Blocka Beats: Putting Nairobi on the Map
This interview was originally conducted in May 2021.
When life gives you lemons, some of us make lemonade. Others, like rapper-producer Blocka Beats, forge collaborations between Nairobi’s finest hip hop talent to create a sonically diverse album dubbed Nairobi Yetu, a tribute to the city he calls home. Amidst the uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Blocka decided that there was no better time to maximize his production talents. Backed by an intense promotional campaign and in the face of the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the global shutdown, Blocka dropped his album in February 2021.
In conversation with Blocka, one quickly realizes that Nairobi Yetu isn’t just an amalgamation of rap warriors. Behind the sounds is someone who realizes that they have a lot to be thankful for: from working with some of the best lyrical minds to gaining international recognition, and receiving a stamp of approval from one of Africa’s biggest producers.
What are your earliest and fondest memories of music?
Probably listening to my parent’s music and playing their vinyls at home as a kid. I used to play piano, do drums, trombone in school. I think those have helped me. My cousin was in [the] Nairobi Orchestra, so I also remember going to watch them play the cello. But my background isn’t really that musical.
If I’m talking about the music I make, where it started was with me and my brother downloading music, putting it on CDs, then going to school and saying, “Have you heard Lil Wayne’s new mixtape?” That’s one of the first few times that I really entered into music.
What was the very first album that you owned?
It could have been a rock album. I’d probably say it was a Red Hot Chili Peppers album, or the Cure. I remember buying J. Cole, Lil Wayne, the Game and G-Unit’s albums.
I guess you could say you were an eclectic growing up. You liked lots of different types of music.
Tons. Whether it was reggae, to my dad being Swiss and growing up in the punk years, to my mum who is more soul and Kenyan and African artists — Miriam Makeba, Oliver Mtukudzi — it was a really diverse setting of music from external sources. And also internally — me and my brother — from hip hop to rap to R’n’B to dubstep.
Dubstep was a thing back then?
Yeah, it was! I remember in the early years of high school when house music and dubstep were the main thing and going to 6:AM parties. So there’s been stages that have brought different influences of music to my life.
Even in my music, I don’t know if I have a certain genre. I always say I have a juxtaposition of beats or songs. Like “Give It To Me” off the album. The beat is more lo-fi, chill vibes, but the guy is singing and rapping in the dancehall, Jamaican way. And that’s what most of my beats are: a mix of all these things coming together. It’s hip-hop-infused, but it’s also infused with different genres.
How did you start making beats?
It was really just self-taught, self-interest … and a hobby. I started this at the beginning of my Bachelor's: I’d go to class, come back and go online and try make some beats with the homies. It wasn’t like, “This is what I want to do.” It was like, “Let’s just try and enjoy, have fun with this.”
I’d try to make a beat, but I [would be] like, “This is not what I want it to sound like. I want the 808’s to hit here, I want the high hats to be in the background…” By teaching myself slowly, I reached a point where I was like, I actually know how to make beats, and they’re also quite good.
Before my Masters, I decided to actually go for some training. I went to New York for that. This was more specific: mixing and mastering. I was comfortable with beat-making and recording myself. It just wasn’t sounding as clear as what I was listening to on the radio or YouTube. That threshold was where I needed to get, so if I release music, it’s at a certain level that people can respect.
That’s interesting because you were making all this effort, yet at the back of your mind you were still saying that it wasn’t something that you want to do.
In that moment, I was studying Environmental Biology, and I was doing my Masters in Agroecology. Maybe I would send one or two beats to [rapper] Shappaman for him to record and put in his album, but I wasn’t coming out as Blocka Beats and releasing my own thing. My friends would always say, “Those are cool beats… You should release them…” But I wasn’t confident. I wasn’t sure if people would vibe with it.
It [making beats] was also therapeutic for me. I was studying by myself in Holland. I wasn’t with my friends and family from home, so it was a way to remove stress and get my head out of that space of being a student and being in a foreign country.
What was the turning point, when you decided I’m going to put this out and people will take it how they want to take it?
The start of COVID. I’d released stuff on Soundcloud, but it was really during COVID when I had the confidence to release a proper project on all streaming sites and social media. I’d finished my Masters, I was back in Kenya, I still didn’t have a job … and now we were in lockdown. Now that I had that free time, instead of wasting it, I said let’s be productive. Let’s structure this music and do something.
Also, when Pop Smoke died, I was blown. This guy was 20 years old; he’d done his thing … and then he was dead. Just like that. Time really doesn’t wait for anyone.
What was the idea behind Nairobi Yetu?
At first, it [the album] was just tracks. We named the album Nairobi Yetu to go with the idea of showcasing Nairobi music by a Nairobi producer featuring the best underground and mainstream OG’s in Nairobi.
How did you come to meet all the people you worked with on the album?
Nairobi yetu! These are people I’ve known for a long time, and I still had respect for the people I’d known for a short time. Like Trabolee. I hadn’t known him for a long time, but I’d been a fan of his music. When I met him two or three years ago, I was like, “Bro, you need to come to the studio. I fucks with your shit.” I called Shappaman [to contribute to the album] because I’ve known him for a long time. “Can’t Do” with Maria MK47 was never planned. I had never called her to the studio, and she had never heard the beat. I was just having a small get-together at my place. She was like, “Oh, you’re releasing an album?” I played her a track and she started humming. We went to the studio and wrote some hook. She sang the hook and we were like, “This is fire.”
