Thursday, December 29, 2005

Hush Hush Studios

At the time of my research, Hush Hush was one of the most important recording studios in Ghana. Located a stone's throw from Ghana's largest cemetary, most of the hits have been recorded there. Hush Hush is also the place to meet other rappers, producers, engineers, and industry folks. I spent a lot of time hanging out there. While I was in Ghana, there were basically four resident producers (known as “engineers” or “programmers” in Ghana’s slightly-warped musical terminology) at Hush Hush. These guys occupied two studios, each equipped with a Mac desktop or two, as well as the synths and various decks and mixers you’d expect in any professional studio. Though not the fanciest set-up in Ghana, Hush Hush turns out relative quality.

These four producers that use Hush Hush 24 hours a day (in 8 hour shifts) are no doubt some of the most influential beat-makers in Ghana. The studio itself is well-known regionally. People come from all over West Africa to record at Hush Hush, often with one of the resident engineers at the helm. Numerous other engineers from around town end up working at Hush Hush, since the studio is occasionally rented out. There is also a video-editing facility and record label on the premises.

Studio manager, and producer of fiesty female hiplifer Mzbel, Mr. Danny Adjei has much to say about Hush Hush's role in the hiplife movement. Listen to an interview with him here.

Or, read the transcript.

Hammer (of the Last Two) is one the pillars of Ghanaian hiplife. His signature groove, which has rocked hiplife since its debut ca. 1999 on Obrafuor’s legendary release Pae Mu Ka, has been copied by legions of budding producers looking for a more aggressive beat. Noticeably faster than Western hip-hop beats, it is still recognized as hiplife’s closest analogue to Western-style hip-hop. With the release of two compilations featuring underground unknowns blessing his deep productions, Hammer has helped grow a new generation of hardcore rappers. Guys like Okra, Kwaw Kesse, and Agbekor are keeping Reggie's dream of a more hip-hop-oriented hiplife alive. Though not nearly as prolific as his colleagues, Hammer is responsible for quite a few major hits by people like Tinny, as well as the above-mentioned artists.

At the other end of mainstream hiplife’s aesthetic spectrum lies J-Que. Classically trained pianist Jeff Quaye has been hailed as the one to almost single-handedly indigenize hiplife—his jama (or dzama) beat is fast and extremely danceable in all its unashamed electro glory. The dense rhythms heard at football matches, funerals, and other social and spiritual occasions are filtered through drum machines and ProTools, casting so-called culture music with a very post-highlife and over-the-top, yet often sublime, digital sheen. J-Que works day and night at Hush Hush making beats for everyone from no one start-ups to the very cream of hiplife celebs. No night out in Ghana would be neither complete nor, dare I say, possible without the rhythms of J-Que.

UPDATE: J-Que is now associated with a new studio in Accra. After several months of dramatic rows with the administration at Hush Hush, J-Que has moved on to Rich Studios. See what the producer has to say about the new location and his upcoming compilation.

Less-famous, but no less talented, is beat-maestro Agyingo. Well-versed in both piano and traditional drumming, Agyingo’s music is by far the most imaginative of the music that comes out of Hush Hush. At once, Agyingo's visions clash Bollywood-like pep with hot, layered rhythms. Although his music tends to be quite rhythmic, Agyingo has a keen sense of melody as well. He is also a master of disguise. With his knowledge of the Mac workstation at the Hush Hush Annex, Agyingo can make a beat to sound like any of the well-unknown beat-makers in America. Utilizing a vast array of samples and sounds, Agyingo can sound like anyone he wants. I spent several hours watching him make beats for a couple different clients. He listens to the vocal hook and slowly builds complex, layers of Ghanaian rhythms and hip-hop harmony. He is brilliant and fucking hilarious.

Last but not least, and perhaps the longest-term resident engineer at Hush Hush, is King Cyrus. With hits all over the radio, Cyrus is probably considered the no. 3 programmer in Ghana. As with J-Que, King Cyrus inserts a signature sample at the beginning of each track he does. These guys are both known for this,, though it seems J-Que was the first guy to be doing this. Some peope think it is stupid because it is the rapper who should be giving a shout-out to his engineer if he feels like it, not the engineer himself. In any case, when you hear an echo-y voice sort of shout “King Cyrus!”, you know you are in for some sweet highlife-informed grooves. King Cyrus is not interested in taking musical chances, but he knows what he is doing when it comes to making solid, if not catchy, accompaniments to an endless parade of hiplife, highlife, reggae, and gospel artists.

All four of these guys are great and helped me a lot in trying to understand the musical motives of hiplife. Since most rappers take little to no part in the composition of the actual music in hipilfe, it was vital that I pick these guys’ brains.

Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with King Cyrus one day between sessions at the Hush Hush Annex, located just paces away from incredible Awudome Cemetary (people dig up bones and smoke a lot of weed back there):

Why do people in Ghana like hiplife?

Because in Ghana we like dancing, and when the song is rhythmical, like people can dance towards the rhythm, then they just like it. Some people don’t listen to the lyrics. They just dance towards the beat, that’s all.

What about the lyrics?

Yeah, the lyrics too—we have two different people that listen to music: we have the elderly people and the young people. Young people normally don’t listen to the lyrics. They just dance to the rhythm. But elderly people expect to hear some words, what you are saying.


It’s like that, you know. Elderly people normally don’t dance to the rhythm. Normally, they will just sit down and listen to what you are saying. But the youth, when you listen to the song you just dance to the rhythm the rhythm is coming you just dance it. Some of them don’t even know what you are saying. They just dance to the rhythm then going.

What about how some people say hiplife lyrics are profane?

Yeah, most of the hiplife lyrics are profane. And some too are very sensible. Especially Obrafuor sings very sensible words whenever he comes out. Many people, so even the elderly people like him. Elderly people like Obrafuor because, many elderly people buy his tracks and then listen to him. And some other guys too. Some other guys too come with the profane words and other things too. (laughs)

Does that offend you?

Umm, actually, some of the words are, it’s hard for you to listen to it. but it’s part of my job, when you come with the profane words, I will advise you. I’m also a religious person so I know something about god. And in my religion, or in the bible it says every word that comes out of your mouth you are going to account for it in future, or it affects our own life in future. So if you come and you say something that affects somebody or causes somebody to commit sin, I will advise you to modify it or do something about it so that it doesn’t have affect on some people. For instance you talk about sex, people who don’t have a deep mind, they will think about sex and it will cause them to commit themselves into that thing. For that reason you did not help the people, you know, he didn’t help them. Because of songs some people have desire to test sex. It means you didn’t help them. You understand, I will advise you about the way you put your words to the song. I did this woman’s song, this lady who is standing here (sings the melody) and in the beginning the words were very very profane, but I advised her to so that people would not be affected by her songs and other things.

By people affected you mean the youth?

Yeah, the youth, yeah. You know, profane, I know something about profane, when people are talking about sex some elderly people will take in such a way that it will help them, but young people also will not take it in such a way that will not help them, you understand me. Maybe you have not reached a standard of having an affair with a lady but you are listening to that song but you have the desire. But if I am a standard, I am about to marry, I’m in that standard, it will help me to understand. That is all about music (laughs)…you have to do it in such a way that it is neutral.

What is hiplife doing for the youth in Ghana?

It makes money for the musicians and it makes money for the nation. Socially, some of them are helping people to live right life. And some of them are also corrupting people. It depends (laughs).

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