http://content.omroep.nl/ghettoradio/musicblog/dj_juls_intro_freedom.mp3 Intro - Freedom
http://content.omroep.nl/ghettoradio/musicblog/dj_juls_rockstones_office.mp3 Rockstone's Office
4 tracks from DJ Jul' new 29-track Jungle Book Beat Tape. DOWNLOAD the complete folder.
I like it when a cover really captures the spirit of the music. With DJ Juls' new Jungle Book Beat Tape, there is no mistaking: his music recycles classics to turn them into something fun. And cool. And definitely not typical of the current trends emerging from Ghana.
Far, far from azonto or afrobeats, Juls is one of the very few in Ghana to seek inspiration from old school highlife, the big guitar and dance bands of the 1960s and 1970s. This is the only music I knew from Ghana before I moved here, and I must say I was very surprised when I realized this music is quasi-forgotten here. I can still see people's puzzled reactions when I asked about classics like E.T. Mensah & The Tempos or the Ramblers Dance Band. They seemed to think I was either an archeologist digging up long lost antiques, or… a weirdo. Well the weirdo in me is in love with yaa amponsah:
I came to realize that the older tunes are not easy to access. Most of the vinyl records are long gone. The pressings were quite limited to begin with. Add to that the hot, humid and often dusty weather, and records are destroyed if you don't stash them away carefully. Then there was a politically tumultuous time for much of the 1980s, which culminated in a few years of curfews every night. This meant no more live music at night. In just a few years the otherwise lively music scene was decimated. Then there was the advent of cassette tapes, which made piracy cheap and quick. All in all less money to record, fewer shows to play, so very little means of survival for musicians and artists. Less fortunate artists remained in Ghana and turned to less glamorous professions, while luckier ones went into exile, many of them landing in the UK or Germany, in particular Hamburg.
This in turn gave birth to the Burger highlife sound. By that time synthesizers were prevalent, electro funk-type beats replaced more traditional rhythms, and vinyl was out of the picture almost entirely. From then on the sound, as well as the distribution, became more and more digital. This means that to this day, there is no shortage of Burger highlife on the radio, but anything older remains a rare treat. And finding vinyl is a challenge, unless you have Ghanaian uncles in Hamburg – which I don't – or you've made it your lifelong quest to get your hands on every available piece of rare vinyl out there, and that's simply not me. For more on that, and some of the issues I see related to that part of the business, check out Boima Tucker's great piece, The Scramble for Vinyl over at Africa is a Country.
Anyone familiar with my label - Akwaaba Music - knows I'm definitely not allergic to digital sounds, nevertheless it's incredibly refreshing to hear an artist bridging the gap between the old tunes and modern times. Introducing DJ Juls, a young Ghanaian beatmaker, who's inspiration stems from Kanye, Pete Rock or J Dilla as much as it does from CK Mann, Dr K Gyasi or Ebo Taylor. As Juls and I start talking, he tells me: "I think it's important to show people the type of old school music we have." Now that's something I hardly ever hear. I'm drooling.
Much like someone like Madlib, Juls' music is gaining serious momentum, but remains very much leftfield. The times are working in Juls' favour however: his type of beats are a perfect match for the rapidly growing pidgin rap movement in Ghana. "Nobody thought that anybody could rap in pidgin with a Ghanaian accent. Many tried but didn't really push it for fear of being laughed at. But Wanlov and M3nsa did just that." And they are now spearheading an entire genre in Ghana, opening up a nice window for pidgin MCs, cats like the Skillions crew, Lil' Shaker, E.L. or Gemini, as well as for beatmakers like Juls.
The links between pidgin rap and sampling old highlife are no coincidence. Before Juls, there were other important figures paving the way. First there is Panji Anoff, the producer behind the Pidgen Music label, a man of vision who helped launch the careers of Wanlov the Kubolor, Yaa Pono, Mutombo the Poet, or further from the pidgin rap world, King Ayisoba and more recently Lady Jay. Kweku Ananse also inspired Juls. First there was his radio show on Accra's Vibe FM, on which he aired all kinds of highlife classics. More recently Kweku produced most of the cuts on the Coz Ov Moni pidgin musical, and together with Panji, inculcated the concept that "real hip hop from Ghana should incorporate both pidgin and old school highlife" as Juls tells me.
While azonto gets people moving, pidgin and highlife are key to capture people's attention when talking about real life situations. English is an official language in Ghana, but pidgin penetrates much further, it is easier to understand for the common man, it is also perhaps more colourful. Highlife, like pidgin, has diverse, multicultural roots - both in Ghanaian folklore and Western big band music. This in turn makes it very palatable for a non-Ghanaian audience. All in all, what I think is pretty darn cool about pidgin rap and sampling highlife is that they are distinctly Ghanaian, but at the same time they cross over easily to non-Ghanaians.
What's surprising though is that these sounds are still slow to capture Ghanaians' interest. Perhaps highlife is just too obvious for a young Ghanaian. It's the music you hear at funerals and weddings, and although the original recordings are not well known, everybody knows the songs, everybody can sing along. Whenever I ask around about what you might call "conscious music", I'm told over and over that Ghanaians don't want to hear about their problems, they already face them daily. When they hear music they want to forget, they want to dance. And this is very true. In most cases. Fortunately there is a growing appetite for something different, and there are enough artists and fans who value their Ghanaian highlife heritage to keep Juls quite busy. Recently he's made beats for Wanlov, M3nsa, M.anifest, E.L., Yaa Pono, and even soul diva Efya. in other words the cream of the crop of the new Ghanaian indie scene.
Not bad at all, considering that Juls only started producing beats about two years ago: "E.L. was two rooms away [in the university dorm]. He didn't have a laptop so he installed software on my laptop. He would come by every day to play around on the laptop, teaching me in the process". Juls admits: "E.L. taught me everything." And while nowadays E.L. has been favoring azonto - and it's working quite well for him - Juls is continuing to incorporate classic yet fresh highlife riffs into his beats.
For anybody who listens to mid 1990s New York style hip hop, from DJ Premier to the aforementioned Pete Rock, or more recently Madlib and J Dilla, Juls' beats are a logical continuation. Clearly this sound is on the fringes of mainstream music, both in the West and in Ghana, yet as Juls puts it "if you target the right people, they will spread the word and the music." And here I am doing just that. Juls' beats speak to my heart, they are a link between my backpacker hip hop days and my contemporary mission to spread African music and culture. And I know there are a lot of cats out there who relate to the classic boom bap sound. More vim to you Juls!
If you read this far you deserve some freebies:
DJ Juls' blog
Juls' brother Jason, mastermind behind all of the artwork
Mixtapes & tracks:
AfroBeat Mix Vol. 1
Da Burst of FOKN Bois
Blue Color Mixtape
M.anifest - Suffer Remix
Mutombo - X-Ray ft Lady Jay
Coz Ov Moni: The Dw3tei Remixes