As a US based Kenyan DJ what are your thoughts on the reception of Kenyan music abroad?
Well, in the first place very little Kenyan music finds its way to the US nowadays simply because no one is sending us music.
What this means is that very few Kenyans in the diaspora have access to this music despite the huge demand for it.
This has a reflection on the state of the industry here at home because unlike in the early 2000’s when Kenyan songs would naturally trickle to listeners abroad by virtue of the hype they received at home, now it just doesn’t seem that Kenyans in Kenya feel their own music to begin with.
Is this the general sentiment amongst Kenyans in the diaspora as far as local music is concerned?
Definitely. We see guys fighting each other on Twitter and a lot of times this even trends worldwide so the whole world witnesses.
It’s sad because the few Kenyan artistes like Sauti Sol and Idd Aziz who have gotten their acts together and tapped into the diaspora market are getting favourable responses and people are actually buying their music online.
Does the same case apply to other African acts?
On the contrary it’s the complete opposite. With Nigerian music for instance we get the tracks the same day they are released in Nigeria.
The moment Davido has a new release, his network in the US will have a street team ready to hand out fliers, send out links and share the song or video in all the major cities around the country.
Personally I find it curious that very few if any Kenyan artistes use similar techniques to deliberately market and distribute their music in the US or Europe.
So what happens when you get a request to play a Kenyan song seeing as you are a known Kenyan DJ?
I get so embarrassed because even I feel so out of the loop every time someone walks up to me and asks about the latest Kenyan artiste or song.
But at the same time most gigs I play have more of an international crowd as opposed to a selectively Kenyan one which allows me to be a bit more flexible with the music selection. When I do play Kenyan music though, it’s mostly the old stuff mixed in with whatever new releases I can find on Amazon.
How did you end up as a DJ in the US?
I was actually born in America. My parents were college students there before moving back to Kenya where I grew up then we moved back just before I finished high school in 1998.
At the time I was an artiste with a crew known as DPG. We used to perform in clubs and jam sessions around town and that’s how I came to know most of today’s Kenyan artistes.
At some point I decided to take a break from music when I joined college but I noticed that people kept asking for Kenyan music at the parties I would attend so I became the music supplier which eventually transformed into a deejaying career.
You had a stint on American radio at some point…
After I bought my first turntables I would make mixtapes from my house which I would distribute around town. Next thing I know, one of the local stations got hold of my mixtapes and invited me to start doing a prime time weekday radio show which officially launched my career as a professional DJ. I was playing a lot of hip hop at the time which allowed me to tour with various artistes and gave me considerable exposure.
Your music selection has since shifted, what brought that about?
I still play a lot of hip hop but over the years I started hosting Afro-Carribean parties that became quite popular with the wider African diaspora community.
At the same time I took up music production in an effort to diversify my offering. With time I realised that I was doing everything from deejaying to promotion to event organising and so I decided to move my hustle to New York City in order to grow.
What was it like finding your space in New York?
At first everyone thought I was crazy to leave Minneapolis where I had established myself to go and start from ground zero in New York.
I had minimal networks there and the dynamics were completely different but I’ve always been one to stay hungry and keep chasing, so I had to find a way to make it work. That’s why I decided to pay extra attention to my music production hustle.
How exactly does your new DJ-Producer act work?
Around 2009 there emerged a new culture in the US where producers and beat makers begun making and releasing beats without necessarily incorporating singers.
Over the years this scene has become so big that acts such as Bonobo, Disclosure, Flying Lotus and Flume now outsell major artistes not to mention the incredible live performances they’ve developed.
As this was happening, other industry players started gaining recognition for the diverse roles they play in the showbiz cycle ranging from stylists to vocal coaches and so on.
One of the biggest things I’m doing for instance is a joint effort with celebrity fitness trainer Mark Jenkins who trains the likes of Beyonce, P. Diddy, DJ Khaleed, Rick Ross and many others.
It’s a combination of a workout class and live performance session that we host every Saturday in New York.
Is this now officially your new thing?
Yes. In fact the New Year Smirnoff Party in Naivasha is probably the last time people will see me playing as a regular DJ. Going forward, I intend to stage shows where I will be performing my own productions as well as material with artistes I‘ve been working with under my production setup.
I also intend to incorporate live visuals into the performance which is why it was so important for me to come back to Kenya first to capture enough exciting visual content that I can incorporate into my act.
It’s taken me about one and a half years to build this plan and I feel like I’m now ready to go all out.
Speaking of artistes you’ve worked with, tell us about your collaboration with Sauti Sol.
I just did an Afro-electronic remix of Sura Yako, which we just released and I’m pretty excited to work on other projects with them.
I’ve also worked on some exciting material with Wyre as well as upcoming releases featuring US-based artistes such as Nyara from Uganda who is signed to my production outfit.
I’m also hoping to put something out with GLC who is currently an opening act for Jay Z and Kanye West and there’s a potential collaboration with Jay Electronica in the works too.
Based on your experiences and insights, what conclusions have you drawn about Kenyan DJs?
To be sincerely objective, I think most Kenyan DJs have exceptional technical skills. Their skills and tricks can match most globally established DJs but they lack artistry.
They prefer to stick to playlists which makes them conform as opposed to trying out new things. They will wait for someone to do something and then flock towards that without making any effort to create for themselves.
Is there a plan to return to Kenya somewhere along the line?
To be frank, based on the direction I’m taking musically and what I’ve witnessed with other globally established entertainers I don’t see myself settling down in any one particular place per se.
Given the circle of artistes I’ve been working with lately, it’s only a matter of time before I move on to the next level. That’s what I’m positioning myself and my artistes for.