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The rise of street-hop, Lagos’ evolving dance sound

Street-hop is a sound from Lagos, Nigeria that mutates as it moves between different neighbourhoods; creating new beats, themes and dance crazes as it goes. As it breaks into the Nigerian pop culture mainstream, despite controversy, DJ Mag speaks to some of street-hop’s key artists, like DJ Kaywise, Rexxie and Sarz, to find out how it’s evolved and where it’s going next

Lagos is a city that never sleeps. Home to roughly 15 million people, the coastal megacity and economic capital of Nigeria is always on the go. Though Lagos is often viewed as the country’s epicentre for quick success, in reality, it exists on two extreme edges: one side is a sea of people determined to “make it”; while the other is home to an erupting creative scene, the beating heart of Africa’s art community. It’s crowded, chaotic and crackling with culture, and by night, Lagos is transformed by the thousands of generator-powered lights that set the stage for its parties.

“The nightlife scene in Lagos is big business,” says DJ Kaywise, an award-winning DJ and tastemaker in the city. “From the cognac-dipped clubs to the big boys block parties, down to the money, glamour and fast cars, our party culture in Lagos is rich, luxurious and fashion-driven.”

While glamour may be part of it, what really drives the nightlife is the soundtrack. Dance music in Lagos is a unique variant, a percussion-heavy sound that’s unlike the popular club styles of the West. The throbbing, four-to-the-floor beats that characterise house sounds more familiar in the West (and some parts of Africa) are replaced by a pitter-patter of percussive progression.

“It’s the African instruments,” says Yinka Bernie, a Lagos-based producer, about what makes the sound of Lagos special. “The drum elements, like the shakers and the congas... it gives it a different bounce, the shakers especially; ‘shaker 101’ to be exact. It’s what makes our sound distinct from European dance music.”

Dance music fuels Lagos’ energy. And as Nigerian popular culture is informed by street culture, Lagos’ dance music scene is necessarily dictated by the streets — and the streets have their own genre: street-hop. Street-hop has a long history as the soundtrack of Lagos’ slums. It’s a mutating sound: even its most basic elements are in motion, influenced by hyperactive, ephemeral street trends. Its roots can be traced back to the early ’90s, and to the slum of Ajegunle, an inner-city neighbourhood where ‘galala’ — a pseudo-reggae sound made popular by artists such as Daddy Showkey, Baba Fryo and Blacky — first emerged.

“The rise of galala from Ajegunle into the mainstream kickstarted the dance scene back then,” recalls DJ Kaywise, a leader in street-hop. Growing up in ’90s Lagos, Kaywise witnessed the birth of street-hop as it morphed from one phase (and slum) to another, and the dance moves unique to each phase — a trend that has continued. “I’d use the word spontaneous,” he says, explaining the origins of these dances. “Nigerians move with vibes. It’s all about how you’re feeling, so the music guides the kind of steps we put out.”

As street-hop moved from one inner-city neighbourhood to another through the years, the sound changed in style and in name. In the early ’00s, it morphed into konto and swo — two melodic iterations of galala, heralded by artist Mad Melon and Mountain Black. As the sound moved out of Ajegunle and into Iju-Ishaga in the late ’00s, street-hop moved into what’s considered the pangolo era. A more uptempo sound, pangolo switched out the toms and light guitar strums of galala and konto for heavy drums, snares and bass guitar riffs. Pangolo also brought in a new wave of lyricism in street-hop, best realised in Terry G’s ‘Free Madness’.

The early to mid-’10s saw the rise of the wobe and shoki sounds in the Bariga neighbourhood, helmed by rapper Olamide and his protégé, Lil Kesh. Here, the percussion came out to play — drums, toms, hi-hats, the whole lot — and the tempo slowed right down, too. At their core, the wobe and shoki sounds were reverse-engineered iterations of traditional Yoruba music; many of the songs were recorded in the Yoruba language.

In 2021, after this winding journey through the city, street-hop has settled into the neighbourhood of Agege and developed into the styles known as zanku and shaku shaku. They have elements in common, but the real difference between them is in the pace of the music: shaku leans on the raw and repetitive arrangements of South African gqom, while zanku is less frenzied, focusing on Nigerian polyrhythmic drum patterns.

The big turning point for contemporary street-hop came in 2017, when rapper Olamide thrust shaku shaku (and its viral dance moves) into the spotlight with his street smash ‘Wo!!’, opening up opportunities for Agege and its brightest stars. Artists like Small Doctor, Mr Real, Slimcase and Idowest were catapulted to stardom through back-to-back hits: ‘Penalty’, ‘Legbegbe’, ‘Shepeteri’ and ‘Oshozondi’.

“It happened almost overnight,” recalls Slim Coded, a street-hop artist and Agege indigene. “We’ve been making this music for time, but 2017 was when everything changed. It was like, ‘Oh, something is happening in Agege!’, and suddenly everyone was hopping on the sound and trying to work with us. It’s a never-ending festival around here now.” 

Producer Cool M Beats agrees, and stresses that it’s his fellow Agege people, not the Nigerian music industry, that have pushed street-hop. “Music spreads through the people... no one waits for any promoters to make the song blow,” he insists. “When you say to yourself, ‘I’ll put this music on seven websites and keep telling people to download it’, you can make it.”

“Even with older African music genres — like fuji and highlife — people just want to dance, and street-hop has all of those elements. The main priority is to get you off your feet and move” - Sarz

Social media platforms, WhatsApp groups and local blogs played a crucial role in spreading the music, as did viral videos of dance routines to the songs. Dancers like Poco Lee and the Westsyde crew became popular through such videos. Each new wave, from shaku shaku to zanku, was turning street-hop into a tsunami that would crash into the Nigerian mainstream. 

