iplife, I’ve been repeatedly told by Ghanaians, is hip-hop plus highlife. “Foreign” beats and rhymed lyrics in a local dialect, set against a musical backdrop so earnestly international in its digital sheen, it is—without repeated spins and a degree of determination—virtually unlistenable.
Highlife, as many of you may know, blends an array of African song forms (thanks to early West African sailor-merchants), old school European brass band music (cheers, England!), Christian hymns (courtesy of foreign missionaries), big band jazz (made popular by rich people and in-the-know hipsters), with a trace of Caribbean sensibility (via turn-of-the-century returnees from the Americas). It’s been the jam in Ghana, in its various forms, for dancing or chilling out, for nearly a century.
In fact, it’s only been in the past few years (despite its emergence in the early ‘90s) that hiplife has come to permeate nearly every part of Ghanaian popular culture. After its bumpy start as a karaoke-style tribute to the unattainable Black America that young people in Ghana could never experience, you now can’t go anywhere without hearing or seeing hiplife, laden with its often baffling juxtaposition of plainly borrowed and quintessentially local expressions.
A few words about the genre: dancing is paramount to hiplife, so the beats tend to be faster than American rap productions. In most circles, if a song is not danceable, it will not be a hit. Choruses are almost always sung, as opposed to rhymed. Some producers, or engineers as they are called in Ghana, create beats that belie African rhythmic and melodic influence, while others are simply lifted from mainstream American rap productions. In either case, bass and percussion figure strongly, while synthesized anything (from trumpets to tabla to ‘80s-style orchestra stabs) is the standard.
Below is a list of essential listening, starting points for the hiplife curious, concrete touchstones for the hiplife savvy.
Most Ghanaians recognize Reggie Rockstone as the “Godfather” of hiplife. After spending much of his adolescence shuttling back and forth between London and Accra (Ghana’s capital), Rockstone returned to Ghana for good in 1994 and put the first major rap record in Twi, Ghana’s most common language. Free to speak in their own tongue, most rappers now use US hip-hop for inspiration, rather than emulation.
Although Rockstone has been by no means prolific during his decade-plus career, he has created a number of seminal cuts. “Keep Your Eyes on the Road,” from his 1998 full-length, Me Na Me Kae, is an example of an early, and apparently short-lived, trend in hiplife: rapping over samples of old school highlife grooves and melodies. With his use of an immediately recognizable break—one of vintage funky highlife’s most vital anthems, “Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu” by Alhaji K. Frimpong—Rockstone invokes local nostalgia (in the form of a song nearly everyone knows and loves) and international sophistication (by utilizing one of hip-hop’s key traits, sampling).
“Eyes” finds Rockstone describing the ways in which Africa is different from the West. Coming from a privileged background—his father was a fashion designer who moved all over the world—Rockstone, unlike most musicians in Ghana, learned early on what things are like “outside.” He knows the real ghetto is in Ghana, and that Americans don’t know suffering the way Africans have known it. He breaks it down in English on this track, speaking directly to non-Ghanaians and Anglophile Ghanaians abroad.
Reggie Rockstone may have “invented” hiplife, but, by all accounts, Obrafuor took it to the next level with 1999’s groundbreaking full-length, Pae Mu Ka. While most prior hiplife recordings tended toward a more aggressive and frenetic flow that had its roots in the country’s hearty obsession with ragga and dancehall, Obrafuor slowed it down. Waaay down. (One of the major criticisms that hounded hiplife in its early days was that audiences couldn’t understand what the rappers were saying.)
Pae Mu Ka was the first album engineered by the massively influential Hammer of the Last Two. Hammer’s beats were, like Obrafuor’s flow, groundbreaking. Slowed-down and highly layered, they sound like a nod to underground hip-hop from America like the Wu Tang Clan.
“Kwame Nkrumah” doesn’t just owe its success to these elements, however. The subject of the track is Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Symbolically, Kwame Nkrumah is like George Washington to Ghanaians, his name alone invokes layer upon layer of historicity for a formerly colonized (read: oppressed) people. “Kwame Nkrumah” was the first in a series of Obrafuor songs that emphasize a brand of national pride and respect for elders that would sound entirely awkward in most Western contexts, but in Ghana, can bring tears to the eyes of a sensitive listener.
Okomfour Kwaadee’s placement on this list is down to his lyrical ability. Kwaadee introduced a rhyme style steeped in ancient African oral arts. Known as one of hiplife’s “foremost storytellers,” Kwaadee has the rare ability to take complex ideas and distill them so that they come out easily understandable.
Kwaadee’s flows take on the quality of a traditional linguist (the person who speaks for the chief in ceremony and discussion), using a deep, resonant voice and phrasing his rhymes in a herky-jerky formula. “Ataa Adwoa” exemplifies Kwaadee’s approach to rapping. His words disjointedly trickle out, dropping wisdom and witty hyperbole while relating the tale of a young neighborhood girl. Underneath, you’ll hear the melody of the (apparently international) nursery rhyme, “This Old Man.”
