DR. KWESI OWUSU takes us to music school one more time. In this essay, Highlife travels down a road called Hiplife.
During the 1980’s, some of the most popular Highlife songs in Ghana were produced outside the country in places like Hamburg, London, Abidjan and Toronto. George Darko and his band released ‘Akoo Te Brofo’ in 1983, the first Burger Highlife hit in Germany. In 1984 Lee Duodo, the lead singer formed his own band, Cantata and released Moni Palava, another successful burgher highlife album. From Toronto, Pat Thomas released Sika Ye Mogya, whilst the vibrant London scene produced bands like Highlife International, African Dawn, Osibisa, Orchestra Jazira and Jon K, the exceptional producer of Ben Brako. In neighboring Abidjan, the Highlife scene was vibrant with artists like Eugene Agyeman (Cropper) and his sister Asabea.
These Diaspora developments followed the exodus of Ghanaian musicians from the mid 1970’s as a result of the collapse of the entertainment scene and military interventions. The introduction of dusk to dawn curfews in 1979, for example, led to the closing of night clubs and entertainment spots and a general demise of entertainment culture in Ghana. In far off cities, however, Highlife boomed, dressed in the fashionable clothes of the local scenes.
This was the period of disco and the reign of stars like Bonny M and Donna Summers, the Disco Queen. Ghanaian musicians created their own form of Disco Highlife and ‘techno-pop’ using disco drum-machine beats and synthesizers. The list of artists who settled in Germany included Pat Thomas, Bob Pinado, Charles Amoah, Andy Vans, the Lumba Brothers and Amakye Dede.
Foreign produced Highlife became the rage in Ghana from the mid 1980’s first through records and then musicians returning home. The disco influenced music became the toast of Ghanaian youth of the 1980’s partly because it sounded like the western pop sounds they were used to. One of the most popular burgher highlife artists was Daddy Lumba (Charles Kojo Fusu) who broke away from the Lumba Brothers and is still hugely popular today.
HIPLIFE BRINGS HOME HIP HOP AND R & B
From the early 1990’s, the pervasive influence of Disco, Soul and R&B in Ghana was waning and commercial radio was gradually getting saturated by HipHop and Rap, the new musical sounds of New York and Los Angeles. Songs like Rappers Delight by The Sugarhill Gang released in 1979, Gary Byrd’s The Crown (1984) and LL Cool J’s I Can’t Live without My Radio (1985) had established the popularity of the genre locally. It was now left to a new generation of American Rap artists to make Rap the preferred musical choice for Ghanaian youth.
De La Soul’s Me Myself and I and other hits from their debut album, 3 Feet and Rising, Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Queen Latifah, TLC, Busta Rhymes, Tupac, New Jack City, all proved popular on radio and in the clubs, not to mention U Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer who incidentally also exerted a huge influence on the local dance scene with his choreographed dance moves. Local radio DJ’s however compiled their playlists selectively, preferring to give more airplay to “commercialized” Rap than the “conscious’ or “political” releases by artists like Public Enemy and NWA. Ironically, they were the ones making all the headlines in the racially charged politics of post-Reagan America.
The reign of American Rap and HipHop in the Ghanaian music scene, however, proved short lived. By the close of the decade, it had been displaced by Hiplife, a syncretic fusion of HipHop’s energetic beats with local musical styles and sung in Ghanaian languages. Retrospectively, the indigenization of American music was nothing new. In actual fact, it was the dominant mode of music making throughout Ghana’s modern history; from Highlife’s fusion with Jazz in the postwar period, with Soul and Funk during the 1970’s and with Disco in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Gyedu Blay Ambolley’s album, Simigwado, released in 1973 exemplified a ‘talking’ music album inspired by both the “slangs” of Sekondi seamen and vocalizations of James Brown, America’s Soul Brother Number One. Hiplife also reflects a deeper Ghanaian musical culture, the poetic tradition of the Okyeame, linguists or spokespersons of the traditional royal courts. The Okyeame performed social and political verses at public functions, usually accompanied by drumming. During Ghana’s first Republic, the Okyeame tradition was elevated to national status when Okyeame Akuffo was appointed Chief Linguist of Parliament. It is, therefore, not surprising that skillful use of proverbs in Hiplife songs by artists like Lord Kenya, OKomfo Kwadae or Obrafour became commonplace.