Now, after moving from street parties in the slums to expensive clubs in upmarket Lagos neighbourhoods, street-hop has never been more popular. “I think street-hop has always been that main sound within the Afrobeats space,” says Osabuohien Osaretin. Better known as Sarz, he’s a veteran producer and DJ whose catalogue boasts tracks from Afrobeats juggernauts like Wizkid, Wande Coal and Niniola. Many argue that Sarz’s beats are the template for not just the current street-hop sound, but for the wider contemporary Nigerian music industry.

“It’s almost a no-brainer that if you have a song that’s danceable it will most likely be a hit,” he continues, “so this is why most people who are trying to make a hit would rather go for a street-hop sound. And I think that just comes from our cultural backgrounds. Even with older African music genres — like fuji and highlife — people just want to dance, and street-hop has all of those elements. The main priority is to get you off your feet and move.”

Sarz breaks down the street-hop elements: “First of all, the tempo has to be at least 115bpm and above — it keeps your heart-rate pumping. Then the groove has to be steady to keep people dancing. It also needs vocal elements that are provocative, and make people feel good and want to sing along.”

The vocal elements of current street-hop are led by lamba, or street slang. “Lamba is also the sounds that are synonymous with street life,” explains Rexxie, a popular street-hop producer. “Imagine a gunshot or glass breaking — those are sounds the streets are accustomed to, so these elements resonate with the people when it’s infused in the music.”

The lyrical content is just as head-turning, often mirroring Lagos’s socio-political climate. Historically, the feeling of music in Lagos is closely tied to its political and economic environment; hip-hop in Nigeria was seen as having a negative impact on young people, which only drove its success. In the same way, street-hop has received a lot of backlash from mainstream media outlets, and been criticised for its “harmful” lyrics that could corrupt “impressionable” youths. “Every artist in Nigeria is going through one thing or the other and it reflects drastically in our musical content,” says Kaywise. “Thanks to street-hop, rappers are more in tune with themselves and what they represent.”

“As Africans, what we want to do is dance because the continent is really a struggle, so you might just want to forget everything that’s going on in life and just have fun,” Sarz tells us with a smile.

One of the most controversial (and popular) street-hop songs of the last year is Bella Shmurda’s smash hit, ‘Cash App’. A cheeky reference to Shmurda’s dubious mode of pre-fame income, many saw the condemnation he — and street-hop at large — faced because of the song as unjustified. Some Nigerians even petitioned the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, asking for ‘Cash App’ to be banned from the country’s airwaves, arguing that the song reinforced negative stereotypes around Nigerian criminality.

In an essay titled ‘Silencing Nigerian Rappers Is Not The Answer To Cybercrime’, Nigerian journalist Adewojumi Aderemi compares the treatment of Nigerian street-hop to UK drill music, and writes: “Like knife crime is to drill music, or gun crime was to gangsta rap, cybercrime has been the illegal vice attached to the Zanku music trend, right from its onset”. 

She argues that admonishing and silencing street-hop artists is not the answer to the vices detailed in their lyrics. “It is clear that music not only glorifies crime but also, in some parts, actively encourages it as a response to one’s own circumstances — be it poverty or disrespect,” she continues. “Still, by understanding his [Bella Shmurda’s] motivations, ‘Vision2020’ [another Bella Shmurda song], ‘Cash App’ and music detailing and inextricably glorifying cybercrime in general, offer us an opportunity to assess the socio-economic conditions in which ‘Yahoo Yahoo’ proliferates in Nigeria”, argues Aderemi. “Nigeria’s problems do not begin or end with ‘Cash App’, and pretending that shutting out the experiences of an entire demographic will somehow erase the problem will only insulate the cancer of fraud from real and proper scrutiny.”

Despite the backlash and criticism, street-hop has come a long way, from makeshift studios deep in the slums to primetime radio and singles charts. “It’s getting more advanced now,” Rexxie says, “it’s really evolving. These musicians are getting more educated about music, and they’re getting more open to improving their craft. Before, you just heard chaotic noises, but now you can hear chords, actual melodies. These people are talented, they know what they’re doing.”

So with a near-30 year evolution, what does street-hop sound like in 2021? One of the freshest elements that’s been added to the melting pot is amapiano, a South African dance music genre, and its own peculiar sounds, like the log drum. In Nigeria, this style is called ‘omopiano’. “As Nigerians, I think we know how to make things or borrow culture and make it our own,” Sarz says of this latest trend. “I feel like we’re so good at that, even when we take this culture and we celebrate it, we almost celebrate it like it’s our own and we have our own version.”

And it’s working: tracks such as Zinoleesky’s ‘Kilofeshe’, Rexxie’s ‘KPK’ and Naira Marley’s ‘Koleyewon’ have been at the top of the charts since last December, proving that street-hop is no passing fad. “That’s why someone like Naira Marley had that uprising push,” Rexxie says. 

“We always see top artists come once in a while just to come and have a feel of the street sound, just to maintain their credibility on the streets. Like Burna Boy: no matter how well Burna Boy was doing [in the charts] he still had to come and do ‘Killin Dem’, because street-hop is what’s popping.”

Now, the future of street-hop looks bright. Labels like Naira Marley’s Marlian Music, Zlatan’s Zanku Records and DJ Kaywise’s Kaywise Entertainment are raising the next generation of artists. DJ Consequence’s The Vibe parties and DJ Kaywise’s annual Joor Concert event are bringing street-hop to the dancefloors, and Do2dtun on Nigeria’s Cool FM is pushing street-hop on air. More internationally recognisable sounds like Afrobeats and Afropop may flicker in and out, but as Kaywise puts it: “The street is the genesis, it’s where our music gets its spiritual essence from. You can’t beat that.”

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Makua Adimora is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @ColdAsMax_