Also of note is “Efie Nipa” (“Home Boy”), which tells the story of a boy who is shunned by his family because of his lack of economic initiative. Much like hip-hop and basketball in the United States, many young men in Ghana now dream of the enticing, but unrealistic, dream of becoming a hiplifer or soccer player.
Mzbel is Ghana’s most prominent and successful female rapper. She’s also its most provocative. The best American comparison might be Lil’ Kim. To wit: during a show at one of the biggest universities in the country, Mzbel was attacked by a group of men mid-performance, her skimpy outfit ripped from her body in a near riot. (She ended up pressing charges against the individuals involved, the organizers of the show, and the school.) “16 Years,” Mzbel’s biggest hit, contains a message warning older men about going after younger girls. It’s a bouncy, candy-coated Jay Q production complete with jolly, almost Mario Bros.-esque, whistles.
Most rappers in Ghana are not overtly political in public. Instead, they generally rap about love or other superficial social predicaments. This isn’t the case for A Plaz, however. In 2002, he released this—the first in a series of what have come to be known as the most incendiary political critiques in hiplife. No one was safe from A Plaz’s biting, if musically mundane, commentary.
“Freedom of Speech”’s lyrics were equal opportunity offenders. They embarrassed and ridiculed the ruling and opposition parties alike: A Plaz knocked the former First Lady’s crooked non-profit, mocked ministers of parliament and their various scandals, and warned current President Kufuor to be on his best behavior.
There was a belief that A Plaz would come under attack (literally) for “Freedom of Speech.” There were human rights abuses under the former regime, for instance. Those fears have been unfounded. So far. Plaz is still alive and currently working on the third volume in the series.
Big Adam is known as the “godfather” of Northern hiplife. Mainstream hiplife in Ghana comes from the Southern part of the country, mostly along the Atlantic coast. Up North, where the air is dry and the landscape and languages entirely different, the genre is also alive and well—in a slightly different form.
Like Rockstone’s innovation of rapping in the area’s native tongue, Adams was the first to rap on record in the dialect local to Tamale (the North’s largest city). Beat-programmers there often use local (to the North) traditional instruments like xylophones and talking drums, while the vocal hooks usually sound closer to Islamic praise music than highlife (the area is predominantly Muslim), as you’ll hear in the chorus to “Asalamu-Alaakum.” The title of the song itself is a reference to Islamic customary greetings, appropriate here for the first song on the first Northern hiplife full-length.
Organized and funded by Obrafuor (now an elder luminary of hiplife), with beats by his long-time collaborator Hammer, The Execution Diary helped launch new, young rappers Kwaw Kesse and Okra Tom into the spotlight in 2004/2005. One of the most well-known compilations of the genre, if you’re interested in current hiplife, you need to know The Execution Diary. Obrafuor and Hammer, though, didn’t simply rely on these newcomers to sell copies: in a move similar to what happens on American hip-hop posse records, established veteran Tinny lent this track to the compilation to help draw listeners in.
Tinny wasn’t always such a sure thing, though. He raps mostly in Ga, a language spoken by a relatively small minority of Ghanaians located along the coast near the capital city Accra. In a country where 79 distinct languages and more than a hundred dialects are spoken, Ga is not widely understood, especially outside of Accra. According to legend, Hammer went to Tinny’s father to convince him to have Tinny rap in Ga early in his career, as opposed to Twi. After some tearful discussion, Tinny relented and has been a star ever since.
VIP is arguably the most successful of Ghana’s hiplife artists. When not playing shows to (mostly Ghanaian) audiences in North America and Europe, the group is in Accra cruising in their SUVs. VIP enjoys enormous popularity among Ghanaians of all ages and classes. Their long-time association with local music industry powerhouse Goodies Music Production, combined with a string of consistent albums, has kept them at the top of the heap for years. Ahomka Womu (the album and the song) swept the 2004 Ghana Music Awards, scoring five of the top prizes.
This track blends highlife music with rap in a manner commonly discussed but rarely achieved. Though most people consider hiplife simply the mixture of highlife and hip-hop, legitimate highlife elements occur in varying degrees. Here, Lazzy, one of the three VIP cats, croons phrases about love and his baby not unlike the highlife gents of yesteryear. The layered “palmwine” guitars, dubby arrangement, and snappy percussion are evidence of the arrival of the future of hiplife—a fluid melding of rap and highlife vocals. More and more of the mainstream hiplife hits are making a real attempt at integrating the moods and modes of the past (i.e. highlife) with their unabashedly digital, hip-hop-centric creations.
With so many older highlife musicians crying foul over the total eclipse of their scene by hiplife in recent years, they can put this track in their pipe and smoke it. Although the music still sounds kind of corny, “Ahomka Womu,” strikes an admirable balance between today and yesterday. Everyone recognizes that hiplife has taken over. But virtually all hiplife musicians recognize, however tacitly, the critical role highlife played—and continues to play—in the Ghanaian music scene.
For these tracks and more, keep an eye on the Stypod. We’ll be presenting a two-part podcast in conjunction with this piece very soon.
For further information on hiplife, Brian’s blog, the Hiplife Complex is an incomparable resource of videos and verbiage.
By: Brian Shimkovitz
Published on: 2007-01-31