Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hip-hop's Ethiopian flirtations

If you've never heard, or even imagined, the jazz and funk music of Ethiopia, I heartily suggest you to check it out. It is quite unlike the better-known forms of African popular music, and reflects the distinctive culture that developed in the Horn of Africa. The best-known master of the genre is Mulatu Astatqe (or Astatke), whose brilliant instrumental tunes sound like American jazzmen getting drugged out and lost in some shady bar in Addis. But there are a host of other names - Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gesesse and Alemayehu Esheta are a few - who are responsible for a rich body of beautiful music.

When French record label Buda Music released the Ethiopiques series compiling Ethio-pop, funk and jazz from the 60s and 70s, it generated significant interest from fans in the West. In recent years, hip-hop producers hungry for new and interesting beats have taken to sampling Ethiopian artists.

The one track that hip-hop producers can't seem to get enough of is Mulatu Astatqe's Yegelle Tezeta, and with its spiky horns and solid beat it's easy to see why. I have heard it sampled in at least 3 different songs, each focusing on different riffs.

As We Enter, from Nas and Damian Marley's new Distant Cousins album, features Marley's ragga chat riding the groove particularly well and nicely trading verses with Queensbridge's finest. I do find the overall track a bit messy at times, however.

But ABCs, from Somali-Canadian rapper K'Naan is a little more effective in utilising the Mulatu sample. I first heard this in a shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur, of all places, and recognised the distinctive horn line.

However the first track to sample Ethiopian funk that I ever heard was On My Way Home by Earl Zinger (former frontman of British acid jazz outfit Galliano). Don't fancy the vocals so much on this one, but like how it emphasises the mysterious burbling organ of Mulatu's song.

Another Ethiopian sample appears on Common's The Game (on his chart-topping Finding Forever album). Production is by Kanye West and scratches by DJ Premier.

It's based around a snatch from Tezeta by Seyfou Yohannes. There's a lot to dislike about Kanye West, but credit where it's due - he has some good taste in music and a real ear for a sample. To listen to the opening few seconds of Tezeta and decide it could be the foundation of a slammin' hip-hop joint takes some real nous.

I mentioned K'Naan earlier, and the guy clearly has a thing for Ethiopian music, as his album is stacked with samples of the stuff. Given the cultural ties between Ethiopia and his homeland of Somalia, it's hardly surprising. Check out Dreamer:

And neither is it surprising that he would sample Alemayehu Esheta's track Tey Gedyeleshem; it is an absolutely butt-kicking funk track from the early 70s. It is quite fascinating how an artist like Alemayehu or Mulatu can absorb black American grooves and then transform them into something thoroughly their own.

More K'Naan, this time from my favourite track of his, the anthemic Somalia.

Somalia is based around this song from the legendary late Ethiopian vocalist Tilahun Gesesse. This version of Yene Mastawesha is actually a recent remake featuring synthesisers, and is not as moving as the original from 1963, which is the version K'Naan samples. But it's still quite awesome nonetheless.

Hip-hop beatmaker Oh No (brother of fellow hip-hop luminary Madlib) has taken his love of Ethiopian music ever further, releasing a whole instrumental album based on obscure samples of old Ethi grooves. He doesn't do a whole lot with them to be honest - mostly just doing some subtle editing and fattening up the beats to make it sound more contemporary. But that's a good thing, since the originals are pretty phat as they are, and don't need much alteration. Check out The Funk:

Seattle-based Ethiopian-American rapper Gabriel Teodros obviously figured he was the logical person to add rhymes to Oh No's grooves, which resulted in his Jitter Generation Mixtape. You can check that out here and download free tracks.

Finally, something that's not technically Ethiopian, yet belongs in this post nonetheless. Jay-Z's track Roc Boyz (and the Winner is...), from the American Gangster soundtrack, was named Rolling Stone's best track of 2007. It is entirely based around a sample of the Menahan Street Band's Make the Road by Walking. The Menahan Street Band may be a bunch of NYC hipsters (made up primarily of guys from The Dap Kings), but their debut album is basically a love letter to Mulatu Astatqe. Their entire modus operandi consists of adding a bit more American-style funk to Mulatu's distinctive arrangements - which of course, were modelled on American funk to begin with.

Here's a live version of Make the road by walking. It's quite a majestic track, and the horn arrangements are magic.

I have no doubt there is other contemporary music out there that samples Ethiopian funk, so if you know of some, let me know! I will post some more about Mulatu soon, because I absolutely love the guy's artistry. Also gonna look at rappers from the Ethiopian diaspora as well.

See also:

Mainstream hip-hop's Bollywood flirtations

From Bollywood to Black America and back - the evolution of a sample

Sitar grooves - US3's "You Can't Hold Me Down"

"That's not The Bump"


  1. nice work, I had not even the slightest clue

  2. Hi man, I think you can add one artist from Philadelphia, named Dumhi.

    His whole 'The Jungle' album is based on ethiopiques. Hope you'll like it. It's awesome hip hop!