McKenzie discusses his Ugandan hip hop roots

June 24, 2020

Appearing in an interview on Tidle Radio over the weekend, seasoned radio presenter and events guru, Brian McKenzie, shared about his time in the Ugandan hip hop industry, his contribution to urban music, and how far it has come. The Clan transcribed aspects of the interview

On “Sembera”, his first song featuring GNL and Nick Nola:

I did the original song in 2009. I wanted to do a morning show on radio about hip hop. So I came up with a show called Super Saturday that was reviewing Ugandan hip hop. We’d also infuse it with international stuff. I remember we played Kanye West’s VH1 storyteller’s edition. What we enjoyed on an international level, I wanted to enjoy it here. It was like an on air 106 & Park where we had battles and all. My biggest dream was to interview the biggest rappers. The first ever interview I had was with Lethal and he was with Hannz Tactiq. They came with a song called “So Serious”. I was in the video of that song which was shot at Steak Out. It was ridiculous how I was getting into that field of work. I started getting people’s attention. When I met Hannz Tactiq that day, he was a rapper. He told me how, at Nkumba [university], he used to make beats using Cool Edit Pro. I was really intrigued because personally I never thought I’d do music. Because of that, I became friends with these guys. I’d go to the studio afterwards and they’d tell me to jump on a track. Then I met the Raba Dabas, GNL, Nick Nola. Nick Nola was always the RnB guy that everyone wanted on a hook. So we called him to the studio and he had this song, and we asked him to change it to Luganda. So that song was recorded out of jokes. If you listen to my verse, I was just talking about myself in a bar with some girl. 

On going against the grain:

They [radio stations at the time] were trying to be too parent-careful, too PG rated. Sanyu FM, at the time, it was hard to get your song there. Because if you didn’t have top quality production, if you’re not Peter Miles or Navio, you wouldn’t get in. But we came in with the aggressive, rebellious energy of the hip hop culture. So, Sembera went to number 1 on Sanyu FM. It was Big Ben. Remember Big Ben?  And I was on radio at the same time, as a presenter on Hot 100. I keep telling guys; we basically changed the perception of what a musician was. You don’t have to do what the industry is doing for you to achieve. I remember on Hot 100, you would never play a local song but we played “Potential” and it became the sound of Uganda in a few months. So Hot 100 was a playground for rebels, for aggressive chaps. Guys were just Rottweilers, they didn’t want to hear anything. And it just caught fire. If you look at the industry now, it’s basically a Hot 100 industry. If you look at how DJs are now playing music at 1pm. If you check TV right now- DJs dancing from 10pm to 3am. This is all a construct of… there were no rules. That’s basically what we were doing. I was 20 years old. You can’t tell me nothing if I have a morning show and I’m 20 years old, talking to Wodmal who was really intelligent. I think people need to give respect to that station.

The need for a platform:

Can you imagine the only DJ that had rap music was DJ Shiru. These guys had their songs, their catalogues. Sylvester, Abramz, Xenson, Saba Saba, Babaluku, Klear Kut. We came with our own vibe, and it’s because we respected those that came before us that it became almost unstoppable. There were guys like Easy Tex, Dove MC, Saint CA, Lady Slyke. All they needed was a platform. A chance for me to go on the radio, have an interview for one hour about my album, something that I’d never get on another platform. 

Music scheduling at Hot 100 and mentoring artists:

There’s a gentleman called Colin Mutambo and he’s probably one of Uganda’s radio icons that people should pay attention to. He is currently the general manager of Radio Simba. He was a presenter on Capital FM and he was the programs director when I joined. I was coming from that entertainment prefect vibe. You couldn’t tell me anything. He read my vibe and gave me the chance to do music scheduling but when I joined, I found that they were playing only one African song in an hour. The biggest problem was we didn’t have broadcast quality Ugandan stuff. So, every single Saturday morning, for the four years that I did that role, I called in artists to come into the studio and we would all critique each other’s work. But of course, I got backlash by the ones that did not make the cut and they said I was favoring the ones that had money, when in actual sense it was quality control.

It’s very sad that when you have the energy in the industry and you step away, that’s the end. It really hurts that we don’t have that in the industry today. We don’t have media music mentors. If I’m on radio, I should be doing it as part of my job. 

On Rudeboy music and meeting Big Tril

Around 2009, Big Tril was in high school. DMS, a presenter on Hot 100, organised a thing at Sabrina’s every Monday, where we hosted rappers. I used to host the show for 5k which was important because it could easily take me back to Campus. So this was complete love. It wasn’t about the money, I just want to know the baddest rappers and have fun. I had just gotten the opportunity to be on Hot 100 and Jam Agenda [on WBS]. I see Big Tril and Eloquent, a gospel rapper, rapping together and I’m like this will make such a dope song. And I had just met Hannz, so now all my connections are lighting up. So I told Big Tril, who was in s6, to come back after he was done with school. He returned and said he was ready to work. By this time I’d been hanging with Hannz, I’d been to Muddy Boots, to Bava studios. My game was a bit strong and I could pull some shots. So I told him to go to Hannz the next day and I sent the beat to him. The beat was “Drain me dry”. I was thinking, this is a kid I saw on stage rapping. Let me give him the beat and see if he can eat it up and I’ll play it on the radio and say this is a guy I saw yesterday. That song, till now, when I listen to it, it’s not some guy in s6 vac. There’s nothing he said in that song that he has not achieved. He did that song and another called “Love lost”. I think that’s when people started paying attention.The first person that paid attention to him was Samurae. They did a song called “Zizu”. This was the time that GNL got to meet him too because GNL used to record with Samurae. So all of them met there. They teamed up to do stuff. But because I had, I would think, sort of discovered Tril, and also Mun G, it was easy for us to all run together as a team. And so the first song I ever gave them to do was “Sesetula”. And it’s the only song they have, the three of them together. 

So this was never organised. This was just vibes. Since then Big Tril did so many songs on my Rudeboy, from Straka Money to collaborations with STL. I’ve always thought Big Tril should be where he is right now. 

On Parte after Parte:

I host Mix and Grill on Sunday at Exo Lounge with Selector Jay. Selector Jay was the first person to download the pastor Sempa interview and extract the “Parte after parte” sample. And he put it in his mix, and kept playing it. So there’s this evening we were hanging with Tril and other guys. He was learning production and piano and I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He told me to come through and check out his studio. So he said; you know that thing you guys were playing, I did something with it. He had just done “Giddem” with Beenie Gunter. It was a big song. He was looking for the next song to release. He had a beat that sounded like “Boasty”. So he played me the chorus of Parte after parte, and I told him; you need to send that song to Selector Jay like now. He asked; are you sure? Because I don’t think Striker Entertainment will accept this. It isn’t the kind of song you send to your label to release. It was just a vibe. After that, he asked me to give him the guy that does my posters so that he releases it the next day on Whatsapp. The next day he released it and it was history. 

Just look at how life is weird, from the first song to his biggest song, I was kind of close to him. It makes you feel like manifestation is actually real. There is a different realm, a different energy you tap into, and it’s unstoppable. You just say, let’s do this, and you bring it to life.