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Skillions: DemoTapes

In 2006, a group of young rappers formed the first rap collective in Ghana. They would go on to release a cult classic. Their vision for hip hop in Ghana was thus planted. Thirteen years on, they are still playing important roles in pushing the genre across the globe.

In 2006, a group of young, talented, hip hop enamored youths decided to announce themselves and the brand of music they had dedicated a part of their youthful years to creating. For them, this was their way of showcasing not only their musical talents but to prove to themselves that this could be done; thus challenging and inspiring other youths obsessed with hip hop to chase their dreams. These young men were also trying to shake up the scene that had dismissed hip hop.

The 2005/2006 music year was an active one. A lot of records had been released by some heavyweights on the music front. A closer look at the Ghana Music Awards winners list offers an insight into that year’s musical landscape. Hiplife, birthed (or is it christened?) in 1994 by Reggie Rockstone had moved from being an adaptation of American hip hop to becoming the dominating genre of music, kicking highlife music off the perch. Hiplife had, in a decade, become the musical lifeblood of Ghana.

Some members of Skillions

But, there was another genre bubbling parallel to hiplife. This emerging genre was what came to be labelled ‘’GH Rap’’; a genre that eschewed the harmonious fusion of highlife music elements and rap delivered predominantly in Twi. ‘’GH Rap’’ was purely hip hop. The beats were hard hitting and modeled along the sounds of some great hip hop producers like Dr. Dre, Timberland and Pharrell. The words that run over the beats were predominantly English, with a bit of pidgin.  

The architect of this new wave was the Skillions. The collective was formed by young teens who loved to rap and make music. Founded by Jayso and T-Kube in 1999 during their student years at Presbyterian School (PRESEC-Legon), other skillful rappers were recruited into the group. Skillions, a name derived from ‘’Skills In A Million’’ dropped their debut tape in 2006; when most of the teens had grown into men. By the time the ‘’DemoTapes’’ was released, T-Kube had left Ghana to the United Kingdom.

Titled as the ‘’Skillions DemoTapes, the 21 track project featured all the members of the Skillions and more. Produced entirely by Jayso (a rapper and producer), the ‘’DemoTapes’’ became a cult classic among the hip hop lovers. The tape did not cause a seismic shift within the industry. What it did was to drag hip hop closer to the centre, thus breaking barriers and indicating to the young ones that it can be done. This move was an awakening; a watershed moment for rap. It was an act of rebelliousness. It was a moment for hip hop in Ghana. It was the first real drive towards mainstreaming GH Rap.

Jayso, Midknight, Ball J, E.L, J-Town, Jinx Therapy (now Frank P), Sandyswiz formed the original core of the Skillions. Other rappers like Mr. Maxx, Teri, KP, P-Dice, D-Blakk, III Bigg, John Hagan, 2ga, Kwaku T, Method Ranking, Mr. Skrach (a co-founder of Haatsville along with KP (now Kobi Onyame).

The album was not an exhibition of their lyrical efforts. ‘’DemoTapes’’ was an attestation to their chemistry as group, their ability to sharply tell stories through words, expressing their insights on life. A song like the soulful ‘’Da Message’’ (featuring Jayso, KP, EL, Sandyswiz) addressed the issue of faith and God. ‘’Hope of Giants’’ conveyed the message of striving for excellence and success.

The success and acceptance of ‘’DemoTapes’’ especially by senior high school students, hip hop fans at the universities was both a validation and vindication for the group and their vision for GH Rap. It also opened the doors for some of the members of Skillions to further steer their careers towards success

Thirteen years after the release of this cult classic, this article traces the career trajectory of the masterminds of this album likewise that of those featured.

JAYSO:

Jayso, christened Paul Nuamah is the co- founder of The Skillions and also the executive producer of ‘’DemoTapes’’. His music interest and his quest for the perfect beat that matched his palette led to his experimentation with production. His association with Haatsville Project while still a part of the Skillions helped sharpened his production skills. A consummate rapper himself, Jayso became a behemoth within the GH Rap movement

His A&R abilities, which led to the discovery and assemblage of all the talents under the Skillions movement draws parallel with what RZA or A$AP Yams did for Wu-Tang Clan and A$AP Mobb respectively. His A&R talent was on full display on Sarkodie’s “Highest” album which he executive produced. With over a decade long experience, an album (Making Tasha Proud), 6 well executed EPs (0106 series), and a string of producer credits to his name, it’s Jayso’s love for hip hop and mentoring young artistes that fills up his longevity card.

After the first wave of the Skillionnaires went on to pursue individual ambitions, Jayso assembled a new generation of Skillionnaires with the likes of Lil’ Shaker, braKevin Beatz, Joey B, Paapa, Runor (now Nana Benyin), Killmatic, Grafik, Gemini- along with Padlock, Noble. Others like Sarkodie, Efya were associate acts, getting called on for features or getting production services from Jayso. Jayso has worked with international music acts like Wyclef Jean, 2Face Idibia, Sway DaSafo, Akon and more. What Jayso’s legacy would be is that, he revolutionized the hip hop scene and by that, directed and mentored a lot of rappers who are today playing pivotal role in music today.

E.L

Elorm Adabla for long, E.L or Lomi for short won the VGMA Artiste of The Year in 2016. Versatility is E.L’s claim to fame (if you doubt revisit his debut album “Something Else” or his joint album with C-Real “Project Hip Hop 1&2). A member of Skillions first generation, E.L is not only a rapper but a producer as well. He ‘installed’ Azonto music on the scene, after the maverick producer, NSHONAMUZIK had created that wave.

