N a i j a m a n i a c

...nuts about Naija

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Language Of Hip-Hop: A Case Study Of Mode 9 (PART ONE)

 “Hip-hop is nonsense”, said an elderly Nigerian. This is the general perception of many Nigerians (especially the elderly) towards the art of hip-hop. Hip-hoppers are noise makers’ blabbing under the influence of hard substances says another elderly colleague of mine (on a radio station). They perform inaudibly on strong, up-tempo beats, dress shabbily and relate with such arrogance. Hip-hoppers are people who have refused to grow out of juvenile exuberance. They just don’t make any sense, she concluded.

Rapping on the track “Shebi Dem Say”, Pherowshuz, one of Nigeria’s wittiest hip-hopper asserted rhetorically: “Dem say rappers no dey make sense. Your ear na decoration?” Obviously, for those who do not listen carefully and consciously, hip-hop will forever remain a mystery.

Hip-hop is a genre of music; music is a genre of entertainment. Entertainment is amusement in whatever form. It includes clowning and comedy; it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense. Hip-hop in its original form however insists its musical entertainment must make sense. Encarta has it that, “Rap vocals typically emphasize lyrics and wordplay over melody and harmony, achieving interest through rhythmic complexity and variations in the timing of the lyrics. Lyric themes can be broadly categorized under three headings: those that concern human relationships, those that chronicle and often embrace the so-called ‘gangsta’ lifestyle of the inner cities, and those that address contemporary political issues or aspects of black history”. The penultimate theme however, is yet to be popular in Nigeria and the beef in the Nigerian hip-hop industry has not taken a gangster dimension yet it appears Naija hip-hoppers possess the typical Bronx style in behavioural attitude: battling lyrically not physically.

There is a popular misconception that hip-hoppers are uneducated dopeheads. Some people even believe that hip-hop is a soft option for school drop outs. Although a handful of rappers may fall into this category, most rappers, especially in the Nigerian industry which I’m very familiar with are highly educated with most of them having graduated top of their class. Over 85% of Nigerian rappers are holders of first degrees and equivalent qualifications. Some hold higher degrees while a female rapper like AfriGang’s Ezzie B is pursuing her doctorate degree in pharmacology. Some Nigerian rappers have worked on Wall Street while some are currently working with multinationals, telecoms firm and big time industries.

This piece demystifies hip-hop in a literary criticism of the works of one of the pioneers of the African Hip-Hop Movement, Babatunde “Mode 9” Olusegun.  The lyrical colossus has in his over 10 years professional career carted away back to back five golden Headie monsters in the “lyricist on the roll” category at the Nigerian hip hop awards since its inauguration in 2006 amongst a litany of other awards. His entire career span over 20 years having wrote his first rhyme in the late 80’s. He was a member of the lyrical mafia group “SWATROOT” which gave hip-hop a definition in Nigeria. Mode 9’s genius in the hip-hop art has earned him so many aliases: The Lyrical Warlord; the Lyrical Mufasa; the Black Rap Messiah; Dr. Ninestein; Nigel Benn; Samurai-IX; Malcolm IX etc. There is no gainsaying that he is the image of Naija hip-hop and disputably the number one African hip-hopper based on the continent. The choice of Mode 9 for this discourse is beyond being his number one fan, any other rapper would have been used but some are bubblegum; with one unreleased album, five released albums, two Mixtapes and numerous singles which are all on course sets him ahead as the best choice. He remains the only Naija rapper who would turn down a request to feature on another’s work if he considers such an artiste to fall below the ‘wack line’ of hip hop. As he states on one of his recent tracks which features Mo’Cheddah, Whut You Want: “...this man’s got the wack man’s allergy....”

The Encarta encyclopaedia defines hip-hop as a type of popular culture that includes rap music, dance styles, graffiti art, and fashion. The word is believed to have sprung from New York City in the 1970s, specifically from the club DJs (disc jockeys) of the era. The term according to Encarta appears in the lyrics of some of the earliest rap hits, including “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by the Sugarhill Gang. Breakdancing became a very popular form of hip-hop dance in the 1980s. However, today the term is most commonly used as a synonym for rap music and this is the centrepiece of this discourse. Herein, all noun forms of rap and hip-hop are used interchangeably.

Lawrence “KRS One” Parker popularly referred to as The Blastmaster; The Teacher or The Philosopher who happens to be one of Mode 9’s greatest influences authoritatively defined hip-hop on his 2007 hip-hop definitive album “Hip Hop Lives”. On the track “Hip Hop Lives” KRS One gives an exclusive dissection of hip-hop. In his words: “Hip means to know, it’s a form of intelligence, to be hip is to be update(d) and relevant. Hop is a form of movement, you just can’t observe a hop, you got to hop up and do it. Hip and hop is more than music. Hip is the knowledge, hop is the movement. Hip and hop is intelligent movement...hip-hop culture is eternal...an ancient civilization is been born again...Helping oppressed people, we are unique and unequalled...holy integrated people having omniscient power, the watchman’s in the tower of hip-hop...” The art of hip-hop is a craft of lyrical dexterity. The Mode 9 style delineates this to the fullest.

