Interviews May 2, 2024
Sample Chief bridges Afropop's Generational Divide

In the vibrant landscape of global music communities, Sample Chief is carving out their place, across both sides of the Atlantic, as a beacon of cultural celebration and connection. What began as a tech-driven endeavour to identify samples from rare African records, soon blossomed into an international phenomenon, with cross-cultural appeal. Over the span of five years, Sample Chief has evolved into more than just a platform; it has become a thriving community of passionate music enthusiasts, transcending geographical boundaries through live events and collaborative ventures across various media platforms.

Ahead of their anticipated return of their Village Boogie event at Grow, Hackney, Afropop's Uwati Okojie sat down with Sample Chief's head honcho, Ore Sami, and London-based Community Manager and DJ Sophie Wanendaya. In this exclusive interview, Ore and Sophie delve into Sample Chief's origins, their aspirations for growth, and their shared commitment to preserving cultural heritage through music.

Uwati: Can you talk us through how Sample Chief was created?

Ore: The initial idea was to have a database where people could access African music samples that they weren't sure of or didn't know. It was just supposed to be an online archive - if you think you recognize the song, you search for it, and it'll have the sample there where you can hear it side by side. But I didn't have enough money to build a website properly. So, a friend suggested I just start posting on social media, which I started doing, and from the first day, people started engaging with it and we just kept going. After that, we had our first event in Montreal in 2021. We got a grant to screen this documentary about Manu Dibango and how he has one of the most sampled songs of all time (“Soul Makossa”). Then in 2022, we started doing our trivia nights, or “Pub Quizzes”.

Sophie: I think that was summer 2022. It was interesting because it was a young crowd who didn't know about the old music, but by the end they learned quite a lot, which was nice to see.

Ore: We wanted to do something different. We felt that there were so many events that were parties or socials, and we wanted to do something that had some education in it, because one of the things that we try to promote is educating people about African music and African music culture. So, we started with a pub quiz and then it turned into a party, and then we did it in Toronto and people loved it and, since then, we've taken the events to different cities.

We also did the Sunday Symposium Panel talks. We did one in London and one in Toronto. These were discussions about different African music topics and how they relate to the diaspora. But we still focus heavily on parties as a way to discover amazing African music. A lot of people don't really know that you can have like an entire night of dance music and it's even just ‘70s and ‘80s African artists. Without even getting to this this millennium you can have an amazing party, but streaming services don't push this music so, being selectors ourselves, we decided to do something interesting focused on that era.

Uwati: You touched on what I was going to ask you guys next. It seems that there's a heavy focus on education with Sample Chief, I saw that you guys had come out with a short film with Soundway Records which delves into the historical context of these songs and key figures. What do you see as the natural evolution of Sample Chief in that sense?

Ore: I think it's important. At first it started off as me just discovering a lot of these things and wanting to share them. I would read articles and just by trying to find out what the sample was, I'd find out so much other cool stuff about it and the interesting backstories of these bands, like how they were assembled during a civil war and pushing out so much incredible music. So, I would then discover all this amazing stuff and I just want to share it. I think the education element started from a selfish place like, oh, wow, this is cool - I'm going to try to make it seem cool to you guys as well! But I think it's a core part of what we do. It's important to know about where the music comes from and the history and the stories around it because Western media is always going to push the Western stories, but it's difficult to find information about the lesser-known sub-genres in Africa.

A lot of us know about David Bowie and John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, but how does my 19-year-old cousin know about Fela Kuti and about the older generation's music without someone deliberately showing them in a relatable way that they can understand? I think that's where we also try to come in.

Sophie: Yeah, and we've spoken about educating in new formats as well, continuing to do longer videos, and we've mentioned an exhibition at some point in the future. So, we've got loads of different ideas of putting things in formats that connect with our audience.

Ore: Even in print media, like doing zines and mixed media. I think social media is a great platform, but I would also be interested to see how people can engage with what our mandate is through print or through events. We want to do more exhibits where people can come in, experience the art and learn things while they're in an actual physical event instead of just partying.

Uwati: Sounds exciting! I would love to know more about both of your individual stories. How did you both get into DJing?

Sophie: I began playing Drum & Bass, funnily enough, because when I first started going out in London, age 16 or 17, that was the only scene I'd discovered. I wasn't really connected and didn't know about any nights that were playing African music. Then I started going through my parents’ old CDs and discovering Fela Kuti and other artists. Then I stumbled across Sample Chief, and by that point, I was a lot more into my music and listening to a lot more of a broad spectrum. And the two sides merged. I remember just being a massive fan at the beginning of Sample Chief and then I just asked if there's anything that I could help with. Since then, we’ve slowly had a couple of other people join in London as well.

Ore: It's been great to see how it’s been received, because I was born in Nigeria, but for someone like Sophie who was born in the UK, how she connects to the music is different, and how she's had this reconnection to it in her DJing career as well. For me, growing up, it was everywhere. It wasn't cool or interesting because people took it for granted. And then coming here and then DJing it and seeing people just having never heard that kind of music, the older stuff, it's been cool. So, I think being a DJ myself, I was always thinking about how to connect the two because we weren't always doing events, so I never really saw a way that I could merge those two interests. Then once we started events, and like I said, the first half was trivia, then the second half was a party that was an opportunity to get involved with showing the music that I had also discovered. And the reception's been great.

I'd say Toronto still has some room to grow since it's a pretty small city and there aren't a lot of nights that have a dedication to that kind of music. So that's also something that I've found to be a fun challenge, how to insert myself in different venues that typically don't offer this type of music.

Sophie: I guess it's a bit easier in London that we do have so many of those spaces now and then they just keep growing.

Uwati: You touched on something that I was also going to ask about because I have a similar story to Sophie. I was born in the UK and I love a lot of this music because it's what my dad listened to. So I wanted to ask your opinions about the idea of preserving culture through music because I know that's something that you guys have spoken about previously.

Ore: Yeah, I think it's only really become a thing since I moved out here when I was 16. Growing up in Nigeria you would hear different types of music in different contexts, so you'd hear the Fuji outside on the street, and then you'd hear the modern Afropop and highlife, in the clubs and at weddings. You would get a full breadth of music, even just from watching TV and listening to the radio. Nigeria also has different class systems as well, so people from different backgrounds listen to different music as well. And being a very multicultural country in and of itself, people that come from different places listen to different things. So, coming here, I didn't realize how much I'd taken in from my experience growing up there.

I think music is a very important way to preserve culture. For me personally, there wasn't really a way that I could connect because I moved out here on my own. People around me always liked Nigerian music even without knowing much about it. Whenever I would play it, people would always ask me what it was or ask me to send them the music or make a playlist for them. So, I think music is one of the most useful mediums for preserving culture. It cuts across. It’s a great way of bringing people together, I think a lot of the community that I've built here personally has been through music somehow, either a collective appreciation of it, or going out to places that have the music that I enjoy and meeting other like-minded people there. Preserving culture through music has been one of the most important things about what we've done so far.

Sophie: I would agree, most of the people that I've met here in London have also been through music. And I also think that it's so accessible to be able to preserve culture through music, especially with how easy it is to share things today.

Ore: It also signals a few things about an individual. I think the type of music that they enjoy. Sometimes I'm listening to a mix that Sophie's done and, she plays a track that I'm like, “Yo, where'd you find this?” She really cares about discovery and she's open-minded to some degree because she's talking about her drum and bass days but then she's on a radio show playing very vintage Afrobeat.

Uwati: I definitely agree. What are your thoughts on African music’s place in contemporary culture? Of course, you can’t overlook how huge Afrobeats has become along with other genres like Amapiano but what do you think the place of previous genres like Afrobeat, highlife, soukous etc. is in today’s world?

Ore: I think the West has always appreciated this type of music. Maybe it was never pop. Maybe it was never mainstream. But Fela would have big shows. King Sunny Ade would play in Japan in the early ‘80s. And a lot of our musicians had no problem touring around the world. But I'd say that there still needs to be a connection between the old and the new. And we talked about some of this stuff in the symposium that we had in London, but sampling music in a way that people can understand where the initial reference comes from versus sampling it because it sounds nice. And maybe, during press tours or during promo rollouts, talking about where they got the inspiration from and helping educate. I think the artists of now can do a bit of a better job at doing that. But maybe it's one of those things that they also just take it for granted. Maybe they assume that everyone knows, but there's a slight disconnect between the older stuff and the new stuff.

Sophie: I think what I also add on is that one thing that I'd like to see maybe change is the way that vinyl has become quite inaccessible, African vinyl has become inaccessible to young people, and how a lot of it is in the hands of older, white collectors. I'd like for us to see if we can redistribute that a little bit. But I don't know if that's also because now there's a massive culture of audiophile bars and sound systems in general. Vinyl has become a class thing as well as a generational thing. I think we just need to create more spaces where it's not as associated with that and it's just it's just fun again like it used to be. So that's one thing that I would like to see change because I would love to have a much bigger collection of music on vinyl. One of the DJs who is playing on Saturday, Volta45 made this point on Tryb’s NTS show.

Uwati: Yeah, I was just about to mention that. I heard him speak about this as well. It's an interesting take.

Ore: The European collector scene has single-handedly changed the supply and demand of that entire - I consider them as cultural artifacts - but some might say they're just commercial products to be sold.

Sophie: I also think there's become a snobbery around reissuing, which is making those originals so much more expensive as well because they're seen as rare and more special, but it shouldn’t be. Reissuing should be purely about bringing the story back to life.

Ore: I'm all for ethical consumption of the music. If the original artists get paid, if Africans can access their own culture's music, I'm all for that. I think it just has to be done in a non-exploitative way. But you don't always see that. We’ve seen a lot of labels take advantage of having access to these rare records and building their reputations around that. I think that they have an outsider's perspective to it, it'll never be a piece of their culture. To them, it's about what's cool and what has the most dance floor appeal. What will make me look the best as a DJ when I play this? Not necessarily this being a part of history, a piece of our culture. So, to them, if it's not disco or funk or boogie, then they're not really interested, and they value those records less. But there's just so much music out there, so much more music that is left to be discovered, which is a fun challenge about the stuff that we do. But I think that it has to be a collective appreciation for it.

Uwati: You’ve both made some interesting points here, a lot to think about... What are your plans for the future? Any collaboration ideas, anything that's just buzzing around your mind that you can talk about?

Ore: We're going to do more programming this year compared to previous years. We also want to do more media collaborations, similar to the one you saw the one with Soundway Records. I think the work that labels like that do is important and people discovering the music in the first place as a touchpoint, so being able to work with them to produce media that's well researched and properly documented, I think, is a great way to collaborate. And then just doing more events, collaborating with more collectives - there are tons of collectives out there that I think we could partner with. We're also launching a lyric platform called Lyric Chief. It's already up, but we're still fully developing that so people can connect to African music through the lyrics and meanings because, as languages are becoming extinct, we're finding that there's a there's a gap in knowledge about what the music is actually saying and talking about so that’s a special side project as well.

Sophie: Continue growing the community, we've got a podcast series coming out as well with someone that's also in London.

Ore: Yeah, we’re got an art exhibition this summer. I'm also saying these things to hold ourselves accountable! We're going to make some interesting merch; it's not going to be what you might expect. So that's all I'll say on that.

Uwati: Wow, sounds like you guys have a lot going on! I'm excited to see where it goes. Thank you, guys, so much for sitting down with me. I've really enjoyed this conversation.

Ore: Yeah, thank you for having us.





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