Sunday, March 05, 2006

An Interview With J-Que, Hiplife's Leading Producer

J-Que's sound is ubiquitous. He is everywhere. The following interview certainly finds him sounding a bit cocky at times, but this is with good reason: He is only a exaggerating a little when he says 80% of the song played on the radio are his productions.

After introducing a hiplife interpretation of traditional dance rhythm, jama (or dzama), several years ago, J-Que has transformed hiplife. No longer can people easily argue hiplife has nothing Ghanaian in it. Generally understood to be a Ga rhythm, jama is used by people around the country, especially at football matches, where there are bands in the stands playing along to support their team. For those of you familiar with Latin American music, the skeletal basis for jama is very similar to the 3-2 clave rhythm found in many genres from that part of the world.

Today, the rap heard on the radio and on TV, the mainstream stuff, is produced by J-Que. Increasingly, though, J-Que's music may very well be the soundtrack to which so many Ghanaian youth live life. And, now that the elders are taking a serious liking to the traditional dance rhythms infused in the music, J-Que and his jama have become almost universal. Even cats up north are using jama rhythms in their songs.

J-Que is the most sought after, most imitated producer no doubt. But there are a lot of people who don't like him, his music, and his attitude. he seemed like a real guy to me, but others have accused him of a lot of drama. Haters abound. After all, how many dudes in Ghana get to drive a turqouise BMW?

Below are excerpts from a long conversation with J-Que where he talks about his approach to music, the fans who love it, and the future of hiplife. He also discusses hiplife as a way to boost Ghana's international musical reputation. He truly believes that without his indigenized production style, hiplife would be lost and without a clear future.

11/19/04 at Hush Hush Studios

I arrive around 6:30pm to meet J-Que (Jeff Quaye) and find him in the studio, working with a reggae singer. He says hi quickly and tells me to sit down and wait a few minutes. He works through Pro Tools briskly and takes care of the finishing touches on the track he’s working on.

I am surprised when I meet J-Que because I imagined him to be bigger and maybe more “hip-hop”-looking. I later learned that this expectation is common. J-Que is actually smallish, clean cut, and rather looks like an average dude. You could easily mistake him for someone else on the street. But once he began talking, I could see that he had a kind energy. One that made it easy to listen to him speak.

J-Que takes me to a different, smaller room where there is a girl (hiplife artist, Mzbel) watching TV. We kick her out and sit down to talk. He seems comfortable and confident, dressed smart but simple.

So, why, with your extensive musical background, do you do hiplife?

I mostly do hiplife music because that is what the public are into, the Ghanaians like it now and I have done hip-hop way back and stuff, but I don’t do those things any more. I don’t want to play hip-hop, I don’t want to play reggae. The reason being that, you know, when I am working, when I come to the studio to work with a client and the client sings to me and I listen to what the client is singing, I always make sure that every beat I produce have a representation of our national flag in it. That is me. Every beat I put out should represent Ghana, if not, it should have some Ghanaian feel to it.

So, if you listen to the music I do, if I am playing ragga or whatever, I have my congas and my shakers and my cowbells. These things are from Africa, these things are indigenous instruments that we have here in Africa. Every beat that I do I make sure that I have the national flag of Ghana in mind. And the reason why I do that is I also realized that most Ghanaians, you know, in Ghana, our music is not going international. People are just getting to hear about hiplife.

Now one reason, my point of view, the reason why it is not going international: In Ghana here, Ghana is a small country, but everybody’s playing all kinds of music here in Ghana. You have people playing reggae, you have people playing hip-hop, some people are even playing jazz, you have rock, you have all these things here in Ghana. But if you look outside Ghana, like Jamaica, if you go to Jamaica, if they are not playing reggae, they are playing dancehall. That is what everybody plays. If everybody decides to play his national music, that is the only way our music can go international. You know, but then, if you are in your country, you have your traditional and cultural music and you are playing somebody’s music, there is no way your music can go far. So the reason why I am playing this jama or like introducing this thing is that that is the only way I think we can have our music represented in the international showbiz market. If Ghanaians doing hiplife, gospel everybody decides to play their own form of music rather than gospel or hip-hop. Because you know you can’t play hip-hop more than Dr. Dre or Timbaland. No way you can do that. Assuming there is a world music festival, Ghanaians are there, Americans are there, Jamaicans are there, and somebody comes from American everybody expects them to do hip-hop or R&B or something, from Jamaica you know reggae or dancehall, the moment they call Ghana Africa, they are coming to play something cultural, you know, something that represents Africa…

… I am one of the guys who’s sustaining our culture, who is holding our culture, who is keeping it going. So if I also decide to leave and the rest of the guys decide to play hip-hop and things, then what has Ghana got [inaudible], it has got nothing. So, I researched more into instruments that [are from] Africa, that are made from Africa. I have researched more into those instruments. There are instruments sometimes when I research I haven’t seen them before, I don’t even how they sound. So, I want to go on vacation, when I go on vacation, I’ll go to places in Africa. I see instruments that I don’t even know how they sound, to go sample them, bring them to my studio, edit it and then use them in my production. If you listen to every track that I produce, you know, in Ghana here when they hear a track they want to know it’s me. The moment you hear the conga, you should know this is J-Que. I have it in all my tracks…I also have my name in almost all my tracks…

What about the future of hiplife?

I think hiplife really has a future. If they see it the way I am seeing it. If not kpanlogo, you know, Ghana we have highlife, the Northerners have their music, you know, we have various forms of traditional music in Ghana. If hiplife would be played based on the Ghanaian cultural way, a little, you know, like 20% hip-hop and then the 80% would be dominated on our traditional music, then hiplife will really go very, very far. But then if we don’t play it like that—you know, it would surprise you that I have a lot of enemies and player-haters because of the style I have introduced. Because of the style I am playing, most of the hiplife guys you know, they are thinking-- You know, hiplife started with hip-hop. When we started playing hiplife we were playing it in the form of hip-hop, we look onto the hip-hop beats. Sometimes we sampled the same beat and made them sing onto it. You know, because of the rap, we were looking more into the hip-hop vein. Because of the rap they were doing in Twi. So we looked at the rap they did and we supplied the same kind of beat, which was wrong, which was very, very, very, it was wrong koraa [Twi = at all, totally]. But we didn’t know, we didn’t know at all. You know, some people, because of what I have introduced, they don’t even want to see my face. People go on radio, they diss me, they insult me. This guy has changed the trend. This guy is not doing hiplife anymore. Hiplife is now on another level, they don’t like it. We want this way. But that is wrong, that is wrong at all. So, you know, if we play it the hip-hop way, we don’t have a future. But then if we play it in our own traditional form of music, that is the only way we can go far.

So then you now see hiplife as something quite distinct musically?

…Someone told me that I am the first guy who has given identity to hiplife. You know, hiplife is now different. It has an identity. Most people don’t know, but what I am doing is I am giving identity to it. So, you can really differentiate hiplife from hip-hop. You know, they are all rapping. Rap is rap, whether you rap in Twi, whether you happen to rap in English. But then, the rhythm behind it. You know, for the Americans, they play the hip-hop. For us, for it to look like us, we have to play our cultural music. It could be highlife, it could be the jama that I have introduced, it could be adowa, it could be anything. Then we can really say that this is distinct, this is different from—but now hiplife is different for me, to me hiplife-- I can say that hiplife has a future. Because now, if you listen to radio, I don’t know if you listen to radio, if you listen to when they play highlife, they shift to hiplife, 80% of the songs they play are my productions. Which means that hiplife has a future.

Look at all these guys outside [the studio, Hush Hush], everybody here wants to come and work. I am even closing at 10 and they know I am closing at 10, but they all have a hope that at least I will spend 30 minutes with them. You know, Hush Hush here, we run three sessions a day. We work 6[AM] to 2[PM]. That is the morning session. Then the afternoon session is 2 to 10. And then, the night session is 10[PM] to 6[AM]. If I work everyday, and then, most days I work two sessions every day. Because of my work—you wouldn’t believe it. As of now, I am working with almost every artist in Ghana. Most of the guys-- I have to release 35 artistes before Christmas. You wouldn’t believe it. I can’t sleep. I am always here. I spend all of my time here in Hush Hush. When I get home the only thing I can do is sleep. Formerly I was working on weekends, but this time I have stopped working on Saturdays and Sundays because the workload is just too much. So this should tell you that hiplife is really getting somewhere.

And the guys--I have also realized, with the introduction of jama and kpanlogo that I am playing, people like it, so they all want to come, come and work. Even tracks that are hitting on the market that I didn’t play, it’s jama, if you don’t play it the way I play it, there is no way they will accept it. “Konkontiba” [Obour’s smash hit last year]. Most people think I did it, but I am not the one who did “Konkontiba.” I like the engineer who worked on it because he is very good. If he had played it in any other vein…Morris Babyface, he won last year’s engineer of the year. Last year he won. If he had played it in any other way, it wouldn’t hit.

There’s one style that I am introducing now, I want to talk a little about it. What I realized is, if you look at our movies, if you study the movies, I realize that the Nigerian movies have taken over our industry. We don’t have any good Ghanaian movies to boast of and to match the Nigerians. So, if we are not careful, their music too will come and take over our music. So I listened a little to Nigerian music and, you know, I said, “No, there is a way I can fuse hiplife with their form of music.” So, I have also introduced that style, and that is like Afro-Pop. I have introduced that one. So if you listen to what I did for Obour, “Shine Your Eye,” featured a Nigerian, Baba Ashanti. If you listen to that track, you’ll realize that track’s different from what I have been doing. I also did the same style for Dr. Poh, he’s a new artist. The song is “Na Hu Ko Sa.” And it’s doing well in Nigeria. I also realized I am introducing this too. So that before their music also comes to take over, no we have it already mixed with ours. There’s no way they can take over our music industry. Our songs are doing well. The Obour song like this is doing well in Lagos.

I did the remix for Tic Tac, the one he did with Tony Tetuila. Ghanaians now they are getting to understand the remixes, you know remixes is not usual of we Ghanaians. But then remixes got popular because—you know, some people go and record their music some way. I don’t have any problem with—I like –I really recommend that if an artist is coming to work, he works with more than one engineer, at least have different flavor on your album. J-Que does a little, Hammer does a little, Morris, Zapp… You know, what happens is, sometimes, they record their hits from other engineers. They will realize that when their song comes on the market, then the song doesn’t do well. They will be tempted to bring it to me to do a remix. Basically now, I am doing lots of remixes. You know I have lots of remixes from other engineers that produced it. And I am proud to say that I don’t produce a track and it will go to another engineer for a remix. That has never happened, it will never happen. What I say when I go on TV, the other engineers should buck up, they should also do their work very well. Because there’s no way that I will work for someone else to bring it to correct it. They should also make that when they are working, nobody should bring their work to me. For remixes, I charge more. The song is already spoiled. You have to do more than what the person did originally. So for remixes you have to work harder than-- if it is a new song, you don’t have any challenge. You just do your thing. You know, but then if it is not a new song and its been done already, it’s done good, you have to improve on it you have to work double. So for remixes I take almost twice the money I take for original songs. That is about that one too.

Did the youth in Ghana have no voice before Reggie Rockstone came in ‘94?

Before Reggie came, you know, hiplife, people were doing hiplife. The boys were doing that, but then, nobody had taken the risk to come out with hiplife. So nobody wanted to come out—what they were doing was, when you go to shows, you see the people rap, they’re on the stage rapping, singing, and stuff. No people were singing before Reggie came out with hiplife. That is a mistake he is doing. There are some guys here, they don’t even have producers, they don’t have demos, but they can really sing, they come and sit here every day hoping that somebody will talk to them to ask them, “Are you a singer?” And if you put these guys behind a microphone, you’d be surprised to hear what they can do, they can really sing. But the fact that they don’t have platforms to show it doesn’t mean, you know-- so if Reggie made that statement I think he’s wrong because there are people who are really doing this thing are I know some people who had demos when Reggie came out they still have their demos, they’ve not secured producers, they’ve not secured producers. In hiplife what we see—the introduction of the new artists, it’s more, you hear more of the new artists coming out than the old artists. We always have new artists, new artists, they are always flooding the market. I think they are also doing well…right now competition is really healthy because if you think you the big boy, you have four albums, and you sit home and—trust me, where is [Lord] Kenya now, where is Reggie, where are these people now? There is this group, they’ve really maintained their stance, Buk Bak, you know? They have their fifth album on the market and they have always maintained their stance. Obrafour has always maintained his stance. VIP, when I worked with them on their first album. After their first album, they were working with other engineers and nobody heard of them. It was when they came back with the one I just did…the guys if you are not careful they will just over take you like that…look at Batman, Batman is a new artist, Madfish is a new artist.

So what is the music scene doing for the youth?

Music now is really helping the youth. Because you know in Ghana, most of the people don’t have money to continue their education. Some of them don’t even have an education background at all. Most of them see hiplife (laughs), or the music scene, as a venture for them to easily make it. If you call a shoeshine boy and you chat with him: “So why are you doing this thing?” “Oh, I want to save money to go and record with J-Que.” When you talk to these ice water boys: “What are you doing?” “Oh, I want to go and record.” They come to me. Sometimes we charge them. Ok, let’s say, this is thousand, I am taking thousand cedis. I have hundred cedis, keep it for me. They will go they, will come, they will go, they will come. Yes, that is what they do. Until they have their thousand and then they will definitely come and do it.

The reason why this is happening, you know, in Ghana now, the executive producers, they don’t go to the studio with the artists to record them, they buy the music. So if you are an artist, you have to record your own music. That is what happens in Ghana now. You have to record your own music. Mastered, not demo, before he would listen, for him to produce the secondary. For him to listen to your song you need to have your master. All the guys you see here, they are guys who are trying to record their master by themselves. So I think the music scene has created some kind of job opportunity for the youth, in fact a lot of the youth now are into hiplife. If you look at hiplife, almost all the guys are youths.

What if you spend all your savings on a recording and find no producer?

That is the problem. Some people have had their master. You know all the figures are not the same. Some people have luck following them. Some people will just come, they will do a song, they will take it out, and they will get a producer to come and finish the rest. Some people will do a master and they won’t find anybody to come. For that one it happens, people have master recorded--I think even in America that happens...

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