Julian Nicco-Annan, known by his stage name Juls, has a way with serendipity. Whether it’s his breakout collaboration with the then unknown Mr Eazi, or his unlikely studio premier with hiplife producer Panji Anoff, Juls skillfully places himself in the right place at the right time. However, his talent as a producer and collaborator is even more formidable. As Juls reminds me, “the sound that I had with Eazi, I created that.” Banku, Mr Eazi’s signature blend iconified in the hit “Bankulize” from 2014, which Juls remixed and added friend and rapper Pappy Kojo, propelled Eazi into a new class of afro fusion and made Juls one of those rare producers who are able to create a sound of their own. “That was a blend that tapped into r&b to some extent, elements of afro, but it was very minimalistic. So it was easy on the ear for people who were not used to the typical African sound,” Juls says of Banku. However, he adds, “I think I left that Banku sound a long time ago, now it’s just about spiritual music and vibes, and making people feel good as well.”
Sounds of My World is that spiritual vibe. Continuing to explore the many genres popping in and out of favor across Africa, UK, and elsewhere, Sounds of My World is another breakthrough into the unclassifiable and a resistance to the confines of singular genre. “I called the album, Sounds of My World, because I’m expressing what my mind…what My world is sonically. What I mean by that is, the sounds and the genres of music that I’m exposed to as a fan, as a listener, and what I’ve been experimenting with as a producer over the last few years,” Juls clarifies.
Juls has been long exposed to the world’s many musics. Starting his childhood in East London, Juls and his family moved to Ghana while he was still in middle school. “When I was growing up in London, there was a lot of jazz, a lot of reggae, very eclectic, very different sounds. The African side only really happened when I moved to Ghana when I was eleven or twelve,” he describes. “That was the first time I was introduced to the Ghanian music and afrobeats and African music, the likes of Daddy Lumba, Kojo Anwti, and Ebo Taylor and a whole bunch of things.” Early on Juls had brought this fusion to life and earned himself recognition amongst his peers, among them hiplife pioneer Panji Anoff. “I think my first studio session was with Panji Anoff, who is a legend in the Ghanaian music industry,” Juls explains (FADER). Hiplife, in Juls words, “was basically Ghanaians rapping. 98’ the godfather Reggie Rockstone was the one who started all the rapping over hip hop beats and then producers started making beats that had a bit more of an African bounce to it.” This melding of style, blossoming with tracks like Show Dem Camp’s “Feel Alright” in 2013 has continued to this day.
In comes Sounds of My World and we find a fine selection of rappers stepping up to be on Juls’ debut. Dreamville’s Bas and Grammy winning Maryland rapper Mannywellz appear on “Wish You”, a baile funk rhythm blended into an r&b highlife fusion. “Wicked”, one of the album’s lead up singles features Angola born London rapper Kadiata, the distinctive Kilburn rapper Knucks, and House of Pharaohs collective member Sam Wise. The track is a late ancestor of Banku, this time blending afrobeats with glitch culture and a smoothed out transition of alternative r&b and highlife jazz. To top it all off, we hear Prettyboy D-O, Nigeria’s most eccentric alternative rap artist, lay down some fire on top of the minimalistic “Alarm” alongside Suspect.
As a listener, one of Juls’ singular virtues is generosity, and perhaps this is why rappers and singers are so inclined to work with him. Each production leaves plenty of space for the featured artist to shine. Unlike some producer debuts, which are an overt and potentially obnoxious flex from behind the boards, Juls provides finesse and economy to his tracks. Curious, I asked which producers, either past or present, Juls looks to for influence.
“I listened to a lot of King Tubby for dub reggae influence, so you definitely hear that,” Juls explains. “Presently I love Sarz from Nigeria. He’s one of my favorite producers currently. When I started making beats I was looking up to Kanye West and J Dilla. Yeah. If you give me an instrumental tape with all those four guys, then yeah, fantastic.”
No doubt a bit of each of these producers’ styles can be heard on Sounds of my World. On “Mare”, featuring Kenyan afro-pop group and MTV’s Best African Act of 2014, Sauti Sol, we hear the infamous King Tubby tonal rip throughout. The album’s opener “Close to Me” is also a feel good reggae jam that sets a lighthearted tone. Not to mention the track also has afrobeats’ shining star, Wizkid laying down some vocals accompanied by Agent Sasco and Jael. More island vibes come through on the second single off the album, “Chance”, which brings Kingston native Projexx to the mix. To hear the J Dilla inspiration look to the track “Melly” with Oxlade. The song has a perfect, bright, post-Banku vibe, but just off-beat and sloppy enough to remind us of J Dilla’s signature style.
Juls’ flexibility as a producer, and his status in the rising fame of African music abroad, has also allowed him to dip into the vast Pan African talent pool. Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade brings a Caribbean pop vibe on “Love Language” showing off her multilingual abilities switching between English and Portuguese. Up-and-coming Kenyan r&b singer Xenia Manasseh also comes through on “Say You Love Me” for a quick alté revival. This approach has also brought Juls front and center to the well deserved rise in popularity of amaPiano. We hear two amaPiano jams back to back, starting off with the smooth echoey “Makossa Riddim” which includes the classic piano synth. Then, to top it off, Niniola, the Queen of Afro House, does her magic with an amaPiano rhythm and jazzy overtones reminiscent of Manu Dibango on “Love Me”.
“I love amaPiano,” says Juls. “You know, who doesn’t? I’ve spoken with some people who said, ‘Oh I can’t listen to amaPiano for more than 20 minutes.’ I don’t know what they’re hearing. For me personally, it’s just so powerful.” He explains, “with the sweet soft melodies from the words, but they added other elements, and when the bass comes in it just overtakes you and sends you to a different place. It’s just like, ‘Wow! What is this?’ It’s very captivating.”
With African music’s looming hayday thanks to genres like amaPiano and afrobeats, I ask Juls if he feels any sense of responsibility spotlighting African music to a global audience.
“I don’t think it’s a responsibility, I think it’s just something that I want to do. I feel like, in the 70s and the 80s our grandfathers like Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor (who’s still alive) and a few others had the resources and the tools to make it a big export. They didn’t have the capital, they didn’t have the internet, they didn’t have the structure… we don’t have the structure to a T, but we’re getting there. So I feel like it’s important to remind people, especially the young kids, about this kind of music, and the only way to do that is to blend it in a way where it’s still kinda cool but it triggers people’s mindsets and thoughts to try and do some research. Then people will be like, oh J Cole’s “Can’t Get Enough” featuring Trey Songz, the sample that he used was from Balla Et Ses Balladins!” He continues, “it was just kind of a realisation that, listen, this kind of music has been in existence for the longest while. We’re trying to make our own version, but hey, check these people out. These are the forefathers, this is where it stems from. Check them out as well.” Juls also hinted that there might be a sample based mixtape in the future, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Our conversation finished on a poetic note. Talking about the track “Summer in the Ends”, which starts off with an invocation in the form of spoken word to a background of rolling waves, the speaker says, “drown out the noise, listen to the sound of my voice, and just take a second to refuel, because when you stop worrying about other people, life is kind of peaceful…” After some silky vocals from Brit r&b singer Jaz Karis, the track ends on a similarly touching note, with an array of individuals popping in and out to finish the sentence, “Music is…”. For some, music is life, others music is peace, or expression, or happiness. I didn’t hear Juls’ voice on the track, so I asked him. Music is?
“What music is to me is a reflection of how you process things sonically. People like to judge people based on the stuff that they listen to. But to me it’s based on vibes, it’s based on how you take things in. What it does for you. How you take it in. Does it start a conversation? That’s what music needs to do for me. It needs to put me in a place where you just feel good and you’re always gonna go back and listen to it and just remember that this was a good time. You can always go back to it. That’s what music is to me.”
Sounds of My World, out on October 8.