[Interview] E.L: the “best African rapper”

Ghanaian rapper E.L’s BAR (best African rapper) mixtape series is a bold statement, a showcase of some of the finest rapping and a platform for emerging talent.

By Sabelo Mkhabela

In 2014, Ghanaian hip-hop star and producer E.L made a bold statement – “I am the best African rapper” – through the cleverly titled mixtape BAR (an acronym for “best African rapper”). Hard as nails, BAR was a strong argument for E.L’s claim. It saw the rapper telling stories and flexing over a variance of beats – boom bap, electronic, trap – with the grace of a top-tier MC.

The popularity of the BAR tape led to a second edition in 2015, which was just as solid. BAR 2’s closing song ‘Superhero’ is a motivational anthem with dramatic EDM instrumentation, which E.L devours with fitting conviction. ‘Superhero’ is currently the most streamed hip-hop song in Ghana on Spotify, with more than 20 million streams.

Outside of the numbers, though, the BAR series is a display of some of the finest rapping in Africa and beyond. It can come in the form of his ice-cold bar-heavy intros and posse cuts, or social commentary and scathing critique to the government on songs like ‘This Country’, ‘American Passport’ and ‘State of the Nation Address’, where he opines on youth unemployment and corruption that plague GH and other African countries. On the latter, he raps: “I’m just stating the fact/ Updating the masses on the situations that we are facing/ I guess we can accept it’s complicated at best/ In these hard times of elevated prices/ Energy crisis/ Loadshedding plan got your destiny decided.”

 

Some of the most celebrated rappers on the continent have appeared on the mixtape series, including M.anfiest, Khuli Chana, Joey B and M.I Abaga. Now on its sixth volume, the BAR mixtape series has become more than just an outlet for E.L to showcase his skills free of the pressure to impress the mainstream; it has also become a platform for emerging rappers who EL hand-picks to come rap alongside him and other seasoned rappers on the popular franchise, which has also birthed the annual BAR concert.

After more than a decade in the game, E.L is still advancing as a rapper.  As he raps on ‘Frodo Baggins’, the latest single from BAR 6, “I’m still wiring raps and classics, I guess I can’t control the passion/ 10 years into my bag, no coming up short like Frodo Baggins.” ‘Frodo Baggins’, which features Nova Blaq, has slight touches of drill, a subgenre E.L isn’t shy to experiment with on BAR 6.

There’s more to E.L than the BAR series, however; the versatile musician is one of Ghana’s music stars with Afro-pop hits such as ‘Koko’ and ‘Obuu Mo’, which date back to the early 2010s. The prolific musician has released countless projects since his 2012 debut Something Else.

The latest BAR mixtape, BAR 6, was released in November 2021 and is still buzzing. Recently, when E.L shared a playlist of all the songs in the series, his caption read “10 more to go”. Clearly, this is far from over.

We got E.L on the phone and asked him questions about the BAR series, the hip-hop scene in Ghana and his future plans.

What was the inspiration behind the first BAR mixtape?

I have been a long-running hip-hop fanatic. But along the line, when I began to see a little bit more success, I found myself shifting to other genres of music, trying to commercialise. You know how the game goes. You want to gather more people around you, so you begin to sell out a little bit more. So, it got to a time when I realised that people were beginning to forget who EL was, and I was beginning to disconnect from who I was at the core. So, the BAR tape was just sort of a reset for me, something that I could do to come back to settings, you know? To give me that rubber-band effect. So, I remember me and my partner at the time were thinking about solutions to my identity, and we said, why not come up with a hip-hop tape? A one-off thing. It was not meant to go on for six, seven years. But we decided to do this ‘one-off’ tape and call it the BAR tape – best African rapper – just to remind people who EL was.

What was the response to you calling yourself the best African rapper?

There are a lot of mixed reviews, you know, especially opinions that are divided amongst fans and fellow artists. You know, fellow artists do not agree with that necessarily, because everyone thinks they’re the best. But the fans who listen to the music, most of them tend to agree when they listen to the songs that I have on these projects. So, I have very much mixed reviews when it comes to the response to the name. But as time goes on in my musical journey, I kind of stay away from that title, because I’m not striving to be the best for anyone other than myself. So, I’m not really claiming that as much these days, even though I know personally that I’m the best. I just focus on being the best for myself and not for anybody else.

