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5 top Nigerian tunes that riff off global hits

By Olubunmi Familoni

Posted on August 12, 2023 04:46

Nigerian singer Banky W. (All rights reserved)
Nigerian singer Banky W. (All rights reserved)

For eons, Nigerian artists have been taking hits from the West, and twisting them till they pop afresh.

By ‘borrowing’ from another track, musicians can create an instantly recognisable tune, which can sometimes be even more popular than the original.

For a long time, most of the inspiration for contemporary Nigerian pop culture references in fashion, film or music have been derived from Western sources, often the US.

Despite the cultural asymmetry, the songs have become popular in their own right. Here are some of them:

1. ‘Bendel Girl in Lagos’ by Esse Agesse

This is one of the earliest examples of interpolation. It was released in 1991, when Bendel (Esse’s state of origin, referred to in the song) was divided into Edo and Delta States by the then military president, Ibrahim Babangida.

‘Bendel Girl’ in Lagos was the fourth track on the ‘A’ side of the Familiar Stranger album, which was released under the Sony Music (Nigeria) imprint. It interpolated Sting’s Englishman in New York, from the Police frontman’s 1988 album, … Nothing Like The Sun. 

From the opening lines of Sting’s song — I don’t drink coffee, I’ll take tea, my dear/ I like my toast done on one side— down to him walking down Fifth Avenue with a walking cane at his side in the second verse, it creates the impression of an alien asserting his cultural dominance in a foreign land.

This contrasts the inferiority complex that is often associated with culture shock, especially since the United States is superior to Nigeria in the context of global politics.

The song was originally inspired by the emigration travails of the English humorist Quentin Crisp. It also served as an emblem of resistance to American exceptionalism in various ways as well as some violent aspects of the country’s culture.

In the fourth verse, Sting sings that it “takes more than combat gear to make a man/ takes more than a licence for a gun” and “gentleness, sobriety are rare in this society” on the bridge.

Esse Agesse borrows the elongated notes of the horn at the beginning and middle of the original song. However, where the opening notes of the soprano saxophone on Sting’s track are almost subdued, Agesse’s (played by Sam Uquah Jnr.) are a sharp, distinct riff, which follow the same pattern.

Just as Sting had done, Agesse starts by talking about food, which is usually a major cultural marker. However, instead of drinking tea like Sting, she takes starch (a dish made from the starch residue of cassava in the process of making garri).

She then sings about her liking for her starch with banga soup (a combination very popular in the Bendel area, and the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria in general, among the Urhobos and Itsekiris).

Like Sting did in his first and second verses, she also sings about the distinction of her accent. This she does as she walks down Marina Road, a major commercial thoroughfare in Lagos Island, with her handbag by her side.

However, she leaves his third and fourth verses about violence and guns untouched, which highlights the urban similarities between New York and Lagos.

In the same year that Esse’s hit was released, Majek Fashek (another Bendel legend of the 80s) did something similar in his track ‘Majek Fashek in a New York’ after his first visit to the Big Apple. He drew parallels between Lagos and New York while expressing his disappointment with the living conditions in the city he used to think was “like heaven on earth”.

Agesse’s song ends with the same emphatic charge for originality as Sting’s: “Be yourself, no matter what they say.”

2. ‘Domitilla’ by Maintain

The first appearance of the name Domitilla in the Nigerian entertainment scene was in a 1996 Zeb Ejiro film.

Its eponymous heroine, played by Anne Njemanze, was a young lady moonlighting as a sex worker to supplement the pittance she earned from her office day job. This is how Domitilla became a pejorative reference to sex workers.

There was a legal battle in 2020 by Njemanze to trademark the name Domitilla, a move that was resisted by the film’s producer, Zeb Ejiro.

In 1997, a year after the release of the controversial film, Maintain (a group of three young men from Ibadan — Olu, Tolu and Big Bamo) leveraged on the film’s popularity. Using the same title, they composed an interpolation of the American rapper LL Cool J’s 1996 hit ‘Doin’ It’ from his sixth album, Mr. Smith.

‘Doin’ It’ is a raunchy song that doesn’t mask its intentions — it is interspersed with background moans as Cool J and LeShaun use the back-and-forth rap style to express sexual desire.

Their lines are interwoven like tangled limbs, culminating in LeShaun singing “I’m doin’ it, I’m doin’ it, I’m doin’ it well” in the chorus, evoking orgasmic imagery.

In their song, Maintain repetitively chant “Domitilla” in place of LL’s “doin’ it”. Another similar feature in the interpolation is the opening — they use the same piano notes in ‘Doin’ It’.

Interestingly, ‘Doin’ It’ is also an interpolation of another song — ‘Wild Thang’ by 2 Much, the music group that LeShaun was a part of.

3. ‘Ayangba girls’ by Black Reverendz 

The first single of the Black Reverendz duo of Shobb2 and Wesley was the largely unknown ‘Think Nigeria’, which was released in 1993. This was a significant year in the country’s political history as it is when the annulment of what is adjudged to be the ‘fairest election’ in the country took place.

However, Black Revrendz didn’t score a hit until 2000 when they released ‘Ayangba’ (popularly referred to as ‘Ayangba Girls Are Dangerous’, from the chorus). It was released under Sol Records, a label they had signed with since 1998. The song won them a Fame Music Award in 2001 as Song of the Year.

Ayangba interpolates Busta Rhymes’ 1997 hit single ‘Dangerous’, from his second album, When Disaster Strikes…. The percussion-dominant beat was composed by Rashad ‘Ringo’ Smith, the celebrated hip-hop and R&B producer who had also produced LL Cool J’s ‘Doin’ It’ in 1996.

The song maintains a modest 130 bpm tempo and is one of the few hits in which Busta doesn’t use his trademark ‘chopping’ style of rap with its rapid delivery. Instead, he goes for a more measured flow that matches the drum pattern in rhythm.

Black Reverendz employ a similar rap style, and even give Busta some sort of credit on the bridge: “Busta Rhymes dis na your remix yo, in our style yo”.

In the video, the duo also mimic Busta’s style of caricaturing himself, with exaggerated body movements and facial expressions.

The track became so popular that the term ‘Ayangba girls’ began to be used as a reference for girls perceived to be ‘gold diggers’ (as the end of each verse implied, “Dem just dey find your purse”).

At the end of the video, a group of scantily-clad warriors abduct the two rappers and take them by canoe to a riverine community. The rappers are then forced to put on a show for the villagers, an ending that borrows from the historical films popular in Nollywood at the time, such as Igodo (1999).

The chorus, “This is serious/ ayangba girls dem dangerous/ use ikebe collect your money by force”, is a warning against the wiles of the Ayangba girls. It is similar in tone to the 1980 public service announcement — which ‘Dangerous’ bases its chorus on – that warned children about the dangers of loose prescription medication.

Just like the other interpolations, the similarities are not restricted to lyrical content, as Ayangba opens with the same hi-hats sound as ‘Dangerous’ and imitates its distinct drum pattern.

4 – ‘Catch Cold’ by Maintain

In 2002, five years after interpolating LL Cool J’s ‘Doin It’, Maintain were back with another banger that borrowed from another successful hit by an American rapper. This time it was Ludacris’ ‘Area Codes’, a song from his 2001 album Word of Mouf.

Ludacris took on a pimp persona, documenting his pimping activities around the US (using telephone codes of major urban areas, 43 of them) and globally.

He lists all the places where he has had girls (almost similar in style to Jay Z’s ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’, where in the chorus Jigga sings: “I love girls, girls, girls, girls/ girls all over the globe”).

‘Area Codes’ has a hook — a simple rendition of “I got hoes in different area codes…”, which is sung by the late inimitable king of choruses, Nate Dogg. In Maintain’s ‘Catch Cold’, the hook becomes “I catch cold, a se party won fo” (“we threw a party, now they’re upset”).

5 – ‘Ebute Metta’ by Banky W

In 2008, after his return from the US, Banky W made his entrance into the Nigerian music industry with this song whose title is borrowed from a popular Lagos Mainland neighbourhood. It is a song about Nigerians excelling at whatever they do anywhere in the world.

The song opens with a rap verse, showcasing Banky’s rap persona (he had dabbled in rap earlier in his career in the US), which seems to be the only time that this side of him is seen in his music, which is mainly R&B.

Metta is sometimes referred to as ‘the Naija Umbrella remix’, because it interpolates Rihanna’s 2007 hit single, ‘Umbrella’.

It was a good choice because Umbrella was already a massive hit from the preceding year, winning a Grammy (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) and sitting at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven consecutive weeks.

Metta doesn’t just borrow from the tune of the original song, it opens with the same hi-hat and snare sounds as ‘Umbrella’.

In a bid to give the song a certain street appeal, in the video, shot by DJ Tee (one of the most prolific music video directors of that period), there is a cameo from Konga in its opening frames walking down a street.

The song was released under the record label Empire Mates Entertainment (EME) Music, which Banky W started while he was still in school in the US in 2002.

It is the same label that produced Wizkid, Skales and Niyola.

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