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From fledged studios to bedroom Studios

By | June 26th 2009

By Stevens Muendo and Caroline Nyanga

Every single day, at least five young musicians from across the country armed with poorly recorded CDs walk up to our offices to drop it off for review. Most of these self-proclaimed artistes will always tell you that they recorded (the CD) in their own studios in the hood.

Most of them usually level accusations that top deejays and radio stations have refused to give them audience, or play their songs. But upon listening to the tracks repeatedly, we sometimes trash them (literally by binning them) due to poor production and lack of mastery of artistry.

Out of all the new artistes who bring debut songs, only a few make the cut. So where does all these aspiring musicians go?

Two Saturday ago, hundreds of them thronged Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) for the auditions of the continental MTV Africa Music Awards with Zain (MAMA) My Video category.

The hopefuls came dressed in sagging oversize jeans, T-shirts and fake swagger in the name of being the next…Weezy? And the judges gave each artiste two minutes to prove they are talented. Majority of them made fools of themselves, blubbering through lyrics they imagined were killer bars, throwing hands in the air and removing their tops, exposing fake bling. The crowd was left in stitches, as cameras clicked away.

"I’m an underground artiste and I have been singing for years. I believe if I emerge the winner, I will become a superstar," says beaming Desire Havyarimana aka Dizzo, optimistic that he will win the My Video MTV continental award.

Addah Onyango, 23, travelled from Kisumu for this and told Pulse: "In the past I have auditioned for Tusker Project Fame, and now I’m here to try my luck."

And the list was endless as the youngsters hoped to be the next Amani or Jua Cali.

Of the over 400 new singers who claim a single or an album out, only a few can stand up and defend their chosen career.

The harsh truth is that most of those artistes who have been claiming that radio and TV stations are not playing their music sounds good only in the confines of their bedrooms and shower rooms. Some of these artistes have refused to give up, though. For almost 10 years reggae singer Scraggy has been hoping to hit the right button. He once claimed that Kiss FM refused to play his music in Pulse, infuriating Caroline Mutoko who tried upstarts songs in vain. Although Scraggy has great vocals, his studio of choice is something akin to a bedroom studio. Perhaps that’s the reason his debut album, Atis has not received favourable airplay, although he has spent a fortune putting it together. And he is not alone, thousands of other aspiring musicians have fallen by the wayside. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel as such acts still get shows in small towns like Gilgil or Narok.

Tedd Josiah at Blu Zebra

So why do we have only a handful of musicians breaking through? In the past six years the few local studios were in competition to release great music and did not mind how much they put in a record. Now the emerging studios are keen on making quick bucks. Gone are days when producers wanted to create a name for the studio, and artistes as commercialisation galore creep in. Gone are days when studios such Andrew Crawford and Johari Clef reigned supreme.

Bruce Odhiambo put up an expensive Johari Clef, and trained artistes in various aspects of music as he recorded their work. The likes of Ambrose Akwabi and his brother Shaky of Mandugu Digital who is now known for great hits like Dar Mpaka Moro, Mr Politician and Anita learnt their trade. Bruce could be credited for recording the late Poxi Presha’s debut track, Dhako Kelo Wichkout which changed Kenya’s music landscape. The other studio which ruled the roost was Sync Sound under Hassan Omar, with Tedd Josiah as the producer. Here Tedd released Hardstone’s hit Uhiki. Tedd soon decamped and teamed with David Mureithi and Mike Rabar to launch Audio Vault where the unveiled the likes of Tafsiri Hii by Kalamasha ka, Ting Badi Malo by Gidgidi Majimaji, 4-In-One by Ndarling P, all rolled out in the late 1990s. They also recorded the likes of Maina Kageni, Nazizi and Nikii.

But there was no honeymoon as the three partners split with Tedd forming Blu Zebra Studios, Mike opening up now multimillion Homeboyz Entertainment and David going into business.

Blu Zebra was a fully equipped studio, run professionally with all the technical requirements of a modern day studio.

Tedd had invested over Sh5million in it by the time he left the country.

"For quality productions, a studio should meet the professional set up standards and everything has to be done professionally. I’d rather produce one good song or video than line up hundreds of artistes and release hundreds of poorly produced songs which will end up getting no airplay," Tedd once told Pulse.

