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Hip Hop, Highlife, Bluetooth & MIDI in Accra, Ghana

I was sitting in the back of a parked car outside of a production studio in the Dansoman neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, with my travel partner Benjamin Lebrave, owner and manager of record label Akwaaba Music. The car belonged to Ghanian Hiplife super-producer Appietus; he was sharing a collection of new and not-yet-released tracks, and I couldn’t help but point out the unmistakable international influence in the mix. UK Funky, South African House, and post-Diwali Jamaican Dancehall all came together in a thick Ghanian stew (served with Banku.) I asked Appietus, “what kind of music do you listen to?” He turned around and with a smile and said, “everything.”

Hiplife, a hybridized, digital offspring of the more traditional Highlife sound, came into being in the early 90’s when Reggie Rockstone, a Ghanian MC living abroad, returned home and started making records locally. Initially, Ghanians were slow to warm up to the imported sounds of American Hip-Hop. In order to connect with his countrymen, Rockstone had the vision to fuse his Ghanian and American cultural influences, just as his Highlife predecessors had done eighty years before. He started rapping in local languages, sampling local sounds, and coined the term Hiplife.

[note from the editor: this tune had its official release through a 2004 compilation called “A Rough Guide to African Rap”]

Ghana has always had one of West Africa’s most vibrant recording industries and its musicians are known for their ability to draw liberally from outside influences without losing touch with their local roots. If Hiplife comfortably resides in the realm of World Music 2.0, the country’s national popular music, Highlife, was its World Music Beta mother. Starting in the 1920’s, Highlife musicians mixed traditional rhythms and melodies from ethnic groups in Ghana and other West Africa countries with genres like Calypso, Rumba, and Big Band Jazz, after recorded music from the Americas started to make its way to West Africa.

The original Highlife sound took Anglophone West Africa by storm, and eventually laid the foundation for countless Afro-pop permutations from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, most famously providing the base for Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat and Prince Nico Mbarga’s Anglo-Franco blend. I’ve heard some even boast that Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s records, featuring a proto-rap vocal style, may have been circling around 1970’s South Bronx (the neighborhood with the highest concentration of Ghanian immigrants in the U.S.) influencing the burgeoning rap scene there (Cameroonian Manu Dibango’s song “Soul Makossa” was certainly a staple of that era).

The spirit of international borrowing and exchange that birthed Highlife continues in Afro-pop today.

As the 90s drew to a close, and more artists and producers got involved, the sound of Hiplife began to change. A producer named Hammer emerged, and while he primarily made beats that sounded like underground New York tracks from artists like Mobb Deep or the Wu Tang Clan, he started to experiment using the same samples and drum machine kits to create African and Caribbean rhythms that leaned towards the older Highlife sound. Hammer tapped into something with this innovation and touched something deep in the soul of the Ghanian public.

You May Kiss Your Bride-Bollie (Hammer Production) from Sounds of Our Time

Around the same time that the U.S. was leaving behind its New York Hip Hop leanings for a more digital sound born in the American South, Appietus arrived on the scene in Accra. He started using synthesizers to craft compositions that sounded like the sweet older Highlife updated for the computer age. With the help of production software pre-sets his sound took on a crisper and more mainstream edge, bringing it into dialogue with other slick, high-production pop phenomena like American R&B or Reggaeton. He pitted electronic beats and steel drums against classic Highlife rhythms. The bass-lines interweaved with sweet melodic guitar lines, while synthetic horns vamped alongside. A grooving syncopated percussion filled out the rest as the vocalists rapped or sang in local languages. Appietus’ signature sound eventually became the prototype of the genre.

Until recently, my exposure to Hiplife was mostly through compilations put out by European labels, blogs created by foreigners traveling in Ghana or Ghanians living abroad, CDR-s I bought traveling in other parts of West Africa, or through my friend and travel companion Benjamin. I had been hearing plenty of new music from Ghanian artists who helped bring attention to Ghana’s wealth of musical talent- Wanlov the Kubolor, M.anifest, Mensa, Blitz the Ambassador and Sway- but as artists focused on courting international audiences in particular, they aren’t considered as much a part of the local Hiplife scene. What’s more, with the dominance of a few producers and a radio network supported by payola, the sonic diversity of the scene started to dwindle. As a DJ, I would occasionally dip into some of the widely available hits like V.I.P.’s Ahomka Wo Mu, but generally didn’t look for too much Hiplife to fill my digital crates.

But now all of that is changing.