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From artistes arriving on stage in choppers and coffins, to antagonising hardcore anthems

From artistes arriving on stage in choppers and coffins, to antagonising hardcore anthems to inspire the youth, hip hop has grown to become a forceful music phenomenon, as Alfayo Onyango explores

Whether you’re caved in a hole somewhere in Mado Gashi, evaded the city life because of your broke pockets or you live in the most exotic of islands, there is no getting away from hip-hop.

It’s one of the most influential and sought-after lifestyles. With their tight rhymes, rare designer wear, flashy jewellery and a confidence you can only admire, it is just hard not to love these hip-hop royalty. But where do we lie as a country when it comes to hip-hop?

“Hip-hop has been known as a culture and independent music genre that began in New York in the 70s, where adverse black youths would express their feelings and ideas through fusions of beat boxing, rapping, and dancing.

It became so infectious and rampant that it extended to a culture of fashion, mission, intent and even a way to make ends meet,” Dollah Rah, a New York-based music producer tells Spice.

Budha Blaze.

“Back then, rhymers such as The Last Poets were popular for promoting the craft, and more kids wanted to rap.

So, Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were the 80s leaders of the culture rocking big chains around their necks and dressing in a particular manner that many later came to associate with the culture.

They spit the most deepest of thoughts through their raps and that really got people engaged. It literally grew from homes to communities, the city and later, the whole of America was on the map,” he says.

Domestically though, this was an era when only few media houses operated (freely), fibre optic wires to power Internet connection were still in conceptualisation stage and mobile phones were scarce. However, hip-hop still thrived and survived through the few newspapers, TV and radio stations and later magazines such as PHAT! and Insyder.

The elite (uptown) had access to computers before the innovation of electronics that included portable listening devices such as the Walkman. These acted as the only reliable sources of information for people, hence the attention given to media was at an optimum high.


This was the pre-digital era, where information was controlled and only made accessible by the government through stringent avenues of privately-owned media houses. The infrastructural issues in the 90s did little in revolutionising hip-hop, helping it spread nationwide because there were limited frequencies on air, and there were just too few programmes that promoted Kenyan music in a sufficient manner.

To be fair, there existed little-known trailblazing hip-hop superstars. Out of the global boom in the late 90s, hip-hop gained steady growth that the culture was soon in so much demand. According to hip-hop activist Sax Njuguna, Kenyan youth had already found identity in something the media “Could hardly support because it was still considered low-class.”

Barak Jacuzzi.

“The 80s had notable pioneers such as Fundi Frank and David Muriithi, but the real buzz was really in Coast and that’s where I consider Kenyan hip-hop to have originated from.

It was all happening there, but the artistes there never really got exposed until Ukoo Flani surfaced in mid-90s. Then Nairobi became the driver because all the resources were in the capital,” says Sax.

He adds that government policies during president Daniel Moi’s regime suppressed arts and talents through the over-monitoring of media that publicised police brutality and the ill-government deeds through avenues such as hip-hop.

It was when international interference from bigwigs such as Channel
and MTV, as well as personalities such as Jimmy Gathu initiating music shows that began a renaissance for Kenyan artistes to begin going mainstream.

“The golden age of hip-hop in Kenya has to be from 2000 to 2005. I found it already on the up, but artistes such as K-South (Abbas and Bamboo), Kalamashaka, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji and Ukoo Flani Mau Mau are the core of the Kenyan hip-hop industry.

They were amazing wordsmiths; their wordplay was second to none. They won battles and made good money from their music; touring abroad and what not. The way they represented the inner city vibes, as Ukoo Flani brought that Kiswahili rap alive, was beautiful,” says music consultant and first editor of PHAT! magazine, Budha Blaze.


The 2000s would experience a boom in Kenyan hip-hop, with legends such as Dead Prez, a hip-hop duo from the US performing in Kenya at the annual hip-hop concert ‘Wapi?’. By 2005, radio would emerge to be the biggest avenue to popularise music. However, commercial targets such as advertisements would dictate the kind of music to be played. This didn’t support music that covered socio-political themes featuring rappers such as Mashifta.


Artistes such as Nonini, Jua Cali, Redsan, Nameless, E-Sir, Deux Vultures, Big Pin, Amani, Tatuu, Kleptomaniax, Jaguar, Necessary Noize, CMB Prezzo, Pilipili, Mr Googs and Mr Lenny and later Size 8, Q-tasi, [email protected] and Madtraxx, among others, would all profit from the radio shifts that favoured genge and kapuka music, as producers such as Clemmo and Musyoka began dominating charts with their records.

Hip-hop’s upward trajectory continued, but there was fear the genre would be diluted by other music influences, hence the conscious effort to separate it from the then seemingly trendy genres.

Then the digital era of rap began in the turn of this decade. With the rapid penetration of Internet, all hell broke loose, as the discovery of talent became a reality.

Everything is now viewed from a global lens as opposed to local or even regional views because of how accommodative the Internet can be. The ‘Nu Nairobi’ movement was born and they are currently struggling to find their feet to break into the mainstream and start to eat with the big ‘dogs’.

“This is the best time to be in the (hip-hop) game. For the first time I can say music videos are quality and the artistes’ branding is great, so the commercial corporate deals are lined up well for them to take advantage of,” MC Pointblank, a rapper, visual artist and emcee tells Spice.


Camp Mulla, Khaligraph Jones, STL, MDQ, King Kaka and Xtatic are all frontiers of this period of hip-hop. From aesthetics to lyricism, music production to virtuoso, this crop of artistes has advanced its craft, widened the knowledge and are more prepared to compete globally than locally.

A group such as Kenya’s Camp Mulla, though not traditionally hip-hop, created a surge and a blueprint for both present and future aspiring artistes when it was nominated in America’s BET Awards as Best International Acts in 2012. The same momentum has hardly been rekindled, but rapper Khaligraph has been giving the game a good run.

Khaligraph Jones.

From Kalamashaka to Wakadinali, Alfa Mars, Trabolee and TNT, it is no secret that 254 has more to offer. Promising talent from the Coast is evident through Khaligraph Jones’ protégé Donn Jowlz and Diani’s Odinareh Bingwa.

The sound has expanded and it is becoming eclectic with acts such as ADF, Steph Kapela, Barak Jacuzzi, Jovie Jovv, Vallerie Muthoni, Bey T, Kerby Kizazi and Uneek using trap music (hip-hop sub-genre) and other genre fusions as a way of expressing themselves.

More experimental artistes such as Wuod Baba have vernacularised trap into another sub-culture called ‘Luo trap’. Acts such as Smallz Lethal are also popular for using their vernacular to rap on hip-hop beats as he is master of Kisii dialect.

Today, hip-hop culture is more documented through the Internet, as sales and promotions are mostly carried out digitally. Artistes are now more visible, brand-influenced and personal with their fans when they use various social media platforms. Moreover, media outlets  and artistes have grown in number, hence the increase in content and demand.

Artists such as Octopizzo, Khaligrah and King Kaka have proven hip-hop is commercially attractive, seeing how they are endorsing big brands and getting a decent chunk of airplay. There’s no telling where the genre can go right now, but the sky is huge enough for all the birds to fly.

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