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Interview: DJ Juls on Afrobeats production

Morgan Greenstreet: Juls, great to (virtually) meet you! How you doing?

Julian Nicco-Annan (DJ Juls):  Not so bad boss, not so bad.

M.G.:  Excellent. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us over here at Afropop.

J.N.A:  Not a problem. How can I help?

M.G.:  So: We’ve been doing a fair amount of shows about the current music scene in Ghana and we’ve featured some of your work because, first of all, we really like the mixes that you make and also you seem to have an ear to the ground in terms of what’s happening in Ghana and diasporically in London. So I want to talk about a few things, including your take on what’s going on over there in London with Afrobeats. But why don’t we start with your history. How did you get started with making music?

J.N.A: Well, production started off basically when I was in my third year at university, when I was doing my first degree. That was back home in Ghana.

M.G.:  Where did you go to university?

J.N.A:  University of Ghana at Legon. That’s where I did my first degree there. It [music production] picked up from there, really. And I got taught how to make beats, and I really got an understanding of the whole composition of the music from EL, who’s already an established musician in Ghana.

M.G.:  Yeah definitely.

J.N.A:  Yeah, he’s already more of a brother than just a friend, because we know each other quite well. So that’s where it took off. I started doing it more professionally about a year or couple years ago and started getting a few production credits in.

M.G.:  So while you were in Ghana, which artists were you producing for? Were you doing it just as a hobby, and learning along with EL, or were you also involved in the professional scene there?

J.N.A:  When I started off in Ghana, beat-making really started off as a hobby, but as time went on, people started liking the sound, so it got a bit serious. I did a lot of production for artists like EL, I produced a song for him as well, rappers such as C-Real, Sarkodie…A lot of underground artists who have blown up as well. M.anifest as well. I did a song for a group called Show Dem Camp called “Feel Alright,” which did really, really well in Nigeria…still doing well as we speak. And that’s probably my biggest hit of the year so far.

M.G.:  Excellent.

J.N.A: There’s another song that I did with a rapper called C-Real featuring M.anifest, called “Opeimu,” that’s also doing quite well. Because I have a full time job, it’s not something that I really depend on. It’s always been a talent, it’s always passion.

M.G.:  Excellent. So when did you move to London?

J.N.A:  Well, I used to live here. I was born and raised here. I left London when I was 14. Me and my family come back and forth here. But I moved officially back to London about three or four years ago, after I got my degree in Ghana.

M.G.:  Excellent. And your degree was in…?

J.N.A:  My first degree was in banking and finance­ and my masters was in finance.

M.G.:  Excellent. So the music thing is kind of something like a relief from that or a side project?

J.N.A:  Yeah. I only started DJing last year, or about six months professionally.

M.G.:  So you’re DJing out and around on the club scene?

J.N.A:  Yeah, but it’s very, very mild. I’m not out-out-out-there like the other DJs. I do a lot of private parties. I DJ a lot at small clubs and a few clubs in Ghana. It’s not something that I do like, I’m on the scene, but when I am doing my stuff, I make sure that I do my best.

M.G.:  Great. Can you talk a little bit about what the scene is like over there in England, and in Europe in general? What are the transnational connections like? Is it pretty easy to be operating out of London in terms of this scene?

J.N.A: I mean, I’m signed to a label called BBnZ, which is the same label E.L. is on and we do a lot of communication via the internet and phone calls. And I go to Ghana quite frequently over the year. I’m always aware of what’s going on. People are always sending me their songs to have a listen and give them my impression. Here in London, because Afrobeats has become such a big thing, a lot of the UK artists who have African heritage, or Ghanaian or Nigerian heritage to be specific, like to, sort of exhibit the same characteristics or features of Afrobeats music in Ghana or Nigeria. However, it’s not as authentic or originally African as you would think it would be, compared to Ghana, if that makes sense.

M.G.:  In what way, like what’s different?

