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My Rap sheet

This might come as a galloping shock to you, but I, Fred, born into the sun-baked black cotton soil of the K’Aketch Clan of Uyoma Katweng’a, is a late bloomer. Now, I wouldn’t know the difference between rap and hip hop if the two of them walked right up to me and introduced themselves. Yeah, Yeah, I know you going to tell me that Rap is the music and Hip Hop is the lifestyle. There’s a video clip floating around on YouTube in which Afrika Bambaataa knocks my socks off, saying that Rap as a form of expression goes back to ancient biblical times. He swears that back then, when God spoke directly with people as he did when handing over the 10 Commandments to Good Old Moses, they were not speaking like you and I. They were, wait for it, rapping! I nearly choked on my cereals. Afrika Bambaataa is telling you that Sir God himself spit the first ever recorded rap verse in history and judging by the surging sales over the years, His must have gone triple platinum and will handily win the most (mis)quoted and re-mixed album in human history. Obviously, Bambaataa’s  approach to rap & hiphop is… er, more spiritual than mine.

Growing up in Bondo Town and coming of age when Slick Willie was getting entangled in a blue dress, you could say that I had more immediate problems and to that end, Rap IS an acquired taste. I could be remembering this incorrectly, but I think I fell in love with Rap Music right around the time I had a crash on Lucy Caroline. It must have been around ’99 or 2000 and Extra Musica’s État Major was the rave of town. It was a bright sunny mid-morning, the kind that comes after a night storm. I was walking through the gates of one of my High School friends when  Biggie’s Hypnotize came through the Airwaves. There are no words in this world, or the next that could possibly do justice to the genius of this song, except to say that its like a run away train that does not quite gather speed because Christopher Wallace’s intention seems to be roping you in and not letting go for the nearly 4 minutes that he has your ear.

I am not setting out to give you a list of the most consequential or even influential Rap Albums of all time.  I am hardly qualified to do that; I will leave that to HipHop Historians and to the anonymous Online Keyboard Gangstas of today. Mine is a simple list of  the sounds that defined my youth and continue to give me immense pleasure…pleasure? Satisfaction is the word am looking for – so much so that I am willing to folk out 9 Euros on iTunes to own them. Yeah, I am cheap like that. Here’s my list with a few pedestrian observations of my own. This list is not in any order.

  • The Black Album – Jay Z

OK, I have to admit that I was torn between this Album and  Jay’s debut ‘Reasonable Doubt’ .  Jay himself admits that its his best album, something to do with his hunger for success. You’d be hard pressed to argue with that – its packed with critically acclaimed tracks like ‘Can’t Knock the Hustle’, Dead Presidents, Can I live, and the less noticed 22 two’s. Hold on…Wait..**scratching my head**…ok, I am still going to go with The Black Album. In my opinion, this is  the most complete Album from Hov to date. It lacks the insecurities of his previous albums. He is at the top of his game and he knows it. He effortlessly switches from being laid back in ‘Change Clothes’  and ‘Allure’ to  multi-layered in ’99 problems’.

  • All Eyes on Me – Tupac Shakur

Can I take a personal privilege to say that ‘Old School’ from ‘Me Against the World’ is one of my favorite rap songs? Now that we have got that out of the way, for me at-least, this 2 disc album does it for me. Released after being released(see what I did there?) from Prison and signing on to Suge Knight’s DeathRaw record, Tupac packed(I did it again) a massive 27 tracks on this one. Sometimes it almost feels like he is in a huge hurry to get back at the world, he doesn’t not have any qualms about calling out his enemies, real or imagined, but mostly, he is busy trying to live. ‘Ambitionz az a Ridah’,  ‘2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted’ and ‘Heaven Ain’t Hard to Find’ are some of my best tracks from this Album.

