Words by James Acquaye Nortey-Glover
In September last year, a clip of Ghanian artist Yaw Tog’s ‘Sore’ went viral on social media. Shot in sepia tones in the streets of Kumasi, the rappers excitedly dance and jump, waving red bandanas, surrounded by at least 10-15 young men from their neighbourhoods: “Kumerica for life!”. Presently sitting at over 3 million views on Youtube, the track has brought Ghanaian drill music, known as Asakaa, to people’s attention around the world. Through rapping over hard-hitting drill beats in their local language, Twi, mixed with Pidgin English, Asakaa gives an insight into the lives of these young people in Kumasi, Central Ghana.
With its release, ‘Sore’ not only highlighted this burgeoning drill scene in Kumasi, but also put a spotlight on the tight knit group that form the core of Life Living Records, namely Rabby Jones, Braa Benk, Thomas The Great, Sean Lifer, O`Kenneth, City Boy, Kwaku DMC, Reggie, and Jay Bahd.
Formed over 10 years ago by Sean Lifer and Rabby Jones, Life Living Records has grown to house some of the most renowned Asakaa artists and produce the most widely-played tracks of the genre. Their music combines the grit of U.K. drill, the grandiosity of U.S. drill and the influence and stories of their surroundings and experiences in Kumasi.
The second largest city in Ghana, Kumasi faces similar challenges to other large cities in developing countries, such as a shortage of investment in infrastructure and the impacts of poverty and inequality. Despite this, the city maintains a very strong sense of community.
The crew at Life Living Records come from a number of different Kumasi neighbourhoods, including Dichemso and Buokrom, and although it’s not all plain sailing, it’s clear that the group love their city and are proud of where they are from. “My area is surrounded with good people who give positive energy to each other, encouraging every person to do good and we support each other when they are in need,” says one of Life Living Records first members, rapper Kwaku DMC. This sense of community characterises the work of Life Living Records and the Asakaa genre. It’s put front-and-centre through the large numbers of people gathered behind the rappers in their music videos, and is built into the fabric of the music, primarily through the plentiful collaborations between the label’s artists.
More than collaborators, the members of Life Living Records are close friends, frequently shouting each other out when asked about the Ghanaian artists that inspire them. “My team Life Living Records inspires me. Why? Well, because they are the people that inspire me to write because of the struggle we all go through to make it to the next day,” explains Kwaku DMC. “The label came about because friends had the same dreams and goals with music. Talent met talent, friends of friends, and with love and loyalty we created Life Living Records.”
Kwaku DMC first started rapping after finishing high school in 2008, introduced to the artform through an encouraging friend named Maswud Junior. “He invited me to his house and we were catching all the vibes and then he started rapping, dropping hard bars with punchlines,” Kwaku DMC reflects. “I was really shocked because I had never heard him rap, so I was thinking he is one of these rappers who is tapping other verses, but he told me that his verse was written by him. Maswud told me that now we are high school graduates, we should discover our talents. I thought about it and realized it was time to chase these dreams and goals.”
Many of the group’s early experiences of rapping came after listening to U.S. rap and drill music, with the American influence explicitly displayed through the frequent reference to Kumasi’s drill scene as ‘Kumerica’. The late Pop Smoke is an influential reference point for many of the label’s members. “Pop Smoke got me dancing,” expresses rapper Jay Bahd, with City Boy (Prince Of Kumerica) adding: “The first time I heard Pop Smoke’s ‘Dior’ that record hit so hard, I tried to write a verse immediately!”
However, the group’s affinity for U.S. rap goes further than Pop Smoke, with artists like 50 Cent, Bobby Shrmurda and Lil Wayne also serving as inspirations. “Basically, I’ve been a hip hop fan since 50 Cent’s first hit single, ‘In Da Club’ but I never tried to rap, until one day I was smoking a joint and listening to this track my friend had sent me via WhatsApp,” explains City Boy. “I related so much, I felt like I could write something, so I started writing rhymes”.
Contrasting with the ‘Kumerican’ culture of Asakaa is the influence of U.K. drill music. Although sharing the same sharp storytelling quality, Asakaa borrows the harder and more gritty sound of the U.K. scene. “The first drill track I heard was 67 featuring Giggs’ ‘Lets Lurk’. It fits my lifestyle and [rapping] on the [Asakaa] drill beats is always perfect” says the ‘Godfather of Ghanaian Drill’, Sean Lifer. This sentiment is echoed by many in the genre – drill’s energy and emphatic quality allows them to express the hard work and hustle of living life in Kumasi. Keeping things simple and making do with the equipment they have lends to the raw and authentic sound of their tracks. The crew work on the majority of the tracks from their bedrooms, the simple setup featuring a soundcard, a recording microphone, a laptop and a set of monitors. “I just hit the studio and catch a vibe when I hear some beats and write lyrics on it,” says Reggie.
Kwaku DMC entrance point to drill was also through UK rappers such as Headie One. “The kind of energy they delivered was hard, and I felt I could get into this new sound. So I started rapping on [Asakaa] drill beats, and the first drill music I rapped on was a song from my team mate, Jay Bahd featuring myself and City Boy. The song was called ‘Suzy’. It got personalities like Virgil Abloh and Skinny Macho reposting it and commenting on the video we had posted on Instagram”. Over the last couple of years, U.K. producers including Dr Vades (RAYE, Kojo Funds and Stormzy) and Chris Rich (DigDat, Aitch, OFB and Morrison) have made beats used by Asakaa rappers – Chris Rich being the beat maker behind ‘Sore’.
When I first spoke with the Life Living Records crew in late 2020, I asked them whether they were in contact with any rappers or producers from the U.K. drill and grime scenes, to which most of them answered “No”. Fast forward only a few months to March 2021 and Stormzy is featured on the remix of ‘Sore’, with the video already racking up 4.2 million views on Youtube. As Yaw Tog excitedly explained to DJ Mag, it was actually Stormzy who reached out to him to make the collaboration happen while he was in Ghana at the end of 2020 to perform at UPP Fest – a premonition of what was to come. The latest collaboration from Life Living Records is a track with Smallgod, Headie One, Amsterdam-based LP2Loose, with Kwaku DMC rapping, and O’Kenneth providing the extremely catchy hook. Smallgod linked up with Headie One, got the two Life Living Records crew on board, and the beat came courtesy of N64 to create a track that will undoubtedly become another Asakaa viral hit.
With their sights set on a European tour this July and August, Life Living Records are ready for their sound to spread even further. A quick Google search will show you how big this scene has become over the past few months. Numerous articles from the likes of Complex, Teen Vogue, and The Face highlight the momentum that the crew at Life Living Records have behind them. These collaborations and the continued popularity of Asakaa shows that this genre strongly resonates with other rappers and communities around the world and provides a platform for Life Living Records to do what they love while telling their story and expressing what life is like for them in their neighbourhoods of Kumasi.
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