E.L’s discography is an attestation to his hard work, creative ingenuity and love for music. Four albums, 6 mixtapes, 3 joint albums, large cache of features and numerous production credits across a ten year career, the VO Nation head is not slowing down.

Jae P (Kobi Onyame)

Jae P, now Kobi Onyame co- founded Haatsville Project (aka Haatso Project) around the same period Skillions was shaping up. Jayso would collaborate with them during the early stage to perfect his production skills. Kobi Onyame is based in the UK pursuing his music career, releasing a mixtape Asa/One in 2006.

Kobi Onyame has performed at Glastonbury in 2007 at the BBC Introducing stage. He would go on to open for Kanye West during his Glow In The Dark Tour in Edinburgh, UK. With a MOBO award to his name, a string of albums/mixtapes/singles under his belt including top notch nominations for his work, Kobi Onyame is still rocking hard. His 2017 release “Gold’‘ – a fusion of Ghanaian music elements with contemporary hip hop rhythms – is considered as one of his best body of work thus far.

J-Town:

His 2016 project “Flight From My Soul” is, in my books, one of the best projects released that year- and one of the best I’ve heard three years after release. Stefen Menson or J-Town, after his days with the Skillions found success and recognition as a solo act. For those who may not know him, he was the guy who performed the hook on Sarkodie’s ”Borga Borga”.

His solo career is dotted with some good moments, like his video for the rock inspired Guns & Roses earning nomination at the Channel O Video Awards. J-Town placed 2nd at the first Sprite MC Africa competition in 2009. Now based in Dubai playing within the tech space, J-Town heads two entertainment imprints – Home of Original Music (H.O.O.D) and The Beat Productionz.

Ball J:

The “sins of Ball J is that, his voice, cadence and rhyming technique bears a striking resemblance to that of Jay Z. Ball J was like ”middle child” of the Skillions – heard but often not seen. As a solo act, Ball J has earned more marks on the board as a sound engineer /producer than a rapper. (His album’s ” Big Six and Game of Thrones came and went with little to no ruffling).

The founder of Nu Afrika scored his biggest hit as a producer with Lapaz Toyota, a fusion of hard trap 808s and azonto dance music for rapper Guru. Prior to that, he had produced Kwaw Kese’s Killa Be Wu Last Show in 2010. Ball J will go on to work with Kwaw on Yakubu, Let Me Do My Thing, and Popping. But, his biggest accomplishment outside of Ghana was him producing the intro track on Patoranking’s debut album God Over Everything (G.O.E). His expertise in sound engineering landed him the gig as a sound engineer on MTN Hitzmaker. He is also responsible for a number of radio jingles, and many voice over adverts on both radio and television including one of the soundtracks on the popular tv series “YOLO”. Clearly, Ball J is taking “y’all to Nu Afrika!”.

Jinx Therapy (aka Frank P):

Jinx (in durag) with Jayso

After working with the Skillions on the DemoTapes, Jinx Therapy sojourned to the UK to pursue other interests. This year, he released an afropop single which received a lukewarm reaction.

Sandyswiz: (Sandra Huson)

Sandra Huson lasted two generations of the Skillion group. She was part of the first generation and a pseudo member of the second generation of the collective. One of my favorite songs by her under the Skillions imprint is “Ayalolo” with Noble. Sandra has restricted her performances to private events and a few spots in the city. She is (or was) a resident artiste at Fiesta Royale Hotel where she serenade guests with her brilliant performances of vintage soul/blues music. She is also a recognizable presence at +233 Jazz Bar in Accra.

Mr. Max:

Currently based in the UK – he frequents Ghana when need arises – still dabbles in rap but as a side hustle. Mr. Max is pursuing a career within the IT space.

D-Blakk & Kwaku – T:

Around 2008/09 when hip hop needed a face, these two rappers emerged on the stage, propelling hip hop towards the centre of the conversation. Their singles ”Move” and “Breathe” would earn them a Ghana Music Award in 2009 in the hip hop/rap category. Individual differences would see the two-part ways- Kwaku-T, who in 2010 was Ghana’s rep at the Big Brother Africa reality show would settle in South Africa to pursue other interests. (Kwaku T was also a member of the Talking Drums, who some music heads consider them the pacesetters of hip hop in Ghana). D-Black ventured into business, establishing a record labe Black Avenue Muzik and a night club.

The hip hop scene in Ghana has not punched its way to the top of the music charts. The interest for Afropop has eclipsed any growth of hip hop. Despite the low reception of the artform, individuals like M.anifest, C-Real, Sarkodie, Recognize Ali, Omar Sterling, Gemini seem undeterred, continuing with what the Skillions did a decade ago. Others like Akan, Ko-Jo Cue, Kwesi Arthur, Lykay and his WXG crew, Zotto, Questo and more are delivering hip hop content in a different variant – where hip hop is rendered with afropop stems.

Whether hip hop would earn a place as the dominant music genre seem unlikely, for now. Like a colleague put it, Ghanaians don’t fuck with hip hop/rap. This aside, the vision and the audacity of Jayso and T- Kube to assemble a group of guys who loved rap music to record one of the seminal mixtapes of out time is an incredible feat. The legacy of the Skillions did not end there. Others would go on to play important roles within the music space.

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