How Hip-Hop is making a home run that could lead it back to its golden era

M.I Abaga [Guardian]

Words by: Ehis Ohunyon and Femi Olape

It would be an understatement to say that hip-hop in Nigeria is rungs off its rightful place amongst other mainstream music genres, you may be quick to state that it has never been the top dog but it is undeniable that it has always tagged along in major waves and extended golden moments, usually encouraging an intoxicating optimism among listeners.

Don’t get this wrong, there has never been a shortage of talented rappers doing their thing, but in the last 10 years, the art form has stagnated, slouching and struggling to gain traction even within the so-called ‘Hip-hop heads’ who have more or less appointed themselves as the de facto authority on any and everything rap related.

Even though the likes of Olamide were still selling out Eko Hotel, Phyno rocking stadiums and more recently Naira Marley and Zlatan enjoying cult status, they have achieved this in the comfort of pop bangers sparking needless debates of them being rappers or not.

While these debates are silly, to be fair, the doubt is understandable. Hip-hop has always aspired to be more than the biggest dance song in the clubs or on the charts, even though that part should not be neglected, for fans and followers, it is the genre that reflects where we belong; our voice, our streets, our homes, our classrooms, our world but it’s also a genre that understands the trend of times and evolving to last.

The fact is Hip hop fell off, big time, but it didn’t happen overnight. Several reasons have been alluded to have caused this, the rise of Afrobeats, a disconnection in identity leading to indifference with fans, rappers, and rap lovers have often played the blame game for who is most culpable, but to appreciate hip-hop in Nigeria, hindsight provides the finest seat for what was, what could have been and how far behind we have fallen.

The industry in many aspects moves in a transient state of flux. A lot of this changed in the late 90s and early 2000s when the Remedies, Trybesmen and Plantashun Boiz came to town. While these groups relied heavily on foreign influences and catchy hooks, which had an appealing uniqueness and originality to usher in the revolution, there was an indistinguishable presence of actual rapping in what they offered.

These were little drops that would later hit its peak, giving us what was arguably our best era from 2007 to 2011. That was the era that gave us albums like Modenine’s ‘E Pluribus Unum [2007]’, Ruggedman’s ‘Ruggedy Baba’ [2007], Gino’s ‘Pain Plus Work’ [2007], M.I’s ‘Talk About It [2008]’, Naeto C’s ‘U Know My P’ [2008], Da Grin’s ‘C.E.O’ [2009], Vector’s ‘State Of Surprise’ [2010], Ice Prince ‘E.L.I’ [2011] and Olamide’s ‘Rapsody’ [2011] to mention a few.

These albums are considered classics, not just because they all had songs that competed with the biggest anthems across any genre hugging radio plays, but they culturally defined the eras they were released either through videos, lyricism or commercial acclaim and became the magnum opus of these rappers legacies.

Because of this run where every form of rap [English or Pidgin] thrived, with the success and popularity of rappers like M.I, Ice Prince, Naeto C, 2Shotz and Olamide in the past, it was believed that there was now a commercial audience for rap, we were all wrong.

Is Hip-hop slowly getting its groove back?

In 2017, M.I launched an offensive, perhaps his most divisive song yet, ‘You Rappers Should Fix Up Your Lives,’ which was reminiscent of Jay-Z’s ‘D.O.A,’ but a step further as it mockingly pointed to the decaying state-of-the art-form and aimed at giving rappers a kick in the back.

While that song and the message in it generated a host of both clap and snare reactions from everybody considered a stakeholder in rap, with some emphasizing the hypocritical tone of it, the message was spelt out and whether or not you believed in what he was preaching, he had thrown a challenge out there for everyone who considered themselves worthy of reckoning in the craft to simply put, ‘fix up their lives.’

A phase of resentment trailed its release, some expressed in the form of replies, more in the form of subliminal tweets, others through essays, while some rappers continued to fight the situation in the way they could, putting out more content, there just was no buzz, no one beyond a handful of loyal fans was paying enough attention.

To worsen matters, newcomers in pop or other afro genres were creating viral hits that topped charts, the rise of the Alte music scene around this same period promised to be a nail in the coffin for rap(pers) as niche fans [read young audience] gravitated towards this sound that seemed at the very least more suited for their earbuds, with its experimental array of styles and how the music was being marketed.

Show Dem Camp in 2017 released its first installment of the ‘Palm Wine Music’ series, followed by its headline concert. The rap duo had been around for close to a decade, but this time, they were taking a more studied route towards greater visibility. Inspired by the success of the single, ‘Feel Alright’ released four years earlier, SDC traded complicated bars for relatable rap and it worked.