You managed to do pretty well with promo for the album, despite COVID and all the restrictions. It must have been really tough.
I was a learner of the game. I’ve been watching and listening to rap for so long now. I’ve seen different routes that rappers have taken to market themselves. It wasn’t difficult. I had to assess what my brand is. I had to be strategic in what I was putting out, and how I was putting my stuff out. And also realize that I’m new. No one knows who ‘Blocka Beats’ is. I had to introduce people, even my close friends. Now my mum is calling me Blocka Beats! But before she was like, “Blocka who?” [laughs]
So it was like reintroducing yourself, even to people that you already know.
Yeah, and that’s the hardest [part] of being a new artist. My sister studies music, and she’s already in this industry. But for me it’s like, “You make music? Since when?” I had to be serious when I was talking to established artists. In my career [agribusiness focusing on organic agriculture and farm design], I have a Masters. So you have to respect my level. But for music, I didn’t have that. So guys were uncertain of what this was. That’s why I made it very in-your-face that this is Blocka Beats and this is what I do. And I think the people who caught onto the Nairobi Yetu wave understand it. They know what my motive is, and they know more music is coming.
My next [album] has to be at the same level or even better. I can’t keep saying that I’m still new.
Do you pull any inspiration from Kenyan artists, past or present?
For sure. I’m half-Kenyan, half-Swiss. I’ve grown up internationally: I was born in Togo, lived in Tanzania, Kenya, Switzerland, Holland … but I was still always listening to Kenyan music, eating Kenyan food, and ingesting anything Kenyan because that’s where my roots are. This [Kenya] is where I’ve lived most of my life. I was listening to E-Sir, Nameless, Wahu, C’Zars, Prezzo, Ogopa DJs. I remember going to Village Market and buying those CDs. GidiGidi MajiMaji, Suzanne Owiyo … those are songs I would hear every Christmas when I was in the village.
Even for my sound, I feel like I produce in a Kenyan way. I give the artist the freedom to say what they have to say. I feel that with Kenyan hip hop, the way people sing or rap is quite animated. It’s not straightforward bars. They give a story. If you understand Swahili or Kenyan music, you know what type of story they’re trying to tell.
You’ve worked with a lot of people on this album. Who haven’t you worked with yet that you would like to work with the most?
Many people. Nazizi and Blinky [Bill] are my top two.
You almost got Blinky for this one.
I almost had both of them! Those two would be dope, even to just be in the studio with them.
I’d love to be in studio with MR. LU. Mau [From Nowhere], as well. Hotbox Gang … Right now, Kenyan music is crazy. There’s so many talented people. I think I could have a sound for Chris Kaiga, and Fena [Gitu] as well. If Khaligraph [Jones] and Octo [Octopizzo] need a beat, I’m here!
What have been some of your highest points throughout this whole process?
Releasing the album was a high point. It’s cool to be on Spotify and write your own name and your music plays [chuckles]. Another high point was [producer] Juls coming to my listening party. He has a radio show on London’s KISS FM and he played some of my jams.
How did Juls hear about your listening party?
He had come for interviews at Muze [Club]. I was there doing soundcheck. I sent him some dope Kenyan music. I could have sent just my music, but this is helping all of us. He might not even play my songs, but at least we’re getting that [Kenyan] sound out there. That’s what we need.
Being on Good Morning America was a high point for me. Trevor Magak was a high point. I’ve known him for a long time. He mixed my album, and then, a month after the release, he was a Grammy winner. Even if I have no views, I have the cred to say that my shit is mixed by a Grammy winner.
There’s a certain recognition that I have with this album. From me producing everything to it being mixed by Trevor Magak, Juls vibing with it, Good Morning America … to Capital [FM], What’s Good Media, Daily Nation — all these things that featured me.
What about the challenges you’ve faced?
[Being] independent. You do everything by yourself. I didn’t have time to be an artist. For my listening party and my release party, I was still making sure, “Are the drinks here? Are the posters up? I need to bring the merch here…” By the time I was going on stage, I had already worked myself up and I was already stressed, when it should just be, “I’m the artist. All these things should be set. When I reach there, my only job is to perform.”
Another challenge is knowing how to push your sound. I always say there’s the algorithm. There’s bias within the industry. This system is controlled. Labels have certain connections where instead of an upcoming artist being shown [on playlists], it’s the big boys. You can’t really compete with that. For new artists, it’s normally like guys have found out who this person is, and Spotify say, “Oh, this guy is popping. Let’s put him into this playlist.” But there’s established artists who can make any type of song — people don’t even need to listen to it — and the day it’s released, it’s already on a playlist that is guaranteed to give them half a million views.
What have been some of your learning curves?
Merch, how to release music, split sheets, music law, royalties, copyright … this is a whole industry that has a certain way of doing things. I’ve never learnt or been in it, so this is all new to me. I released my music and now I’m doing a music video. Next time, we’ll do the music, do the music video, then we release. Everything should be done, sorted, and structured so that when you’re actually doing it [releasing your music], you have time to be in that moment and not worry about other things.
What advice do you have for others?
Just do it. Practise your craft. Don’t let anything hold you back, whether it’s family, friends or haters.
And if you want to do it, do it properly. Make sure you know what you’re doing. Ask for help. Especially when it comes to the music. It will happen if you just believe in yourself and do it. I didn’t have that confidence, but I got that ‘fuck it’ mentality, and I said, “Fuck it. Let’s just do this. Whatever happens, it happens.”
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