  • Illmatic – Nas

‘I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners…’. Perhaps Raps’ greatest Writer, Nas has often been described as a ‘ City Street Poet’, a characterization that the Queensbridge Emcee used to wholeheartedly embrace but has lately tried to distance himself from, noting, as  he did during an interview with Charlie Rose, and am not quoting verbatim here folks, that, ‘Poetry sounds so…refined, so..not raw, illmatic was  the furthest thing from polished’. Earlier on, I said that my list was not necessarily about the most consequential Rap Albums. ‘Illmatic’ was as consequential as it gets. It landed on the rap scene with a big bang and put East Coast Rap scene squarely in the middle of inner city(some might say Ghetto) narrative. Nas takes you on a journey through the gritty streets of his beloved borough.  Listen to ‘Memory Lane’, ‘Represent’and ‘It Ain’t Hard to Tell’  and thank me later.

  • College Dropout – Kanye West

Show of hands… Who misses the soulful Kanye of a decade ago? Kanye West did to HipHop what Sergey Brin and Larry Page before him did to the business world – Made Nerds look cool again. Kanye hit the much needed ‘re-set button’ on the rap scene with this Album. I think he is the first Rap artist I ever saw to come on stage in a long sleeved shirt and not an over-sized t-shirt or a shiny vest. He brought back biting social commentary to the rap game that had been briefly lost in the very lame trumped up beef between Ja-Rule and 50-Cent. Tracks like ‘All Falls Down’, ‘We don’t Care’, ‘Through the Wire’ and the genius that is  ‘Jesus Walks’ are breathlessly devoid of guns, hoes and cars.

  • Ready to Die – Notorious BIG 

I got a story to tell…

“I kick flows for ya, kick down doors for ya,
Even left all my motherf***n hoes for ya,
N**as think Frankie P***y whipped, n**a picture that
With a Kodak, Insta-ma-tak…We don’t get down like that…”

In my opinion, hands down best story teller and the greatest lyricist to ever grace the Mic. Some of my favorite Biggie tracks are not even found on this Album. Just one thing…OK, two things that I would like to say..One, if you are under 30,here’s a ‘Warning’ (see what I did there?),skip the end of ‘Respect’. Thank you.

If you are just getting into Rap music and would like to know the essence and soul of this genre, I would recommend you listen to Biggie Smalls seminal ‘Juicy’. This is the track that encapsulates the dreams of the Inner City black man(and woman) and best describes the aspirations of a disenfranchised youth during Biggie’s time and today.

This is my list. Care to share yours?

Fountain pen

The other day, I had to fill out (or is it fill in?) a form in one of the numerous agencies you are loath to go to should you need something the government, in its infinite wisdom(Yes,pun intended), feels it should regulate. Why was I there, you ask? I don’t quite remember, but what do you care, right? I could have been filling out a form to go to the moon. So, this place is in the middle of, I don’t want to say ‘nowhere’, coz that’s such a cliché, but its in the middle of nowhere really. I mean I don’t like places where the bus drops you somewhere and then you have to walk back to find the street or stop a random person going about his/her business to ask for directions. It’s for the same reasons that I don’t like sitting in a bus with my back to the driver. What if we wind up in Timbuktu instead of the city center? How, pray, would I get back? Yeah, am one-dimensional like that.

So I get to this nondescript graying building,push open the door,nod at the sleepy receptionist to my left and walk into this sparingly lit space. Have you noticed that all male receptionist these days have a mustache? I am going to the third floor. I am not big on climbing stairs, I think people who climb stairs when there is a lift have serious insecurities. I take the lift. It’s an old soviet-era lift and these breed of lifts are not for the faint of heart. First, there is a protruding worn-out red button that you have to press hard before the door slaps shut. Blink and it will hit you in the face. Then you press your floor, in my case, the 3rd floor and off you go. Now listen to this carefully. When the lift stops on your floor, do not be in a hurry to open the door. These lifts like to take their sweet time figuring things out, so it will momentarily stop and after a couple of seconds, suddenly drop 2-3 inches lower. That’s when you open the door. It’s very much the same feeling you get from turbulence. So I get out unscathed and walk along this corridor, looking for door number 365, which has an arrow indicating that this door has been shut since Hitler doused himself in diesel and lit his ass on fire and could I please knock on 366 instead? So I knock on 366 and after explaining my visit, am presented with a sheet of forms to fill.

