Saxon Baird and Banning Eyre caught up with Ghanaian-born MC Blitz the Ambassador to chat about his new album, 'Native Sun.' Blitz was also most recently featured on our upcoming show, 'The Trans-National Hip Hop Train.'
Saxon Baird: Can you comment on why you think hip hop is able to cross borders and cultures so well, as opposed to other genres?
Blitz the Ambassador: I think unlike most genres where you actually have to be a trained musician, hip hop requires a training of another kind that is way more D.I.Y., and a lot more people can get involved and get into it without necessarily having to go to school for it, which is kind of a barrier for a lot of people trying to get into music. You have to have access to instruments, you have to have access to teaching. And so on and so forth. Hip hop... man you don't even have to know how to sing to be a part of it. Which is a blessing and a curse, because it seems like everybody can get into it, but it also quickly became a voice for a lot of people who hadn't had a voice for a while. It made it possible for people without any vocal skills, in terms of traditional singing, because it requires vocal skills of another kind which, to me, can be easily cultivated personally without having to go be taught. So I think that's one major reason why hip hop crossed over. If you look at how most of us came into contact with hip hop, it was so basic that it didn't require much to be a participant in it. I think that's why.
S.B.: Can you name that instant when hip hop really grabbed a hold of you? How old were you and who was it.?
B.t.A.: I can't really say a day or a time. It has been a vibe; once it arrived it arrived. This was the early '90s, and everybody wanted to be a part of it. It had totally swept through the most remote parts of Ghana. I lived in the capital so that's all I knew, but it had totally swept through most of Ghana, mainly through young students going to secondary school... everybody participated in it. I can recall hearing early records by people like KRS-One and thinking 'Wow, what is this?' but not really being able to process it, or not even really consciously asking that question. But it just felt so new, so natural. It wasn't like anything that in Ghana we'd been doing. We had the dance band scene that played a lot of covers, like the highlife covers, and of course there was popular American music right from Michael Jackson on down. So we knew pop music but this was the first time that it was just so raw, and just so in your face, and you couldn't help but move to it.
S.B.: I feel like your album has quite a live feel to it. And I hear a number of different styles, I hear highlife and I hear Afrobeat... when did you come back and want to return to those other styles and incorporate them into your hip hop style?
B.t.A.: The main thing that I recognized much later down the line, and at least now I can process it a bit better, is a typical trajectory of any immigrant. When you first arrive somewhere you are just trying to fit in, you are not trying to do anything that is outside the norm, you just trying to be a part of whatever is going on. Then after staying a bit, you realize that actually your identity matters, and who you are matters. And the older you get, you start thinking that you are missing out on a major part of your life if you are not combining all these elements. So that's the only way I can really explain coming to this point, which had never left me, it was just the acknowledging of this element that was me. Putting together the album was the most natural thing ever. Unlike Stereotype, my first album that was more meticulous and calculated, this was.... I just did whatever. And somehow it all just came together. Maybe because those two parts that I had my eye on had already found a way to blend inside of me, they already existed inside of me. I had never stopped being a fan of Ebo Taylor or E.T. Mensah or Manu Dibango. That always stayed, but combining that with The Bomb Squad sensibility production is really what made this record what it is.
S.B.: Do you feel like hip hop is the only genre in which you could really meld those two?
B.t.A.: I can't say for a fact, but if there is anything close, it has to be hip hop. Because hip hop in its nature is immigrant culture, whether people recognize it or not. If you take out what happened in the Bronx with Kool Herc moving from Jamaica and bringing the soundsystem culture to the Bronx... there would be no hip hop without those park jams that were sparked by park jams in Jamaica. The culture itself is heavily influenced... if you look at the B-Boys, most of them brought Latin dance styles, even some capoeira dance styles. If you really break down all of it, it's a mixture of all these sounds. But more importantly, down to the root of it, it's sampled culture as well. I don't think there's any other music that's as heavily based on sampling other work, as much as hip hop has. So that already laid down the foundation for something like what I've been able to do. I just replaced a Mingus sample with a Fela sample. That's the difference. But cats like Tribe and all these guys... De La, they'd be taken the jazz elements, the soul, the blues.. and all I'm doing is replacing that element with the Afrobeat, soukous, highlife. But also trying to take it a step further and add another dimension. I don't even know what it is yet, but it's almost like what the future should sound like. I guess it's just melting these two worlds together naturally creates this forward, futuristic sound. But that was a third element that ended up coming out of this process.
S.B.: The album is great, and I'm surprised that some of those West African sounds haven't been used more as they blend so naturally on the album. You named a some American hip hop that has influenced you, but what about African MCs? When you were growing up, I know it was still new, but were there any African MCs that really caught your ear?