In spite of the similarities, what distinguishes Hiplife from Ambolley’s Simigwado or the Okyeame tradition is its fusion with HipHop and Rap. Significantly also, Hiplife adopted HipHop’s principal mode of music production – studio recordings based on music sampling and manufactured beats.
The rise of HipHop in America benefited from the proliferation of home studios and greater access to music making technologies from the 1980’s. Unlike previously when a recording deal with a music company was one sure way to produce and release your music, it was now possible to avoid expensive studios and live recording sessions by using home computers with sound modules to sample old records and create beats from sound libraries.
Hiplife adopted HipHop’s computer generated, ‘do it yourself (DYI) approach’ to producing music. There were few choices locally as live music had declined with the disintegration of the Ghana music industry from the late 1970’s. The recording of Highlife using live musicians had also dropped to as low as about 15% of the total output achieved during its golden years of the 1960’s. Musical instruments had become extremely scarce except in the new charismatic Christian churches where Highlife bands played during worship sessions and at evangelical crusades. Several leading Highlife musicians also left Ghana for neighboring African countries and Europe.
The early pioneers of Hiplife included Zapp Mallet, Mike Cooke, Chief G and the Tribe, Reggie Rockstone, Talking Drums, Native Funk Lords group, Rab Bakari, and Panji Anoff. This diverse group comprised of producers, engineers, and rappers. Some had started off simply wanting to make Rap records in Ghana and got involved in the experimentations to infuse HipHop’s ‘Boom Bap’ beats with local sounds and musical nuances.
Very soon, a discernible musical movement emerged on the fringes of the Accra night club scene. Then the music broke on commercial radio in Accra, and not without some resistance. Jon Germain was a DJ at Choice FM during the mid 1990’s. “Our bosses thought this was rubbish music and gave us a hard time when we played it. It took a while for attitudes to change. Now over 80% of the awards at the annual Ghana Music Awards go to Hiplife artists.”
The most influential of the Hiplife movement was Reggie Rockstone, generally credited to be the originator of the genre. Rockstone found fame in the 1980’s as champion of Break Dance and made an immediate impact with his impressive rapping in Twi. He lived in London during the 1980’s where he was a member of the underground Rap group, Parables, Linguistics and ZLang (PLZ). The group included Fredi Funkstone and DJ Pogo and released singles like If it Aint PLZ, Build a Wall Around Your Dreams and Go For The Juggler on their own independent label. They made a name for themselves on London’s underground Rap scene. Fred Funkstone was also at hand to contribute to Rockstone’s maiden album, Makaa Maka (I have said it and that’s that), released to critical acclaim in 1997.
The story of Rockstone’s Hiplife triumph starts in 1994 when PLZ was invited to perform in Ghana at the Pan African Arts festival, PANAFEST. During one of their performances, their turntable set-up broke down and they were obliged to continue performing with live percussion from a Highlife band called the Marriots International. Perhaps more significantly, Rockstone also realized that a majority of the audience enjoyed the music but did not understand his English lyrics. In a moment of inspired creativity, he started rapping in Twi and received a rapturous response from the audience.
Rockstone continued his Twi raps with a tour of some Ghanaian towns and consolidated his exciting innovation with his first album, Makaa Maka. Suddenly the nation’s airways and street bars were booming with Twi rap songs like Tsoo Boi, Agoo! and Sweetie Sweetie. Rockstone’s album and electrifying live performances succeeded in creating a new national audience for Hiplife which was still an underground movement on the fringes of Accra’s night club scene. In a BBC interview, Rockstone acknowledges the critical importance of language to his breakthrough. “I came home, and in the clubs all the kids were listening to rap from New York, or LA – LL Cool J, Snoop, Busta Rhymes, all of them – but not necessarily understanding what they’re saying.”
Rab Bakari, a New Yorker visiting Ghana at the time produced Makaa Maka and worked with Rockstone to achieve what they considered the desired mix of Ghanaian and American musical elements. “Actually, I met Reggie in a night club in Accra. There was this impressive guy rapping with an American accent. We hit it off straight away and set to work that same night! A studio was booked. I got busy sampling a variety of records and said to Reggie, you bring in a few Twi words to bleed into the sounds of New York, the sounds of LA. This guy went off and wrote whole verses in Twi. It was quite astonishing to me and to the whole nation as we later found.”
