Street will always win. Growing up and hanging around people who society considers as ‘street,’ I found one quality that always stuck: Perseverance and originality.
Street people are tough people. They were handed lemons by life, and when it was time to put it to use, they shunned lemonade, and looked for a way to marry it with cheap gin. And for those who missed out on the Lemon distribution, it was no problem at all.
Someone discovered lime, and boom, add a little rum, a little caffeine, and a few others, and you have a potent mix called “Skuchis.”
That’s the creativity that drives the street. Abandoned on the fringes of societal civilization, street people seldom ever complain about their crushing lack in life.
Taju and Taofeek who spend days hanging by the street corner and listening to the latest from Wizkid and Olamide aren’t just listening, They are comparing it to the underground music that their best friend, Hafiz, recorded the previous night after he downloaded stock beats online, from an obscure illegal plug in South Africa. They like Hafiz’s creation better, because it comes from a place and language that they speak. It’s homegrown.
The music is a mirror of their life; a sonic reflection of their happy highs, and crushing low.
The street movement has been top influencers of mainstream music, due to their most illustrious son, Olamide. He extracts elements of Shepeteri culture and reworks it for mainstream audiences.
If you go below the glare of his lights, you will find an entire independent music industry for, by and of the streets.
This new world, located primarily in Lagos Mainland, is seldom acknowledged and appreciated in mainstream circles, but it does possess a self-sufficient ecosystem that rivals what the mainstream has built. They have artists, songwriters, DJs, a growing audience, and diaspora followership. They build their own venues, play their own shows, have a crude but effective system of rating their performers. They also release and market their albums to themselves.
Only a few of their champions eventually find popular acceptance. Shaku shaku, Shoki, Alanta, and a few other recent pop culture waves have come from this community.
Artists such as Zlatan Ibile, GucciMane Eko (Formerly known as Yomi Sars), 2T Boys, and many others come from this movement.
Mr Real, Slimcase, Chinko Ekun, Lil Kesh, are also from this part of town. It is a near-consistent feeder team for pop culture. They have the sauce. Raw sauce.
Olamide is the street champion. After the work he’s dedicated to the game, and the success that he’s garnered, he’s moved into elite company, and has the confidence of the mainstream music enthusiasts.
He’s still in touch with the street, but he simply mines from their fountain, replicates it with better tools and professional input, and amplifies it with his platform.
While this strategy has kept him flying high, there’s a hushed but prevalent view of his continuous sojourn at the top, being a core reason why no other street champion has found a way to stay at the mainstream.
The street is abundant with creativity, the music is forever pure and original because it comes from nothing but the depths of human self-preservation. Such primal levels of expression and sincerity of the sound culture, guarantee that it is a conveyor belt for great ideas serving the mainstream.
With time, these street artists who are underlings, grow tired of supplying a lot, but reaping limited benefits for their work.
Armed with better technology and more platforms, they have repeatedly reached out to the mainstream powers and ecosystem, demanding extra dinner seats at the table. They want to eat directly from the shine, and not wait for second-tier niche handouts.
Relegation isn’t fun when you have a decent shot at the top of the table.
Being on the sidelines is cool and nice until you discover that the grass is actually greener on the other side, and the time is ripe for a change. They want more slots, and in the past three years, they have worked extra hard to make a case for it.
Small Doctor took his shot in 2016. His single ‘Penalty’ sped through the system quickly and thrust him into the glare of the light.
The man appeared to have struck gold. He rode that single for a long time, travelling through the country and beyond to honour paid contractual nights of performance. His story was interesting.
Small Doctor had never sought or believed that mainstream fame was possible for someone like him. His music was aggressively niche, and could take on no other form.
The man was content to blow in his niche community where he understood the demands, and supplied enough to thrive. But ‘Penalty’ ambushed him with a new spectrum of success.
By the end of the year, he was spent from flogging it for too long.
His next single ‘This year’, was straight up out of the street playbook again. It’s rigid sound structure choked him and pushed him back into Agege.
Small Doctor’s retreat was due to a number of factors. This growth was unexpected. He didn’t have the team for it.
For the most part, he had very few partners that knew how the Island worked.
No matter how much ‘Street OT’, wisdom that you have, when you cross into the Island, a new manual will be handed to you. You kiss ass, play nice, and drop cash. You also have form formidable allies.