When it comes to the features, you always strike a balance between established rappers – you’ve done stuff with Khuli Chana, M.anifest and Joey B – and emerging talent. How do you pick the artists you work with on the BAR series?

I get messages all day from rappers and artists, and I actually do listen to their stuff, and I do give most of them feedback. There’s so much talent that I come across, and I’m humbled by such gifts. They don’t even have to say much. I’m the one that proposes: “I have a beat for you,” or “I have this song that I want you to hop on with me,” and most of them are so surprised that it’s that simple that they take the leap of faith and that I am actually glad to connect with them and to vibe with them. So, most of the artists I feature on the tapes… some of them may be up-and-coming and some of them may be completely unknown and underground. It doesn’t matter whether people know you or not; all I look at is the skill and your willingness to actually take the leap; to take the plunge and to work hard to make your vision and your dream come true. It’s very easy for me to identify the talent I want to work with and put them on.

Right now, everyone is talking about drill all over the continent. How would you describe the climate in Ghana right now?

Drill is all the rave right now in Ghana; you know, we have the Kumerica movement which [is championing] the drill sound. Aside from that, hip-hop is very seasonal; we have different seasons of hip-hop. In the past, we’ve had the trap era, the crunk era – you name it – so it keeps rolling on like that, but the main core of the sound still remains, and that’s something that’s always going to be my main interest, even though most of the time I’m interested in experimenting with these new sounds, with drill and with whatever, it’s the new fad. For you to stay relevant as an artist, you have to try to always adapt to the times and what people are interested in and are connecting to. So, in the realm of hip-hop, I’m always happy to adapt.

In ‘Best African Rapper’ from the first BAR, you rapped, “Three or four African rappers who really posing a threat to me…” Who are those rappers?

I have so many, but if I am going to mention off the top of my head, LADIPOE is definitely one of them. He’s a great friend of mine and he always gives me that respect. And I also give him that respect because he’s a fellow lyricist and we’ve come a long way. When nobody knew who LADIPOE was, we were rocking it together. So, he’s one of them. M.I Abaga is always going to be a legend; he’s my teacher. I always go and listen to the stuff from him that inspired me. From Ghana, there are certain rappers who are very well known and who I’ve had the opportunity to work with, but those who I think are very gifted and inspirational to me are the lesser-known rappers. There’s a rapper called Kev the Topic. He’s an amazing rapper and I know he’s going to blow up really soon. There’s Ko-Jo Cue, who’s also like my hero; he’s like my favourite Ghanaian rapper right now. I love Nasty C – he’s so intricate; so clean. I like the intricacy of his rap; it leaves no space for fumbling. Anyone who knows real rap knows that guy is actually really talented. So yeah, those are some of my favourites from the continent.

You rap a lot about Ghana and your relationship with it and how much you love it, but you also have political songs where you express things you’re not happy about. I guess, like every African, you have a very complex relationship with where you’re from. Can you take us through that?

I have a love-hate relationship with my country. Most of the time, I like to look at it from the outside, you know, because I have been around. As artists, we have the opportunity to travel all over the world and to see how other people live their lives, and we tend to compare the quality of living with where we are from. And it leaves so much space for improvement when you compare, especially looking at the well-developed countries and how simple reason and simple common sense come into play with certain things, and how that is lacking where I am from. So, I tend to make those comparisons and it leads me to a very frustrated place where I begin to write songs and it seems like I’m giving my country a tongue-lashing. But at the end of the day, it’s where the heart is, and I go so hard on those tracks because that’s where my heart is, and I love where I am from. So, basically it just comes from a good place and I’m looking to use my music in my own small way to influence whoever is listening to at least come to the realisation of where they are and where they could potentially be. That’s what I hope to achieve with that.

You’re in the States right now. On the song ‘Kwame Nkrumah’, you rapped, “The best African rapper, forget your collab, man, I’m tryin’ to be rapping with Jigga.” How far are you from rapping with Jigga? Is that still a dream of yours?

Not so much. I’m looking to collab with so many more people now. I mean Jigga is one of my biggest heroes; I know Jigga’s lyrics from A-Z. Jay-Z’s always in the back of my head when I’m trying to finesse what I am trying to write in an intro. Most of my intros are influenced by that Jay-Z swagger, because he’s the king of intros for me. Whenever I write an intro, I tap into that Jay-Z energy. Whenever I’m trying to write a controversial song, I tap into my Eminem energy. When I’m trying to write an animated party song, I tap into my Busta Rhymes. These people influenced me a lot, and it would be a pleasure to work with them in whatever capacity. It’s one of the reasons I’m out here. We’re working on making those things happen, and I’m sure we will get there.

