Mixpak Interview Series: Chief Boima

Chief Boima is a chief example of the world music 2.0 musical multi-tasker: in the last few years alone has put out his own EP, Techno Rumba, polished off a remix project, produced for his Afro-Latin-Carribean collective Banana Clipz, DJed all over, become part of New York’s Dutty Artz crew and the UK’s Ghetto Bassquake. He is a wholehearted supporter of new global music: from kuduro to kwaito, champeta to coupe decale. We caught up with him to talk about his new African music night, his views on vinyl digging around the world and his exciting new projects.

Could you just tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be where you are musically?

I’ve been playing music my whole life, and consider myself a musician first. When I was growing up in Wisconsin I did everything from playing Jazz and Hip Hop on the cello, to playing the bass in a Reggae band, to scratching in a Salsa-Reggae-Cumbia group. I started seriously making beats and recording after moving to the Bay Area. At that time Hyphy was really blowing up and I wanted to try and make beats for rappers cause I really dug and was inspired by that whole scene. So I linked with some friends and was making beats for them, I guess trying to break into the Bay music scene as an outsider. Around that same time, I started DJing regularly at this International club called Little Baobab where I was getting exposed to a lot of contemporary International pop, so it became a big influence in my production style. That’s when I started making African dance remixes of hip hop tunes to play at that club to try and add my own flavor. I have a multicultural background, but that always hasn’t been as accepted or welcomed as it is becoming today, so for me to mix American, African, Latin, and the international influences that are part of my background, into some art form was kind of a cathartic creative process that brought me to where I am today.

Now I mostly DJ and make beats and dance tracks, but I recorded an album with my band called Beaten By Them that’s coming out this month. I play cello on that record. So I’ve got different musical experiences.

How did you become involved with the Dutty Artz crew?

The Dutty Artz connection came up after sending some tracks to Jace (Rupture) and meeting up with him in NY and SF. Then from there I just started linking with folks over email, and Geko and I were flying back and forth, playing each others’ gigs, and I got integrated with the crew. They were the first ones to approach me about releasing my music, which I was sending out to people and it was getting posted on blogs. I think the first thing that really got their attention was the Baobab Connection mixtape I did with my Baobab partner, Sogui.

You’ve recently moved from SF bay to NYC. what are the differences between the music scenes, has it been a good move for you?

There’s things I really like about the music cultures in both cities, and in some ways they share a lot of similarities. San Francisco and Oakland are really creatively rich cities, and the music scene in the Bay has this real intimate feel, where everyone seems to know each other. People collaborate a lot across different class and cultural backgrounds, and I felt really welcome in a wide variety of circles. It was the Bay’s multiculturalism that really fostered my personal identity, being able to mix different things in one place. I feel indebted to the place creatively, and try to go back as much as possible.

New York is so much bigger, there’s so many more people, so different scenes and cultures seem more segregated. I also think “mainstream” or whatever you want to call it club culture tends to dominate, which is a shame cause at least in my outsider’s idealized vision growing up New York was all about the “underground”.

But New York has its own kind of mix going on which I’m still learning to navigate. In certain circles the reception has been really warm for me since long before I moved here, and I feel fortunate for that. I think it was a natural transition for me to move to Brooklyn which has a similar creative energy to the Bay. New York’s biggest boost for me is that there is a lot of potential for the growth of the cultural impact of its fairly new, large, and diverse African community. I’m really excited to be here during a time that I see as an important cultural moment for Africans in the U.S., where we’re able to redefine some of the entrenched definitions and stereotypes people have of Africans in this country, and around the world really. I think New York is going to continue to be a creative epicenter for that.

You’ve been involved in nights like Descendants United and Little Baobab before and now you’ve started up your new night, Made In Africa. What was the impetus behind starting up the night in NYC?

I just looked at the neighborhoods and saw the biggest population of African immigrants in the U.S., and it didn’t seem like that was being represented in nightlife. It goes back to that segregated, everybody in their own enclave mentality that I think is important to challenge. I think the impetus was just to be able to start bringing folks together from different parts of the city and create community. Moving forward I’d love to have parties and invite a DJ from the Ghanaian neighborhood in the Bronx or DJ from the various Senegalese, Liberian, or Nigerian neighborhoods, or find out what communities exist that aren’t huge in numbers and have them say, “we’re here too!” I really just want to help provide a space and meeting place for that kind of thing.

What are your favourite tunes at the moment (don’t have to be new) and what tracks have you played out that have had an unexpectedly great reaction in the club?

