Rising from absolute obscurity to international acclaim at breakneck pace, we go deep in conversation with Kenyan producer and DJ Slikback.
It seems safe to assume that, at least to anyone remotely attuned to contemporary trends in dance music, the story of Nyege Nyege Tapes –and more recently its sister label Hakuna Kulala– should be a familiar one. Since its inception in Kampala, Uganda mere years ago, the labels have emerged as an insurgent musical movement, taking the world by storm.
The allusion to ‘tapes’ seems almost quaint at this point: any would be purchaser perusing the label’s website is sure to leave disappointed, all stock having long since sold out. Such was my position first encountering Nyege Nyege, having stumbled in on the recommendation of a friend on his return from a trip to East Africa. To a complacent Londoner used to the zeitgeist transpiring on his doorstep, the feeling was an unfamiliar one: late to a party in full swing, attendance neither required nor even particularly desired. Undeterred, I slinked in with the air of an interloper into the midst of a full-blown phenomenon.
Sifting through the label’s back catalogue, that sense of unfamiliarity would only deepen. To any listener steeped in Eurocentric dance music traditions, the terrain staked out here appears wholly alien. Less a label in the traditional sense than it is a cartography of the uncategorized, all familiar coordinates yield to a kaleidoscopic cache of genres native to East Africa. Not content to merely be placed on the map, Nyege Nyege and its sister label Hakuna Kulala have fundamentally redrawn it; and, in a cultural coup inconceivable just years ago Kampala, Uganda has taken up position firmly at its center.
But even this characterization seems to do the movement a disservice. Suffice to say that Nyege Nyege’s exposition of East Africa isn’t the first time the locale has been the object of international attention. For at least the last century, the continent and its culture has exerted fascination from the West. Functioning variously as a source of influence –drawing musicians as diverse as Paul Simon and John Coltrane into its orbit;– as an exotic object, admired in its sheer ‘otherness’; or as a set of aesthetic principles, operating as a photo negative of Europe and admitting of either veneration or denigration, depending on the critic’s disposition; in none of these renditions do we encounter the continent and its music as a living and breathing tradition. Still rarer do we find it presented on its own terms, outside of its relation to its Northerly neighbor. While perhaps the continent and its culture have appeared to us before, what renders the movement’s mission qualitatively different is its expression of self-sovereignty. Nyege Nyege and its sister label Hakuna Kulala have staked out claims to a cultural output characterized and conveyed without reference to the West; and, in doing so, have drawn a seat at the table which hasn’t required Peter Gabriel’s invitation to enable.
And WOMAD this very much ain’t. That the labels’ so transparently reject any ossified or essentialist conception of African-ness, is, to my mind, a fundamentally related fact. Conspicuously absent is the archaic orientation which so often, and lamentably, defines music appreciated under the reductive rubric of “World Music”. From the warped wedding music of the Electro-Ancholi, to the cannibalized stylings of Congolese Soukous, where East Africa’s traditions are referenced, they appear stripped for their component parts, like souped-up vehicles road-ready for modernity.
It is with this context in mind that I strike up conversation with the Kenyan producer and DJ Slikback, one of the movement’s leading luminaries. Given my admiration for the phenomenon for which he is an ambassador, the interview subject seemed fitting. There is perhaps no artist on either label’s roster as emblematic of the trend towards Afrocentric innovation as Slikback. In fact, the trajectory of the two–both label and artist–at times mirror one another with uncanny accuracy.
From humble beginnings, self-admittedly in thrall to American trap-rap stylings, Slikback would find inimitable voice through involvement with the burgeoning Kampala community. As discussed below, such association would find the producer unbeholden, but rather emboldened through association with this novel constellation of creativity. And, as with his host imprint, the DJ’s rise would take place at warp speed, rising from absolute obscurity (the artist only started producing music a mere two years ago) to international acclaim at breakneck pace.
Fresh off the back of a Chinese tour, Slikback and I discuss his involvement with the movement, his influences and associations as well as the widening of the Nyege Nyege network internationally.
Your sound is obviously highly unique and eludes genre limitations. How would you describe it?
I would describe it as an exploration into composition. I’m basically trying to find combinations of the things I like from different genres and making something I think sounds cool. It’s also hard for me to describe too but I feel like it’s personal and a reflection of my moods and emotions.
Do you have any notable influences, whether musical or otherwise? And have these changed in the years since you started producing?
My musical influences have been quite consistent for the most part. I only end up adding more and more. Artists like Metro Boomin, Tzusing, Dj Lag, Errorsmith and Amnesia Scanner have been major influences. I then discovered more artists such as Renick Bell, Nick Leon, Morgiana Hz and many more who added onto that. The Ugandan music scene has played a really big role as well.
