Leading the charge of the Afrobeats sound across Africa and the UK are the scene’s producers. Responsible for some of the most memorable and best loved compositions, it’s arguably the producers who are shaping UK Afrobeats into the future. Although not traditional, today’s ‘star’ producers are levelling up through collaboration, with their individual signatures littered across every banger.
Since the release of ‘Bankulise’ back in 2013, British born Ghanaian Julian ‘Juls’ Annan has been the producer behind some of the biggest Afrobeats hits of the last three years – a regular collaborator with Mr. Eazi – together their chemistry has helped to push Afrobeats to an international audience. “Skintight was the second record that I produced for Mr Eazi.” Juls recalls when I ask how the song came to be. “Eazi had an idea of a melody, what he wanted to speak about, so he sent me the acapella for it and so I just decided to give it like an Afrobeat-ish kind of vibe, and at the same time give it a kind of Caribbean touch so that it could cross over to different genres. Not just Afrobeats, but Caribbean as well – so a lot of people can relate to it more and at the same time, make it a lot more melodic and the percussion in there is a lot more African as well. There’s a lot of Congas and Bongos in there. When we created his part, we said that we needed a feature as well. I was like, let’s reach out to Efya – who’s one of Ghana’s most prominent female artists. She’s been quite significant for the Ghanaian music culture for the past five to ten years now, so that’s how ‘Skintight’ came about.”
Advances in technology have created a much more even playing field when it comes to the music industry and it’s no surprise the power of technology came into play and propelled the song to hit status. “We let the internet do what it was going to do and it just grew into this amazing song, where you know, it’s being played by so many people all over the world – it’s been getting co-signs from some of the big artists out there – Diplo, Rita Ora, so it just speaks volumes about how the sound has been travelling over the past year or two. The song was put out in 2015, but it’s safe to say that the song has been quite strong over the past two years. It still gets a lot of plays in clubs and the radio so it hasn’t really hit it’s peak yet.”
It was back in 2010, way before the success of ‘Skintight’, that Juls first began making music. He spent much of his formative years in Ghana so it’s little wonder his compositions are heavily influenced by traditional Hiplife elements. When the Show Dem Camp track ‘Feel Alright’ broke in 2012 eyes turned toward the artist on production. I ask what he feels is behind the rise of the UK Afrobeats movement, “I think when we were young – like, when we were kids – we were never really proud to say that we were African. It was always weird, some people would lie that they’re from Jamaica or Trinidad and stuff because it just wasn’t a cool thing to be [African]. Over the years, Afrobeats has grown in the respect of countries where it came from – Ghana, Nigeria – and a lot of us, as we got older, our parents would take us back home to actually go and visit our homelands. And we would see things a lot different from what we thought it was.”
People are so interested in this music and they love it, so a lot of us come back and try and create our own version.
For a generation of kids growing up on Grime in the UK over the past 15 years, it’s been the sound of the British underground, but it’s no surprise that we’re long overdue for another scene to breakout. Yet its also not coincidental in part that its the influence of a Grime artist like Skepta reflecting back his Nigerian roots through music, that’s also broadened the appeal of the Afrobeats scene. That the musical collaboration with Wizkid and Drake on ‘Ojuelegba’ seemingly changed perceptions in more ways than one, is clear, but it’s also clear that this emerging UK Afrobeats scene is part of a wider coming of age for a new generation’s immigrant experience. “So a lot of people have this perception that Africa was poor and there’s nothing there, and it’s just trees and tigers at the airport. But when you get there, you see it’s a lot different. You can have a good time, there’s parties and then you’re hearing this music and people are so interested in this music and they love it, so a lot of us come back and try and create our own version.”
It’s this reinterpretation of traditional Afrobeat heritage that underpins the scene, not only in relation to UK Afrobeats but, immigrant music has long played a role in shaping and creating new genres in London. I ask Juls about what drives producers like himself to keep experimenting with the dynamics of this fairly new style, “UK Afrobeats is artists of African origin trying their hands – it’s a way of them trying to connect with their culture and I feel like that stemmed from people going back home. Now obviously, they’ve tried and tried and tried and it wasn’t authentic as it was because with Afrobeats the sounds have to compliment a lot of traditional rhythms or melodies so in Afrobeat there’s a lot of guitars, there’s a lot of percussion in there but UK Afrobeats is very electronic very up tempo. But it’s changing now, and the sound is being more authentic.”
I think every producer’s dream is to work with as many artists as he or she possibly can.
Juls has produced beats for many of the biggest Afrobeats artists from Sarkodie and Mr Eazi, J Givens and Stonebwoy so I ask whether finding the right partnership in the mould of Jae 5 and J Hus, for example, or G.A and Kojo Funds is the key to longevity in the Afrobeats industry. “I think every producer’s dream is to work with as many artists as he or she possibly can. But for you to get your sound spread out quite significantly, you have to work with somebody who actually fits that sound. And then the sound grows from there.”
