Ben Herson runs Nomadic Wax, a label just one record old but wise beyond its age. We liked the one record, a compilation, African Underground Volume 1: Hip Hop Senegal a lot. We learned from its wisdom. We wanted to know more.
The record grew out of Ben's college thesis and the trips he made to Senegal between 1998 and 2000, observing the indigenous hip hop culture that managed to be conscious, political and spiritual and also avoid the violence that surrounds the original. After finishing his thesis he returned to Senegal with a portastudio and set up in a community centre where he recorded (and prayed with) rappers from across the country.
The tracks were supposed to be released as a double cassette in Senegal but it hasn't quite happened yet. They're rhymed in a mixture of French, English and the Senegalese Wolof language and thankfully steer clear of over-production. A couple of cuts particularly stand out: Las MC blows more than flows over his Africans Don't Wanna Understand, a gruff chorus bursting out of a rap about the loss of traditional values in his society; Slam Revolution's Begguma (featuring BMG 44) drops a jagged riff of strings over half a bass line and a ticking beat while the crew juggle themselves around the mic, a whirlwind of traded verses and that blends raw throatiness and helium bendiness and French and English.
The Nomadic Wax label grew out of your college thesis..
In 1998 I was studying at Hampshire College in Amherst MA. At the time, I was writing more about Jamaican music (i.e. ska, reggae, dub) as well as 1960's/70's African music (i.e. afrobeat, hi-life). I had just recently returned from a trip to Senegal where I had been introduced to the local hip hop scene via some cassettes I had bought. I was truly blown away by the music and decided I would make the shift away from writing about Jamaican music which has already amassed some amazing scholarly work, and focus on the hip-hop scene in Africa.
Was your research part of a wider study?
I would have loved to have been able to do a work on African hip hop as a whole, however it could take years to even begin to grasp the whole pan-African hip hop scene. I decided to focus on one micro-scene - Senegal - because in spite of the small size of the country it has one of the largest and most developed hip hop scenes in Africa.
How and where did you start?
Before my research began I didn't know what the thesis would be in terms of its scope and focus. I simply went to Senegal, studied the language and tried to immerse myself in the culture and observe in as unbiased a way as possible.
I did this for about three months, conducted a number of interviews and translated songs. The end result, my thesis, Fat Beats, Dope Rhymes and Thug Lives: Youth, Hip Hop and Politics in Dakar, took about another 6 to 8 months to complete after returning to the States.
Can we get the thesis on the web somewhere?
Not yet but soon! I'm going to be turning Fat Beats Dope Rhymes into a more extensive book on Pan-African hip hop. I hope to finish it sometime in 2006.
When did you first become interested in Senegal?
One of my good friends, Abdoulaye Sall, from Boston where I grew up, is Senegalese. It was really just through him that I became interested in Senegal when I was 15. Of course as time went on I discovered Fela and the whole Afrobeat and Afrofunk moment as well. Abdoulaye is a very talented drummer and was one of my first drum teachers as well as my introduction to Senegalese/Wolof culture. It was Abdoulaye who I travelled with in 1998 to Senegal for my first time.
I guess you were a hop hop fan before you started?
I've always been a big hip hop fan. The first record that I ever owned was the Fat Boys' first album. Soon after came Run DMC and the Beat Street sound-track. There's always been a lot about the music and the culture that fascinated me and drew me in. The beat, the style and the way people could express themselves through rhyme and dance was something that really blew me away.
In the 90's I kept listening but stopped following as closely when the post NWA-fake-gangsta element began to dominate the culture. Ironically enough it though my experiences with African hip hop that I in a sense 'rediscovered' the music and the culture. The African scene gave me a completely renewed appreciation for hip hop.
How difficult was it to become accepted as part of the hip hop scene in Senegal?
Senegal is a country known for their hospitality (terenga). Anyone who has stepped foot there and spent some time in Dakar's neighborhoods can attest to this fact. Because of this, it makes it incredibly easy to meet people and make friends.
The fact that I studied and could speak only Wolof, the local dialect, as opposed to French, the colonial language, made me stand out considering the fact that not many non-Senegalese can speak the language. This helped me a great deal in terms of meeting people and and communicating on a deeper level as opposed to speaking in broken English.
I think people looked at me with an open mind and took me for what I was: an American with a deep appreciation and respect for their culture and music.
How insular was the scene? Was local hip hop considered less authentic/desirable/something else than the American version?
Good question! I think people are very conscious of the the world wide market however there is most definitely a sense of wanting to make music that is distinctly Senegalese as opposed to a carbon copy of American hip hop. MCs in Senegal make obvious references to MCs from the States however, while doing so, they clearly make it their own through their use of Wolof, their choice on lyrical content and general aesthetic.
The compilation liner notes say that tracks you recorded while you were there are out and have been hits in Senegal, but..
Contrary to what the liner notes say, the tapes have yet to be distributed in Dakar. This is due in part to the fact that the Senegalese music industry is quite disorganized and funds are often misappropriated. At the time of writing the liner notes (May 2004), the tapes were to have already hit the streets in Senegal well before the International release of African Underground Vol. 1. Although that plan took a different direction, the MCs did take their songs to the radio stations and scored a number of hits.
Shiffai, Yat Fu, Sen Kumpa, Slam Revolution and BMG 44 all had songs in regular rotation and many are still played on a frequently in Dakar. Because of the popularity of the tracks and the fact they they were not available to buy on cassette or CD it's given the tracks on African Underground Vol. 1 a certain rare quality.
Additionally, two of the MCs (Las MC and Tipse of Slam Revolution) died tragically soon after the CD was recorded. The tracks they recorded with us were some of the last recording of both artists.
Do you expect the record to be released in Senegal any time soon?
Right now the reason for the delay is because all of the promotional materials, CDs, promos for radio etc are locked up some post office in Dakar. It's been there for almost a year and the MCs cant get it out. As soon as they do Vol. 1 will hit the shelves. However, I'll be returning this Summer/Fall to release Vol. 2 so the second may get out at the same time as the first!
Tell me about how you came to start the label.
The label came about as a means to an end. I had finished Vol 1 but had no way to put it out. Most labels were not willing to put money into a hip hop product in a language other than English so I decided to do it myself. Sure there's been problems along the way but in the end it's been a great experience on a variety of levels.
You mentioned volume 2..
Yes, this is going to be a multi part series. We're continuing with Senegal for Vol. 2 because it's such a huge scene. I wanted to make sure I did it justice on CD. After that it will be Tanzania/Kenya and South Africa.
Which Sengalese artists were you closest to?
I have a great deal of respect for all of the MCs I've worked with. Of course since I've recorded 50 plus groups, there's bound to be some folks that you find you have more in common with than others.
Omzo is an MC with many admirable qualities. As an artist, he's an amazing lyricist and is able to write songs that touch people on deeper level than what most MCs are able to achieve.
For example one of Omzo's songs, Kunu Abal Ay Beut, (The Hand That Feeds is the Hand that Rules) is a politically inspired track that scored him a hit in 2000/2001. The track was so powerful that it influenced a large number of young voters in the 2000 election to get rid of the former leader Abdou Diouf. Omzo is a rare breed of musician who is both prolific and talented yet maintains a remarkable sense of humility and kindness toward the world.
And I think we'd all agree the world needs more of them. Check out Nomadic Wax at www.nomadicwax.com.
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