Small Doctor had few people in his corner, and his structure failed to hold up. He beat it back to his street constituency.
A key reason also, was that nobody understood what he did enough to copy and rework it. Not only was it strange, it had no imitation value. He had very little established sonic structure.
Slimcase and Mr Real carried the phenomenal ‘Shaku Shaku’ into the limelight. Where they produced one star the previous year, they threw up two candidates for extra measure.
Perhaps it was the expansive nature of the sound that required that two people make the attempt. ‘Oshozondi’, ‘Shepeteri’, ‘Legbegbe’, and a stream of Shaku shaku songs coloured the night young again.
While many others tried to ride the Shaku race, Slimcase pulled ahead of the pack in the most clever way. – collaboration.
With the rise of Shaku shaku, mainstream acts worked and understood the formula of the vibe, and wanted in.
Honestly, the sound was easy to dissect and reworked. It was the poorer cousin of popular South African Gqom music, so it wasn’t that hard to co-opt.
In fact, most of their beats were simply SA productions, illegally ripped off of the internet. But for mainstream acts to join in without looking stupid, they needed a street artist to validate their vulturism. Who did that?
Slimcase. He was happy to be the one. Without a strong single of his own, (‘Kalamo’ isn’t it) Slimcase ran around like his tail was on fire. He worked hard, dropping contributions for musicians who were making quick grabs at riding the new sound.
Even after the sound’s demise, Wizkid still released ‘Gucci Snake’, and Slimcase had an entire opening monologue to himself.
He did profit off of it, with endless private gigs and a marked rise in his stock. He met Wizkid and D’banj. He lived his dream, and introduced the legendary ‘St Sami Ganja’ slang into pop culture.
People go all their lives without that level of achievement. Slimcase, who started out as a street comedian, rocked mainstream circles for as long as it lasted.
For Mr Real, the story was different. He became an artist, but took too long to get his act going.
He got multiple contracts signed wrongly, and by the time the remix of ‘Legbegbe’ came under Sony Music, it was fighting against inevitable decline.
All good things come to an end. Shaku shaku was mortal. It was dead.
This year, Zlatan Ibile is the new street challenger. Green-haired, tough and loud, Zlatan looks like he was cut out for a life in music.
He’s been at the hustle for a long time, graduating from Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, while still chasing the art.
After a long stint underground, he got some joy in 2017. Davido fell in love with one of his records, ‘My baby, and shared on social media.
The duo linked up and became friends. ‘Able God’, the 2018 hit single by Chinko Ekun cemented Zanku, a movement he’s been pushing, as a genuine wave.
Zlatan who starred in the record, carried it further with the single ‘Zanku (Legwork)’.
Right now, Davido and Burna Boy, two of his close associates already have singles with him. A new wave is in town, and everyone wants to ride it again. Again and again.
The industry is back at it. Zanku is a great vibe. The sound, composed of poly-rhythmic beats and a distinct underlying melody, is being dissected and replicated faster than Zlatan can say yes to a collaboration.
Expect to see the first quarter of the year stuffed with endless annoying playlists of Zanku music.
For many of us who have experienced this before, it’s just deja vu. We have been witnesses to this particular cycle playing out. Small Doctor and Slimcase have been great examples of how the system really treats street artists.
For as long a Zanku is in, the system will make Zlatan a darling. When that is punctuated, whether by comma or a period, Zlatan stops. He leaves with the music and the vibe.
He can choose to fight it, but that is another uphill battle. It would involve sacrificing a lot of his essence to keep himself going. Or he can see this, and treat it for what it is; a limited window of opportunity to bask in the shine, make his hay, and stack up enough money.
The game is the game. The wheels keep turning, and the industry moves fast.
Unlike Slimcase and Small Doctor, he can rap in Yoruba, and can rely on great producers for direction. But he has to be aware: the game uses and dumps. Chances are slim that he is the exception. Kapaichumarimarichopaco.
Perhaps Zlatan is the one. Perhaps he is the chosen Messiah, destined by larger forces to keep his relevance as sunset hits the wave. Or perhaps, he knows already. What goes up quickly in pop music, comes down as fast it rose.
Zanku won’t be eternal. Neither will its chief protagonist, or the guy who would come after him. History always repeats itself.