My dad had this neat idea that for primary school, I had to go to Ndere Boys boarding. As the name suggests, it was a boys boarding school. For those who are not familiar with the term, a boarding school is where students board, meaning, they spend a whole three months in school without going back home save for the occasional visits from family. Then they are unleashed back to their parents for a one month holiday before being hauled back for another three months. Parents believe that this is the best way for a child to get a good education, outside the influences and interference’s of normal human life. So this is where I found myself, on the first day at Ndere boys, in the holding area, early in January of 1992, waiting to be admitted to standard 5. Dad was grinning from ear to ear, while I sat there stiff and scared, his experiment working. At one point, the headmaster, Mr. Odhaji(R.I.P), passed by and loudly asked if my parents had packed milk with me, his point being that I was too tiny to be away from Mum’s side. A few minutes later, I was stamped with an admission number and let loose with the other boys, both old and new students. My new name was Fredrick Odhiambo, Admission Number 641.And thus began my life in boarding school. This is a story about handwriting.

with ink bottle

Domnic Odhaji was not your average run of the mill teacher. He was a burly,hard-nosed administrator who prided himself with receiving unruly,unkempt and often, mischievous kids from a wanting parent, moulding them in his own image and churning them out back into the wider society as upright and high achieving African Gentlemen. Of course, as teenage students, we had other ideas. The running battles of wits we had with those teachers could make for a Hollywood movie, but I digress. The first tenet of Odhaji’s discipline revolved around hand-writing and of course it didn’t help that he was also the English teacher in standard 5. Woe unto you who doodled instead of writing. And no, biro pens were a NO-NO. It had to be a fountain pen. And the ink had to be a dark blue. The kind that was thick enough to be absorbed into the page. Anyone thinking that,”Ooh My God, I am running out of ink, let me add water”, think again, coz Mr. Odhaji noticed everything. The first few weeks of his English lessons revolved around teaching you the intricacies of penmanship,if that’s a word he’d approve, or more precisely, his penmanship. I am not saying that you had to hold the pen the way he held a pen, after-all, his tools of trade were his chalk and a long stick called mapera curved from a guava tree – there’s a whole different story about this mapera business. He couldn’t care less if you held a pen like a machete, but you had to write like he wrote. To Mr. Odhaji, handwriting is where science met art. Obviously, it had to be illegible and not only that, the words had to be connected and properly spaced. Because you were not using a type-writer, your hand writing had to be slightly slanted,what they call italic in the age of the Personal Computer. The only time you didn’t connect your words was when you wrote something in Capital letters, but how many times do you get to write a whole sentence in capital letters unless it was a heading? So, No, it had to be connected. Forget about properly placing an apostrophe, starting a sentence with a capital letter or dotting your i’s and the mapera dutifully landed on your backside to set you straight. Most of us, being away from home for the first time in our lives had a hard time coping, what with the lost pens and stolen ink bottles. There was a whole economy down there primed on these commodities;selling of pens and ink, hand writing help for the slow learners. I remember going home for the first time in April and Mum observing,”Fred, your cheek bones are protruding…but by God, your handwriting has improved”. By the time we bid farewell to that school after 4 years, all of us had impeccable handwriting not to mention an overly sensitive nose for whats up. You had to keep your wits about you or else you wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell with Mr. Odhaji and his lieutenants. But why am I telling you about 20+ years ago? It’s because in the intervening years,some clever chaps invented the PC and convinced everyone you had to know how to use it if you wanted to look cool. So a whole generation skipped Mr. Odhaji’s Standard 5 maperas, whizzed past the type-writers of their mother’s era and dove right into word processors, excel files and e-mails. Those of us who prided ourselves with having good handwriting begrudgingly jumped ship too, after all, who wants to be left behind when the whole world is in a hurry to get itself civilized? Not me, and certainly not you.

