Hip-hop in Nigeria: The evolution and how diss records became a part of it
To truly appreciate Hip-hop not just as a genre but a culture, one may have to go back in time to 46 years ago, 1973 to be precise when the likes of DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa pioneered an art form that will go on to become a global phenomenon.
Today, mention names like Jay Z, Nas, Drake, Cardi B and you can tell that the genre has earned its stripes and now sits as the number one music genre in America.
There has always been a misconception as to what Hip-hop really is and what it is not, debates as to those keeping it real and those selling out, old versus new school, and how beef plays a role in promoting violence or encouraging superior rap skills.
These debates will forever linger on but for clarity, Hip-hop has never been just about rapping or emceeing, it is a culture that covers other elements like deejaying, beatboxing, break-dancing, and graffiti art.
The Evolution of rap in Nigeria
Just like in America, Hip-hop in Nigeria has passed through several phases over the years, with different actors and iconic moments.
The genre is believed to have gained its first footing on the motherland in the 80s with names like DJ Ron ‘Ronnie’ Ekundayo credited with recording the first rap album in the country, ‘‘The Way I Feel.’’ Then came groups like Emphasis and Sound on Sound which had singer, Mr. Kool as a member, but what they did wasn’t exactly rap, it was more of disco/Afro-funk sprinkled with a few rhyme impressions from some of their favorite acts.
For the majority of us, Rap arrived on our shores when Junior [of blessed memory] and Pretty came onto the scene in the early 90s, with their witty bars and comical pidgin flows. With hit singles like ‘Bolanle’ and ‘Monica,’ the duo served rap in a way like never done before, infusing local languages while passing a message.
The success of their songs opened the doors to a lot of non-hip-hop artists who sought to be associated with the genre like Zaaki Adzee with his ‘Na me go marry am’ single, and because music borderlines can easily get intertwined, the likes of Daniel Wilson and Blackky also once flirted with the art-form.
Female rappers were rare so when the likes of Queen Change and Weird MC with her monster hit ‘Allen Avenue’ surfaced on the scene, everyone paid attention. But as the years rolled by, with the radio playing largely foreign songs and the Nigerian audience not fully appreciative of what they offered, many of them fizzled away, while some others switched to Reggae, which was the dominant genre at the time.
Then came the late nineties, with the coming of private TV/ radio stations came accessibility to American rap which had become colossal on the global stage, and the more they got played, the more a lot of young Nigerians became inspired to rap.
Across the nation, something was brewing. Cliques like Thoro Breds and Nigga Raw in the East, Swat Root and K.D World in the North, Cyrus Tha Virus from the South, Black Masqueradaz, Def ‘O’ Clan, Ruff, Rugged and Raw began to emerge but in 1998 with the takeoff of Kennis Music and their TV program AIT Jamz, it served as the perfect setting for groups like the Remedies, Trybesmen and Plantashun Boiz to properly trigger the movement and lay the foundation for what the culture is today.
‘Shakomo’ by the Remedies was groundbreaking, some argue it remains the most important song in Nigerian hip-hop history. Eedris Abdulkareem, the rapper in the group instantly attained cult status despite criticisms about his style of rap. Trybesmen, a group of three formidable rappers in eLDee tha don, Freestyle tha Shogun and KB, won everyone over with their first single ‘Shake Bodi’ off their debut album ‘L.A.G Style’ creating a unique way of how Nigerian rap could be delivered.
Then sometime in 2002, Michael Ugochukwu Stephens popularly known as Ruggedman appeared and tore the landscape of Nigerian hip-hop. With his single ‘Ehen pt 1,’ Ruggedman not only went to war with top tier artists like Eedris, Rasqie, Maintain and then power label, Kennis Music, but he also kicked off a phase in Nigerian music, where what was being said actually mattered.
With subsequent singles like Big Bros, and Baraje, he cemented his status in the game and his success gave visibility to younger rappers.
Those were really good times for the genre, as individual labels like Muri Ejalonibu’s ‘Little Fish Records’ was created with a rapper signed as its main act and Storm could confidently sign as much as four rappers unto its stable. The genre also had publications like Ayo Animashaun’s ‘Hip-hop World Magazine’, online blogs like Africanhiphop.com, whilst HNIC Doc Gee, JAJ, Bigtyme, El Dee XL, Emma Ugolee, Steve Kadiri, Kwame, GML all had TV/radio programs dedicated to its promotion.
With support and platform, more names became prominent. From members of the Swat Root clique [Modenine, Terry Tha Rapman, OD, SixFootPlus, Rule Clean, Pherowshuz], who held it down for Abuja to Dr. Fresh, Abounce, KageThaGrimChild, K Show and Six O, Kemistry, Bouqui, Da Trybe, Big Lo, The NDT squad that had Magnum, Cashino and D’Black, Nuff Noyz, The Kaliphates, Sauce Kid, Naeto C and Ikechukwu, with majority enjoying some measure of success.
