Classic Kenyan music albums we will never forget

By Mkala Mwaghesha | 3 months ago
Kenyan music rap group Kalamashaka. (Courtesy)

Ni Wakati - Kalamashaka 

Kalamashaka filled up a stadium in Nigeria. And that was before the YouTube age, a time when a newly-released song was not easily available at the touch of a button. Not even in the source country. That was how iconic the trio of Kama, Roba, and Vigeti was, heralding a new era of conscious and hard-core rap that was by then, not palatable for Kenyan radios.

Ni Wakati dropped in 2001 and included Tafsiri Hii, Moto, and Fanya Mambo, which was a favourite on Channel O.

 “The album showed me that as an inspiring artiste, Hip Hop could be tackled in Swahili. And it changed my perception of how I wanted to be as a Hip Hop craftsman,” said Labalaa, one-half of Wakamba Wawili and member of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau.

FuNKYToWN - Camp Mulla 

The teens took the continent by storm, their performance in BBA the highlight of their short but phenomenal career. Shappaman, Karun, K’cous, and Taio bellied more craft and stardom than their age and experience warranted, but the four, and their manager Toni, seamlessly rode the radio and TV charts, with an album that featured an unknown Wizkid, Collo, Bamboo and Just A Band. And incredibly, they made their own music!

“As a group, Camp Mulla was a breath of fresh air in an industry that had practically stagnated due to lack of originality. Their album had a fresh urban sound, with masterful audio and video production unlike anything that existed in the Kenyan music scene at the time,” said Boniface Mwalii, an industry beacon who was part of Camp Mulla’s growing fame.

“The group’s feelgood vibes quickly became the soundtrack of many parties.” Camp Mulla is still mourned to date, music lovers and loyal fans believing the kids were meant for much more.

Boniface, whose Makarao animated series has partnered with American stand-up comedian Lil Rel Howery’s Kweli TV, explains: “When they disintegrated, it was evident that sustaining a star-studded artistes collective demands more than the group’s ability to churn addictive music.”

Ogopa 1 - Ogopa Deejays

Ogopa opted for a compilation project as an answer to put out a collection of radio hits from a roster of hungry artistes, who did not have enough material for individual albums. The ‘Kenyan Club Classics’ featured Nameless, Mr Googz & Vinnie Banton, Deux Vultures, Amani, Kleptomaniax and others, with classics hits like Wasee (Githurai Remix), which received a 2002 KORA nomination, Monalisa, Ninanoki, Julie, Leo ni Leo, among others.

“That is a classic album. Each and every jam on the album was not just a hit but a monster hit,” said singer-songwriter Kenzo, who was in the third generation of artistes at Ogopa Deejays.

“That album opened my eyes to how people could actually make money through music. Positive and good music. And the album pushed me to do my style of music, storytelling music.”

The Mama Milka and Zam Zam artiste credits the path Ogopa 1 created for him, saying it opened his eyes to the potential and market for non-‘rusha mikono juu’ songs.

Dandora Burning - Ukoo Flani Mau Mau  

One of the best Hip Hop works from the 2000s, the star-studded masterpiece by Ukoo Flani Mau Mau was handled by Musyoka, Dunga and Chizen Brain and funded, by among others Kwani?. The album broke geographical barriers, fusing rap and production artistry from Mombasa and Nairobi, bellying hits like Mau Mau Warfare, Jesusnosis, Mazishi ya Polisi, Piga Bao, and Dandora Burning, an 11-minute masterclass of bars, kicks, and snares. It was the coming of age of conscious rap, egos put to the side to work on a piece of art that is simply brilliant. 

“It is one of my favourite albums of all time,” said Kaa La Moto, whose own album, Kesi (2019), was widely acclaimed in the Hip Hop scene, besides having been mastered by Chizen Brain.

“The album changed the rap scene from hip hop made for the dance halls, and it influenced me as an artiste because of how good all the Hip Hop elements came together in that project. The album is so pure. It had bars, content, tastes, Swahili vibe and storylines…”

Nimefika - E-Sir

On Jay Z’ A Star is Born, the American raps, “I had the Illmatic on bootleg, the s**t was so ahead, thought we was all dead.” Replace Nas’ Illmatic with Nimefika and the sentiments remain the same.

