How DJs Are Changing the Face of African Music

"Being a DJ is beyond mixing and changing songs for people to dance."

About a week ago, Nigerian DJ/producer Spinall signed a deal with Epic Records. He marked the news with the release of the Wizkid-featuring track “Loju”; it was his first record as an independent act in a career that has lasted more than a decade, highlighted with his recent sixth studio album ‘Top Boy.’ Spinall’s discography, like every that of every other music act, is a compendium of the sounds and essence of different eras but what makes his interesting is the fact that he’s one of the disc jockeys on the African continent who have elevated their role by becoming key members in the music industry.

The importance of DJs has always been felt around the world. With their ability to mix and match different songs, genres and beats, DJs are the conduit between artists and music lovers. They are responsible for ensuring that the music permeates every aspect of the audience base, thereby satisfying the audience’s need for entertainment and the artist’s need for recognition. Beyond curating memorable experiences, DJs are also important knowledge banks as their ears are always tuned in on the music and artists that define eras and generations. 

“Being a DJ is beyond mixing and changing songs for people to dance. There are a lot of technicalities, and essential values to showcase your relevance as a DJ to an artist and to the public at large,” said Dj Exprezioni, who is also a music producer. “Although we are in a time when most artists do not value the relevance of a DJ because the internet has helped with music publications and popularity, so, they feel DJs are not what we need to promote our songs. However, there is a place for computers and there is a place for the culture, which is carried out by humans.” He further added that “DJs shine more light on their careers by bringing their fans closer to them. This is something the internet will not be able to do! There is a certain pull from reality than the online life we see.”

In the 80s and 90s, way before the popularisation of the internet and the arrival of streaming platforms, DJs around the African continent began to stake their claim on the music industry. Outside the continent, DJs had a tight grip on the music cultures of their region. In American Hip-Hop, for instance, the DJs were pioneering the music borne out of mixing identical records as well as using turntables to manipulate sound and create original music. The music they made catered to the parties and events of their neighbourhoods. The act of DJing, coupled with graffiti, breakdancing and rapping, was the foundation of Hip-Hop culture as we have come to know it today.

In 1970’s South Africa, the music industry benefited from the influx of international DJs whose experimentations with Hip-hop, trip-hop, techno and Psychedelic trance opened up a unique set of genres to the country’s local scene. As the years went by, the local DJs took centerstage to curate sounds that paired Western influences with African sensibilities. The country’s house music experienced an explosion with Kwaito and Gqom being the forebears of that period. Helmed by the likes of Vinny Da Vinci, Christos, DJ Superfly, Oskido, DJ Mbuso and Harael Salkow, House music became an integral part of the identity of the South African people.

In Nigeria, our history with disc hockeys mirrors South Africa’s, which came with traces of foreign influences, most especially Hip-Hop. From the late 80s, Hip-Hop took root in Nigeria and inspired a generation of rappers and singers who borrowed certain peculiarities of the American rap genre and imbibed into their Nigerian experiences. This period saw the emergence of DJs DJ Jimmy Jatt, DJ Tee, DJ Humility and DJ Waxxy. From the late 80s to the 2000s, this group of DJs would go on to change the face of DJing in the country.

DJ Jimmy Jatt’s ‘The Definition’ (2007) is regarded as the first official DJ-compiled LP in Nigeria. Leveraging on his extensive experience in the music industry, DJ Jimmy Jatt secured some of the biggest names in Nigerian music at the time. One of the album’s tracks “Stylee” (featuring Mode 9, Elajoe and 2Face Idibia (now 2Baba)) is an era-defining work that seamlessly merges American Hip-Hop and Nigerian insight. DJ Jimmy Jatt is also the brain behind Road Block Street Carnival and the TV show Jimmy’s Jump Off, both avenues for Nigerian music to directly reach its local audiences. 

At the beginning of the 2010s, DJs were no longer background features; they became major, respected fixtures across the music industry. In Nigeria, the likes of DJ Spinall, DJ Exclusive, DJ Neptune and DJ Kaywise were establishing themselves as mainstays. In South Africa, a fresh crop of DJs—Black Coffee, DJ Cleo, Muzi, DJ Maphorisa and DJ Euphonik—were pushing the envelope with their musical output. Around this time, it was normal for DJs (some of whom were producers) to feature music artists in their songs (and vice versa) and establish themselves as independent and functional music makers. 

With the advent of streaming platforms, DJs have also enjoyed greater visibility on the music charts. From DJ Maphorisa’s “Soweto Baby” with Wizkid and DJ Buckz to Spinall’s “Ohema” with Mr Eazi to DJ Neptune’s “Nobody” with Mr Eazi and Joeboy to Master KG’s “Jerusalema” with  Nomcebo Zikode and Burna Boy to DJ Kaywise’s “High Way” with Phyno to Spinall’s “PALAZZO” with Asake to Uncle Waffles’ “Yahyuppiyah” with Tony Duardo, Justin99, Pcee, EeQue and Chley, DJs are no longer small fries and taking their place in the big leagues.

While TikTok has, in recent years, rivalled DJs with its features of chopping and mixing sounds, DJs still maintain that their influence will never wane. “DJs are still very much essential and critical to the sound ecosystem,” Malawian DJ and producer Chmba tells the NATIVE. For her, there is nothing that beats the experience of a human being soundtracking the lives of other humans in a shared, jubilant space.

Featured image credits/NATIVE