Posts from 17th September 2002

17
Sep 02

DAKAR’S DELIGHT – Africa Raps

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Pacotille is slang for “rubbish” and Pacotille wanted to make a hip-hop tape but he couldn’t even afford his own beats so he did it the hard way, splicing beats and intros from copied American records. He had it on sale in Dakar’s cassette shops in a couple of weeks, the cover showed a cheap plastic sandal. This is the bottom end of the spectrum that starts with John Oswald and runs through Richard X, of course – plagiarhythm as economic neccessity. We don’t get to actually hear it – the compilers of Trikont’s Africa Raps set us straight on that: the lyrics are impressive but “unfortunately, the music itself is not powerful enough to be interesting for anyone outside of Senegal”. Except hip-hop lawyers, I’m guessing.

Mostly when it comes to American rap the Dakar producers take the talent route, not the genius one. The beats they like best are slow, simple, head-nodding rather than funky, and rich with little melodic and musical touches. This might be a preference of the Trikont office, not the Dakar street, of course, and there’s enough cops from Dre or No Limit productions to suggest that the thoughtful styles given prominence on this album aren’t the full story. But you’d expect diversity – Senegal (which gives us most of the tracks on Africa Raps) is hip-hop’s second nation in terms of rappers per capita.

Not that Senegal has its own P.Diddy or Jay-Z – almost all hip-hop is sold on cassettes, and a big hit gets tens of thousands of sales. Plenty more might be listening of course but the money doesn’t feed back to the artists – one track on the CD is a broadside against music pirates. The relative poverty of the Senegalese scene means that whatever the street followings of the artists there’s no underground-mainstream divide to worry about. Which isn’t to say issues of ‘realness’ don’t dog African hip-hop, as the strange case of Gokh-Bi System shows.

Gokh-Bi System got a big break – an American tour, as part of a cultural exchange program, and a chance to release an album there, which they called The Real Africa, blending traditional African music and hip-hop. How real were they? On their US tour they’d wear boubous, traditional Senegalese dress. Back in Dakar, though, off came the boubous and on came the Nikes. Even so their profile in their hometown was zero – the Dakar crowd didn’t want conservative music and conservative clothes. Gokh-Bi’s track on Africa Raps lambasts women who bleach their skin – “Sister sister, stay the way you are”. It barely sounds like hip-hop at all.

American hip-hop goes through Afrocentric phases but it doesn’t want to know about its African imitators, or that’s the impression you get reading the interviews in these liner notes. The Senegalese rap that sells abroad is the stuff with ‘exotic’ elements. Sometimes this makes for striking music – Bibson and Xuman’s “Kav Jel Ma” samples Youssou N’Dour, blending Mbalax and beats to sinewy effect, and Mali’s Les Escrocs sprinkle “Pirates” with delightfully birdlike kora runs. But other great tracks on this compilation don’t sell themselves as anything other than hip-hop: my favourite, Abass Abass’ “Urgence” weaves through melancholy piano loops and phased horn tracks and stands as one of the best Francophone rap tracks I’ve heard.

To be honest, the French-language rapping is part of why I like the CD so much. I don’t get to hear the lyrics, which is a shame – the sleeve notes paint an exciting picture, of a city where cheap cassette production and distribution means that hip-hop can stay right up to date, and of a society where 80% of people are under 30. Corruption is rife and the street answers back – some of these songs breaking their flow to quote chunks of one politico or other’s speeches. I can’t tell, though, whether they’re being satirical or supportive, and I can’t catch the political-religious tensions either, in a music where the key production company is called Fight In The Name Of Allah. But I love hearing French rapped – all those elisions and sibilants are a dreamy alternative to hard-consonant English spitting. And when this copmpilation does dip into English-language rapping the flows are frankly muddy, so my lack of comprehension is maybe a blessing. Even if it does position me as just another background-music consumer, a European seeker after the exotic.

The other thing I notice when the English-language crews (mostly from the Gambia) turn up is that in fact the lyrics are mostly brags and disses. Nothing wrong with that of course and I take on trust the idea that the French rappers are more politicised but it shows up some of the tensions that emerge as hip-hop becomes more and more globalised. On the one hand it’s the biggest-selling music in the world and at the same time it’s a uniquely cheap and flexible way of making records that are absolutely local in outlook, which is where Pacotille comes in. But in order for those records to have legitimacy they have to keep a sonic connection with the global style, which has long since outgrown its strictly local roots. Hip-hop’s sample-based beat-building throws another element in the mix, as local crews can tap an older legitimacy by sampling previous home-grown local musics, but then they risk their status as avatars of the here-and-now.

To many an American listener, happy in the home of hip-hop, there’s no problem here: American rap is the real thing and anything else is a charming or laughable imitation. To a listener in Dakar – or Paris or London, for that matter – enjoying hip-hop means negotiating however reluctantly between these clashing reals, listening to the local crews who steal ideas from the Americans and use them to talk about blocks of flats or marabouts or Special Brew or Dakar ambulance drivers stopping to buy cigs instead of taking you to the hospital. And of course hip-hop is a global music because of this tension, because (America) is the secret parenthesised presence in everything that happens nowadays, culture’s background noise. Hip-hop is so big, so everywhere now because it’s about life on every street, and at the moment life on every street is a life lived in America’s shadow.