Nairobi — On an early Monday morning, I am walking down Nairobi's South B Estate - Guthera Lane - the posh hood which is home to the celebrated Ogopa DJs.
Two uniformed guards manning the serene compound usher me into the Ogopa studios and as the steel door open wide, I am welcomed by the riveting sound of Collo's new release, Gal Like You, which is just part of what the stable has been brushing and fine tuning over the past few months.
At the studio's reception stands a huge masterpiece painting of the late talented rapper, E-Sir. It has been years now since the premature death of E-Sir but this picture - branded with his trademark red headscarf and a T-shirt bearing the Ogopa emblem - seems to rekindle all the great memories of the Boomba sensation.
"Kapuka has been here for a while now. It's been long since E-Sir's demise," I reminisce as I settle down for my interview with Lucas Bukedo, the hooded face behind Ogopa DJs, a pioneer stable in the industry.
The studio is synonymous with almost all the leading names of East Africa's big artistes, including the late E-Sir, Nameless, Big Pin, Bebe Cool, Chameleone, the Longombas, Wahu, Redsan, Amani, Mr Googs and Vinnie Banton, Deux Vultures, Kleptomaniax, Mr Lenny and the late K-rupt. Even the disintegrated sensational girl group, Tattuu, was part of the Ogopa team.
Their unique, captivating youthful Kapuka beat - a style of Kenyan music which fuses modern hip hop and dancehall, influenced by African drums and rhythms - got them into the local showbiz limelight in the mid-1990s and took the regional entertainment scene by storm. Within a short while, Ogopa DJs became the most sought after recording stable in East Africa.
It was all born out of a well-choreographed move. As Kenya's Redsan, Wahu, Nameless and E-Sir took over the showbiz scene in the country with the Kapuka (also referred to as Boomba beat) style, Chameleone and Bebe Cool were causing a stir in Uganda's showbiz industry as their Ogopa-recorded songs ruled the charts. Then there was AY completing the regional picture as Tanzanians went crazy with an Ogopa-credited hit song.
Their phenomenal rise to stardom was, however, followed by a steady downfall as new players joined the lucrative industry.
"When we formed the Ogopa record stable in the early 1990s, our motto was to create employment for young, talented musicians. Working against all odds, we chose to create a new showbiz wave," says Lucas.
"For us, joining the showbiz industry was neither a hobby nor a money-minting endeavour. After all, we were famed DJs, making good cash and a living from spinning in clubs and having a lucrative contract with the Homeboyz, who were the only existing formidable showbiz group in Nairobi back then. Starting Ogopa was a call. We were out to bring a showbiz revolution not only in Kenya but also all over Africa," he adds.
In their strategy to take over the music scene, Lucas notes that they chose to work with a few artistes who they believed were talented. They wanted a group they could manage and help in producing competitive music. Their idea was to set a benchmark, a standard which could be emulated by others.
" E-sir, K-rupt, and Wicky Mosh were great stars. E-sir, for example, was the pacesetter behind the whole revolution. We will never forget him and the other fallen stars," Lucas adds.
And even as songs like Nameless' chartbuster, Megarider, and the late E-Sir's Leo ni Leo run-way single and album, Nimefika, swept the charts and won the annual Kisima and CHAT awards in 2003, the faces behind the great art work - Lucas and Francis - remained a mystery. The two brothers, who double as the Ogopa DJs CEOs, remained behind the curtains. Their magnificent work was all they wanted people so see.
"We have never wanted people to know who we are as they would start to idolise us by calling us celebs. You see, the whole thing should not be about us but about the people we make. That is what gives us fulfillment. It's all about achieving and not showing off in showbiz TV programmes or magazines bragging on what we have done for the industry. We just want the world to see us through the artistes' eyes, so our faces are not important," explains Lucas, warning me to put my camera off as he takes me down Ogopa's memory lane, which reads like a tale of mixed fortunes.
"It has been years now and we have diversified. It has been quite a journey. Sometimes we missed the way and failed but we managed to rise again. It's been a learning process although sometimes it is bitter to contain. But we know that success does not come without challenges," admits the Ogopa DJs CEO.
He says they have since moved to Namibia and South Africa where their off-shoot, the Ogopa Butterfly label, is working with leading groups such as Channel O nominees Gal Level, Kalaharis, Snazzy and The Angels.
