Thursday, November 03, 2005
Kwaw Kesse: Hiplife's Hardcore Stalwart
I met Kwaw Kesse at Hush Hush Studio in Accra. He was sitting on the couch waiting, like many of the guys that I met there. Hush Hush is the most popular recording studio in Accra to record. Run by Mr. Danny Adjei, most of hit tracks you hear on the radio are put together here. Hush Hush is also an important spot for up-and-coming rappers. It is here where they hang out and wait and network. I found young rappers hanging out at Hush Hush at all hours any day of the week, anytime I was there. Most of them were waiting for a producer, someone who can help them release their recording. Many times guys are standing around waiting--often for hours--for one of the engineers, hiplife's handful of celebrated beat-programmers. In Ghana people don't seem to mind waiting like this. Everything moves slowly. A young guy who is lucky enough to find a "big man" to fund his project is willing to wait a few hours, it's the least he can do. No doubt, he waited years for his chance to release an album. Guys sit around Hush Hush for weeks, sometime months, just hoping someone will give them the chance to feature on a cut or maybe connect them with someone who'll invest some money into their project.
So, I met Kwaw on a day like this, when he had nothing to do but wait. I don't even remember if he was waiting for his producer to come give him cash, his engineer to come record some overdubs, or anyone else who may be working with him. In any case, when I introduced myself that afternoon I had no idea I was meeting one of tightest Twi-language rappers around.
I mean, this guy is hard. Rhythmically, his flow is more dead-on and soulful than almost any other rappers claiming to be remotely connected to the recognized hiphop aesthetic. But to Kwaw his music is not simply hip-hop, as some claim. Rather, he is making "pure hiplife," as he terms it. He doesn't give a fuck what people think, as long as they check him out.
Kwaw Kesse contradicts himself a lot in a sense. He says music should teach people, but he rhymes about girls pulling up their skirts to let the boys have some fun. Kwaw says profanity is not necessary in music if you truly have talent, yet he, more overtly than almost anyone else, uses profanity in his songs. At once he is humble and demanding, having me fork over the measly 20,000 cedis needed for us to make a bare-bones meal of gari, pepper and fish when I was visiting his house...typically one should feed their guest when they come for a visit, rather than the other way around...
This the cover for Kwaw's debut full-length, which was not actually released until recently. he gave me an advance EP along with this cassette cover somewhere near the end of July '05:
The first time I went to meet Kwaw and his friends for an interview, I wrote this memo upon my return home. These were my initial impressions:
18/3/05 Kyn’s Hotel, Ako Adjei, Osu
I arrive at the house portion of the hotel to find a group of about seven young people wrestling, giggling, and playing cards in a simply furnished living room. Everyone is sitting or lying on the floor. Kwaw, Mmotia (another one of the truly few hardcore Twi rappers), and some other guys are wearing ganja bandanas and t-shirts. Since a few of them already know me from Hush Hush, I feel welcome and comfortable. Now that more people know me, I can show up somewhere and be almost guaranteed someone will recognize me and therefore make me and others feel chill about my presence.
We sit for a few minutes joking about my speaking Twi, as usual. The girls are impressed: "obruni, mepe wasem, wae?" (whiteman, I like your style). I mention how I want to do the interview outside, so we go around the corner to some guy’s backyard to sit under a tree. I say, “Today, you guys are just chilling,” since I was impressed by their youthful way that reminds me of college summers or something, when we have nothing to do in the afternoon but goof around. Kwaw says, "Nah, we’re getting ready for recording tomorrow.”
Kwaw is in the middle of recording his first full-length. His friends are featured on a couple songs. I learn later that in one bedroom they have a make-shift studio. They’ve got a few-year-old Dell desktop, cheap synth, and Fruity Loops beat-composing software. Vocals are done at Hush Hush, but this new engineer KSN is doing the beats for more than half the record somewhere else. Hammer is doing the rest at Hush Hush. From what I heard, KSN is doing something relatively unique in the Ghanaian context, though the first song which was catchy sounded basically like a rip-off of Fat Joe’s “Lean Back”. That’s chill, I thought, so long as the song “hits” and perhaps can get a few people “outside” listening.
We spent a few hours chatting on camera about a lot of the usual stuff but Kwaw surprises me with a few things. For example, he says jama style hiplife is actually not really hiplife because it isn’t related to hiphop enough. He doesn’t appreciate the people who don’t say anything in their lyrics and are just concerned with getting people out on the dance-floor. While Kwaw criticizes love-centered lyrics, he himself seems to have at least a couple songs about love.
We also talk a bit about drop-outs and the perception of hiplife artists. Apparently, families who consider their sons bad boys, eventually come around once the guy starts making money. The mother at the house we are chilling at provides us with glasses, chairs and a table for our meeting, while the guys tell me this would not have ever happened if the white man wasn’t there. When I met the woman, she had a semi-exasperated look when I told her I was there to talk to them about rap.
The guys expressed a lot of concern about the lack of investment in the hiplife movement while there are so many artists ready to “come out”. Kwaw is confused as to why his song is so popular among Ghanaians at home and abroad but he doesn’t have any money. He appears to expect more notoriety or riches or both. But he hasn’t even put out a full-length yet.
By the end of our time together there is much discussion of business opportunities in Ghana. These guys want me to invest money if I ever get some. They came up with a million different ideas for me to get involved in, since I have so much cash to invest... First, we talked about music abroad, then we talked about pineapples, and then other more traditional trade items. It seemed like they looked at me as a chance to get some money in the future. There was talk of setting up branches of American record labels in Ghana, they have so many ideas.
As far as Kwaw’s music, the intent is to get it abroad. They ask me questions about what hiplife artists could make an impact abroad. Unfortunately, they have an over-simplified image of the American music industry in the minds, which can’t really be criticized because all they know is Ghana’s tiny, virtually unregulated and notoriously unprofessional industry. If only it were so easy to “hit” in America...