Block Magazine Afircan Underground Review

Block Magazine Afircan Underground Review
11/25/04

Its Not Where Youre From, Its Where Youre At
Nomadic Wax Brings Senegal Hip-Hop to Brooklyn

By Jack Hamilton

Upon the most surface listening, the veteran rap duo BMG 44s most recent release, a track titled simply 44, sounds virtually indistinguishable from something youd hear rolling out of a car on your block in Brooklyn. The chorus is ragged and sounds like an anthem, a la Ja Rule or DMX (or even ONYX?), while the flow on the verses is more polished but no less forceful, invoking more than a shade of classic KRS-One. The beat is true-school, through and through, owing as much to the legacies of Pete Rock and DJ Premier as any great hip-hop track should. Upon anything more than the most surface listen, however, while you would undoubtedly still hear these traits, what would most likely catch your ear first is the fact that you cant understand a single thing these MCs are saying.

BMG 44 are rapping in Wolof, which unless youve spent significant time in Gambia, Mauritania or, in the case of BMG 44, Senegal, would probably sound vaguely like French but not much else. Already a classic in Senegal, 44 is the opening cut off African Underground, Vol. 1: Hip-Hop Senegal, a compilation that stands as the flagship release of a small, Brooklyn-based record label called Nomadic Wax. Featuring fourteen tracks from various Senegalese MCs, all of whom are legends on the wildly popular hip-hop scene of their small, West African country, but thoroughly unknown almost anywhere else, African Underground, Vol. 1 hits American stores on November 30th. With its unveiling, Nomadic Wax has set its eyes on a heretofore unprecedented level of international exposure for both Senegalese hip-hop and, ultimately, African hip-hop in general.

The founder of Nomadic Wax is a 28-year-old Brooklynite Ben Herson, whose passion for African hip-hop is surpassed only by his belief in Nomadic Waxs ability to take this music, and these artists, to unimagined heights. Herson, with the help of engineer Dan Cantor, produced and recorded all of the tracks on African Underground, Vol. 1, a labor that represented the culmination of a ten-year love affair with Senegalese music. Raised in the Boston area, Herson began studying drums at a young age, and at the age of 15 became acquainted with a Senegalese drummer, also living in Boston. The two became friends, and ten years later, Herson made his first trip to Senegal.

To be honest, when I started going to Senegal it was really just to study drums, that was my intention, says Herson. My first time there I was only there for two weeks, and the second-to-last day I was there I was just in the marketplace, checking it out. The way the music industry works over there, there are these little shacks that sell all the cassettes, and there are about 20 or 30 of them in a given marketplace. You can pretty much get anything youre looking for; and I saw that there was a whole bunch of local hip-hop and decided to check it out. I grabbed a couple cassettes, took them back home, and just started listening.

Herson, whod been listening to hip-hop for about as long as he could remember, was moved by what he heard on the cassettes; so moved that, in 2000, he found himself writing his senior thesis at Hampshire College on Senegalese hip-hop. The next year he returned to Senegal, this time with some bare-bones beats and a newfound desire to actually record the MCs whod first inspired him.

After I finished writing my thesis, I kept in touch with a lot of the MCs and went back in 2001 to start to record, recalls Herson. My original intention was just to stay as a production company; it was never, ever my intention to start a record label with this thing. It was just to produce the music and find somebody else to release it.

Over the next three years, Herson honed his production skills and began enlisting the help of other New York-based musicians. Soon he had established a studio in Bed-Stuy, and had begun collaborating with other African artists living in the US. Hersons initial reluctance in starting a label of his own was overcome by his excitement over the possibilities he saw developing. Since completing work on Vol. 1, Herson has turned his efforts towards Nomadic Waxs next project, a volume of Tanzanian hip-hop; eventually he and his company hope to record a compilation for every country in Africa with a prominent hip-hop scene. In the meantime, Nomadic Wax has secured both domestic and international distribution for African Underground, Vol. 1: Hip-Hop Senegal, which hits stores in America November 30th and is penciled for a mid-March release in Europe. Besides having huge expectations for the compilations potential impact, especially in Europe, where an ever-growing West African population has been largely ignored by music distributors, Herson and Nomadic Wax are thrilled at the prospect of hopefully rewarding the artists on African Underground, Vol. 1 with previously unknown economic success.

The way the industry is set up in Senegal, even if youre selling tons of cassettes, you cant survive on that, explains Herson. Cassettes are manufactured for about a dollar, and sell for about a dollar-fifty. Unless the artists are tapping into the Western market, thats the only way theyre going to make any money, and the only way they have made any money. And were not even talking a lot of money; just enough to come home off the road and give their parents a little bit of dough, and maybe buy a new pair of sneakers.

At the very least, the release of African Underground, Vol 1: Hip-Hop Senegal will be responsible for putting a few more dollars in a mothers pocket, and a few more pairs of sneakers on a few more pairs of feet. But if the passion and purpose behind Nomadic Wax is any indication, Ben Herson and his artists might be on the verge of something far more lasting, and far more monumental.

updated: 11 years ago