The problem is, not everyone boarded the ship. You see the thing with technology is, it jumps in leaps and bounds, so a shiny new object today could wind up at the Smithsonian tomorrow. This is how I found myself the other day trying my best to write down my names, where I was born, and every little detail some government hack had thought of in this form. To tell you that it was a disaster, wouldn’t quite capture it. After a few tries, I gave the last and best filled-form to the lady who was supposed to once again write everything down on the computer and submit it and I could see that her mood was getting darker and darker as she tried to decipher whatever I had written. At one point, exasperated, she asked if “this is an O or a Q” and I said its an O and I think she wiped her sweaty brow, sickened.

My point is, in the immediate aftermath of the doomsday warnings of the millennium, there is very little I have written using a pen and paper that exceeded one paragraph and the same probably applies to you. I wonder what my good teacher Mr. Odhaji would think of my handwriting today. Perhaps he would take one look at it and reach out for his mapera. I think you’d agree with me that most of our writing these days is pretty much confined to a signature and that days’ date. And I think that it’s a shame, coz handwriting used to be an art.

Salute

I gotta say that I had not been closely following Big Brother Africa(BBA) like some people I know. I think its got something to do with my general politics about reality TV. Bundling people together in a small space and playing them off against each other is not my idea of entertainment. I heard about BBA probably the same way some of you did, when it was reported in the local tabloids and picked up by local dailies that Kenya’s own self-proclaimed King of Bling, Prezzo, was one of the country’s representatives to the Mansion in Jo’Burg. It’s a mansion, right? I get tripped over differences between mansions, villas, estates etc. At that time,Kenyan cyber-space was abuzz with why they picked Prezzo of all people. “Couldn’t they get someone who was not going to embarrass us?”,some wondered loudly. Hilarious suggestions ranged from proposing, in Prezzo’s stead, that we send the equally flamboyant Makadara MP Mike “Sonko” Mbuvi(if blinging was the criteria for picking Prezzo) to Miguna Miguna of the “Come Baby Come” fame. Ok, I lie,Miguna Miguna wouldn’t happen until a couple of months later. I discarded the hullabaloo in the wake of Prezzo’s nomination with the rest of the pile that we Kenyans cook up and get distracted by on a weekly basis. The next time I came across BBA and Prezzo in the same sentence was when Barbz got into some scuffle with Prezzo. I was alerted to this piece of information by a Zambian who wondered aloud ,on Facebook, if Kenyan men are not properly, what term did he use?..Yes, properly brought up to respect women. Ooh well..seriously?

King of Bling

What happened next got my attention though. Alex,a BBA participant and also from Kenya nominated Prezzo to be kicked out of the house,sorry…Mansion. This, predictably, did not go down well with Kenyans who treated it as high treason and responded with unprintables. Up until that moment, its safe to assume that Kenyans were generally nonchalant about Prezzo or the whole BBA project. I mean, Prezzo had his vocal supporters alright, but Kenyans didn’t much care if he won or not, just as long as he didn’t embarrass us none too much. I will bet all the money in my pockets plus all the money in yours, that the whole country rallied behind Prezzo the moment Alex opened his mouth and out came stupidos. All of a sudden, Prezzo was the best thing to come out of Kenya since, well, since roses and what was Alex doing trying to knee-cap a fellow countryman thousands of miles away from home? This kind of free-lancing wouldn’t be tolerated and Alex had to go and so, a campaign was initiated.

Keagan,the eventual winner

Kenyans have, for the last couple of months, wanted to win big. We are a besieged lot, from high inflation to uncertainty in our domestic body politic and we have silently concluded that nothing is going to give. We had been looking forward to and indeed hoped that the Olympics would bring forth some cheer, but the performance of our boys and girls in London has been lackluster at best. The last time the country collectively celebrated was during the promulgation of the new constitution and boy, that was a long while ago. This is the background that informs the reaction of Kenyans regarding the final results of Big Brother Africa where Keagan, a South African house-mate emerged the overral winner with a cool $300K to his name by beating…wait for it…Prezzo. The results were greeted with protests and claims of vote rigging by South Africa. You see, rigging is the preserve of Kenyans and we don’t take it lightly if someone comes and beats us at our own game! Bear in mind that Kenyans had been whipped into a Nationalistic fervor in no small measure by Alex’s foot and mouth disease and our 30-plus Presidential candidates who took to cyberspace to urge everyone to vote. Say what you will about Kenyans – corrupt officials,tribal,with attention span of a cashew-nut, but we are and have always been an aspirational people. We love guts and swag and love it when one of us goes out there and flies our national colors. So naturally, there is bound to be many pissed-off folks when we think that we have been screwed out of something,never mind that as a people, we have a mixed history with anything elective…when was the last time we trusted voting results? That’d be never.

I will tell you what’s on the minds of Kenyans right about now, that if we ever get a chance to screw South Africans over, we’d do that with huge grins on our faces.

DISCLAIMER: I need to qualify my statement about reality TV. I don’t hate all reality TV. I treat reality TV like I treat the Old and New testaments in the bible. I am more of a New testament kind of guy, you see? So, I like the Tusker Project Fames and the American X factors of this world, but only after they are done with the auditions, coz frankly, some of those cats make chills run down my spine. I am not big on public embarrassments.

Marek Fuchs has become something of a relentless Kenyan cultural ambassador-at-large and for that, we have him to thank for last Wednesday evening. Sauti Sol, a popular Kenyan Afro-fusion quintet based in Nairobi has been in Czech Republic for the last couple of days, first wowing the crowd at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival before moving on to Colours of Ostrava, one of Central Europe’s biggest music event and certainly Czech Republic’s biggest music festival. In between, the band returned to Prague for a cultural safari. Anyone who knows a thing or two about Prague will tell you that the city, with its Gothic Castles,winding coble-stone streets, old town and the timeless Charles Bridge, is a cultural jewel. For music lovers, there was never a better excuse to have a street party and so it fell to the indefatigable Marek to put it all together. And so, after an hour and a half of sound-checks,tangled cords, squeaky speakers and one heck of a patient crowd gathered at the river front on Rašínovo nábřeží(www.bajkazyl.cz) under the street lights, Prague fell in love with Sauti Sol.

Let me make a bold statement here: Sauti Sol is its own genre. Baraza and Chimano are a flamboyant  pair, cheerily prodding each other along with a tableau of crowd-pleasing humor that never seem to break their flow but serve to keep the crowd dancing and singing along. Andrew for all his zen-like nature off the stage, is in my opinion,a latter-day Charles “Skip” Pitts. Dave and Polycarp’s deftness on the guitar had me on a “You’ve got to be kidding me” mode throughout the show. Delvin, who was on this night on the drums, played the role of the keeper of the flame, the all round player-maker  who knows where every piece is, what the next move is and how to get there; for how does one explain how Sauti Sol can seamlessly move from “Mama Papa”, add a little Simaro Massiya Lutumba’s “Maya” and fuse it all with “skamaress”, a popular children’s play song and then top it all off with their popular title “Sofia”? There’s something to be said about melody and harmony.

Buy one of their albums,play it, replay it…or better yet,attend one of their concerts, dance and sing along and thank me later.

Pictures courtesy of Branka Jocic, Lukas Hamacek and Marek Fuchs. Video courtesy of Blankets and Wine.

By Fredrick Odhiambo

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