J.N.A:  What’s different is how they go about it. It’s like this: If Nas puts a record out, raps, it’s sick or whatever. And then someone from Ghana does exactly the same thing- tries to rap exactly like how Nas sounds- you are definitely going to tell the difference. Because the culture, the way the person sounds, is completely different. And immediately you hear the person and you know the person is trying to sound like Nas. Even in the States, you probably get some American rappers trying to sound like some of the established rappers. It’s the same here. Here, obviously, because a lot of the Afrobeats artists aren’t exposed to the African culture as much they should be, obviously because they’re not in Africa, or Nigeria or Ghana, wherever. They just try to copy what they see. If they’re not trying to copy, they’re trying to learn, which is good. If you’ve been in the UK all your life and then you’re trying to retrace your steps, or your real heritage, or where exactly it is from, where you’re from, then that’s fine. But a lot of people have been doing it too much—people who aren’t even African are trying to get into Afrobeats now.

M.G.: Really?

J.N.A:  Yeah. Which is not a problem. I’m a hip-hop producer originally, but hip-hop is more of an international genre, as compared to Africa. The only difference is, I like to put in a lot of African sounds in my beats to make it a little bit more different, if that makes sense.

M.G.: Yeah. What do you think about the term ‘Afrobeats’? Because, at least here in America, it’s confusing to people who are aware of ‘afrobeat,’ as in Fela Kuti, and we’ve had arguments or discussions with people who believe the term ‘Afrobeats’ is just a mistake, or shouldn’t be used. What do you think about that as a term? What music does it include?

J.N.A:  We literally had this conversation, I’m trying to remember, somewhere last year.

M.G.:  Who’s we?

J.N.A:  This is a bunch of people, you know, music heads, media people, friends in Ghana. And we were just talking about the whole thing in general, as in like “Yo, the term is confusing. Is it Afrobeats or afrobeat?” I was telling them, Afrobeats, and this is my experience: Afrobeats is just a modern sound of what was established by Fela Kuti and Tony Allen and Femi Kuti and all the other great afrobeat artists from Nigeria and Ghana as well. The only difference between the two of us is that with Ghana, we used made more use of the guitar instruments, as compared to Nigeria, who were more focused on the drums. The difference between afrobeat and Afrobeats, like I said, is Afrobeats is more modern. Afrobeats, the sound, is not as authentic. You know, these days when we’re making beats, you have computers and VSTs, and you try and create all sorts of sounds. They’re not like the old school bass instruments that we’d use for the reggae: the guitar, the banjo, the proper bongos, congas. You hear that in the Afrobeats, but there’s a lot of synth in it. But the song I did for Show Dem Camp, is sort of like afrobeat, but I’ve added a hip-hop boom-bap sort of sound to it to make it different, but not taking out the authenticity of afrobeat out of it. It had to be different because everybody was doing the same thing, so I just thought let me just try and do that.

M.G.:  Okay, cool. Last question: What do you think the global potential of Afrobeats music is? And do you think that there’s a difference between the material coming out of Nigeria, Ghana and the Diaspora, like England?

J.N.A:  England, I mean Afrobeats is always…I want to be able to say the right thing without saying anything offensive…Everybody has what they listen to: You have your country music, white people have their country music, they have their folk tale; you know, averagely, the normal white people listen to certain genres of music, just like black people listen to certain genres of music. Hip-hop has become a global genre of music, and it took a while for that to happen. You know, back in the day, white people never used to approve of hip-hop. They used to say it was bad for children, there used to be rallies and you know, people complaining. It got to the point where radio had to ban some songs; it became important for artists to make radio edits for some of their songs. It became very global, when these rappers used the N-word, white people wouldn’t know whether they had to say it or not! [Laughs] You know, it’s all weird! With Afrobeats, because it’s in our local language, people don’t really understand what we’re saying, but the beat still moves you. If you go to a concert, an Afrobeats, or an afrobeat concert, however, it’s full of white people.