Issah Mmari’s 10-song album, which dropped posthumously, reached iconic status the moment news of its imminent release hit the streets, his death coming at a time when he had the game on his grip, his stardom spread across the country, and the industry ready and rooting for him.

All the 10 songs were hits, with Hamnitishi, featuring Talia, almost a premonition of the premature death the 21-year-old would be involved in after a performance in Nakuru.

“Growing up outside of Nairobi with minimal access to what was considered mainstream rap, Nimefika was the first body of work that made rap relatable to me. Listening to E-Sir felt familiar, first because of the language and secondly because the imagery made everything more “real”, said Jemedari, rap artiste, poet, voice-over artiste and now, a vlogger with Clutch TV, which showcases the biking culture, an inspiration he traces back to the peerless influence of Mash Auto.

“E-Sir rapped about things I was seeing and going through, in a language and flow that I related to. I even think I dressed like him at some point.”

According to Jemedari, Nimefika impacted his own style, and “the first time I got on stage to rap was because he invited me on stage, in what was later to be his last show.”

Mwanzo - Sauti Sol 

Before filling up revered arenas the world over, and getting a mega record deal with a global label, Sauti Sol was just four boys shooting cheap but creative videos at Sarakasi Dome for their 2008 debut album, Mwanzo. Lazizi, which others call Java, and Blue Uniform were the first singles and videos, from a unique and profound album that opened doors for more Afro-fusion artistes to try out new sounds in an industry that had thrived on the popularity of Genge, Boomba, and Kapuka.

“Mwanzo was an iconic album because it was not only defining for the group but it was defining for the industry and what would be a new era and generational sound in the Kenyan music scene,” said celebrity publicist and industry insider Anyiko Awoko of Anyiko Public Relations, who has appeared as cast on several Sauti Sol’s videos.

“It was the first album in Kenya which had the background of Afro-fusion but was very much simplified into a sort of an acoustic version and through its acoustics, its vocals, the arrangement, and songwriting, you were able to follow the stories of this new band.”

Now on a fifth album, released under Universal Music Africa, Mwanzo was the foundation that set up the group’s popularity and gave life to a genre of singers, songwriters, and performance artistes who were comfortable with not being rappers. An album that was pure on its purpose. “You were able to tell who these people were and what their struggles were; what they would envision for the future and I think that is what really drew people to Sauti Sol and the album. It was more than just a sound, it was the content of that sound and what that stood for,” said Anyiko.

“Other artistes rose from then onwards, and today we can see and tell how many have been influenced by Mwanzo, and Sauti Sol when it comes to songwriting, live music performance and just pure artistry and the flair of it.”

Necessary Noize II - Necessary Noize

How good was this album? Well, it won at Kisima, Chaguo La Teeniez and PAM awards, and was nominated for Tanzania Music and Channel O Music awards. The album was done after the exit of Bamzigi, whose verses on some of the finished songs had to be removed. Necessary Noize I was similarly good, but the second album, which is also known as Kenyan Gal, Kenyan Boy, arrived at the advent of urban music shows that had Kenyans glued to their TVs every evening.

“It was actually one of the best albums in terms of experimentation. It had different genres - from Taarab with Aziz, to Neo-soul in Nishamtambua,” said Nimo ‘Futuristic’ Giathi of Sauti Za Mabinti, an industry insider facilitating the voices of female artistes.

“I loved the artistes they featured as well. I would say it was an album that different music audiences would enjoy. The experiment was very successful… to be able to pull that off and guys to actually appreciate it.”

At a time when the concept of a talented and excellent femcee was unheard of in Kenya, Nazizi was trailblazing. “Nazizi being able to rap alongside male counterparts played an amazing role to the women in music. Being able to hold the mic and prove how talented she was, gave a different perspective of female rappers,” added Nimo, on the impact of the album, and Nazizi, on female rappers. “Her flow was amazing, as was her confidence on the mic.”

82 - Just A Band

An eclectic album that broke the norm, with a European sound founding a perfect home in Nairobi. The unthinkable was executed to perfection while introducing the concept of viral content.

Hanyaring game – Nonini

The bad boy of Kenyan rap was thirsty enough to share his lewd thoughts with songs like Manzi wa Nairobi, We Kamu and Mtoto Mzuri.

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