Rockstone’s second album, Me Na Me Kae (It’s me who has said it), was released in 1999 and consolidated his initial success. A string of radio hits followed; Keep Your Eyes on The Road; Eye Mo De Anaa, Plan Ben? (What Plan?), Different You, Different Me, (We All Different), and Ya Bounce Wo Visa ( They Have Refused You a Visa).
Eye Mo De Anaa ?(Is it Sweet to Y’all?) sampled Fela Kuti’s 1977 hit, Shakara. Keep Your Eyes on the Road samples a famous highlife tune, Kyekye Bi Ade Me Awo by Alhaji K. Frimpong. Incidentally, this is the only track on Rockstone’s first two albums that samples Highlife. The rest were original Soul and Funky beats or samples from Raps albums. Ironically, the extensive use of Highlife beats in Hiplife came later and from artists like Lord Kenya, Tic Tac, Terry Bon Chaka and Obrafour.
Hiplife featured female artists like MzBel, Abrewa Nana and Triple M who took inspiration from female rappers like Missy Elliot, Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah, and Lauryn Hill. Nevertheless, in both genres, male artists dominate. Another feature that Hiplife shares with U.S. Rap, especially during its early days relates to how Hiplife artists dance and even walk, as well as the outward commodity fetishization of expensive cars, jewelry, and other fashionable commodities of consumer capitalism. These are still very much evidence in Hiplife of mimicking not just the content of Rap videos, but shooting style and production values.
More generally, in both Hiplife and American Rap, artists and fans alike use the music as a symbol of generational identity. Within such an identity, the music is used to differentiate itself from the Highlife of the “older generation” that is performed with live instruments. This contrasts sharply with Hiplife performance where artists mostly mime their songs. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, however, Ghanaian Hiplife artists avoid the excesses of sexual representation in songs in which explicit references to sexual organs and sexual acts are made. Daddy Lumba and Borax’s song “Asee Ho” (Down There), is widely interpreted in Ghana as referring to sexual organs. The chorus of Lucky Star and Obour’s song, Ohye wo Dan Mu (When He/She Is In Your Room), is also widely interpreted as insinuating a sexual act. In both songs, however, euphemisms are used to tell the story.
Hammering the Beats
As the years went by, Hiplife came to be differentiated by not just by the rappers but also by the producers since they played such a key role in creating the music. Producers normally double as engineers to create the beats for the rappers, who then contribute lyrics. If it is a collaboration, then the producer and rapper work as a team. Producers are also known to create the beats and sell them to the highest bidder.
After the heady days of the mid 1990’s when Rab Bakari and Rap Mallet dominated the scene, the most significant producer to emerge was Hammer, aka Edward Nana Poku Osei. He shot to fame after producing Pae Mu Ka, (Break It Down), Obrafour’s top selling debut album. Hammer then produced a succession of leading rappers such as Tinny, Ayigbe Edem and Kwaw Kese. He also released compilation albums which give the numerous artists who flock to his camp a chance to be heard without releasing an album. The compilation albums include The Execution Diary (2003), in partnership with Obrafour, Sounds of Our Time (2004), and The Crusade of the Lost Files (2006).
From 2005 onwards, Hiplife exploded into several varieties of subgenres, too many to document here. Most notable were syncretic fusions with Reggae Dancehall by artists like Samini and Black Prophet, Kpalogo and Jama beats by Victor Jara, and Ivorien and Congolese Soukous styles by Praye, VIP and Nana Boro. On the scene now are sensational individual rappers like Sarkodie and Asem and pop groups like Ruff n Smooth, all competing for the next big hit.
The musical trends range from “pidgin slangs” to rehashed Highlife styles and Azonto which has roots in southern Ghana’s coastal music. The big bass and wobbly percussions are electrified versions of Lolo and Adzaben (brass band) music from the Teshie and Gamashie districts in Accra. Azonto was made popular by Sarkodie’s hit, You Go Kill Me. Rap music has become multilingual over the years as a lot more young people are releasing music in their diverse languages such as tracks by Tinny in Ga and Ayigbe Edem in Ewe.
Like the originators, Hiplife is still handicapped by pirating which limits the financial impact of album releases and non-payment of royalty fees even by radio stations. Hiplife has become Ghana’s leading musical sounds but for the artists, it’s still a long way from earning anything half as decent as their American idols.