The main thing wrong with Kwaito: South African Hip Hop, an Earthworks compilation from 2000, was its subtitle. If anything, the style on display was more like South African hip-house—deep four-four beats, vocals heavier on chant than flow, hooks rammed home rather watched for. Sounded great, but it also made you wonder what straight-up Afro-rap might be like.
Well, the Senegalese, Gambian, and Malian hip-hoppers on Africa Raps won’t be getting Hot 97 airplay anytime soon, even if Wolof or Malinka suddenly became America’s third language—it’s as much a matter of production as of mother tongue. The vocals tend to be mixed further up front than the beats, which means even the boom-bappingest tracks lose something in translation. (The exception is “Jalgaty,” by Dakar OGs Pee Froiss, who frequently rhyme in English, though their name might piss on any chance of a U.S. crossover.) The way BMG 44’s “Kam” chops up a Youssou N’Dour track, or the stab patterns of Bibson/Kuman’s “Kay Jel Ma,” prove them as much the children of DJ Premier as anything on Rawkus; similarly, C.B.V.’s “Art. 158” could be Senegalese g-funk, albeit with the flow rough and choppy instead of laaaaid-back.
As a sop to hip-hop’s roots in griot tradition, the comp includes Gokh-Bi System (“In Dakar they are pretty much unknown,” the liner notes admit), and Les Escrocs, who are backed musically and financially by Malian kora giant Toumani Diabate. The real action, though, is in Tata Pound’s “Badala,” a near-seamless merger of circular Malian guitar riffs, relentless vocal trade-offs, and quickstepping, dirty-south 808 beat. No coincidence that Africa Raps‘ best moment is its most thorough blend of African and American—and that the latter has a slight edge over the former.