Ball J in his studio in Spintex
Fruity Loops is a series about Africa's beatmakers. Too often they remain unknown, sometime even uncredited, despite their crucial role in shaping the sounds of an entire continent. Why "Fruity Loops"? Because more often than not, Fruity Loops or FL Studio is the software of choice to create rhythms and sequence songs.
Enjoy Ball J's playlist while you read:
I remember the very first time I entered a recording studio in Ghana. It was Hush Hush studios at its peak, back in 2007. It was my first time in Ghana, and my first time pursuing music professionally on my own. Being in the tiny room where hits were created was an exhilarating experience, a high I still pursue to this day.
As I continued to explore music in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, I rapidly came to realize that the person creating the beats, sometimes creating entire songs, is simply credited as the sound engineer. Even though the term producer does come up, this person still gets paid a flat fee for a song - in other words, it's still a contractor, not somebody recognized as owning a part of the song.
Then I discovered executive producers, the money guys who often own the entire song. Usually, they don't ever enter the recording studio. Some of them have a creative vision, many don't. I often wonder why executive producers and beatmakers don't usually team up to develop a consistent creative direction around an artist. A union could help executives get into the creative process, and it could allow studio producers to get a real piece of the pie.
For the most part, that's just not how it is, most beatmakers are on their own, making a living song after song, always hoping to create a hit, mainly to boost their name and hence their business. They are typically commissioned by the artists themselves, or by their executive producers when the artists have one, and hardly deal with anyone else involved in the music business or the media.
This situation fascinates me, especially since I often find the beatmakers to be the real innovators. Take azonto: even though it is mainly a dance, it is associated in Ghana with a certain musical aesthetic, which was entirely pieced together by a very select number of beatmakers. I'd go as far as saying Nshona, the mastermind behind U Go Kill Me, made this aesthetic what it is known as today. Besides U Go Kill Me, he conceived Sokode, Obuu Mo, Kaalu, Aluguntugui (below), Vera and many others.
I've decided to start a series on these beatmakers, first in Ghana where I live, but as often as possible, elsewhere in Africa as well. I've written about Nshona in the past, so first up in this series is one of his mentors, Ball J, the creator of another massive azonto hit, Lapaz Toyota, one of the Ghanaian anthems of 2012.
"I wanted to create a song compatible with songs already in the system. I figured they'd call it azonto, because that's what was moving at the time." This is in late 2011, when Guru came to Ball J's studio in search of something different. Like Guru, Ball J comes from a strict hip hop background. How do two hip hop heads come up with one of Ghana's most popular dance anthems?
To understand this, we need to start from Ball J's musical beginnings. Like many in his school, Ball J grew up listening to hip hop. Before long, Ball J was messing around with beats, making demos on his own, but the hobby would eventually take over. "Around 2008, I decided I needed to be more serious, make masters." He trained with a bass player friend, who had a studio in Lapaz, a popular neighborhood in Accra. While learning the trade, he had a local hit, Chale, on Legon University's Radio Universe.
As his name started to pop, Ball J also joined the Skillions hip hop crew, along with Jayso, E.L. and many others. Skillions is a nebulous, influential crew in Ghanaian music today: many Skillions members have gone on to have their own highly successful careers. For instance E.L. and Ball J are two Skillions beatmakers now making hits consistently, while Skillions founder Jayso is about to release a heavy hitting album with Ghana's number one artist and MC, Sarkodie.
"The main problem for a sound engineer is that the business is not really on point. If you don't make a hit, it's very hard." And a hit in Ghana is a song you dance to. So without forgetting about straight hip hop, Ball J started to mess with faster beats, mostly to fulfil the demands of artists coming to his studio. His first significant hit was Kwaw Kese's Killa Bewo in 2010. After that, Ball J produced too many songs to mention, but the next major milestone was Lapaz Toyota.
What amazes me about Lapaz Toyota is how inventive, minimal and unusual the beat is. When I first visited Ghana in 2007, the country's soundtrack was much more melodic and highlife-tinged. Lapaz Toyota on the other hand is so funky and inventive, despite how simple it is, it can give many Western electronic producers a run for their money.
The song put Guru on the map in a big way, and significantly improved Ball J's music studio business. As the song blew up, all kinds of artists came to Ball J in the hopes of reproducing Lapaz Toyota's success: "People started calling all the time. I was looking for hip hop endorsements, but the azonto thing took off. The studio became packed." Mainstream as well as underground artists have been pouring through, the next big hit being Stay Jay's Twaa Me La La (below), another unavoidable hit of late 2012 in Ghana. Then came Black Prophet with Let Me Do My Thing, and more recently Gasmilla with Init.
"Even though azonto is what I became known for, I am still making a lot of hip hop." Not only is Ball J producing for other artists, he also just released his own single - yes, he also raps! All Eyes On U, a "Jay-Z style" rap song currently making waves with hip hop heads in Ghana.
So how does Ball J make it all work? "I own the studio, so I can charge my own fee for studio time. If an artist can't pay the full fee, we release the song, if it hits, then he pays the balance. Or I wait till the artist gets shows, then I get a commission." This last bit is an innovative model, highly relevant in Ghana today where artists make all their money from shows and endorsements. "I'm also into helping the underground, making sure everybody gets the best."
Keep in mind the money studios charge to record a song is nothing compared to what artists can make from shows, so Ball J's model has never been a problem with successful artists. As long as artists are not broke, he always gets paid without fuss. The problem is rather that many artists do not get a hit, and are broke. "Even with a hit, people still come with no money; it's still difficult."
Nevertheless, Ball J has grown to the point where he is now investing more and more in artists, launching his own label, Nu Afrika; besides the studio, he shoots videos, organizes events, and is able to play a greater role with artists who fit his work: "Nu Afrika is all about artists who represent my work, my team, music from Africa. So far we are doing it all ourselves, but we are still looking for shareholders in Nu Afrika."
You can reach out to Ball J on Facebook and Twitter. But even if you don't, his beats will undoubtedly reach you!