Hiplife has been around for less than two decades, still a young genre compared to highlife, the more entrenched style to which it owes the second part of its name and some of its Ghanaian flavour. Highlife rose to prominence during the early-to-mid 1900s, eventually joined by Congolese rumba and other kinds of African music that trickle around in powerful dance patterns as vivid as Roman mosaics.
The live horns and drums of mid-century highlife turned into synthesisers in the 1980s, and then disappeared altogether in this modern incarnation, replaced by samples and electronic percussion. This innovation was borrowed from the foreign music that gives hiplife the first part of its name: hip-hop, obviously. As a consequence, hiplife doesn’t have highlife’s old tolerance of instrumental solos, periods of inspired noodling from a trumpeter or a guitarist. The only noodling is lyric-driven rap noodling modelled on the examples of American musicians, like this example from Tic Tac’s “Kangaroo”, one of the songs on Black Stars:
Tic Tac! I am still gonna be unbreakable, unstoppable
I am gonna be incredible, unbeatable
I am already invincible, na wose sen, wose sen
Aboa kangaroo da, owo kotoku…
With the move from highlife to hiplife the focus has shifted more profoundly to the singer. The sound is forceful. Absent is the trembling crust of old trumpets on old shellac. Instead, we have a purr of recorded speech behind King Ayisoba’s “Modern Ghanaians”, and a waterfall of overlapping falsetto voices on Ofori Amponsah’s “Abelle”. In short, the music on Black Stars is not the highlife sound of the 1960s and ’70s with a mild urban twist. It’s almost altogether different. QDL, the last musician on the album, sounds like the insinuating lilt of E.T. Mensah about as much as Tupac sounded like the Five Satins. The delivery has changed, the language has changed. Mensah never used the word “nigga”.
But hiplife is an intersection of three genres, not just two, and the third one is reggae. The dancehall influence here is strong, right down to guest rappers who adopt Jamaican accents.
Back bite-ah, back ja sny-pah
How come you get so hy-pah…
The reggae-flavoured messages of black solidarity in some of the lyrics connect hiplife to the great theme that runs through African music from one country to another: moral and social advice. “Do something”, recommends Batman Samini in the song of the same name, “before you die”. Then there’s rap-star boasting, and there are people who sing about sex, especially the Pidgen Allstars, whose remixed “Toto Mechanic” has almost no words in it at all aside from, “Fuck all day, fuck all night, every day, toto mechanic”, delivered over a regular electronic thump. “Toto,” reports the booklet, “stands for ‘pussy’ in Ga.” Lyrics throughout the album switch from English to Twi or Ga, often in the same line, which left me sometimes wondering if I’d just heard a word in sung in English and I wasn’t getting it because of the Ghanaian accent, or if I’d been listening to something in a language that I couldn’t understand at all.
Black Stars is an adeptly compiled hiplife snapshot, giving us a sampling of recent arrivals like Tic Tac, as well as godfather figures such as Reggie Rockstone, who was there in the 1990s when the genre was still coming up from the underground. There are interesting harp samples in one or two of the songs, a luminous highlife feel in V.I.P.’s “Ahomka Wo Mu”, and a more American heaviness in “Now Til Da End”, the work of QDL, who started rapping during an overseas sojourn in New York. Any Ghanaians who might have been worrying that their country’s popular musicians were going to come out of this German compilation looking like novelty foreigners, the way non-American rappers sometimes do, can relax. They sound good.