2018 also highlighted some measure of neoteric resurgence. Falz followed up the success of his album ‘27’ with the controversial single, ‘This Is Nigeria’ and in the following months, the breadth of its impact, home and abroad put hip-hop briefly in the challenger’s ring.

The same year we witnessed the Lamb August offerings from the Chocolate City affiliated ensemble. M.I’s ‘Yxng Denzel’ [His second project that year after ‘Rendezvous’], A-Q and Loose Kaynon’s ‘Crown’ and Blaqbonez ‘Bad Boy Blaq.’ We also had LadiPoe’s ‘T.A.P,’ SDC’s ‘Palmwine Music 2’ and Paybac’s ‘Biggest Tree.’ These albums didn’t make much of a dent commercially, but in quantitative and culture terms, they were important for this era, pointing at a new strategy; the mainstream and dancefloor can wait, let’s get the cult following locked down first.

2019 would start like a house on fire with Falz’s ‘Moral Instruction,’ SDC’s ‘These Buhari Times’, and Boogey with Paybac’s ‘The Alternate Ending,’ then there were the ones that sought that pop-rap crossover like Blaqbonez’s ‘Mr. Boombastic’, Falz’s collaborative work with Ajebutter and BOJ ‘Make E No Cause Fight 2,’ Erigga’s ‘The Erigma II’ and Phyno’s ‘Deal With It’ with Vector closing the year with ‘Vibes before Teslim’ while emerging talents like Psycho YP and Timi Kei alongside Illgod delivered ‘YPSZN 2’ and ‘Soul Soup’ respectively.

SDC’s duo of Ghost and Tec [Pan African Music]

It was also the year that the Vector and M.I beef that had been building for years finally boiled over into direct diss songs, and irrespective of the side you belong, you would agree it generated interest and anticipation, which has been capitalized on with projects from both camps and a tour of North America for Mr. Abaga.

These streams of tasty releases continue to point at an ascendancy, punchy enough for notice and slowly expanding beyond just social media chatter. Four months into 2020 and the stride continues, inspiring old-timers like M-Trill back in the studio for the release of ‘Caliber’ with Rheymopheobus following in the steps of former Nuff Noyz member Ex-O’s ‘The Wake’ released late 2019.

M.I continues to stretch his legacy releasing the ‘Judah EP’ and his collaborative project with A-Q ‘The Live Report’, the latter also recently released his album ‘God Engineering’ while Paybac focuses on leading a ‘CULT’, with BlackMagic resurfacing as ‘The Starving Artist.’ It surreally feels like 08/09 again content and reactionary nostalgia wise, Modenine is granting interviews and talking new music, Sinzu serves a reminder of his beastly flow with the ‘Geng remix’ verse, iLLBliss has his sixth album ready, Terry Tha Rapman and Pherowshuz have projects out/ on the way and discussions on hip-hop are not centered on ‘beef’ or what S.A rappers are doing but a vital sound shedding its rigidity and again incorporating fresh influences.

Volume-wise, there have perhaps been more rap projects in the last three years than any other genre, but importantly, there have been more collaborative projects and impactful songs than at any time in recent memory.

These feats deserve recognition and documentation but not enough to commence celebrating just yet, that these releases cannot light up the charts the same way as releases from newcomers like Fireboy’s ‘L.T.G’, Teni’s ‘Billionaire’ or JoeBoy’s ‘Love and Light’ with only Zlatan’s ‘Zanku’ and Naira Marley’s ‘Lord Of Lamba’ as the two projects from rappers [even though the albums were not rap albums] in the many year-end lists for most-streamed albums for 2019 shows there is still much work as the end goal cannot be just for a little number but to have the same impact and ubiquity as any other genre in the country.

How this will be achieved, when it will be achieved and if they will be achieved soon is a discussion we will continue to have, but one thing is undeniable, there is a momentum building, one that is helping the genre stand out in brilliance for the first time in at least the last decade and one if well orchestrated could lead to it becoming a force again.

It is important that just as hip-hop is the biggest genre in the world, rap music should aim for the mainstream here also, making music not just for acclaim, but music that sells, music that transcends a sect of followers, music that can be classified as true hit records, as the slide to irrelevance is always easier when you settle only to cater for a niche audience.

Follow: Ehis Ohunyon [@ehiscombs] and Femi Olape [@TheAlchemist_]

Writer(Sports and Entertainment), Manchester United. Music lover. I believe you can speak things into existence...