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, FruityLoops (or FL Studio) is the software of choice to create rhythms and sequence songs.
Last December, I received a song on Twitter that immediately got me bouncing around: Tozo, by a certain Blaka.
I'd never heard of Blaka, nor of Blaq Vybz, the beatmaker's tagline. But a few days later I met Blaka, and he shared another banger with me: Gbelemor, by AJ Omo Alajah, a Nigerian artist I have met several times over the past few years.
The two beats both fit in comfortably within the current azonto aesthetics, yet I could feel Blaka's distinct touch. His beats are very percussive, with almost psychedelic details, repetitive, weird sounds he layers on top of his drums. I was sold.
I visited Blaka's own home studio last December, but it wasn't until this week that I checked out the place where he now spends most of his time cooking up beats: Richard "Oyeade Futumomi" Wiafe's Soul Food studio, in Dansoman, Greater Accra. Oyeade3, a keyboardist and music teacher, set up a nice little studio which he seems to have too little time to keep busy. Fortunately, he heard Blaka's songs in the neighbourhood and offered for Blaka the opportunity to work out of it. Business-wise, this means Blaka makes beats for both his own artist clients and for Oyeade's people. The two then share the fees Blaka collects.
"I'm not used to it" he tells me as I check out the studio monitors, a very decent pair of Mackies. Clearly a massive improvement over the speakers I'd seen in his own setup. The walls inside Soul Food are covered entirely in eggshell-type foam, Oyeade3's keyboard throne is next to the computer, and the sound booth is big enough to fit in several people. Chyna Brown, an up and coming Dansoman artist, was there ready for a session: clearly the studio is active, and here's a sample of Blaka's recent work:
"I started rapping ten years ago, doing battle, battle, battle on the street, in school," says Blaka. He has also played the drums since he was a child. "I was in a culture group at school, then 5 years ago I started playing the drums in church, so I'm good when it comes to African drums."
And it shows in his beats: "When I'm on the keyboard, producing a beat, first I play some percussions. I dance to the beat, I try to put myself in the beat, I ask myself what will this beat do to the next man, how will it make him feel? Then I look for some crazy pad that's weird, then maybe some war horns, horns that when you hear you go 'eyyyyy!'"
Blaka has a lot to say about how much care he puts into crafting his beats: "I don't like playing just one kick, I like playing 2 or 3 kicks, in the same song. They'll be changing, so the beat will be dynamic." Further explaining how he keeps his beats lively, he tells me: "I use FruityLoops, but I use the keyboard to play, I don't just click."
And we're back to FruityLoops! "I first saw FruityLoops on a friend's machine, I asked for it, got it and spent an entire day trying to do something. The first thing I could play was a funk beat, it was very funny." I ask Blaka what he means by funk beat, so he opens up his FruityLoops, and instantly puts together a standard 4/4 house beat, with a kick on every beat, snare on 3 and high hats on 2 and 4. Poom tchee tak tchee poom tchee tak tchee…" After listening to all of his crazy rhythmic concoctions, I had to agree: this beat was very funny.
What strikes me about Blaka, is his desire to do something different, and to push others to be creative. "I can't produce all the beats for this camp alone, each artist should play a part, so I give the software to my guys, I give them guidelines and they pick it up." You might not fully grasp how different this feels from what I usually hear or witness: most producers I meet cling onto their knowledge, guard it carefully, and take great precautions before distilling it in other people's brains.
But Blaka sees it all as a group effort. As a matter of fact, he is putting together a band with the artists he works with: "Every guy on my label can play an instrument. Most of them play guitar or keyboard. We already started practicing at my studio." I ask him how he might incorporate his off-the-wall percussive style into the live setup: "we might come on stage with spoons, buckets, we'll play them. Everything about me is music, every sound I hear I want to turn into music. I learned all of this on my own, I'm not the type to go to Youtube. I just listen to more music and try to get my own sound out of it."
Blaka shared a few works in progress with me, and told me I should feel free to share them with artists anywhere: the following playlist contains sketches, which Blaka would be more than happy to collaborate on with other beatmakers, singers and rappers. So check them out, and holler back here or there to get the ball rolling. And remember, as Blaka wisely said to me: "I believe it's not a competition, we must all play a part."