The story of Ghana's favourite genre – part 1

Hiplife, a relatively new genre of music from Ghana, has provided a source of livelihood to millions of the country's citizens along the entire value chain of the music industry.

Reggie Rockstone is popularly called the Godfather of Hiplife.
Reggie Rockstone is popularly called the Godfather of Hiplife.

So much has transpired over the past 20 years on the music landscape that it is amazing when you consider the transformations from the days when selling cassettes and CDs was the main source of revenue to these days when the main revenue sources are now performance fees and sponsorships or endorsements. The history of popular music in Ghana reads from the days of highlife.

From the glory days of highlife, the scene underwent some transformations till the arrival of Burger highlife ala George Darko and Co. On the heels of the Burger highlife explosion was the hiplife movement which came with a whole new lifestyle and culture, becoming a source of livelihood for many Ghanaians and indeed foreigners alike.

The likes of Native Funk Lords (NFL), Nananom and X Doe were some of the names that resonated after the legendary Reggie Rockstone midwifed the genre, which is a fusion of hip hop beats with local language rap and in some cases some local rhythms. After Reggie’s trailblazing work, Nananom, NFL and the kids who used to hang around Kays Frequency and Nana King’s Studio in Dansoman churned out numerous ditties. Around the same mid-90s, you had the Fun World at National Theatre where under the eagle eyes of Auntie Korkor talents like Tic Tac, Buk Bak and Terry Bonchaka earned their stripes.

All this was happening while live music tethered on the ropes. This was the era of miming when all you needed was a hit and you could perform to a playback track. Naturally with the liberalised airwaves, which meant numerous outlets for music, one-hit wonders became the order of the day with the likes of Deeba, T Blaze and others flashing like comets across the galaxy and disappearing in a twinkle. The genre itself underwent various stages when you had the crank jama and other versions just like we now have azonto, alqaeda and other blends of the genre.

Then of course there has been a fair share of not so savoury news about the business. None outdoes the disappearance of hiplife artist Castro and his partner Janet Bandu in Ada where they had gone to revel with some friends. Two years after his disappearance when the couple was last seen in the river Volta in Ada, they have not been found and the police says it is still investigating the matter. Then of course there were the infamous sex tapes involving the swanky Tema-based lass Tiffany, which made many of the tapes swirling around pale into insignificance. The release of the tapes led to a separation with the label of UK-based Ghanaian singer Fuse ODG. Tiffany has since moved on and is still rocking.

Evolution of hiplife

Hiplife writer Halifu Osumare notes in her book, The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip Hop, that “Hiplife, a hybrid music that has established itself as a unique pop music genre in Africa, is an important contribution to world culture”. There is no doubt that hiplife music is a hybrid of highlife and hip hop. The debate is about the mix of the two genres and the extent of the mix or the dominance of which influence should be acceptable.

From the 1990s, as highlife music experienced a lull with the predominance of spinning groups of the 1980s, the influence of Western music, particularly American R&B and hip hop, increased. Hiplife historians Jesse Shipley and Osumare both agree that the indigenisation of hip hop in Africa is more than a simplistic imitation of the genre but rather a reinterpretation of the genre based on the local context and dynamics. There is no doubt that the presence of rap music on the Ghanaian scene was happening prior to the return of Reggie Rockstone from the UK where he had been based.

This development had been fuelled by the spinning groups that played mainly Western music and spawned dancers like Adjetey Sowah, Slim Buster, Sir Robot and Reggie Rockstone himself. However, there is no disputing the fact that it was Rockstone who coined the word hiplife, which marked the turning point in the genre’s development.

Along with his musical partners Freddie Funkstone and DJ Rab Bakari, a half Ghanaian who had also returned from New York, they sampled beats from a global basket that was predominantly Afro-based and blended them with hip hop infected raps delivered in a potpourri of English, Pidgin English and Twi. Rockstone went on to consistently release a slew of hit tunes setting off a whole movement which today is a multimillion dollar global industry.

This is an excerpt from Ahuma Bosco Ocansey’s forthcoming book Conversations on the Creative Arts in Ghana. Stay tuned for the second instalment of this four-part serial.  


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