Outside of music, Anime increased my affinity for aggressive moods in music.
How would you describe Tomo versus Lasakeneku as releases in your discography? Can they be seen as continuations of the same approach to music, or were you going for something different on Tomo?
Tomo was a new exploration for me into noise and some more industrial sounds. I guess it can be seen as a continuation since I ended up building on some ideas I had in Lasakaneku but maybe more as stages. As I keep learning and gaining new interests my music changes and although there are elements that may bleed into most tracks, my state of mind is usually very different on each.
There are a number of artists releasing under the Nyege Nyege label who incorporate live instrumentation. Nihiloxica for example. Could you see yourself doing the same in the future? Or will you always keep it strictly electronic?
I am not sure. I find a level of freedom from doing everything on my laptop from sound design to midi patterns. I sometimes record something live but I do almost all my work from my laptop. I also can’t play any instrument so I end up working with what I have and am comfortable with.
Nyege Nyege, the label from which you originated, I’m informed translates roughly to ‘the uncontrollable urge to dance’. Will your music always be rooted to the dancefloor, or can you see it developing in more esoteric directions?
I would like to explore as many aspects of music as I can. I truly love the energy on the dancefloor and the mayhem that can sometimes emerge but I am always curious to dive into more spacious sound that people can listen to, dissect and find some emotion in. Even through visual projects.
Nyege Nyege was instrumental in creating an international focus on the East African experimental electronic music scene. Would you say that the scene existed prior to the label, or was it the label which really created the scene? What I mean is: did it make the connections between the artists working around East Africa and help forge their sound? Or were these movements and approaches to music already going on prior to the label’s formation?
It was a bit of both. There was definitely something already happening in the region. Nyege Nyege gave the platform that artists needed to share what they do on an international level. After that they began to help more artists to find their sound and break free from the usual constraints. As a result the scene grew in very interesting directions.
Were you personally aware of all the different scenes going on around East Africa prior to exposure to them through the Nyege Nyege collective?
I had no idea. It can be very hard to find music from East Africa that is more “out there” because it’s not as commercially profitable or appealing. Collectives that are actively digging usually find the best stuff. I was exposed to such a diverse range of music when I connected with the Nyege Nyege collective.
Some of the genres the label has released music from –Sisso from Tanzania for instance– already existed prior to the label’s formation. What is the importance of drawing out these connections between disparate African music scenes, and of incorporating them under a single banner? Do you think there is something unique which unifies all these different styles of music? In particular, do you think there is something which distinguishes them from music happening elsewhere in the world? Like, are they all expressing, in one way or another, uniquely East African musical priorities?
At the moment I think that the music in the region is incredibly unique to the artists or crews. This is what makes East Africa so great to me. It’s not that there is one specific sound that links everyone. It’s more of a collage of different ideas and the rebellious nature of people here that makes East Africa so unique. Most of the music varies drastically. I guess this in a way is a property unique to the region.
Obviously, Nyege Nyege is more than just a label. Most significantly it offers accommodation and a studio for artists to work, live and collaborate. How important was this for your development as an artist? And in what ways?
When I moved into the studio, I had just dropped out from school and was trying to find my musical path. The space they offered took away an element of dread I had about where I was going to stay. I ended up being freer in my pursuit which would not have been possible if I was struggling with other aspects of life. The fact that I had a place to sleep was incredibly amazing. On top of that I learnt so much from other creatives there and heard more interesting sounds.
More broadly, how important do you think collaboration is to the Nyege Nyege movement?
It is really important because everyone essentially learns from each other.
As aforementioned, your music is more strictly electronic than much of the stuff being put out on NN. Do you think older, more traditional art forms are still an influence on your sound, or does your inspiration come from elsewhere? Perhaps you see yourself as creating something wholly your own.
Traditional art forms have definitely influenced my sound. I picked up a lot from just listening to traditional bands playing at parties in Kampala. The unique drum patterns and sounds will always be timeless and I learn a lot from them. Nihiloxica is probably the most successful band in the collective and their focus on traditional sounds has been very inspiring.
Do you see the labels Nyege Nyege and Hakuna Kulala as being indefinitely rooted to East Africa and the artists working there, or do you think they could expand to include artists from elsewhere? What about your own music?
The labels are expanding now to accommodate more artists globally. There is a lot of great music both here and internationally. The labels offer a platform for that music to be released. My music will end up wherever it can. The most important part is that I get to be free in my expression.
