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A history of Afrobeats producers, from boy bands to ballads
Sarz on his laptop

A history of Afrobeats producers, from boy bands to ballads

Throughout its history Afrobeats has been piloted by those who run the decks, updating palettes and moving to the stage to bring the genre from boy band ballads to global acclaim.

Afrobeats got its first kick, gleaning off other genres. Afrobeats  — not to be confused with the Fela upstart, Afrobeat, — began as a potpourri of sounds,  influenced by highlife, Afrobeat, pop, RnB, hip-hop, dancehall, and Fuji. After being largely overshadowed by hip-hop and regional highlife records in the late 1990s, Afrobeats started to pilfer its way into the local spotlight through youth and splendour.

Shake Bodi with boy bands and hip-hop

In the beginning Afrobeats was synonymous with the rise of boy-bands such as Trybesmen, The Remedies, and Plantashaun Boiz. With their 1998 hit single “Shake Bodi,” performed by the trio Trybesmen (Eldee, KB, and Freestyle) established a rhythm that was both recognizable and distinctive. The song combined hip-hop synths with relatable lyrics over ear-pleasing drum patterns. “I looked around for producers, but I couldn’t find any that wanted to make what I wanted to make. My early influences showed me that it was more important to be original,” producer, artist, and founding member of Trybesmen,  Eldee, said when I asked him about the inspiration behind the music at the time, “I knew if we could find a way to blend hip-hop, Afrobeats, and highlife, maybe we could find something unique.” Later, Trybesmen would be the first musicians to seek local music distribution via Nigeria’s now infamous Alaba Market. 

Early Afrobeats anthems like  “Shako Mo” by The Remedies, “Senorita” by twin brothers, P Square, and “Catch Cold” by Olu and Tolu Maintain became local favorites and party starters by pairing hip-hop-infused synths with unique and locally relatable fusions. However, in the early 2000s,  the boybands — excluding P-Square and Styl Plus — that spirited Afrobeats first offerings started to split. Individually, as solo artists, the artists retained deep pockets of influence across the genre. 

Producer and artist, OJB Jezreel, came to prominence in the early 2000s. In addition to producing 2Face’s culture-shifting debut album, Face To Face, OJB Jezreel produced hit records for Paul IK Dairo, Jazzman Olofin, and the Maintain duo – Olu and Tolu Maintain. Although OJB Jezreel had scored a crowd favourite as an artist with his single “Pretete”, it was his R&B-inspired record, “Searching”,  that brought him widespread success as an artist. 

OJB Jezreel, now deceased, was also the first locally recognized instance of the producer-artist transition within Afrobeats. As an artist, OJB Jezreel followed up with multiple albums over the course of his career but he never registered as much success as he did with his hit single, “Searching”. As a producer, the OJB Jezreel-produced “African Queen” was the first time Afrobeats enjoyed reputable international acclaim. 2face — fresh off his split from the boyband, Plantashun Boiz — released “African Queen” off his debut solo album, Face To Face. The song became an instant continental hit, later featuring in the 2006 Hollywood movie, Phat Girlz. 2face quickly became Africa’s heartthrob, inspiring a plethora of R&B-laden Afrobeats songs. Although producer-artist transitions were not as popular or commercially successful during the formative years of Afrobeats, producer-artist duos soon became a cultural phenomenon with the rise of Mo’Hits pioneers, D’Banj and Don Jazzy. 

Mo’Hits and the rise of Sarz

Don Jazzy and D’Banj established a lethal producer and artist pair that expanded the Afrobeats soundscape and redefined how consumers viewed Afrobeats superstars. Although Don Jazzy made his first artistic strides on D’Banj’s 2006 debut album, Rundown, serving vocals and ad-libs on the hit song, “Tongolo”, and other songs such as “Serve The Lord”, and “Soco”, the award-winning producer wasn’t credited as an artist on the album.  “D’banj’s debut album came at a time when the Nigerian scene was in need of a ‘cultural reset’ if you will. It was decidedly different in its direction and became an instant classic” culture journalist and pop culture enthusiast, Nasir Ahmed Achile, mentioned to me in his plush Lagos home.  

As a pair, D’Banj and Donjazzy reimagined the eccentricities of Afrobeats superstardom, becoming continental superstars, earning the recognition of internationally renowned acts such as Akon, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West, and helming the gateway for the careers of artists such as Wande Coal, D’Prince, and Kayswitch under their Mo’Hits umbrella. The release of the 2009 Mo’Hits compilation album, Curriculum Vitae, preempted Wande Coal’s 2010 rapturous explosion. The rise of Wande Coal was the precursor to a diverse ethos within Afrobeats. Shepherded by Don Jazzy’s multi-layered production, a frenzied uptempo version of Afrobeats emerged. It had a faster percussive rhythm, and the BPM (beats per minute) of the sound cranked between 110 and 140 BPM. The sound infused sonic influences from hip-hop, EDM, disco, and highlife. This era also marked the emergence of artists such as Wizkid, Davido, and Olamide. 

One of the hallmarks of this frenetic era of Afrobeats records was the 2013 collaboration between producer, Sarz, and artist, Wizkid, on the song, “Beat of Life”. “Beat of Life” was a unique sonic mesh that leaned on EDM influences and Afrobeats, BPM-fueled era.  To this day, “Beat of Life”still soundtracks parties in Lagos and the song marked producer, Sarz, first credit as an artist.  “I had come across his stuff, and I could tell the sound he was creating was the future of Afrobeats,” Eldee says of Sarz’s ingenuity “I think he is the only person who understood at the time that the sound needed to crossover.” 

Sarz, initially signed to Eldee’s Trybe Records, has since gone on to produce multiple hits and release collaborative projects with multiple artists: Wurld, “I LOVE GIRLS WITH TROBUL” (2019); Obongjayar, “Sweetness(2021); and Lojay,LV N ATTN (2021). By 2013, Donjazzy — freshly split from D’banj and following the dissolution of Mo’ Hits Records —fully leaned into his artist arc, lending occasional vocals to releases from his new record label, Mavin Records. Don Jazzy first appeared as an artist on Wande Coal’s “The Kick”, and on Mavin-posse cuts  “Adaobi”, “Dorobucci”, “Arise”, but as time passed, he started to work with artists outside of his label franchise. Given the extraordinary achievements of Mo’ Hits Records and the gargantuan influence of Don Jazzy on Nigerian pop culture, Don Jazzy is arguably still the most visible imprint of the producer-artist transition within Afrobeats.  However, it was Maleek Berry’s lustrous producer-artist crossover that caught the eye of many others looking to make the switch. 

 “I believe Don Jazzy’s story of greatness created a roadmap for Nigerian producers who are traditionally put on the back burners.” Nasir points out “However, I’d say that Maleek Berry’s quick rise after making the producer-to-artist switch inspired many producers around his age and younger to explore a similar path.” 

Modern Afrobeats and the artist-producer

Maleek Berry’s ascension to the throes of Nigerian pop artistry was almost unprecedented. After helming for Afrobeats biggest stars; Wizkid and Davido and on culturally significant records such as “Carolina” and “The Matter”, Maleek Berry’s 2016 debut solo record, “Kontrol” became an anthem on arrival. Maleek Berry would go on drop a 2016 EP, “Last Daze of Summer”,  and a 2020 album, “Isolation” includes iconic records such as “Eko Miami” and “Juice”, and collaborations with artists such as Raye, Bibi Bourelly, Mr Eazi, Quavo, Jidenna, amongst many others.   

In 2015, Afrobeats experienced its imminent watershed moment. Wizkid’s Ojuelegba which premiered on OVO Sound Radio, received guest verses from London-based rapper and cultural icon, Skepta, alongside global popstar, Drake. The following summer, Wizkid appeared on Drake’s monumental record, “One Dance ushering in an expansive wave of Afrobeats lovers. While Drake’s “One Dance” dominated the music scene globally, a variation of Afrobeats dubbed the “Pon Pon” sound sprung on the homefront. The “Pon Pon” sound, characterized by soft-hitting percussive synths and mostly derived from dancehall and hiplife influences, took over the local scene in 2016. It was the same summer that producer and artist Tekno released “Pana”. “Pana”, produced by Krizbeatz,  is a love ballad that leans on a combination of lush melodies, the “pon pon” sound, and tender lyricism. The song amassed wild-fire success, and led Tekno to ink a deal with Columbia Records. 

Prior to the 2016 success of “Pana,” Tekno got his start within the music industry off his 2014 self-produced, Davido-assisted single, “Holiday.” Tekno doubled as an artist and producer, and months after the global explosion of “Pana”, Tekno’s producer-midas-touch struck again. Tekno produced and wrote Davido’s 2017 anthem, “If”.  “It was definitely not what Nigerians were expecting to hear at the time. If anything, ‘If‘ showed the kind of simple melodies and subject matter that Nigerian listeners are comfortable embracing” Nasir notes. “If” was an instant earworm that became a cult classic amongst Afrobeats fans. The song was punctuated by the “pon pon” sound, and it kickstarted a renaissance in Davido’s artistry. Tekno has accrued multiple production credits locally and internationally over the years, earning credits as a producer on Swae Lee’s 2018 single, “Won’t Be Late”, which featured Drake.  

Afrobeats to the world

Since the fad of the “pon pon” sound, the Afrobeats soundscape has diversified greatly, borrowing a wider range of influences from other genres, witnessing the creation of additional sound palettes, and seeing the advent of more producer-artist transitions. Eldee believes the diversity is evolution simply taking its course. “I think the diversity comes from the circumstances surrounding the times. The pandemic, for example, is the reason why people listen to more low-tempo music.” He also mentioned that recent producer-artist transitions could be credited to the ease of expertise when making music: “I think what’s happening is people are recognizing that you don’t have to be a great singer to be a great artist. The added advantage of being a producer is that you understand music in a way that is more unique.

Since the pandemic, the global explosion of producer-artists has been phenomenal. Producer-artists such as Tems have found a global audience, earning the adoration of superstars such as Rihanna, Future, Snoop Dogg, Drake, and much more. Tems, who doubles as a producer and artist, has risen astronomically since starting her career in 2018, curating an unparalleled distinct sound palette from the outset. “I think it’s shaped by her ability to understand music from a unique place. Being a producer helped her shape her sound initially, but her understanding of music and songwriting really helped her push her sound to the next level as well.” says culture journalist and multi-hyphenate, Adedayo Laketu, who interviewed Tems for her break-out Fader profile

Gaining offshoots during the pandemic, Ckay’s “Love Nwantiti” has become the most-streamed Afrobeats record of all time, amassing over a billion streams across multiple remixes and billions of views on trendsetting app, TikTok. In an interview with Audiomack, producer and artist Ckay maintained that it wasn’t a serious hurdle to overcome. “At first, a lot of people thought I was a producer who was trying to sing, so that was kind of a challenge at first, but it wasn’t a serious challenge I had to overcome.

Pheelz was the architect behind rapper Olamide’s early career hits, shelling out multiple hit records as a producer for the YBNL Empire head honcho between 2011 and 2013. Pheelz also produced seven tracks off Fireboy DML’s thirteen-track debut album, Laughter, Tears, and Goosebumps, and he has earned production credits for other artists such as M.I., Runtown, Teni The Entertainer, and much more. 

In 2021, Pheelz released his debut EP, and by the following year, he emerged as a global sensation off his song, “Finesse” which featured BNXN. “Finesse” peaked on the Billboard Global 200 and appeared on Barack Obama’s coveted summer playlist. “I started as an artist. I honestly believe every dope producer out there is an artist. I think being a producer all these years has impacted me in so many ways because I had the time to experience things sonically while finding my sound and voice. It also helped me morph and grow.” Pheelz mentions over text. 

Through its multiple iterations, Afrobeats has experienced an uncanny amount of producer-artist transitions, which clearly stem from the desire to translate a distinctive sonic palette and find artistic expression.  Although, it is difficult to weigh the impact of producer-artist transitions on the current global spurt of Afrobeats, these transitions undeniably influence the diversification of the genre and the growth of the sound palette. Eldee remarks that the culture as a whole should be credited for Afrobeats growing global acceptance. “It really is the movement and culture of Afrobeats. People outside of Nigeria got exposed to the dance, the sound and the culture as a whole.” We’re patiently awaiting the next chapter the culture will write.