okuntakinte – Happy Hour

Odunsi is the future. There: I said it. I remember thinking this when EDWVN drew my attention to his tracks Nasty Horns and Nikki. Crisp production. Diversity. Imagination. The man whose influence is felt on the last two tracks I mentioned has also released an EP and my favourite cut by far is this one, featuring his (unapologetically controversial) Ashesi  classmate, Okuntakinte, who is on good form here.

Villy & the Xtreme Volumes – WMM (Wia My Money)

Villy has been owning Accra’s live music scene for a few years now. He reminds me of two of my old friends from London – Lyric L & Ty: artists whose live performances are so on point that they make fans of people who have never heard their music before. Villy’s EP Humanimals shows musical growth and this is showcased perfectly on this angry, Miles-Davis-sampling, African blues track, WMM.

African leaders: come take your subs… and bring us our money while you’re at it.

Worlasi

nu

Yoyo Tinz have been evangelizing about Worlasi for a minute and it’s easy to see why. Charisma, a unique style, lyrical depth and locally-relevant content that all Ghanaians can relate to all make Worlasi a contender. He shines on features, as he does here with m.anifest:

And – just like King Kendrick – he’s dropped an EP of unreleased tracks:

Honorary Mention

YG & Nipsey Hussle – FDT

Hardly local, but I must admit that it does capture a few of my sentiments on a topic of potential international significance. The part two featuring Macklemore and G-Eazy is on regular rotation in the Ankomah-Graham household.

Speaking of part twos, stay tuned for Part Two. Next week. Maybe.

The Gospel of Pablo

There’s a scene in the biopic Ray where an irate group storm one of Ray Charles’ shows to (basically) insist that he stop taking gospel songs and ‘secularizing’ them.  I think of this scene every time I hear Christians who complain about ‘secular’ music.

Why do we always have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the zeitgeist?

Modern gospel music is a strange thing. From a musical standpoint, it’s not actually a genre per se. Instead, it borrows the sounds of other genres (including those its listeners sometimes criticize) and slaps God-related lyrics over them; both reversing and copying what Ray Charles did.

I remember all the shade Kirk Franklin caught (back when I was in secondary school) for his ‘gospelization’ of ‘secular’ hip-hop and R&B. His critics could have looked at it as some kind of reclaiming for gospel of what Charles adapted. After all, R&B is the musical descendant of the soul music that Charles co-invented through secularizing gospel music in the first place.

But no.

Thankfully (and regardless of such creative conservatism), Franklin’s kind of gospel is now very much the norm in Christian circles, at least out here in Ghana. Yet some who have no problem listening to Kirk are still at great pains to draw distinctions between the sacred and the secular; criticizing artists like Adomaa (a preacher’s daughter catching flack for singing outside the church although all her lyrics are in line with her Christian principles), Paapa (who has also shared labels/stages/songs with non-gospel artists) and (still!) Kirk Franklin for anything from not limiting themselves to gospel to associating themselves with sinners. They must be doing something right: Jesus was accused of the very same in his lifetime.

… aaaaand in walks Kanye West.

GettyImages-509642162

Say what you want about his out-of-studio shenanigans: seven critically-acclaimed albums deep, the man has had one of the longest runs in music history. Ever. Kanye’s politics may bore me to tears, but the man is talented. That said, no one in my musical circles had particularly high hopes for his new album (it’s a long story: we’ll tell you about it in a podcast someday).

What rekindled my interest in (‘SWISH‘… sorry, I meant ‘Waves‘… Oh: slight correction…) ‘The Life of Pablo‘ was this headline from Relevant Magazine:

Kanye West’s New Album May Be a Gospel Album Actually

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the word ‘gospel’ that gave me hope here.

Same as it was before I became Christian, gospel is rarely a particularly interesting or innovative genre to me. I hold gospel to a higher standard. It’s not enough to simply praise God with your lyrics. The way I see it, if you’re dedicating your music to a being you worship, then it should blow minds, stretch paradigms and birth new forms. I’m a DJ and when I’m mixing songs together, I may string together songs with similar themes but I’m mostly focused on beats, melodies and such. If your music is a reflection of a God-given gift, then your instrumentation and arrangements and concepts and production, mixing and mastering should all push the envelope. You should never be accused of sounding stagnant. Why? Because creativity is the closest thing (besides reproduction) that humans have to creation. It is a chance to emulate the being you claim created you.

Show it.

The gospel music I usually hear often presents watered down (or watered-up, depending on how you choose to look at it) versions of other genres, without adding anything creative. There are exceptions. Sadly, they aren’t that popular. In contrast, hip-hop (especially Kanye West’s style of it) is often based on samples, opening it up to accusations of being derivative, and yet it still does something creatively interesting to those original sounds.