A recent favorite is “Windeck” by Cabo Snoop in Angola. I was shocked and saddened by the news that his producer, I.V.M. Beats, and two dancers passed in a car accident recently. That crew seemed on a roll, and you can tell on Snoop’s album that they had this real electric and excited energy. I saw I.V.M. beats as having the potential to be the next Black Coffee.

The song “Lay Away” by Sway, Sarkodie, and JaySo. I don’t know what he’s saying, but Sarkodie’s fast rapping blows my mind. One song that got a really good reaction at Little Baobab which made me crack up was this Dutch House/Kuduro sounding remix of “Alors on Dance” by Artistic Raw. People were bugging! It really took the vibe up another level from the Coupe Decale I was playing. Folks who were grinding on each other took it into overdrive!

And just anything being made by Dominicanos right now.

Things have really progressed in the scene lately – Okayplayer launched OkayAfrica, Masala & Ghetto Bassquake launched as labels, Akwaaba has had a lot of attention, do you think this is something that is steadily growing? What would you expect from it in the next few years?

Yeah I think this global mix of music is steadily continuing, and I think it has a lot to do with what’s going on on the ground all over the world. I think that a lot of the important work people like Masala or Benjamin from Akwaaba or Ghetto Bassquake have done is just make contact with people from around the world whose music we dig, and present new strategies of outreach and access to audiences for them to get their music out. The best part about the current state of the industry is once those initial contacts are made, there are channels for people to take control of their careers. You don’t have to really “belong” to a label anymore. That helped me in my career, and I think it can create new channels for people all over the world. It’s true that there’s still a lack of access for a lot of people in the world for various reasons, but the important work going ahead will be to continue to work towards overcoming that.

I think in the next few years I expect that a lot of folks are going to get more involved on the ground in different places in ways beyond music. Jace, Tally and Maga Bo are headed to Morocco this summer working with youth to help build capacity in digital media, I’ll be in Liberia doing similar work, Benjamin will be living in Ghana, and I know the Masala crew has done similar work. As Jace said, DJ will become NGO. And there’s been people on the ground doing it for years, like Benjamin Herson of Nomadic Wax, J4 of Africanhiphop.com and the Mad Decent crew.

Plus at the same time to our advantage and somewhat to our disadvantage the mainstream Western music industry is paying attention. Black Eyed Peas used Baile Funk samples, Snoop just did a remix with D’Banj from Nigeria, Don Omar did a Kuduro tune, and Fat Joe jumped on Windeck for a remix. So while MTV Africa has the resources to hold big awards shows and have an unfair advantage over local scenes, it also increases global exposure. It’s a Catch 22 I guess. It’d be cool to see some African pop group like 2face or P-Square make it on to American charts. You have Akon signing Sarkodie, and you have artists that have already made it in Europe and the U.S. who are revealing that they’re undercover Africans. Some have yet to fully come out, like T-Pain. But folks like Mokobe and Baloji are making it cool to represent your roots, and there’s this growing idea everywhere that it’s cool to be African. I just think that MTV comes in with an uneven playing field, and as we’ve all seen they’ve gotten in to the business of discouraging creativity in the interest of advertising money. So really the same fight that happens in the U.S. and Europe between corporate mainstream culture and underground culture is going to continue globally.

There are so many genres under the broad title of African music, most of which never get to see the light of day in Europe or the US unless they get adopted by the World Music 2.0 sphere. When African music gets played here it’s usually with an emphasis on afro-funk, south african house or the like but it has so much more to offer. Do you have any tip-offs for genres that you feel have the potential to be huge outside of their communities, given the right promotion?

As far as scenes that I see as strong right now number one is Angola. A lot of producers are coming with their own brand of House and mixing it with Kuduro. Plus with all the attention Kuduro has gotten around the world, seeping into Dutch House and Reggaeton artists’ productions, I think that it’s global influence is going to continue to evolve organically. Also out of Angola is Tarraxinha, which is like Kuduro slowed down to sound like Zouk, and it’s really banging and bassy. I think with the right promotion that Dubstep and forward thinking Dancehall producers could get into it.

Also with the whole Moombahton phenomenon becoming popular, it would be a perfect chance for folks to get into Mozambican Pandza or Kenyan Kapuka, genres that take influences from Kwaito, which started the same way, DJs slowing down house and adding or emphasizing Dancehall style drum patterns.

The Balani scene in Mali seems amazing. I’m glad that Masala is doing a documentary on Balani actually, because that’s exactly the kind of local scene I’m talking about that would be great to see supported globally, as a super creative and original scene. There’s a lot of interesting spin-offs of Coupe Decale like Balani and Logobi in France. Cats banging out Coupe Decale rhythms in live sampler and drum machine bands!