M.G.: Afrobeat, or Afrobeats? The new music or the old-school?

J.N.A:  Both! Let’s just say a general African concert, like a small show, in a pub. In England for example, a lot of these African artists, they come and perform and do bars, and the place is full of white people. African people wouldn’t really be keen to go all the way to a show to watch African people perform.

M.G.:  Really?

J.N.A:  Yeah. White people are really interested in the music. They just like to move, like to dance. It’s different for them. So it’s growing. It’s going to take a while, because Afrobeats doesn’t really have a message.

M.G.:  Right. As opposed to afrobeat, which really does have a message.

J.N.A:  Exactly. It always had a message. And afrobeat, the songs used to be long, the instrumentation used to stretch out and it’s different. So you could have a Fela Kuti song for 11 minutes and the beats are switched up almost seven times. So there’s always a different groove. With Afrobeats, it’s only one way going through. It’s just a three-minute song. We are all just waiting for the song to end and we will move on to the next one. And it gets boring after a while.

M.G.:  It seems like Fuse ODG did pretty well, especially with the dance contest.

J.N.A:  Yeah.

M.G.:  That seemed to have a lot of participation from Africans within Europe. Do you think that did anything for the genre?

J.N.A:  I think he and D’Banj, those songs were major breakthroughs for Afrobeats on the global front, ‘cause they were both on the Top 40 UK charts. I don’t know how well they did in the States, but for a song like that to get on the UK Top 40 charts is big. Because it’s normally international artists from the States, the UK, maybe sometimes different parts of Europe. So it’s very rare for an African to get a spot. It really depends how popular the song gets, and Fuse ODG’s song was really popular, like you’d hear it everywhere, it was on every single radio station, TV. The same with D’Banj: Everybody used to dance to “Oliver Twist,” obviously because “Oliver Twist” is even an English story.

M.G.: [Laughs] Right, true.

J.N.A:  So that was a smart thing that he did. But yeah, I guess those two songs might be breakthroughs for Afrobeats, but as to whether the Afrobeats artists are going to be a bit more creative and give us something different, that’s totally up to them. It depends how they keep the genre moving.

M.G.: Do you see a major difference between what’s coming out of Nigeria and what’s coming out of Ghana right now?

J.N.A:  Oh, yeah, massive. Nigerians embrace their culture so well, and then their production is top-notch. They’re always singing and rapping in their language. Ghana is a bit different: We try and copy from different parts. We even try to copy Nigerian music sometimes. I don’t think we’ve been able to express our culture through our music as well as the Nigerians have. When you hear a Nigerian song, you hear certain words that are amazing, you really want to know what the meaning is. Ghana, you know, they’re rapping in English or singing in English, it’s just over an African beat. It’s a bit different sometimes.

M.G.:  So what are you up to now? What’s new for you in terms of production?

J.N.A:  Production-wise, I’ve got a few production credits coming up for artists like Manifest, E.L., C-Real, Show Dem Camp again, a few other major artists…Joey B, who’s coming up in Ghana. You know, a few artists coming up. And I’m working on my album, that’s coming out sometime next year.

M.G.:  Excellent, definitely keep us in the loop with that.

J.N.A:  I definitely will. I’m trying to incorporate different sounds, both African and international, so it can be accepted worldwide. It’s gonna be tricky, but I’m still taking my time and thinking about what it is exactly that I want to put out there in terms of sound. Something different.

M.G.:  Awesome. In the meantime, thanks for sending us these tracks! What’s the theme?

J.N.A:  These are just four songs that really reflect my production.

M.G.:  Thanks Juls, this has been awesome. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

J.N.A: The pleasure is mine. Thank you for taking the time. We really don’t get to give our appreciation to the bloggers and the people who have the websites. Trust me, we really appreciate everything that you guys do. We really do.

M.G.: Thank you, it’s really been a pleasure.

 

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