So, it was obviously the combination of the words ‘Kanye West’ and ‘Gospel’ that caught my attention. Kanye’s public persona is that of a man unhinged and listening to ‘The Life of Pablo‘ (apparently a reference to Paul) confirmed my suspicions, while also shattering any of my doubts in Kanye’s ability to produce yet another creative, interesting and at times awesome album (‘Ultralight Beam’ and ‘FML’ are on loop right now). I have a bunch of problems with the album and I’m not sure I’d call the final cut gospel (whatever that really means), but it’s a deeply human one, and somewhere in there is one of the most earnest cries to God – both in praise and in need – that I’ve ever heard.

There is not much I can say from a critical perspective about ‘Pablo’ that has not already been written elsewhere. I had wanted to write a post looking at it as a gospel album. Then I listened to the Forth District podcast dedicated to dissecting the album track-by-track, and it says everything I was going to say and then some.

So I highly recommend you listen to it too. Especially if you’re not interested in gospel.

A (Mad Late) Review of Lady Jay’s ‘Venus’

I don’t remember who preceded Lady Jay the first time I saw her perform at an AccraDotAlt Talk Party a few years back. I vaguely remember that there were two or three other acts, but specifics evaporated the moment Lady breathed into the mic. She tore two ballads so beautifully apart that my eyes argued with my ears over how a voice rich with that much pain could emerge from such an obviously teenage frame.

After that, I would regularly bump into her at Panji Anoff’s Pidgen Music home studio (alongside the likes of the FOKN Bois and Yaa Pono). I watched while she tried various genres on for size – under the patient mentorship of African Relaxation Techniques’ Sewor Okudzeto (*salute*) – in search of a musical persona balancing the fun and rebellion of her youth with the maturity of her pain. For a while, the latter came more easily to her than the former (except on loose tracks like ‘Turn the Bass Up’ or DJ Juls’ remix of ‘Chillin’’ ).

With ‘Venus’ however, Lady cracked the formula, finding a sound that perfectly captures her fun, but even more so her quirkiness and rebellion. I was once worried about how she would differentiate her style from her friend, Efya’s. On ‘Venus’ however, she did so with confidence, setting herself very clearly apart from the ever-expanding roster of Ghanaian R&B singers.

‘Venus’ is NOT for everyone: it’s poppy, it’s abrasive and – with the exception perhaps of ItzTiffany – I doubt any singer out here would be brave enough to try out something this different. But somehow (as the song progresses) it works.

I’m going to honest here. Ghanaian songwriting in English can be quite um… basic. Okay, I’ll be Poetra Asantewaa-honest: it’s ***t. On ‘Venus’ however, Lady mixes it all up with her Pidgen Music influences and it works for what it is, creating the kind of singalong that has powered many a recent pop hit. I doubt she is actually “badder than Erykah Badu…” but the fact that Erykah is Lady’s standard for badness says a lot about Lady. Like Badu, she is not afraid to chart her own creative style. With an impossibly bigger budget, Venus would actually work well with a Missy Elliot-style video. Missy made an entire career out of converting quirkiness into commercial success: Lady could aim to do the same.

A major part of what makes Venus work is its production.

Continuing what he started with E.L’s (much slept on) ‘Agbadza’, Kuvie may have created an entirely new highlife/hiplife sub-genre while no one was watching. I remember listening to the BBC World Service’ documentary, A Short History of Five Notes, and hearing (the great) Professor John Collins tell (the brilliant) DJ Rita Ray how the ‘clap-clap-clap… clap-clap’ beat that underlies most Ghanaian music is a simplified version of a more complex beat from way back.

Kuvie’s genius has been to go back to that original beat and juxtapose it against the speaker-destroying 808 basslines that characterize today’s trap music. It’s a brave move, as it does not automatically lend itself to Ghanaian dancefloors. It will – however – bump the absolute heck out of your car’s trunk.

The weakest thing about Venus is Sarkodie’s rhyme. As he himself might say, ‘HUH?!’

I am as big a Sarkodie fan as the next Ghanaian (he’s such a force out here that it will soon probably be a citizenship requirement to like his music), but I have to admit to face-palming almost every time he deviates from delivering Twi/pidgin rap masterpieces and tries rhyming in English. He showed promise on ‘New Guy‘, but his rhyme on ‘Venus’ sets the movement back – waaaay back – both in terms of style and (bizarrely American-aping) content. Obidi is capable of so much more than this.

Either way, I look forward to more GH genre-bending from Lady Jay and other local artists. And I look forward to the challenge of dropping Venus the next time I DJ at the Phreak Out Live Music Festival After Party this Saturday (Feb. 20th).

Phreak-Out-Live-After-Party