I’d love to see the Sierra Leonean scene get some proper support on the ground. I know a lot of people who share that idea, and I hope be a part of making that happen one day.

Champeta in Colombia is already a crazy global mix of styles is seeping into Dancehall and Reggaeton via Cartagena and San Andres. I think once the Panamanians pick up on it, it will really blow up across Latin America. I just heard something today produced in Panama that is going in that direction. I hope the collaborations I’ve been doing with folks like Fabian Altahona and Los Rakas will help push it in that direction.

Hip Hop in general is really strong across the world with really smart political commentary, and innovative integration of different musical styles. The problem with a lot of the lyric heavy music styles is that people who don’t speak that language can’t really connect because they don’t understand the words. I think generally people want to sing along, even if they it’s a stupid lyric, as long as they can participate. But there’s a way to support artists who rap different languages like Dancehall and Reggaeton get support, then I think there’s a lot of potential for cross-pollination and organic collaboration.

A map you posted and an article you wrote about vinyl-digging in Africa created a lot of stir last year, you made some critical points (that were seemingly overreacted to) about the way music from Latin America or Sub Saharan Africa is conquered, collected or catalogued by diggers…were you surprised by the reaction to it and where do you feel you stand now?

Yeah, that actually really surprised me. I mean I really thought it was obvious that I was playing devils advocate. I think people reacted quickly and tried to destroy my credibility by taking personal shots, and there were some real immature things written. I was like are grown folks really writing this?

I still stand by the article. I think the reactions and defensiveness that came out really went to show that these people hadn’t really confronted the situation to analyze their possible positions of privilege within the global societal structures. Maybe not, but that’s the only explanation I could come up with. The one thing about the World Music 2.0 scene is that we’re pretty good at beating ourselves and each other up over these issues. We air the issues out in the same places that we do our musical practices, so a lot of us are hyper aware of the positions of privilege we have in operating from the U.S. and Europe. I recognize that it’s definitely a grey area issue, but I don’t think that discussion was happening outside of diggers forums, and Sean who runs Africa is a Country thought it would be could to put the debate in a forum that’s no just music folks.

I think it’s important to continue the work you feel passionate about while remaining conscious of the implications of your actions for people that you work with or represent. I do really respect all the labels that are doing the work to get this music out. I personally have been able to get songs on vinyl that I heard growing up but never knew the names of. But the activities they’re engaged in are culturally specific and one sided, just as all “Western” activity in Africa has been since the 15th Century. It’s about representation, and the responsibility that goes with that.

Are you yourself a digger?

I am, but not really the pay hella money, or go to crazy lengths for a rare record type. It was the mid to late 90′s when I got into DJing so vinyl in general was kind at a low point, and it became fun to build creative sets within the limited constraints of availability. Now I dig more through mp3s than dusty records, and it’s lost a little of the sociality aspect, but it’s still rewarding perhaps in the opposite way when you find that crazy tune!

I saw your piece about going to Barranquilla – it looked amazing. What is the most interesting place you have been, as a music-lover?

Barranquilla is up there. That place blew my mind. I’m trying to get back. Panama and London too for sure! And Freetown, Sierra Leone, cause that’s my roots. But, when I visited, it was so amazing musically. Freetown in a lot of ways is a very international city at a crossroads with a big diaspora stretching from Australia to London to the Bay Area, and regionally from Nigeria to Senegal. So you hear influences of all those places at the club there. And it’s hot and on the beach, and nothing beats a club by the beach.

Actually, one of the places that has been the most influential for me was Madrid. I lived and studied there in 2001 and 2002, and that really changed my world view on music. That was the first time I’d here Cumbia next to Mbalax next to Dancehall in the club, and a diverse crowd getting down with each other.

What is happening with your own remix/production projects – what have you got planned for 2011? Is Banana Clipz still going?

I’d like to link with Gavin, Oro11 again at some point, but right now we’re on opposite coasts, and involved in other projects, so maybe Banana Clipz for 2012! Los Rakas and I worked some songs together and we’re finishing up the project to release as an EP before summer. I’m real excited about that project. Other than that I have plans to work on a project with a couple people in New York namely my roommate Mr. Lamin Fofana and an MC named Tai Chi that I met in Brooklyn. Then if I do end up in Liberia this summer I hope to do some collaborations out there. So definitely some exciting times for me in 2011.

Your mbalax/coupe decale remix of Akon was wild (not to mention that drake & lil wayne track too). Have you got anything like that up your sleeve again?

I actually have a bunch of tracks that I use for DJ sets, and had planned on putting out follow ups to African by the Bay, but just haven’t gotten around to it. But thanks for reminding me!

Thanks for talking to us!

Interview by Susannah Webb