Then came 2008, another landmark year in Nigerian hip-hop, as it was the year that saw the coming of the short black boy, M.I Abaga. M.I dropped his single ‘Safe’ and Hip-hop became an unsafe terrain for other rappers.
From what the likes of Eedris offered in being a pioneer at an ‘experimental stage’, where anything was accepted, to what Rugged proffered, which was only a bit better or what a Modenine served, which was considered elite lyricism and only endeared towards critical approval, M.I provided something more balanced, a simple yet intricately executed style with a very catchy delivery, something I used to call a 2.0 version of what Trybesmen did.
Crucially, added to his skill and unarguable brilliance, timing also worked in M.I’s favor. A year before, Ruggedman had released ‘RuggedyBaba’, a song where he provided a template on how best to achieve success as a rapper in Nigeria. This was also at a time when a number of Nigerians in the diaspora who had taken to rap were beginning to make their way back home but were unable to rap in Pidgin like Rugged did and were unsure if this blueprint would work for them. M.I had all the answers on his debut album, ‘’Talk About It’’, making it cool for Nigerians to rap and to accept rap.
2010 was yet another pivotal year in this evolution. It was the year that Ice Prince who for years was the golden boy of rap introduced himself with ‘Oleku’, but more notably, it was the year that we lost Da Grin and the year that Olamide emerged. ‘Ibile United’, initially captained by the likes of U.K based rapper A.Y and Lord of Ajasa soon took over the baton and has never looked back since then.
Again, that era ushered in the arrival of fresh names like Vector, Reminisce, Yung 6ix, Jesse Jagz, Show Dem Camp, Teeto, Kel, Phyno, Iceberg Slim, late Mc Loph and more.
Fast forward 2019 and Rap is Nigeria has again gone through further stages in its quest to determine what exactly works or doesn’t, this time getting fractured in the process. Indigenous rappers like Olamide and Phyno are two of commercially successful names on every list, a vibrant generation of emcees like Blaqbonez, Boogey, Paybac, Poe, Erigga, Falz, Lil Kesh, Eva have become staples on the scene, assisted by the evolution of the internet, but sadly, there are no longer structures or record labels in place, and despite having more talents on the scene, Hip-hop has further fallen down the rung of top genres in the country with the fans who a decade ago were more welcoming, now becoming more cynical and apathetic to a genre, that has fallen short of what it promised and struggles to show any expression of ambition or hunger for growth.
What has beef got to do with it?
Vector and MI are the latest rap gladiators echoing the chants of ‘war’ and giving rap what is perhaps its most sustained buzz in recent times. The backstory to their feud runs deep and stretches far back to almost a decade, progressing from veiled shots to an outright battle fueled by stirring social media coverage.
And while Ruggedman may have elevated his status with his classic diss track, Ehen, before he got served a ‘Death Blow’ by Modenine, rap beefs had existed in the industry before him with the likes of Eedris who released ‘Wackawickee emcees’ as a response to former group member Tony Tetuila’s ‘Omode Meta.’
There have also been the Trybesmen vs Remedies, a bunch of cats from Ghetto P, Tuck Tyte, Six O and Ruggedman vs Modenine, A-Q vs Timi [Former member of da Trybesmen], Terry Tha Rapman vs Azadus and then Zaaki Adzee, Vector vs Reminisce, the epic Sinzu vs Godwon beef, M.I vs Iceberg Slim and Kelly Hansome, the list is endless.
Life itself is been fueled by competition, hip-hop through rap just happens to mirror it best. We have spent our lives comparing Maradona with Pele, and pitching Ronaldo against Lionel Messi. The same thing we do with scientific inventions, candidates at debates, Innoson vs Mercedes [I guess], and even Presidents against Presidents, put an instrumental to Donald Trump’s countless rhetoric on former President Barrack Obama and the result is a diss record. It may get ugly at times, but it is what it is, so long as it remains on wax.
Streaming numbers, charts positions, the amount of Headies you have covered in dust somewhere in your cabinet are all fine, but rap has never been bound by industry standards. At times, to truly be the best in the game, you ultimately get called to put your skill and lyrical dexterity to test.
I also understand that diss songs should be an addition to a well-defined and structured industry rather than seen as one to actually spark it off. Competition only makes sense in an environment where there is actually something worth ‘fighting’ for, outside just our egos.
However, the beef between Vector and M.I is one that should have happened at least a few years back and it was important that they both get it out of the way. Vector has not had this much spotlight since he released ‘King Kong’ and M.I perhaps now understands that even though he is arguably Hip-hop’s most dominant figure since he emerged, the throne is no longer solely his.
But they alongside their fans must learn when to move on from a beef unto the bigger picture, that is the more important part. What happens next, how does this reflect in the quality of the music and the execution of its branding, release and getting brands on board? Are these guys going to be inspired to actually push concerts like it should be done rather than for their image? or does it all just end here? In the meantime though, rap fans, let’s enjoy the moment, we’ve earned this excitement.