Davido, Zlatan & the thrill of adlibs in Nigerian music

No one can be sure what they all mean, but they're provocative

Were you really into Nigerian music in the late ‘00s if “Yes, Boss!” wasn’t a part of your lexicon? With the opening words of his smash single, “Kini Big Deal”, Naeto C instantly entered himself into pop culture lingo, through a phrase that served as an initial identifier of his presence and quickly morphed into everyday slang. Over subsequent years, Naeto constantly invoked the same phrase across his songs and on feature appearances, a small but important ritual during the supreme era his rap superstardom.

Without any exaggeration, “Yes, Boss!” is one of the most iconic adlibs to have graced Nigerian music, a tag Naeto used with liberty and to great effect—both as a familiar intro and as embellishments to his flossy raps (see: “Ako Mi Ti Poju”). Broadly speaking, an adlib is a catchphrase worked into a song based on the artist’s discretion. Usually, the songwriting process involves primary concerns like lyric writing and melody composition, however, layers of spontaneous vocals are stacked around the main body of the song while recording. It’s during this secondary stage that artists throw in corresponding harmonies, backing chants, adlibs and other elements deemed fit in making the song fuller and ready for public listening.

These days, adlibs have become a permanent fixture in global pop music, especially as hip-hop has become the epicentre of pop culture over the last three decades. It’s not that hip-hop pioneered the use of adlibs, but it is undeniably responsible in popularising its usage. In fact, adlibs can be traced all the way back to the spirit-filled hollering that accompanied the singing of worship songs in Black churches. For secular purposes, though, vocal scats in jazz music can be pointed to as a jump-off point, a lineage that can be traced to the visceral yelps of James Brown and several other artists in the heyday of Funk in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With jazz and funk as important early threads in its sonic fabric, it makes sense that hip-hop not only adopted adlibs, but also evolved the range of its usage in music. While emphasis remains its priority, rap music has effectively expanded the way adlibs can be used in song, affording artists a myriad of imaginative ways to employ them. In the ‘90s, adlibs were mostly limited to “yeah”, “uhh” and other simple monosyllabic word and sounds. Over two decades later, coinciding with the American South taking control of Hip-Hop’s steering wheel, adlibs have become delightfully complex and constantly innovative. This phenomenon was bound to impact Nigerian music, considering its extensive relationship with American Rap music.

No external cultural phenomenon has had – and continues to have – a more profound effect on modern-day Nigerian pop music than hip-hop. In the mid to late ‘90s, considered as the foundation days of the latest, ongoing renaissance in Nigerian music, a significant portion of the music created within the country’s shores were vivid cosplays of rap hits, and those that weren’t, made no attempts to hide their fascination with, and the direct inspiration of, hip-hop’s musical and cultural ethos.

Over the next two decades, Nigerian pop music would consistently morph into an amorphous, boundless and multi-coloured organism, through constant sonic experimentation that places it in greater touch with older parochial musical styles such as highlife, fuji, varying styles of traditional folk and more, while sourcing out influences from around the continent and across the world. Notwithstanding, the bond with hip-hop has never been downplayed, as a cultural ally in the continued push for increased global visibility, and as a consistent stylistic influence. With this context in mind, it was only a matter of when, not if, Nigerian music would go on to co-opt Hip-Hop’s innovative adlib ethos.

The main narrative concerning the classic status Naeto C’s “Kini Big Deal” is the suave, refreshing edge it immediately brought into Nigerian music—both rap and in general. While that’s an irrefutable fact, the song’s instant impact didn’t happen in a vacuum. Around its 2007 release was the ringtone era, where Swag rap held the hip-hop terrain in a chokehold. With T.I, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Jeezy and Soulja Boy—all important to the evolution of adlibs—amongst the most popular rap artists alive at the time, that period in rap was significantly defined by bold, chanted hooks and catchphrases, sometimes wordless, meant to stick in the listener’s head after a few listens. “Kini Big Deal” is not the definitive first example of adlib use in Nigerian music but, alongside Naeto’s long list of bangers, it coins on those elements it’s a memorable one to point at.

In the same way it grew into itself after initially importing hip-hop’s mannerisms, Nigerian music has evolved its own distinct sense of adlib usage, ensuring that it isn’t entirely beholden to its external inspiration. A big part of that comes from adlib use being increasingly rooted in present-day, parochial slang amongst Nigerians. Closing out 2017 as one of the hottest songs around, Mr Real’s smash hit, “Legbegbe”, was infamously based on an attempted theft incident involving actor Seun Egbegbe, who tried to pull off a heist of twelve iPhones in Lagos’ bustling Computer Village. The song itself is built on a simple call-and-response hook, where the repeated chants of “Legbegbe” could also qualify as adlibs.