Generally, hip hop is classified into hardcore, gangsta, underground, political, conscious, alternative, horrorcore, and nerdcore. Hardcore rappers are referred to as being “true to the game”. They are called underground rappers because they possess the true ideals of hip-hop which includes social consciousness and liberation of the ghettos, from which most of them emerge. More so, why they are called underground is because they are not very popular. Commercial rappers are referred to as those doing rap for the sake of paying bills: Commercial rappers water down the content of their rap verses so that it is easily related to: because, it is understood by most people, they remain very popular rocking clubs and out of this they get invitations to shows which bring in the most coveted bills. However, my study reveals that some rappers who are referred to as commercial overtime have also remained “true to the game”. This category of rappers I am tempted to refer to as hardcore commercial rappers. Another classification is gangsta rap. Gangsta rap could be hardcore or a mixed breed of both hardcore and commercial but not only commercial. Gangsta rappers emphasize and promote violence: they do not exist in Nigerian hip-hop.

In understanding the language of hip-hop, one must possess a strong appetite of literary appreciation and also an encyclopaedic knowledge to entirely grasp the theme of a track. Sometimes, the reason for recording a hip-hop piece may just be found in a single line. For short, every word in an outstanding lyrical hop-hop piece counts. To understand a particular hip-hoppers craft, one would need to understand the vernacular of the hip-hoppers region or area. For instance, a listener who does not understand Nigerian pidgin would not understand the track “Na Beans?” by Terry Tha Rapman. Because one needs to understand what the phrase means. The question, “Na Beans?” in Nigerian vernacular simply means “is it easy?” More so, this point is further lucidly buttressed on Mode 9’s track “Spectacular” when he asserts: “...you only pass the Courvoisier walking by the bar not passing the Courvoisier...” Now, there are two distinctive dialects on the above line though the phrases are the same. As Mode 9 asks: “...English or vernacular?” In English language, if you pass a Courvoisier it means you move past it but in Nigerian vernacular, if you pass the Courvoisier, you hand it over to someone.

A hip-hop track like any other typical music piece is written in verses or stanzas, a chorus and sometimes a bridge. Some are written in freestyle formats: This means, the former format is jettisoned. Usually, in a freestyle format, a rapper’s delivery is unscripted. Freestyles are a sort of an intelligence measure of a rapper and the art. On a rap album, it is common to find skits. Most skits are comic reliefs. However, some skits are very meaningful and as they serve as an intro to a following track or a descant to a previous track. Sometimes, a hip-hop album may contain an intro and outro which could introduce the album, or summarize it or serve as comic reliefs.

Besides, hip-hop is poetry in motion and like poetry it widens a listener’s mental horizon, nourishes and refines feelings and emotions. A good hip-hop piece is capable of moving the listener deeply by vibrating some notes or plucking a chord on the listener’s emotional and spiritual being. It brings to the listener, knowledge and inspiration, arousing feelings of mental and spiritual well-being. It easily catapults a listener’s psyche from one end to the other psychologically. Unlike sex, you keep on enjoying a hip-hop hit years after its release as its intelligent punchlines leave an indelible graffito on your mind.

Just like poetry, the language used in a piece may be difficult to understand because a hip-hopper is a wordsmith. The difficulty in understanding a piece or otherwise is a scale for measuring the intelligence of a rapper (and a listener): this has been proven by how often the listener has to replay a track to grasp the entire meaning. A rapper just as a poet, possesses a poetic licence but maximizes its usage more than a poet. This is one aspect which gives a listener much pleasure and enjoyment as it provides the vision of things not as they are but as they ought to be and this is where the pleasure lies.

Part 2 coming soon. (Proofreaders: Judy Sambe & Chioma Iwunze)


  1. My humble effort in trying to demystify hip-hop. Part 2 goes in-depth examining lyrics and bring out the various themes...

  2. OMG. This is a great article. I’ll be honest, I never had an idea that Nigerians knew what the HIP HOP Movement is really about. I mean you should see how shocking it was when 9ice came out (I have no problems with him), but he is being categorized as Hip-Hop. ????. Mode and maybe a few others actually stayed through to that foundation, which is great. Mode is the man, really. I'm glad he’s being seen as a pioneer and a Naija Hip Hop legend. I'll be subscribing, don't wanna miss Part 2.

  3. This is really good. have you tried sending it out?