In show business, they say you are only as big as your last hit.
And thus it is that entertainers spend every waking day of their lives trying to come up with the next big thing that will ensure they remain ahead of their competitors.
Some get it right, most never do. Hence the lopsided ratio of celebrities to upstarts.
Curiously, while some musicians seem to constantly be churning monster hit after hit, others are yet to crack this secret to instant stardom. So just what does it take to make a hit song?
If there’s anyone who would know anything about hits, it would have to be Red Republik’s big shot, Madtraxx.
With a string of chart toppers that include songs like “Boda Boda”, “Get Down” and more recently, “Skamares”, the burly rapper cum producer surely must be doing something right.
But according to the self-christened Super Producer, Super MC, “anyone who says they have a formula to making a hit song is lying. There is no such thing.” He adds, “there are so many factors that determine how a song will be received and these are dependent on so many variables.”
However, Genge music’s self proclaimed Godfather, rapper Nonini begs to differ. With over a decade of experience in the music industry and numerous hits and awards to show for it, the rapper argues that in order to remain at the top, one has to understand their territory and conquer it.
Sieve through dirt
“I never step out of the recording booth unless I’m sure that what I’ve done is nothing but the best,” he confidently confides. “Consistency is key and so I always try to ensure that by the time my song leaves the studio, it is already a hit.”
For Sauti Sol, a different rule applies. Arguably Kenya’s leading boy band, the globe trotting quartet have won the hearts of music lovers from Kenya to Croatia through trial and error.
“We have recorded hundreds of songs most of which have never been played or performed in public,” says Delvin Mudigi. “But out of all those we select the one’s we feel would have the biggest impact and more often than not, they turn out to be hits.”
Pioneering Kenyan musician Nameless, famed for hits such as “Ninanoki” and “Juju” concurs. “Making a hit song is like digging for gold in the dirt. You have to sieve through a lot of dirt to get the gold. What’s most important however is realising that as an artiste you rarely make music for yourself. Instead it’s a combination of having the right song with the proper timing and banking on a bit of luck that the audience will respond positively to it.”
Conversely, when Jaguar released “Kigeugeu”, he had little expectation of the song. “I expected my other song “Nikuskize” to do better than any of the other songs I had at the time,” said the philanthropic rapper. “Its success caught me by surprise but at the same time I had put a lot of myself into the song and it was quite rewarding to see it so well received.”
The single went on to become one of the most celebrated Kenyan songs in recent years earning the singer a new status as the top dog in the business and numerous accolades in the process.
Pint sized songstress Size 8 struggled for many years as an upcoming artiste signed to the Calif Records stable but when she jumped ship and went solo, her fortunes changed almost instantly.
While the response to her previous releases had been rather lukewarm, her first release as an independent artiste, “Fire”, saw her rise to become one of the most celebrated female and overall musicians in the country.
“When you are true to yourself and your music, the fans respond and connect with you,” she advises. “I gave that song my all and it was evident in the way my vocals sounded, the lyrics and even the way I performed it.”
But as “Maswali Ya Polisi” rapper confides, it takes more than just the desire to be on top to make a hit. The Grandpa Records-signed artiste confides that one needs to identify their target audience and be in touch with them in order to make music that they can relate with.
“I try to talk about everyday things which ordinary people can connect with in my songs,” confesses DNA, who first broke into the industry with the monster hit, “Banjuka”. “Banjuka remains the biggest Kenyan song of all time while “Maswali Ya Polisi” is the biggest song in the country today. That’s because both songs are simple enough for anyone to relate to.”
The P-Unit trio also subscribe to this code. With a divergent repertoire comprising of hit songs such as “Kare”, “Una”, “Gentleman” and “You Guy”, the accomplished outfit attribute their crossover appeal to their ability to constantly reinvent their style while remaining hinged to their original identity. “When we released “Kare”, people would refer to one another as “mkare” as was the case with the other songs.
While it is simple street slang, people can relate to this in a fun way and that’s what makes our music fun and appealing to young people from all walks of life,” said Frasha.
As with the case of P Unit, many artistes attest that language is key in pushing the popularity of a song. Depending on the target audience, the language used in a song strongly influences how fans relate with it and this can either make or break a song and artiste.
Take Camp Mulla for example. The youthful trio have conquered the urban upmarket constituency with their swagged out style and image, which has a unique appeal within the said demographic.
This has seen them rise from height to height culminating in their nomination for continental and global awards such as BET and Channel O Music Video Awards.
Timing is key
Still, not everyone can target the same audience and no one knows this more than Size 8. While her international appeal does not come anything close to Camp Mulla’s, few can rival her dominance within the Kenyan market.
Nevertheless, the one thing both the uptown and downtown musicians seem to share is the belief that quality always comes first.
“A good song is a collaborative effort between the producer and the artiste,” opines Madtraxx. “Without a good beat and vocal production, even the best singer or rapper can end up with a flop if the production is not up to par. Similarly a great beat can easily be wasted on a whack artiste.”
Size 8 agrees: “An artiste is first and foremost defined by the quality of their song. Making a great song takes a keen ear. The producer must know what beat or vocal direction is required for a certain artiste and the artiste must be willing to listen to what the producer says. If the two are not in sync then you are headed nowhere.”
Timing is also key. Before recording or releasing a song, one must be aware of its relevance at that particular time.
Says Jaguar: “A song like “Matapeli” is informed by the prevailing political and social situations in our country and hence Kenyans of all walks can relate to it as they are all affected by these events. While it doesn’t have to be within the same scope, relevance of a song determines how well the audience will respond to it.”
Sauti Sol, who are credited for making band’s look cool in the contemporary Kenyan music scene, attribute their success to their ability to push the envelope.
“When you are used to seeing Range Rovers in your neighbourhood, it’s in human nature that the sight of a Probox will excite you. Similarly, because most Kenyan music sounds almost similar, people are drawn to our style because it is different and that’s why we are always keen to sustain this in our music,” adds Mudigi.
For Nonini, it’s all about the chorus. “For people to listen to a song you have to grab their attention and it takes a catchy chorus to do this,” he says. “I always play my song to my baby niece and other children in our neighbourhood because children have an unbiased perception of things. If they like it, I instantly know it’s going to be a hit.”
Nameless also admits to having a select clique of genuine friends who advise on whether or not a song has the ‘X’ factor that would make it a hit. It is these opinions that inform what direction his next would take.
But as Size 8 observes, making a good song is half the task. Getting people to like it is another undertaking altogether. “I always ensure that I sell my music through my performances,” she says. “When I first performed ‘Fire’ I incorporated the waving flag routine to my dance routine which was also present in the video and it became part of my marketing technique for the song.”
Nameless, who is currently working on a new track, observes that a good song innately markets itself. “Take DNA for example. When he released ‘Banjuka’ no one knew him and the song hardly got any airplay but as fans begun hearing it in the clubs, they begun requesting it on radio and TV and within no time the media caught on and it eventually blew up. So it’s never about money or connections.”
P-Unit fault most upcoming artistes for lacking the patience and determination to grow within the industry, saying that “we struggled for so many years as underground artistes but we persevered and grew over the years as the fans gradually embraced us.”
While videos also go a long way in complementing a song, Madtraxx sees these as “visual marketing opportunities for artistes.”
While music is mostly listened to, a video goes a long way in marketing the song and artiste, a fact Size 8 also subscribes to. “One thing that Clemmo taught me was that as a musician, my work is to sing, not act or dance. These merely complement my identity as an artiste. That’s why some artistes spend millions on songs that are destined to flop whereas hit songs like ‘Merimela’ do not necessarily require pricey videos.”