‘Superhero’ – really dope song… but I never saw it becoming the most-streamed Ghanaian hip-hop song on Spotify. Did you see that happening with a song like that?

No, I didn’t. It’s one of those things that I think we just chalk up to God’s blessings, because it’s not actually streamed by Ghanaians; it’s streamed by more Europeans – people in Germany and Sweden. I dunno. They just latched onto that song so hard, and they are streaming the heck out of that song. So, Ghanaians didn’t really contribute to the success of that song. But when they got to hear about how well it had done in these other countries, I think it shone a light onto that song, and then people began to gravitate more towards it.

You’re very versatile. The BAR series is huge, but there’s still so much more to you. You have the Songs About Girls series and other projects. Do you work on all these things at the same time?

It depends on the zone I am in, man. Right now, I’m in a totally different zone; I’m in no mood to rap for BAR right now. I’m in a totally different headspace. And the kind of music I’m recording at the moment is quite different. I don’t know how fans are going to receive it. But the way it is for me right now, I don’t really do it too much for the fans; I do it for me initially – that’s the first thing. I have to enjoy the music that I’m making, and then I think about how to target the audience subsequently. The music I am going to be working on in the next two months is also going to be quite different. I know I’m going to have to settle in to record the BAR tape probably towards the end of the year, so we’ll figure out how to get that done as well.

There was a time you were saying you were putting an end to the BAR series.

Yeah, it’s something I was gonna do but my boys wouldn’t let me do it. Let’s just put it that way. My boys actually came to America to drag me back to Ghana to do the BAR concerts, because I was gonna drop the tape and be done with it, but obviously, I’m not gonna be let off the hook that easily. We’re gonna ride it until the wheels fall off because, at the end of the day, it’s something that I love doing. I can’t really switch it off and I can’t hear a hip-hop beat and not want to jump on it. You know, the love is still there. It comes with its own challenges and its own frustrations, but those are things that we’re going to have to face.

about two months ago, A-Reece tweeted that he’s the best rapper in Africa. I always find it kind of funny when an African rapper says that, because I feel like African hip-hop is so fragmented; it’s almost impossible to even know every rapper. I don’t feel like there’s such a thing as an African hip-hop scene. I just think there’s a Ghana hip-hop scene or a west African hip-hop scene, and then there’s South Africa, and so on. What are your thoughts on that?

I think there’s so much more room for improvement. Like you say, it’s fragmented, and you can’t call it a scene when it’s fragmented. It has to be something that we all have in common and that we all operate in. So, for us to have that scene, we have to all know each other’s music and strengths and weaknesses. We have to compete amongst each other in a more direct way. I know for a fact that the Nigerian industry and the South African industry are two separate things. It’s very hard for you to just walk into South Africa and have your song played on the radio. And it’s very hard to walk into Nigeria and have your song played on the radio as well. As for Ghana, we will play it because we are very disorganised. It’s something that we will have to improve upon. But, for a rapper to say that he’s the best African rapper or he’s the best rapper in the world, I can’t fault that. Because that’s what you are supposed to say. No rapper in the world would say, “Oh, I’m the third-best rapper in the world.” Everybody wants to be the best.

Tell us about the BAR concert.

The concert we do every year to support the tape. We put on the artists who we discovered and try to give them a platform, so that they can have a chance to perform and to possibly be discovered for the first time, and to give the same stage to underground artists that we give to mainstream artists, and to try and bridge that gap. It brings the fans together as well, you know, to show them that it’s a culture, and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re underground or mainstream; we’re coming together to support the culture. So, that’s what we do every year.

Apart from the music you’ve been working on, you seem to be in the States a lot. What are you busy with?

I’m just trying to enjoy my life with my family. I don’t just do music; I work on other things as well, so I’m just focused on other business interests. But I think my main mission on this Earth is just to deliver my message through song – through music – whether that’s hip-hop or Afro beats or whatever I am doing. That is always going to be my main focus and my main calling. Recording more music, producing more beats, writing more, and I am planning on dropping my next project in a few months’ time. I’m working on a few deals here and there, and just trying to live my life.

Stream EL’s BAR tapes on Spotify.

 

 

 

 

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