"We are still keeping real our pioneer project of recording songs and shooting videos. We are expanding our horizons day after day," notes Lucas.
Even though the Ogopa DJs have worked to remain relevant in the local showbiz industry by winning accolades in various awards through songs recorded in the studio, it appears their influence is waning.
It is no secret that their pioneer artistes such as Nameless, Kleptomaniax, Wahu, Big Pin and Deux Vultures are no longer signed with the outfit. Competition has come in the form of Calif Records with a new Genge beat, Ketebul Studios and Tedd Josiah's Blu Zebra.
As these outfits grabbed headlines and attracted a fresh brand of talented artistes, Ogopa DJs were caught up in a tricky situation as their signed artistes began looking elsewhere. The artistes wanted to have a variety of styles in their albums so as to cope up with the soaring competition and widening market and Ogopa was no longer getting the hype.
"It's true that those pioneer artistes are no longer signed with us. I'm talking about guys like Nameless and Wahu, as well as Redsan who have since been working with a number of other producers to add flavour to their music. Even though it may look like a big blow to us, we are contented with what they have achieved through us. We discovered them and we have every reason to be proud of them," says Lucas, confirming that out of that pioneer signed group only Amani has resisted the exodus.
"Amani is still signed under us. The rest have charted their way forward. We are now working with a new lease of artistes who we have been coaching for quite sometime now. We have new big voices coming up from Ogopa DJs. You better be ready for the next big thing," he affirms, mentioning names like Kenzo, Trapee, Alpha, Brenda and Kenyanna.
He appreciates the importance of competition in any industry and says the coming up of various record stables is a sign that the industry is growing and the market is expanding. Lucas claims they are not scared of the upcoming studios because Ogopa is doing its part in the game.
"We like what Clemo is doing. We give thumbs up to what Jomino records are doing. In fact, they let us shoot Kenrazy's (Aketch Oluoch) video for the new Tichi hit song. As much as we are in competition, we are one. Entertainment is quite a big industry and we all need each other. In fact the infiltration of Tanzania's Bongo Flava music we are seeing in Kenya is a clear indication that we don't even have enough to meet the desire of our local fans," he claims.
"I have heard people saying that they have beef with us - some of which has gone on record through the media. We have no problem with Genge or Banjuka. If any one wants to fight you, the best thing is to ignore them and go on with your job. That is how you portray your maturity. After all, anyone fighting you is always limited in ideas on how to become better than you," Lucas says, brushing off the Kapuka-Genge beef.
Lucas says they have gone continental and are branching out into producing videos and documentaries, besides showbiz promotions and adverts.
While Banda, the Ogopa DJs manager, remains the group's man in Kenya, he has been fundamental in promoting and marketing Ogopa-inclined groups, both in Africa and the United States where the outfit has been organising annual concerts.
"We are taking South Africa by storm. You will be surprised to know that the Kapuka beat is big in Namibia. The clubs are playing all the new songs by Nameless, Amani, the Longombas and many other artistes that we have been producing.
"Gal Level and Kalaharis are among the groups we have been working with here. In a span of two years in Namibia, we have made history by making them the first Namibian groups to be nominated in the continental Channel O Awards. These are no mean achievements," says Suleiman Kayababa, the Uganda-born Ogopa Butterfly manager who is overseeing the stable's success in Namibia alongside former radio presenter-cum-actress, Pierra Makena.
The other players in the Ogopa DJs dynasty include Alfred Ngachi, who does the video recording, and Philip Makanda, the power behind the audio sounds.
"We are working on improving the quality of production in Africa as well as promoting different groups throughout the regions. As we sell Amani in South Africa, we are looking forward to marketing groups like the Gal Level in East Africa, among others. It's a sort of an integrated programme that builds on making Africa a formidable force in the showbiz industry. We are creating our own market to compete with the world," says Ogopa's Makena, who is already organising an East African tour for the sensational Namibian group, Gal Level.
According to Lucas, the move to the south was not catalysed by the competitive nature of the current showbiz industry in the region but was rather a timely move to capture new markets in a land that created opportunities for them.
"The opportunity had been beckoning at us for years. We had been bracing ourselves for months before we took the challenge. We now have good links with Channel O and MTV through our works and we believe that through such ties we will be able to make Africa one small village in terms of showbiz," concludes Lucas.