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Why Producers Are the Backbone of Afrobeats

Recognising afrobeat producers and their undoubted influence on the sound.

On 4 November 2016, Runtown released ‘Mad Over You’ to massive acclaim and positive reception from fans in Nigeria and across the globe. More than the praise and number of streams the song garnered, it signified a new direction for afrobeats with its slowed tempo and distinct piano and conga combination. This experiment differed from the typically upbeat sounds expected from afrobeat artistes. In the half-decade that followed, afrobeats has grown in leaps and bounds, with old and new generation artistes attempting to pioneer new breakout sounds; Burna Boy and Oxlade have afro-fusion, Fireboy DML has afro-life, and Rema has afropop. These new variants are the culmination of the work that started back in 2015 when Drake and Skepta jumped on the “Ojuelegba Remix” with Wizkid.

With easier access to music styles from all corners of the globe, African musicians are more daring with their experiments, making the music they like while switching the sound up on our different taste palettes. However, while artistes are getting their rightful praise for discovering new vibes and exploring international collaborations, producers, who are a very integral part of the process seem not to be getting their own accolades for pushing the genre beyond limits barely thought possible a few years ago.

Contrary to the popular idea that producers are just people who make beats, they do a lot of work and affect the music creation process a lot. Asides from making beats by selecting various sound generators or samples or by playing the actual live instruments, producers may also give artiste directions by co-writing the song, arranging the song into the rhythm of the desired music genre (sometimes even humming a preferred melody that the artist would just turn into words), instructing the artiste as to which part of the song should come first, and recording their vocals into the beats as when they consider it necessary. There is a lot of engineering and tweaking that makes sure that the music sounds smooth and balanced and gets the perfect feel of the genre they’re working on and free of noise or unnecessarily loud instruments.

Undoubtedly, producers have kept the spirit of afrobeats alive; a sentiment producer Stephanas Boman – aka WalahiSteph/Steph – maintains. Having produced Buju’s ‘Lenu’ (and the self-assured remix with Burna Boy), as well as ‘Spiritual’ featuring Zlatan, Steph is one of many influencing the new generation of afrobeats sounds, and he believes producers have had a huge hand in the recent successes the genre has recorded globally. According to him, “African producers have been the ones constantly refining the genre and modernizing it to make it pleasing to the new generation; so I feel our importance can’t be overemphasized, and it can only get better.”

With growing dissatisfaction at the lack of acknowledgment and hunger to promoting their work, afrobeats producers have taken different steps to showcase their talents. Acts like Sarz, Rexxie, and Masterkraft have released solo projects, while Maleek Berry took it a step further by embarking on a career as a lead artiste in addition to his producer portfolio. Da Piano, the brain behind Wande Coal’s “Turkey Nla” and 2baba’s “Gaga Shuffle”, is also a firm supporter of this and hopes it happens more often, as he thinks that it is a way to circumvent the weak income structure for producers in the Nigerian music industry. In his words: “Basically, we are doing most of the job, and we producers need to do solo projects so that we can start getting recognised, and also start earning royalties because that’s very important.”

However, this route to recognition is not unanimously accepted. Deoye, a new school artiste and producer, believes that producers who go solo are recognition-hungry. Nevertheless, he understands the need because, according to him, the industry pushes people to do that. “A lot of bullshit is going on in this industry, and social currency has way much more value these days; if you want to get paid more, you have to be known more. The most honorable way to get recognition would be to simply make hits until niggas can’t ignore you anymore,” he tells B.Side.

WalahiSteph shares similar sentiments and fully supports solo projects while offering an exciting proposition for producers. "I think producers really need to start organizing their own shows where they can invite artists they’ve worked with to perform their songs,” he suggests. “If not for the Covid-19 virus, those would be the best shows because a single producer can pull a lot of artists to make a show pop."

Music production is akin to laying the foundation of a building: depending on the bricklayer’s skill level, the building could be solid or shaky. Afrobeats – and all its many by-sounds – would be nothing without its producers. And at this pivotal time when the phrase “Afrobeats to the World” is no longer a dream, but our current reality, it is important to recognise and appreciate the producers who have held it down for the genre. Furthermore, necessity leads to innovation, so it is advisable to keep an eye on the afrobeats space to see what means producers employ to gain more recognition for their work.

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