As with everything in contemporary Nigerian pop music, it’s undeniable that street-bred music has been at the cutting edge of adlib usage, especially in the last few years. Before then, though, adlibs were very well in use, from Davido’s “Shekpe” (which he still uses till today), to the time when Wizkid used to yell “Yaga” at every given opportunity. However, what’s made adlibs in Nigerian music more pronounced and especially thrilling in the wake of Street Hop’s now-permanent mainstream presence, is its unrelenting inventiveness and the sprawling scope of its usage.

Last year, DJ Kaywise brought together Mayorkun, Naira Marley and Zlatan for “What Type Of Dance”, a street banger that would have been a bigger smash if not for the pandemic. The song found Mayorkun in his usual feature-killer bag, delivering snappy melodies and catchy lyrics, while Naira Marley turns in a typically intoxicating, raunchy verse, but there’s an argument for Zlatan’s boisterous involvement as the song’s wildcard element. All through “WTOD”, Zlatan’s penchant for throwing around adlibs with reckless abandon takes some precedent, as he growls, yells, moans, and repeats lyrics even in parts where he isn’t the primary vocalist. It’s the type of noise in a song that should be annoying, but once you hear it, it’s impossible to hear the song without the uncontrolled madness.

Generally speaking, it is impossible to discuss the recent innovativeness of adlibs in Nigerian music without mentioning Zlatan. In the years since breaking out with “Zanku (Legwork)” and the show-stealing verse on Chinko Ekun’s “Able God”, the rapper has been one of the best connoisseurs of both spontaneous and signature tags, including “Kapaichumarichupaco”, “Astalavi, give dem!” and “Ayiiii”. Besides the intensely introspective moment in his catalogue, Zlatan’s commitment to adlibs is clear and unwavering, often filling the spaces between his energetic rap delivery with as many personal tags and infectious sounds as possible.

Even with Beyoncé hitting the Zanku last summer, and the consistent roll of smash street hop songs that continues to dominate Nigerian music, there are still sceptics still sticking with the idea of a downwind in the fortune of the current wave of Street-bred music. The argument is that musical styles attached to dances can’t be anything more than fads, which has some merit from a historical standpoint. The current reality, though, is that street hop is constantly evolving while also sticking to its roots, by seeking out new musical sources to refresh the sound and letting street lingo influence its lyricism and adlib usage. Rexxie and Mohbad’s “KPK”, for example, is an Amapiano-inspired banger packed with slang already recognised by its primary audience: the Streets.

The same way it has drastically affected the sound of mainstream, Street Hop has directly contributed to the role of adlibs in Nigerian pop music. One of the catchiest and most recognisable adlibs in Nigerian music at the moment is Mayorkun’s playful intonation of “ge-ge”, an invocation of “This bread no be Agege”, a widely known slang popularised by the popstar. In a prosperous 2020, which saw him evolve into a more magnetic superstar via a few singles and show-stealing features, Mayorkun displayed a supreme grasp of the use of adlibs, whether it was in the embellishing low growls of the ultra-groovy, Grime-inspired “Geng”, or on the Amapiano cut “Of Lagos”, which primarily consisted of the self-aggrandising adlib, “of lay lay”.

On the Davido-headlining “The Best”, Mayorkun got Wande Coal to throw in a high-pitched adlib that instantly added flavour to an already impeccable verse. Like he declared on that song, he learnt from the best, Davido, and as singular as his adlib usage is, the DMW boss seems like a worthy inspiration. Over the very nearly decade-long run of his superstardom, Davido has made it a habit to fill every space in his songs, sometimes even throwing in onomatopoeias where lyrics are conventionally meant to be, as in his smash song “Dami Duro”.

Without a doubt, “Shekpe” is his most recognisable signature adlib till date, a tag he’s invoked even when he seems less boisterous than usual. These days, he’s experimenting with newer adlibs, like he recently did on his standout appearance on Focalistic’s “Ke Star (Remix)”. Opening the song, he chants “ko wole” (“it didn’t enter”), punctuating it with dismissive declarations of “nibo”, which translates into “where”. He then goes on to casually yell “Tule jare”, a phrase he popularised last December after rumours of a physical altercation with Burna Boy, in Ghana, surfaced online. Personally, the video of him yelling “Tule” into the camera seemed absurd—“why the noise”, I thought—but hearing it on “Ke Star (Remix)” was delightful, and I wouldn’t mind hearing it more often on wax, alongside recently popularised slangs like “E choke” and “who dey breathe”.

The truth is, adlibs make songs catchier and more memorable. While the potential widespread likeability of a song depends on several other factors, like the sonic makeup, the thematic writing, and melodic execution, but adlibs make songs fuller and can even end up being the song’s main draw. It’s impossible to think of Rema’s “Lady” without remembering “Achukuleke”, or imagine “Woman” without the energetic sections of seeming gibberish that the Mavin wunderkind explained as “Bini lamba”. No one can really know what every adlib is, but they’re provocative when done right, almost daring you to not break into dance or at least sing along, because forgetting them is simply not an option.

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE