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MC Yallah & Debmaster, goosebumps in the dark
Photo : Brontë Godden

MC Yallah & Debmaster, goosebumps in the dark

A few weeks ahead of their appearance at the Paris edition of the Nyege Nyege Festival, PAM caught up with MC Yallah and Debmaster in Lille, to find out more about the origins of their partnership and Yallah Beibe, a new album of dark, futuristic rap unlike any other.

Although involved in the Ugandan rap scene since 1999, MC Yallah was truly revealed to the world in 2018 under the impetus of the Nyege Nyege crew, which then released Kubali on its Hakuna Kulala subdivision. With Covid creating a barrier to follow up this extraordinary debut album, the Kenyan-born artist squatted at Villa Nyege during the pandemic and continued to immerse herself in the work of the craziest beatmakers in her ecosystem, such as Congolese Chrisman, Japanese Scotch Rolex and her long-standing partner, Frenchman Debmaster Conscious and as poetic as it is political, Yallah’s polyglot rap once again plays arm-wrestles with these convoluted instrumentals with a dancehall, trap or even death-metal flavour. In Lille, on a barge transformed into a concert stage, MC Yallah and Debmaster defend the intense Yallah Beibe, one hypnotizing the crowd with her razor-sharp flow, while the other manhandled the beat with a customized Playstation controller. Behind this dark and sometimes violent music lies two adorable personalities, whom PAM discovered in an interview after the show. 

Julien, why are you playing video games during the gig?

Debmaster: (laughing) Debmaster is actually my gamer nickname. My family name is Deblois, and I was playing on a network with my brother and friends in my small village in Picardie, in the north of France. Everyone had a manly nickname like Zeus, or Dark-something. I ironically chose Debmaster, and it became my account’s name in Caramail, AOL, Soulseek… A guy contacted me on Soulseek because he found my music on my account. At that time, I was making music for fun with my computer, it was not serious. The guy was running a French label, and asked me to make an album with some American MCs that I loved! I didn’t understand why they were asking me to do hip-hop because I was just doing weird stuff on software. Then I became active with that name and couldn’t change it!

So what are you doing with this PlayStation controller on stage?

Debmaster: Video games have always been very important for me. I was kind of an ADHD teenager, finding some excuses to spend time on my computer, and music saved my life in a way. A cool dude made a device where you can use any type of controller. The controller sends data and transforms them into midi numbers, then goes to Ableton.

Yallah, you are rapping in several languages, what are you talking about in your songs?

MC Yallah: I rap in 4 languages, but especially Luo and Swahili from Kenya and Luganda from Uganda. For example, “Kubali” means “accept” or “agree”. In the song, I am telling myself to agree with what I am doing, to go ahead with this. Most of the songs are based on personal experiences, and what is going around in my community. I have another song called “Dunia”, it means “the world”. I am saying that people are not fair in this world, and that shit happens in Kenya, like robbery. We now call Nairobi, “Nairobbery”! People are getting so smart that they can rob you in a blink of an eye, and you don’t even feel it. But at the end I also say that there are plenty of good people around.

Is the new album politically charged?

MC Yallah: Yes definitely, especially on “No One Seems to Bother”. Shit is happening around the world, like xenophobia in South Africa, the genocide in Rwanda… Also in Africa there are a lot of thefts and murders. Someone can just look at you and think you have money, and even if you don’t have money, they take you down. I lost a cousin back home in Kenya in 2017. He was walking back from work, some guys were following him and asked him for his phone and money. He didn’t have anything and they killed him… It’s so casual, they don’t even bother, they don’t care!

What about your collaboration with Debmaster? Have you ever imagined being produced by a French guy?

MC Yallah: There are producers I used to work with in Uganda, but in 2017, Arlen from Nyege Nyege discovered him and asked him to send beats for Ugandan MCs. I listened to the first beat he sent and it was sick! But! Because there is a but (laughing). I was wondering how I would rap on this! It was a new and fresh style. I used to rap on old school beats or on trap… I noticed that the counting was different, it was wicked. His style doesn’t have rules. At the beginning I was scared, but I like challenging myself! So, I did it. I love the fact that it’s pushing me to experiment. Now we are doing our own thing and it makes us and people happy.

Debmaster: At first, I didn’t want to force anybody to do something experimental. In the end, it was actually Arlen’s vision, so we jumped on it. We made a single, and then we kept on going with “Dunia” and “Kubali”, which we made in two days!

MC Yallah: The beat also makes me chop my style. I am just rapping differently thanks to those beats!

How do you work together?

MC Yallah: Sometimes he sends 30 beats to me, and I choose one or two, my choice can be just based on the intro. 5 seconds are sometimes enough to judge if it will be dope!

Debmaster: Then she writes something that I am not even aware of. I am not thinking about what she will do when I am making the beats. The Nyege Nyege team encourages us to express ourselves, so our interpretation of the beat is sometimes different, but we can also go in the same crazy direction. The way we are sharing our energies is intense! We don’t have time to think, so we are working very spontaneously and we are addicted to it now (laughing).

You are also working with Chrisman and Scotch Rolex on this album. Why did you choose them?

MC Yallah: They are good producers. I remember around Covid, Chrisman was a bit stressed and frustrated. We didn’t want to stay home, we just wanted to go to the villa and talk with people. Chrisman was making some beats and I was rapping on them. We did at least 8 songs together. Scotch Rolex is insane. I think that ‘s why I work with all of them, because they are crazy! (laughing). They make me even more crazy.

Julien, from your side, did you have any experience with African music before working with Yallah?

Debmaster: Not really, just unconsciously maybe… I was in Cairo for almost one year. I met Mohamed Abozekry, an Oud player. We made a bit of music, but it’s the only serious connection I’ve ever had with Africa before this. From my small village, as a kid, I didn’t have real contact with Africa, out of the clichés spread by the media, like Yannick Noah or the mainstream “world music” stuff. When Nyege contacted me around 2015, I was in Berlin, and I got so surprised and excited at the same time, I didn’t even know anything about the villa and the festival in Kampala…  

Have you been there to meet and work with the Nyege artists?

Debmaster: I was supposed to go to the festival in 2016. Actually I have multiple sclerosis and I got a relapse at the beginning of the summer, which means I couldn’t walk for a few hundred meters… We cancelled the plane, but I started running in september. Then, instead of going to the Nyege Nyege festival in 2017, I was running the Amsterdam marathon after training for a year, because I am a bit crazy… I was training all year long so I was telling the guys that I will come the year after. In 2018, I had an exam in Berlin because I was learning German to be able to work in a Kindergarten. In 2019, I got another relapse, but I recovered and we were finally able to tour with Yallah in Europe! But I only went to Kampala for the first time in September last year… It was after 6 years of daily communication! But I am a nerd, so I think it was very constructive this way, we also easily made a very cool album together. When I met Yallah, we quickly felt very comfortable with each other.

MC Yallah: We met for the first time in Venice, just two weeks before our first show!

On the album, you’re also pushing the boundaries by working with Lord Spikeheart. How did you know that merging hip-hop, metal and experimental beats would work?

MC Yallah: I already knew Martin Khanja aka Lord Spikeheart. I wanted to work with him, and when Deb sent me that beat, I knew it was the moment. We wrote the song during a jam in the rehearsal room, maybe in 10 minutes! And the day after, we performed it at the venue and we killed it! (laughing)

Since you are touring in Europe, do you feel more recognized in your own country?

MC Yallah: They are starting to. I am not famous, but I will start touring in Africa, so they will have to! It’s the same in other countries. For example when Slikback plays back in Kenya, they don’t understand, because his style is new!

Photo : Brontë Godden
According to a lot of people, your flow is kind of unique, there is no comparison. What’s your feeling about it?

MC Yallah: When I was young, I used to listen to Timbaland & Magoo, Busta Rhymes, the Fugees, Missy Elliott… I loved the way they were rapping, they made me fall in love with hip-hop. At that time, the first hip-hop group in Uganda was called Young Vibes, and it was inspired by that. I was imitating the songs, but as I said, when Deb sends me his beats, every time I discover a new flow inside me. It also depends on the language I am using. Actually, I am not listening to a lot of hip-hop music nowadays, because I am afraid to sound like the artists if I listen too much. So I listen more to myself. I am trying to own it and challenge myself to do something I’ve never done before. I think it helped me because sometimes I even have goosebumps listening to myself! And then I know that I have to try something else for the next song, and that’s why nothing sounds alike: there is trap, drill, slow and fast songs… There is a lot! I am trying to be friends with the beat, that we can be at one.

Since you like challenging yourself, when will you start rapping in French?

(both laughing)

Debmaster: She already made it in Italian during a show! She was rehearsing backstage, and she did it on stage. It was crazy!

MC Yallah: Italian is easier than French. French is hard to learn, I have problems with my tongue when I try (laughing, starting singing in Italian)

MC Yallah will play at the Nyege Nyege Festival in Aubervilliers on July 14th.

Yallah Beibe is available here