This prescient reissue delivers a crucial set of Nigerian songs that show the country absorbing and beaming back singular versions of disco, boogie, electro, and early rap.
When Nigerian soldiers stormed Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic on February 18, 1977, they not only burned the compound to the ground, imprisoned Kuti, and threw his mother out of a window (she would later die from the injuries), but also altered the course of Nigerian music. For most of the decade, Fela’s Afrobeat ruled the country. But in the wake of this raid that placed the genre’s fiercest proponent behind bars, bands started to look away from the heavy percussion and politically conscious themes of Afrobeat and Afrocentric rock. Their ears instead turned more towards what was happening in the U.S.
Waves of reissues from the motherland act as a mirror darkly. Look for the roots of the blues or guitar heroes, and the likes of Ali Farka Touré and King Sunny Adé get introduced to the West. Fervor for muscular funk at the turn of the century led to a Fela renaissance and the awesome Nigeria 70 set. Now, as people obsess over the likes of William Onyeabor, the post-disco sound of boogie, as well as rubbery Reagan era synth-pop, the Soundways label presents Doing It in Lagos: Boogie Pop & Disco in 1980s Nigeria. It is as prescient a reissue as can be hoped for, delivering a crucial set of songs that show the country absorbing and beaming back singular versions of disco, boogie, electro, and early rap.
The title track comes courtesy of Hotline, who make a falsetto boast of “We are fearless/Don’t get near us” as the bass pops, tasers get triggered, and UFOs wobble all around it. Closer to Cameo and Parliament’s cartoonish cosmic funk than Fela’s Afrobeat, it’s loose-limbed and woozy enough to anticipate the sound of New Amerykah Part One. “Don’t Give Up” has the stop-start punk-funk feel of A Certain Ratio, with popping bass and dub effects that flare up at unexpected intervals. Lexy Mella’s “On the Air” programs the drum machine in such a way that it anticipates the skeletal groove of “Sign O’ the Times.”
A handful of Doing It in Lagos’ tracks—including the incessant, itchy wiggle of “Holiday Action,” the metallophone-laced slink of Terry Mackson’s “Distant Lover,” and the taut yet silken moves of Peter Abdul’s “Don’t You Know”—could be mistaken for sides of such early ’80s dance labels as Tabu, SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records), and Salsoul. This is no coincidence, as the liner notes explain, for these imprints were widely popular in the country. So much, in fact, that SOLAR opened a branch office in Lagos and modern soul bands like Shalamar, Skyy, and Rafael Cameron performed before packed crowds in Nigeria.
Some of the tracks emulate that surface slickness and clichés of the era, chanting about getting funky, having disco fever, dancing all night, and shaking your body. But listen closer and that same sense of power that Fela inspired in his countrymen comes across. Odion Iruoje’s “Identify With Your Root” conveys a message about heritage and pan-African pride delivered with a patter lifted from the Sugarhill Gang. He shouts out countries and adds that, no matter where you are in the world, “you’re still an African.”
And then there’s the undeniable ear candy of Oby Onyioha’s “Enjoy Your Life.” Set atop a gurgling, flanged-out boogie bass—with strings and horns added to the mix for good measure—Onyioha’s sweet styling brings to mind the likes of Teena Marie and Chaka Khan. “Have a ball/Baby it’s your life,” she purrs, “It’s no sin to enjoy your life… Get your chance now/Before you find it’s too late.” Onyioha conveys a sense of female empowerment with total joy. It might be the most honeyed iteration of carpe diem to be had on a Nigerian pop song, even if it isn’t delivered with the type of force that Fela wielded.