At Blu Zebra Tedd nurtured the talents of Didge, Necessary Noize, Gidi gidi Maji maji famed for Unbwogable and Suzanna Owiyo among others. He also recorded Nameless’s first single before he decamped to Ogopa Deejays. As Tedd was releasing hits Gido Kibuskosya and ex-wife Suzzane) operated Samawati Studios which recorded Barbara Guantai, K-South Flava (Abbas and Bamboo), Mercy Myra and Jomenes Boys Gi Band (formerly Lake Station and 4 G Mafia from Kisumu).

Pilipili and Brayo at Chilli Inc.

The likes of Tim Rimbui who operates Eric Wainaina’s Enkare Studio cut his musical teeth as a producer at Samawati. The other beneficiary of production skills and studio engineering is Senator of Jomenes Boys Gi Band. And since the artistes released such albums like Kenya The First Chapter and Kenya The Second Chapter.

Soon Ogopa Deejays joined the fray, as Lucas Bikedo left Homeboyz and teamed with Franci and Banda to sign only cutting-edge talented artistes and gave them two year contracts for quality production. And here E-Sir, Nameless, Wahu, Amani, Klepto, K-Rupt, Deux Vultures, Chameleone, Big Pin, Bebe Cool, Tattuu, Redsan, Mr Googs and Vinnie Banton. Nameless’s song Ninanoki with the line "Ogopa deejays, wacha ku-delay," was too true, Ogopa never delayed!

Now Ogopa is on phase II as they have signed Mimmo, Avril, Kenzo, Trapee, Mustapha among others to create new stars. Ogopa has a vision to take signed artistes to the top through well-calculated campaigns.

As Ogopa is all the rave, a new kid on the block arrived as Calif Records after the split from Scratch Records in California Estate to create Genge under Clemo’s beat. Here Nonini put the studio on the East African map with Manzi wa Nairobi, and Wee Kamu. After few years in musical backwaters success, beckoned! Jua Cali and his manager nowadays rule the money roost, although some say his Cali studio don’t function 24, 7, 365. Others who rose to the top included mellow-voiced singer Pilpili, Lady S, [email protected], Rat-a-tat, Circute & Jo-el and now Mejja.

Ogopa and Blu Zebra can be credited for international quality videos that received continental acclaim.

"It is one thing to hand a musician a microphone and record their lyrics; but another to direct, measure vocals, mix them, master and end up releasing a club banger," argues Emmanuel Banda of Ogopa.

But now, many up and coming artistes, avoiding the slightly exorbitant rates charged in some of the best studios and are opting for the ‘quick fix’ studios ending up victims of shoddy production.

While a single production may end up costing Sh70,000 in the renowned stables, a ‘bedroom’ producer will be quick to accept as low as Sh5,000 to record a desperate newcomer. These songs sometimes takes a single day to record, mix and release, as opposed to the four to eight months a seasoned producer will take to work on a good song.

Unlike the renowned producers who also include Musyoka of Decimal Ltd, R Kay, Ulopa Ngoma, Ambrose of Mandugu Digital and Homeboyz Productshizzle, Scratch Records, Sakata Gospel Records, Herbal and Bedrock Studios are now calling for showbiz attention.

Now artistes are joined recording business including Redsan, Pilipili, Rufftone and Nonini. And the list is endless.

Pilipili’s Chilli Inc Records, started six months ago. " I realised I can’t sing forever and chose to open up a studio in a bid to help out other up coming talent who will be able to maintain my legacy as far as their music production."

"I have worked with a number of artistes including Circute, Kizo B, Reeina, Nawiri, Kabaka just to name a few."

Pro-Herbo publishing Records CEO, Nonini says: " It is time musicians thought of spreading their wings to other areas."

He says although they are a few quacks out there who are out to take advantage of upcoming artistes, the fact is most seasoned artistes know what good music entails, and how to go about it.

Gospel singer Rufftone has not been left behind — he owns Lampstand Records.

"I don’t see anything wrong in owning a studio," he adds.

Underground rapper Kimya has been working as a producer for the past one and a half year at Phoenix Records, Ngong Road.

It’s becoming obvious that owning a laptop, amplifier, microphone and earphones doesn’t qualify one as a producer. Neither does Sh10,000 and poorly arranged and produced lyrics make one the next big thing.

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