Power collaborations are also paving the way for a generation of producers to take their credits as Executive Producers and swiftly navigate a lane for themselves and create their own Artist credentials. Juls has had a head start in that respect after a slew of collaborations, he’s ready for much more, “So G.A and Kojo Funds, they’ve created a number of bangers, and G.A has been able to work with so many other artists in the UK. Jae 5 really has just been producing for Hus, but obviously he’s going to have the opportunity to work with a lot of other artists as well. I think the same for me and Eazi. Ever since I started producing a lot of songs for him a lot of people have been coming to me saying they really like the sound we have created and they would basically like to work, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with several other artists in the Afrobeats industry.”
Juls’ debut EP ‘Leap Of Faith’ came together in three months. It’s a showcase of some of the best talent in the UK and across the African continent tracks with Maleek Berry, Moelogo, Kojey Radical, Odunsi and Tomi Agape & Santi all combining to make one of the year’s most ambitious producer debuts, “As a producer, you hear people a bit differently, and you say okay, this sound would work for you. Luckily for me, songs that I’ve done with the likes of Maleek Berry – and because Maleek Berry is a producer anyway – we know the type of sound that’s going to compliment each other.”
Juls latest summer banger, ‘Bad’ featuring Not3s, Kojo and Eugy has already hit a 1 million views, and is fast becoming a contender as the track of summer ’17. In fact, the UK scene is warming up nicely with a slew of bangers already making the cut, to give us an entire soundtrack for this summer. After a top 10 album from J Hus, the next generation of rising stars are lining up and Kojo Funds isn’t even dun talkin’, “With Kojo, I think it’s more about the vibe that you get from him in terms of the kind of sound he’s been bubbling with over the last year or so. So you can always switch it up – but at the same time it has to compliment the artist’s style.”
Afrobeats is very uptempo, there’s a lot of percussion, there’s a lot of rhythm in there but it’s very difficult for people on the outside to catch on to that.
Recently a speaker on the Afrobeats In Conversation panel created by Amaru Don TV and hosted by Eddie Kadi, Juls took the opportunity to stress the importance of retaining integrity and ownership now that commercial success in the form of major label interest has arrived both in Africa and the UK, “[we were] discussing the genre, how it’s grown, how it can get better and some of the challenges. Afrobeats is very uptempo, there’s a lot of percussion, there’s a lot of rhythm in there but it’s very difficult for people on the outside to catch on to that, you have to be very clever with how you produce some of these songs, but still stay true to yourself and your identity so that people know that this is definitely coming from Africa. But for it to crossover and spread significantly – and do well – you sometimes have to create sounds that people would be able to ‘get’ a lot easier – think that’s what the challenge has been over the last few years.”
In the rush to name this fledgling genre a number of definitions have been trialled, Spotify threw their hat in the ring early with their ‘Afrobashment’ playlist, while AfroSwing, AfroWave and AfroTrap have all been floated. It’s this area that remains important for Juls, rather than wait for the industry to coin the genre’s name (as has been well noted of Grime music) artists should seize the moment and coin the phrase that will define the sound. “Make sure that we preserve the music that we’ve created, because the truth is in the 1970’s a lot of music we created – not just Africans, but black people in general – other people took credit for it because we weren’t able to own that. Like, Jimi Hendrix and stuff, they were into Funk and Rock and all of that and that was ours. Then it got taken away and we weren’t credited for that, unless you do your research. But this time, because we’re older and we can learn from the forefathers and their mistakes and stuff we just need to preserve it. I think the only challenge – well the main challenge – is just the capital and the investment in our genre. At the moment labels are showing quite a lot of interest, but at the same time it’s important that we keep it strictly about Afrobeats and not trying to dumb it down completely.”
Afroswing is the definition Jul’s finds easy to endorse, “Afroswing. It’s a new genre that’s been nameless basically, it has sounds that compliment Afrobeats. If you call it Afrobashment, then it’s Afrobeats combined with Caribbean music. But the content is very UK oriented so Kojo – he sings, or raps – with UK slang; and we’ve named it [Afroswing] because you can’t really put that in a UK rap category so to speak. The likes of Bane, Kojo, Afro B, Hus – that’s the kind of music that they’ve done. Some of them are able to swing to different genres. Like proper Afrobeats or even Rap – like Hus. But Afroswing is just a combination of all these different genres and we also have Afrobeats itself. Which is obviously a modern day version of Afrobeat.”
In 2017, versatility is king. Long gone are the days of simply making a name as a session player. Longevity in this modern era means knowledge of instrumentation, composition, and in many cases taking your brand to the festival circuit as Jul’s does as a DJ. The options are limitless but the hustle remains and only those truly embedded in the scene will have the authority and authenticity needed to make Afrobeats a genre that defines this generation. Juls is focused on the future of the sound, and the talent that waits within.