How A 19-Year-Old Kenyan Producer Got Willow Smith On His Track

Nairobi underground producer Ukweli tells us how he got Willow Smith and JABS on his track "Get Lost."

Photo by Nu Fvnk. Edited by Ukweli.

We first came across 19-year-old producer Brendern Denousse aka Ukweli when he cold e-mailed us a bootleg ’Swahili trap’ remix of Ibeyi.

The Nairobi-based producer is a member of the East African Wave collective, who recently dropped a collaboration with Jojo Abot.

At the start of the year, “Get Lost,” a hazy Ukweli-produced track, quietly popped up on young US-based singer JABS’ soundcloud page. Built on minimalist synths and laidback beats, the song features vocals from none other than frequent JABS collaborator Willow Smith (Wilough).

“I got in touch with JABS through her soundcloud, I was a big fan of hers and Willow’s from randomly listening online,” Ukweli tells us from Nairobi.

“I made the beat to ‘Get Lost’ at about 3 in the morning one night when I couldn’t sleep and was in a melancholic mood. It’s a really spacey beat and I felt that it had enough room for a vocalist to lay something down.”

“So I got in touch with JABS and sent her the song. She said she loved it and wanted to lay something on it. Fast forward to two months later and the song was done. I was unaware that she did the song with Willow Smith, but I was happily surprised.”

Hear the wavy East African-crafted "Get Lost" above.


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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