Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hip Hop+Highlife=Hiplife, or, Where does Hiplife Come From? (pt. 1)

This sounds like a pretty simple concept: combine the energy and vibe of hip hop, the melodic and rhythmic structure of highlife, together with lyrics spit in local languages, and you get hiplife. Not so simple in fact because, as mentioned in yesterday's post, there are a multitude of opinions on the topic. Some artists tell me it is the hip-hop beat with the vernacular rhymes that make it hiplife. Others tell me hiplife must contain Ghanaian music (i.e. locally-derived rhythms and melodic patterns) in order to be considered hiplife. Otherwise, if you got someone rapping in Twi or Ga or Hausa or English, for that matter, over so-called foreign beats, then it is simply a Ghanaian doing hip-hop or rap. And that is not hiplife. Further complicating matters, that is not "Ghanaian." But what do I do as a researcher, running into Rapper A who tells me Rapper B is not doing hiplife, and the next day I ask Rapper B who tells me Rapper A is not doing hiplife. I listen to the radio or read the newspaper where BOTH are referred to as hiplife. Issues of authenticity sure are a bitch...

So while hiplife began as simply Twi lyrics over hip-hop beats, it has evolved (especially in the last five years or so) into a music that in most cases includes highlife and/or palmwine rhythms, melodic/harmonic movements, and vocal styles (through the use of characteristic phrasing, timbre, and cadence). This is confusing enough without taking into account the growing number of true-school stalwarts who insist on maintaining what they believe to be Reggie Rockstone's original vision of what hiplife is supposed to be, again, hip-hop beats with Twi lyrics.

What do I mean by hip-hop beat? For those of you that live under a rock (possibly in a Red State), I mean a beat in four/four, heavy on the bass kicks, usually a tight-sounding snare crack on two and four, along with myriad variations therein. Suffice to say, if you do in fact have no clue what I'm talking about please take a moment to turn on MTV, BET, or basically any FM radio station and check out what much of the world has been digging for the past twenty-odd years.

If you don't have much of a background in highlife music please see any number of great websites, books, and theses devoted to the topic, especially anything written by Prof. John Collins, one my mentors and the foremost scholar on the subject. Highlife is a whole other blog unto itself for someone with a bit of ambition but I will try and quickly lay it down for minute.

Imagine a time when Europeans, returned slaves from the Caribbean, and native Africans all shared space along the West African coast circa the mid- to late-1800s. The Europeans brought with them, along with other more destructive concepts, brass band music and Christian hymns. The formerly enslaved people who had been able to make their way back to Africa carried with them new instruments and song forms (many of which were rooted in Africa but had evolved in their own way due to influences they encoutner while in the Diaspora [see Paul Gilroy's amazing book, the Black Atlantic]). And, of course, the local Africans had their complex and varied traditions of popular songs and dances.

Although the people responsible for this development hailed from geographically disparate places we now call Jamaica, Cuba, Nigeria, Ghana, England, and Portugal (to name just a few), their sounds merged and manifested into a handful of genres. By the 1920s, palmwine music took hold in the British Gold Coast colony (now known as Ghana). Palmwine developed further as it was fused with newer trends from abroad like big band jazz and calypso. Palmwine groups orignally consisted of three musicians, but they soon grew in size and the music became know as highlife. They called it highlife because of the high-class nature of the scene it produced. You had to be rich to go to the big dance halls and clubs that played dance band highlife to tuxedoed men in top hats and women in expensive gowns. Therefore, those who enjoyed this Africanized analog to American jazz were said to be living the highlife. As it quickly became the dominant popular form in Ghana, as well as other much of the rest of West Africa and parts of East and Southern Africa, dance band highlife represents the first real music industry for Ghana. Records were pressed and sold all over the world, hip clubs popped up all over town, and Ghana's first celebrities emerged.

At the same time, guitar band highlife took shape as a sort of small group style that was consumed and produced by a more rural and working-class audience. They two forms broke off from palwine simultaneously, representing an emergent class schism which still exists today. Both changed with the times and still exist today in their own (sometimes pathetic) way. Though you wouldn't know it by the sheer volume of kids with backwards baseball caps and Timberland boots running around town these days. Long story short, these two intertwined movements, guitar band and dance band highlife, ruled the Ghanaian popular music scene in some form for much of the rest of the century.

That is, until the youth got wind of what was happening in the New York, Kingston, and London. At first reggae ruled, with kids latching onto the popular images associated with that style. Rude boys and dreads began to pop up in the Ghanaian music scene and continue to run things in their own way today (this is a topic that deserves a lot of study, as at least half of the rappers in Ghana got their start as raggamuffin boys and lickle rasta brethren). It wasn't until much later that someone actually had the balls, and the cash, to put out a hiplife album. This came after several years of rap and breakdance contests throughout the country, which focused on English-language toasts over stolen beats from the West. Reggie Rockstone changed all this with his first release, Makaa Maka, sponsored by his wealthy international fashion-designer father. No one had yet released a recording with rap in Twi at that time.

As can be read about ad nausium elsewhere (just ask your good friend Mr. Google, or Jeeves I guess), Reggie represented the whole package for Ghanaian youth and came at just the right moment. The radio waves had been liberated from decades of national control, so the privately-owned stations that began to appear in the major cities needed something hip yet local to play. Apparently people quickly grew tired of hearing foreign tracks and didn't want to hear their parents' and grandparents' highlife music either. Local reggae didn't cut it because it never sounded as real and tight as the Jamaicans did it and it didn't seem to have that localized identity. Plus, despite Ghana's relatively high literacy rate, not everyone can understand lyrics in English very well. So, Reggie, who had recently returned to Ghana after a semi-successful career (depending on who you ask) as an English-language rapper in London with the group PLZ, decided that he was going to give the kids what he believed they needed: a voice.

As Reggie told me the first time I interviewed him on my first trip to Ghana in 2002, "The youth in Ghana never really had a voice before I got here. They had to listen to all their brothers in the Diaspora and shit..."

It is this statement, and its implications, that led me to spending a whole year in Ghana talking to as many musicians young and old that would tolerate my presence and incessant queries...

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i'm interested in seeing how this progresses...
as to what is really hip-life though, i think it started out one way and has evolved. when reggie first dabbled in it, it was distinct because he was (for the most part) 'rapping' in a ghanaian language. his later albums are still in ghanaian languages but the beat and background instrumentals are very different, as are those of the majority of contemporary hip-life atristes - they have more of an indigenous flavour. this (evolution) is similar to the differences between 'old school' hip-hop and contemporary hip-hop.
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