Nyege Nyege founder Arlen Dilsizian has previously stated that one of the aims of Nyege Nyege is not just to promote newer artists, but also to preserve and publicize older styles from the area. Do you think it’s important to connect with this heritage? Or is it more important to occupy new musical terrain? To forge out the future?
I think that both are equally important. We want art to be preserved but at the same time for inspired young and older people to keep expressing themselves as best they can. In doing that, a future will be forged naturally.
Are the two orientations – towards the past and to the future – even that distinct from one another? Do you see a connection between the aesthetics of more traditional East African genres and the innovations going on at the forefront of the East African electronic music scene – including your own output?
They are linked in some way. There is no future without a past. Ideas are being borrowed from older musical styles and something new emerges from that. The software we use is merely a bridge that helps us link ideas.
Hakuna Kulala orientates itself as distinct from Nyege Nyege on the basis that, as (label cofounder) Derek Debru puts it, it is “more focused on the NOW, what young producers are making in this moment”. Does this mean it distances itself from more traditional East African art forms? If so, is this to shed light on more emerging trends instead?
I wouldn’t say it distances itself. All that’s happening is a natural transition. Most artists from the label aren’t actively trying to distance themselves. Their interests define the kind of music that they make, which just so happens to be more “modern” sounding.
Also, given the importance of Nyege Nyege to your journey, could you explain your decision to branch off and form Hakuna Kulala? Why the need to establish a different label?
The reason was that the sound the artists were making blended well together but it didn’t fit the sound of Nyege Tapes. The artists were exploring something new and different from Nyege Tapes. It still had elements bleeding over but it was a new direction.
Do you anticipate that the movement will continue to branch out into different groupings and new labels will form as a result? Or is it more important to keep the movement unified?
It will be cool to see new collectives emerging because it helps the whole region grow but they should still share ideas and collaborate as they emerge.
One of the aspects of the scene going on in Kampala which interests me most is how socially inclusive it is. Women tend to be grossly underrepresented in electronic music, not just on the African continent but worldwide, and it is really refreshing to see how many female DJs and producers are involved with Nyege Nyege. In addition, there are a lot of people from other marginalised groups involved, in particular the LGBT community. Was this inclusivity part of the founding intention of the label and the movements surrounding it? Or was it more of an inadvertent consequence?
I think it all came about from non-discriminately valuing the music. Giving a free space for people to express themselves without discrimination was an important part for helping the music grown. The festival is a good example of that.
This inclusivity and promotion of alternative culture has come under scrutiny from the Ugandan government. I know they tried to ban the festival once due to the fact it was allegedly promoting homosexuality. Do you see this kind of confrontation with conservative social attitudes as part of the labels purpose, beyond just promoting music? Are you actively trying to change public attitudes?
The label’s purpose will always be to help and let creatives be creative. The confrontations were a by-product of this. We will always make sure that our artists have the best chance they have at success. If that means that we get to force society to change its perceptions, then that becomes an inevitable outcome.
To finish off I wanted to ask a few questions about your recent tour in China. Could you tell me a bit about that experience? Was it your first time in the country? What were your impressions of it? In particular, what were your impressions of the Chinese underground music scene?
China was amazing. The culture and music were both incredible. I was with the SVBKVLT crew who were really cool and I loved how unified the artists were. Everyone shared ideas, invited each other to events; it was awesome.
I was particularly interested in the fact that the tour seemed to be organized through distinctly DIY means, based off of associations with producers out there rather than organized through impersonal booking agents. It is my understanding that you were personally invited by certain producers working out there. Can you tell me a bit more about how that came about?
I was invited by Gaz, founder of the svbkvlt crew and the idea was to collaborate with some artists there on some music. Everyone was really warm and it felt less like the usual calculative mood and more of a family gathering. It was one thing I missed while I was in some places in Europe. Uganda has the same kind of vibe and I loved that the two places shared that in common. The place also had a familiar kind of chaos that made me feel at home.
I’ve also heard that Nyege Nyege plans to reciprocate and bring some of those Chinese artists over to Uganda. Are you trying to forge more lasting connections between the two scenes?
Yes. The two scenes have more in common than most other scenes. They are also emerging scenes so it is great to share ideas and grow.
Is there anywhere else in the world where you think there are exciting musical phenomenons going on? Are there any places you think that you would be interested in touring and connecting with the resident artists there?
Most Asian countries seem really interesting and I would love to do proper tour there. I am about to tour Europe again and I am excited to meet more artist there and play for awesome crowds.
Catch Slikback at Dekmantel Festival in Amsterdam this August.
Tickets and more info here.
Words: Franklin Dawson
Featured Images: Alim Karmali