B.t.A.: Well hiplife kinda came together, which is a combination of highlife music and hip hop music. That really came of age in the mid '90s. A pioneer of that was Reggie Rockstone and I actually namedrop him on a song called 'Best I Can' on the album - “I go listen to Rock king?? and Reggie Rockstone”- and I feel like both of those guys are pretty important to my personal development of music. Because what Reggie did for us back home was show us that you can be Ghanaian and actually have skills. And he also was the first to rhyme in Twi, which really made it something super cool because hip hop became personal then. I ended up obviously making Native Sun and adding a bunch of Twi elements, but without someone like Reggie, that wouldn't even be a popular thing. Hiplife today is one of the biggest genres in Ghana and in some parts of West Africa. Obviously now there are artists like K'Naan, Baloji, Tumi and the Volume from South Africa. Some amazing artists. And all these guys, the thing that is is distinct about all of them, is that we all bring a sound that is uniquely us, but more importantly, we bring a sound that has some social awareness to it which isn't the norm anymore in American hip hop. So, it just so happens that we are at a point right now that it works much better as our circumstances have not changed much through the '80s and the '90s, whereas things definitely have progressed here in America. If you think about race relations, if you think about police brutality, some of it still exists of course, but not as brutal as it was in the late 80s, early 90s. The crack epidemic is not as crazy as it was, and that's what birthed these groups at the time. So I think that's a big change.
S.B.: What would you think is your ideal audience that you're trying to reach with this record?
B.t.A.: As audiences are concerned, I mean ideally I would hope anyone who likes good music gravitates towards this album. However, the album specifically is an immigrant record. For anybody who, I don't care what generation – 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation – has ever gotten to a point where they're trying to reconcile these cultural differences. Between where they're from and where they live, where their parents are from and where they live. Fortunately I'm a musician so I'm able to voice, or process, this fragmentation and I'm able to reconcile them. If you're a regular worker who goes in an office everyday, you're not thinking about how to bridge these worlds of yours. So I'm hoping that what this record does is it helps people understand their personal journeys better, and process it and say 'man, I'm not the only one going through this split'. But the idea eventually is to bring it all together and let it all fit together as one. On the back of my album is an image of the continent of Africa all fragmented. One journalist asked what I meant by the image with all these scattered pieces of Africa going everywhere. I had to explain it was the opposite – all the pieces of Africa coming back together to form the continent. And I think that goes for whatever continent you're from – all these pieces make you and at the end of the day it's about you being able to come back to center, where you're from, who you are.
S.B.: Could you just explain the title of your record, because you've had the title for a while, right?
B.t.A.: Right. Native Sun.. well first, it's obviously a nod to Richard Wright's book of the same title but with s-o-n. I changed it to 'sun' mainly because when the record was close to being finished, I recognized that it had elements that reminded me of a straight warm day. When you put it on, it sounds like a sunrise, and when it nears its end it feels like a sunset. That's what I was feeling for the record more ideologically. More philosophically, I think what the s-u-n represents is this shining that finally happens when you figure out who you are, what your true self is, you know what I mean? And that's kind of what happens with this record. It's a journey that by the time it's over, an identity is forged. That's what I hope happens, and that light eventually ends up shining far, much further than where we are. That's what I was thinking for the record.
Banning Eyre: I'd love to have you say a few things about Baloji. You introduced him to New York, which we're very grateful for. How did you discover him?
B.t.A.: I had been online just looking, researching on great African musicians that are making strides, like I'm trying to do. And I ended up stumbling on Baloji's video, and I had never seen anything like it yet, in terms of just being able to fully capture the African aesthetic on video as well as he did. I was really impressed. I hadn't heard anybody rhyming French like he did. There's something particular about when people rhyme in a language instead of English. It's often cool, but it takes you a while to get into it. Baloji was the opposite, I just got it immediately. So, when I discovered Baloji's stuff, it was almost like the French version of what I had been trying to do. And I was like 'wow, people need to hear this,' and I looked at his plays, and there weren't many. I realized nobody knew this, nobody knew this guy. So I just reached out randomly and said I liked what he was doing. He hit me back and was very interested in doing some work together. We ended up meeting in Holland, I think, we talked briefly, I did a feature for him. I had an opportunity during my monthly at Joe's Pub, it worked out, and so we got him down here and he killed it. Now he's going to be back for the Summer stage, and we also got him playing at Weeksville, a Brooklyn music festival. So I hope it helps further galvanize his movement because I mean, personally, I look at what I'm doing as part of a whole. Native Sun in and of itself isn't going to change the way people see and think about music, especially African music. But together, with the likes of Baloji, K'Naan, Tumi, this guy called Wanlov from Ghana, with everybody bringing it all together I feel like we stand a real chance of being able to usher in a whole new vibe and a whole new sound. So I'm very cognizant of that and I do my best to be able to bring whoever I feel deserves that spotlight, pass them whatever contacts I have.. because they better they all do, the better I do.
B.E.: It seems like you are part of a movement that's happening now. This is kind of a moment for African hip hop, with all these artists you just named. And there's a feeling that, it's really becoming a genre unto itself. Maybe at the beginning... it started the way all the African genres begin. Taking things from abroad, models that get adapted. And then something happens and it becomes a new form. I feel like with all the artists you just talked about, that's happening. And I think you're very aware of that as a movement, right?
B.t.A.: Absolutely, man. I really view this record as a good blueprint, a personal blueprint for me, in building further this idea of different worlds... bringing them together. But I really hope it does the same for a lot artists that have been hesitant to reach into their backgrounds, to pull out those things in their background. Because that's really what eventually is going to make this movement what it's supposed to be – a consistency in sound; a consistency in ideology; a need, actually, to bring forth something that has always existed. We've been rapping in Africa as long as hip hop has been around. It's really just, to me, just time for it, it's full circle. And I hope this is what this album does for that movement. Whether it officially has a name, whether it officially has a look, a sound, or whatever... it already exists as a movement, that audience already exists.
B.E.: So, tell us about 'Akwaaba'...
B.t.A.: 'Akwaaba' is a nod to K. Frimpong, who was a highlife legend in Ghana. It samples his song 'Hwehwe Mu Na yi Wo Mpena', a big, big highlife hit back in the '70s, I believe. It's one of those songs you heard growing up at almost every Ghanaian party. So that's a nod to him. But also, it's the first time I actually have rhymed in Twi, so that's quite a significant feat for me. Because I'd spoken Twi all my life, but I'd never rhymed in it. So this was the first time that I was able to piece something together, and I'm really proud of it as a song. And of what it represents. Akwaaba means welcome in Twi, so you get the sense of what the song represents for me.
B.E.: Of course. And another song that has an interesting sample in it is 'Accra City Blues'..
B.t.A.: Yeah, that's the Bembeya. Initially, I wasn't going to sing it. I just did a reference on it that I was going to pass to somebody to finally redo. And when I sang the hook, I just had it for so long that it ended up staying. So I ended up keeping that in the song. The crazy thing, the vibe, the actual sample, it doesn't sound as highlifey. It's that straight Guinea vibe. Similar to most West African music, it's just about changing the one. It's those minor things that you do that totally make the song into something that represents a whole other region.
B.E.: And that guitar sound, such a signature sound.
B.t.A.: That's it. So we toasted with it a bit and now when people hear it they think it's a straight palm wine highlife tune. But it's so not, it's straight Guinea vibe. So that's another song on the album that's a major nod to West African music.
B.E.: The brass work is killer, you really have a terrific brass section. Let me just ask about one more that you have Baloji and others on – 'Wahala'.
B.t.A.: Yeah, wow that's the longest song on the album. The goal for that song was to get different languages that are spoken in the diaspora on the album. I got Baloji in French; I got BNegão in Portuguese, who's Brazilian; I got Bocafloja, who's Mexican, in Spanish; and I got Keziah Jones, who's from Nigeria originally, in Pidgin. And I felt that was a good mixture, trying to combine all these people and all these elements from across the diaspora. Making sure that the song is understood worldwide. And wahala is pidgin for 'trouble', trouble in a good way. That's kind of what that song represented. I'm really proud of that feat, being able to bring all those languages together. But also to show that internationally, all these guys have a million hits on their youtubes individually. These are all very big people wherever they're from. But because of the nature of American hip hop, very little room is left for other languages. So I felt that on this album, if I had a chance, I was going to try my very best to make sure that other languages are represented because these guys have been rhyming, like I said, as long as hip hop has existed, and it made sense to get them on the same page.
B.E.: I like what you said about how it starts like a sunrise and ends like a sunset. It starts with that flute, is that ...?
B.t.A.: It actually isn't. Believe it or not, that's a trumpet, with effects. That's Jonathan Powell, my trumpeter. He's insane. Everybody throws another instrument at me every time they talk about it, but it's a regular trumpet coming out of effects. And it sounds like a crazy, flute-ish...
S.B.: It feels north African.
B.t.A.: Yeah it totally does. And that's funny because that's where 'EN-trance' begins, that's north African, and that's the first track. So it has that vibe. But it's a straight trumpet, but that's what we were going for. We tried a number of things, we tried blowing into a bottle. And then Jonathan was like 'Hey man, I can do this with a trumpet, let me bring in my effects.' So he did it, and it was crazy.
B.E.: And then you end with the kora and that peaceful West African vibe... that's the sunset.
B.t.A.: That is it man, that's going right back, back to the essence. The true griot ending. This is some ancient Mali, ancient Songhai empire-type vibe. That's what I was going for for the end, so it was beautiful to see it all come together.
B.E.: It's a really great album.
Read previous interview with Blitz by Afropop Worldwide: