Endlessly Round and Round: Karen KG Nyame's Musical Cycles
Karen Nyame wasn't like the other kids. "When all the girls were singing along to R&B," the Londoner remembers, "my ears would be way deep in the mist of the production. I'd be isolating certain instruments and rhythmic patterns." She'd grown up exposed to a heady mix of highlife, Motown, reggae and soft rock ballads from her Ghanaian parents, but as soon as the golden age of electronically-enhanced R&B – and the holy trinity of producers, Timbaland, Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins and Pharrell Williams' Neptunes in particular – dawned, her obsession intensified.
"Every song, I'd be like, 'yo, what's that shaker doing?'," she says. "Not just that, but Timbaland would take it completely beyond anything standard. He'd sample a baby crying, he'd sample music from all over the world, he was focused on rhythm and percussion and grooves and complex polyrhythms within a standard hip-hop beat. I thought, ‘Whatever he's doing, that's what I want to do'. I made sure I learned drums in school, as part of the steel band, so I could understand rhythm better." She was programming beats on music software from the age of eight.
It paid dividends: Nyame is now one of the most advanced producers in British dance music, her own drum sounds as uniquely crisp and intriguing as those of her heroes. But it hasn't been an easy ride. She got some attention while studying broadcast journalism at university in Nottingham in the mid- to late Noughts. Her tracks in the then new "UK funky" style were up there with the best of the genre, but never progressed beyond free releases online. Facing "much opposition, being a black woman" on the underground scene, she grew exhausted with fighting to be heard while people with a tenth of her productivity leapfrogged into DJ careers and took several steps back from the scene.
She never stopped honing her craft, though, and when she returned to the fray – first with a 2018 release of two of her tracks from 2007, then with an accelerating series of new collaborations – her fully mature sound started making serious waves. As highlighted on her new Sensei II EP, she is now able to navigate between UK, South and West African, Caribbean rhythms, and of course, her beloved American R&B with masterful ease. To celebrate her finally getting the recognition she deserves, we asked her to talk through some of the various music styles she loves with examples from her own work.
Original UK Funky: KG solo
Funky was the sound of British cities in the second half of the Noughties – the mix of percussive house music with the directness of grime and huge bass tones could be heard out of every car!
KN: "I loved UK garage and grime when I was a kid. I never really saw it as separate from R&B even – it was just our more uptempo version in a lot of ways. I made garage beats but I never mastered the production style. But when funky came along when I was at university, I felt like it was a new version of the same vibe: an uptempo presentation of R&B, with a bit of broken beat era influence, bits of soulful Afro-house, this rich combination of vibes. Hearing Donae'o, Crazy Cousinz, Perempay, and seeing the wild reaction they got in the club scene, I just thought, 'Whatever this is, I want to be part of it! I think I can do this quite well...'"
New UK Funky: Scratchclart
Although it peaked and then fell from ubiquity in the early 2010s as resurgent grime, Afrobeats, tech house and other sounds vied for position, funky has remained as a vital flavour within the UK's underground vocabulary – and when she returned to releasing regularly, Nyame was determined to show just how sophisticated it could be. One of her first big releases was on the key experimental imprint Hyperdub, in partnership with Leon Smart (aka Scratcha DVA aka Scratchclart), a producer who has made grime, funky, experimental electronica, and a whole lot more besides.
"Now funky has many more hybrid versions: people kept saying that it had died, but it never did, it was just forming these hybrids and variants, hiding in different places. But even back then in the original days, there were a lot of guys from that era – the Night Slugs guys, Bok Bok and Lvis1990 – floating around the more alternative electronic area who I considered as influences. Scratcha and Cooly G were examples too, who were more than just one thing. Coming back decades later, and having the opportunity to DJ or work with those individuals has been great – especially Scratcha, because you can't pigeonhole him. He can do any style he turns his hand to, and do it well!"
Pop / Dance: Shingai
Another Black woman undervalued by the industry and now impressively forging her own way is former frontwoman of rock band Noisettes, Shingai Shoniwa. Her vocal for Dennis Ferrer's mainstream house hit "Hey Hey" only ever earned her a pittance, so for her Too Bold album last year she created a new version with Nyame.
"So apparently Shingai was looking around for some more female collaborators for this project. I knew she'd been aware of my track 'Obsession' because she'd added it to a YouTube playlist, but then my girl Cherie C called up and said 'Shingai wants to work with you.' We met, and the magic started building a connection from then onwards. I've always felt that I've got the production capabilities to go down the mainstream route if I wanted to. Right now I'm enjoying the underground so much, but doing this was an indication of... wow, with the right vocalist, absolutely I could take it there and build something huge. I'd love to do a big room house record one day with the House Gospel Choir in the background!"
Jersey Club: UNIIQU3
"Club" music in the US gives the lie to the idea of a divide between "urban" and "dance" music: with individual variations in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Jersey, as well as the "ballroom house" of NYC's LGBTQ+ clubs, it is an endlessly exploratory and energetic area. On this double-track release, Nyame collaborated with Newark, NJ talent UNIIQU3.
"I had some really good friends in New York and LA, who'd put me on to 'B-more' scene. Eventually I got in touch with UNIIQU3 and she put me onto artists like Cookie Kawaii and TT The Artist and all these dope Jersey DJ/producers. And what I love is that these are scenes: they come with a lifestyle, they totally belong to the city, they have their own dance style, their own clothes, their own lingo. I think it's so important that dance – real dance – isn't separate from a sound. In our communities, that really is what culture is and how it's expressed, and each individual musical style reflects that. Working with UNIIQU3 was great to help me expand my understanding but it really felt like London meeting Jersey on that level too."
UK Garage / R&B: Swing Ting feat. Thai Chi Rosé
Nyame's remix of the Manchester crew Swing Ting was a return to her roots. The original fused Jamaican dancehall rhythms with soul, but she made it sound like an ultra-finessed version of UK garage bootlegs of American R&B tunes: with shuffling beats, chopped up vocals and a good-time shuffle.
"Swing Ting! I love that collective. I remember Balraj [Samrai] from there had played one of my tracks in a Mixmag magazine, we'd started talking from there. I'd already wanted to work with [singer] Thai Chi Rosé and the guys had her on their album so when they wanted remixes they thought it'd be a good opportunity for me to flip one of her vocals. The released remix is my third attempt, the others had different drums and that harpsichord wasn't as pronounced. But I was having a conversation about Darkchild on Twitter, sharing old R&B tracks, remembering how much of a beast Darkchild was when he produced 'Holla' for the Spice Girls – and I thought, ‘Let me go back into that mix and turn that up.' I listened to the Spice Girls all of that evening, then thought to bring out the harpsichord, and that's how that went out!"
Afrobeats: Mista Silva
"Afrobeats" is an incredibly broad catch-all term, coined in the early 2010s (along with others like "Afroswing" and "Afro-bashment") to gather the high tech pop and dance of, mainly, Nigeria and Ghana. But this has diversified among diaspora populations too, producing local variants especially in the UK. But this has diversified among diaspora populations too, producing local variants especially in the UK. Nyame’s “Koko” is a collaboration with fellow Ghanaian-British artist Mista Silva singing and rapping in English and Twi languages.
" Music just goes endlessly round and round and round, and it's reworked and interpolated in so many ways. I think 2020 was the year for the deeper listen, because we've been outside of clubs, so I was all up in my feelings with alternative R&B, future R&B and Afro-alt. When amapiano came along, I started to build the framework of 'Koko'. It's a mesh of South African amapiano and Ghanaian highlife with the guitars and stuff. I've known Mista Silva for decades, and we talked about working together way back, but I was on my way out of the industry and it didn't work out, but I'd said to him, 'I'm going to come back for you when I've got there!'. Finally, when I played the 'Koko' rhythm back and listened with a consumer's ears, I knew he was the one for it... and here we are! I do want to do more Afrobeats leaning stuff now, as it feels good being really rooted in my Ghanaian background. Even my older relatives really see that in what I do."
Afro-Alternative: Toya Delazy and Aymos
As African cities and towns become exponentially more connected, new sounds and styles proliferate at a dizzying rate. And so too are maverick artists like London-based, South African producer, singer and rapper, Toya Delazy. The granddaughter of the Apartheid-era leader Chief Buthelezi, Delazy has explosively escaped the pressures of tradition while at the same time paying tribute to her ancestry and the brilliant expression of the Zulu language. Back in South Africa, the 24-year-old Amos Babili Shili has become one of the chief voices of the fast growing elegant South African deep house sound of amapiano.
"With Toya, I was on a music panel for WOMEX 2019, and one of Toya's mentors showed me the video and I went, 'Who is that?'. It felt so bizarre making this connection in Finland. So I started playing her records, then connected, we became really good friends. And when it finally came to this EP, which I really intended as a new chapter, an introduction to KG as a grown woman in music – I thought she needed to feature on this project. Same with Aymos; he's known as the prince of amapiano, but really, he's a unique personality. It is such an exciting time because these sounds and unique artists that are now coming out of the African continent make our dance music so much more interesting! The masses are really ready for something that is more than a simple four-on-the-floor beat, and these sounds can thrive now there's ears on the continent."
Cover Image: Sense II EP/Maxime Manga Giselle Ali
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs