I love African music from the 1970s. From Congolese rumba to Ghanaian highlife, Angolan semba to Malian national orchestras—pretty much anything from anywhere is dope. This might come as a surprise to some, because my label hardly focuses on oldies. One time, a critic told me to, “peddle some more of that PC generated Auto-Tune rubbish.”
But deep inside, I am a sucker for African band music, especially soukous. What is puzzling to me is how lost and forgotten this music has become in Africa. Hardly any of the beatmakers I meet would ever be caught dead sampling old highlife or rumba songs. Luckily, there are some odd heads out there who still like to distill the classic sound into their hip-hop beats. One such person is DJ Juls from Ghana, who did the beat for Kay-Ara’s “Me Dough”. (Read more about him here.)
But today we turn our heads to the other side of Africa, Tanzania. A place I am dying to visit, it Swahili culture fascinates me, in particular the music. But this is where it gets sour. I started digging for Tanzanian hip-hop, and found that many of the beats are an approximation of sub-par American Top 40 beats. Not my territory, so I had to get schooled, again. This time by a veteran hip-hop activist, Zavara aka Rhymson of the infamous Kwanza Unit crew.
Back in the mid 1990s, hip-hop emerged as an underground culture in Dar-Es-Salaam, much as it did in Ghana and other parts of Africa. At its epicenter was the Kwanza Unit crew, a collective of artists who single-handedly opened up avenues for hip-hop in Tanzania. Inspired by conscious and underground rap, they built a strong foundation for it in Dar, but alas, within a few years, some members passed, others left the country, and overall the scene got progressively diluted.
Diluted, but not dead. While mainstream radio favors the same hip-pop sound you hear from Dallas to Jozi, Rhymson has kept a strong influence on the underground hip-hop scene, and has been encouraging budding producers to soak in their own Swahili culture. “When I go to the studios, I tell them the US style is so basic and easy, you gotta be more creative to capture a bigger audience around the world,” he says.
Rhymson was probably the first to sample old Tanzanian music to craft his beats, and he’s been encouraging beatmakers to do so ever since. The establishment, radios in particular, discourage the use of samples, claiming they cannot be cleared. Rhymson quickly dismisses this stance. “Really, you can speak to the musicians, they are fine with it.” He acts as a bridge between the old and the new generations, and thanks to him, young producers can create beats like the one showcased here for rising MC Zaiid.
Download: Zaiid, “Muziki Asili Yake Wapi”
Muziki Asili Yake Wapi. Zaiid asks, where did music originate? His verses blend biblical account with street appeal, with lines like, Awali ilikuwa kimya na giza (in the beginning the universe was dark and there were no sounds) and Sauti ikaleta nuru muumba akaagiza (the creator ordered and sound brought light forth).
I don’t speak a word of Swahili, but at first listen, this guy can seriously flow. It was a pleasure to hear Rhymson tell me Zaiid doesn’t just flow, he has a lot to say. Starting out in 2007, he was guided by Rhymson and the Kwanza Unit crew. As the story goes, he was initially told to, “rip apart all of [his] lyrics, and start over.” But since most of us reading this may not speak much Swahili, let’s focus on the beat. it samples a famous song by Remmy Ongala, a Congolese-born guitarist and singer who strengthened soukous’ stronghold in Tanzania with his Orchestre Super Matimila in the ’80s. His legacy lives on today thanks to the work of Pallah, who produced Zaiid’s song.
“I want to do something different,” Zaiid tells me. Not mimic the American stuff, which is what you hear on the radio in Dar. It’s a more hazardous road, given that getting airplay is trickier, and that radio dictates a lot of what happens with music in Tanzania. So at the moment you may not hear Zaiid at any of the more mainstream music events in Dar. But backed by Rhymson and the Kwanza Unit crew, Zaiid aims much further than Dar’s airwaves.