They say imitation is the best form of flattery; no one has flattered Modenine by imitating his style.
Modenine is the poster boy for gritty, hardcore hip hop that is a seemingly lost art in Nigerian music these days. It’s not hard to see why: he is the most lyrically proficient emcee to ever bless the mic on this side of the Sahara – and I daresay, on the entire African continent.
For nearly two decades, he has dazed fans and critics with his ability to string together words into punchline after punchline, track after track and album after album- five of them in total, along with several mixtapes. He has proven to be a clever wordsmith, often spitting rhymes that practically fly over the listeners’ heads.
And that exactly, is the problem: for too long, fans have confused Modo’s conviction that there is only one way to approach the hip hop game – his alone, for genius. Nothing can be farther from the truth. His lyricism and wordplay notwithstanding, Modenine has fallen just short of achieving true greatness. I will attempt to share why.
Firstly, hip hop is not Nigerian. Like many of our sounds, it is an imported craft that we assimilated and learned how to do. From the streets of Bronx, a new way of lacing lyrics on beats emerged in the late 1970’s and caught on like wild fire. That was the first time this sound was heard anywhere in the world and by the following decade, had become a worldwide phenomenon heard from New York to New Bussa.
Some people refer to that era as the golden age of hip hop when this new music captivated the world. By the early ’90s, it had reached Nigerian shores and struck a chord with the youth population. The duo of Junior and Pretty are regarded as the first hip hop practitioners to ever come out of Nigeria and while they were funny – largely because of their witty storytelling – their artistry only lasted a couple of years as fuji and juju music commanded the airwaves.
It would take almost another decade of constant exposure to American hip hop and pop culture via increasing satellite television availability and urban radio for the genre to take off in Nigeria. By the end of the 1990’s, our Americanism was complete – via MTV Awards, NBA basketball and AIT.
That was about the time Modenine cut his teeth on wax, having been influenced by KRS One, Kurtis Blow et al. It is no coincidence that after all these years, he still sounds like these greats, in delivery and an aversion to ‘materialism’.
Where KRS One spits, ‘Me, I got no jewels on my neck/ Why, I don’t need them, I already got your respect!‘, Modo says on his guest verse on American rapper Awkword’s ‘I am‘, ‘Got no endorsement, no sponsorship/ They want a song about a silly dance, a monster hit/ I ain’t got that, but I got bars to make you back flip…‘
All of that is a nice sentiment, but not entirely feasible. For all the puritan approach to this music genre, it is still something that is not native to Nigerian and as such, is most successful when it is Nigerianized.
Fela, Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, Roy Chicago and the rest of the highlife legends had to fuse their jazz influences with heavy African sounds to give it acceptance within the populace.
Which is Mode’s second issue: he’s making music that nobody actually demands or wants. It is a cardinal rule of hip hop that your lyrics match your realities and that of the audience.
When NWA made ‘Fuck Tha Police’, it was them telling of their struggles in the inner cities of urban America. Why it resonated well with their audience was because it matched their own issues!
So when Modenine spits ‘Your girl looking like she would like a bang/ I max hardcore the hoochie and pass her to a biker gang’, it doesn’t connect with a lot of people.
And it’s simply not reflecting of the man’s reality. Bike gang, shmiker gang. (I have hidden something here. I’m buying drinks for the first five Modenine fans that can decode what it is and prove its relevance – or lack thereof – to the Nigerian audience.)
Modenine’s fan base is quite small and it’s not necessarily because the larger audience is unsophisticated- it is because the rapper’s lines are simply not resonating with them. People who still hold Mode in high esteem only do that for sentimental reasons, not because they belong to an elite group where ‘real rap’ is only decoded by wearing Tidal headphones handed over at admittance into the Julliard hip hop faculty. (No such thing exists by the way).
For many fans (this writer inclusive), E Pluribus Unum is Modenine’s best body of work. Of course, it didn’t have any ‘club bangers’; that’s not his modus operandi. The subject matter was stuff that regular Nigerians could relate to.
The lyricism was impeccable and the broad spectrum of everyday issues on the album, ranging from the sad ‘Cry‘ to the humourous ‘Nigerian Girls‘, placed it in classic realm and even earned him the grudging respect of his erstwhile foe, Ruggedman, who inadvertently admitted as much in a very vitriolic interview he gave at the peak of their beef.
It had an unprecedented effect on Mode’s career and saw him win something else apart from the customary Lyricist on The Roll at HipHopWorld Awards- his three Channel O Awards.
Perhaps Modenine’s greatest undoing, and a gaping chink in his otherwise gleaming armour, is his inability – or worse blatant refusal – to adapt and evolve.
Hip hop by its nature is fluid and continuously changing. The art form has always undergone several changes and evolution to keep up with contemporary times.
The genre has evolved from the early practitioners such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, to the ’80s takeover by the likes of RUN DMC and LL Cool J, to the mainstream success of the ’90s.
At the advent of each new era, those who refused to adapt to the changing sounds and realities got left behind, even though they would claim to be ‘hip hop purists’. The proponents of modern hip hop understood the importance of mainstream success and acted accordingly.
Jay Z, unarguably the best rapper alive right now, put himself on blast on ‘Moment of Clarity’ (2003): I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/ They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”/ If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli/ Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/ But I did 5 mill’ – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since/ When your cents got that much in common/ And you been hustling since your inception/ Fuck perception! Go with what makes sense. (Emphasis mine.)
Jay Z is by no means a mere sellout; his lyricism is legendary as is his pragmatic business decisions and his influence on pop culture, more powerfully than the progenitors of the genre.
‘Go with what makes sense’ could as well be inscribed onto every rapper’s palms. The simple yet effective mantra is what transformed Jay Z from Jazzy O’s protégé to the most powerful individual in hip hop. To attain this level, he had to adapt to what was practical.
That practicality, which showed briefly on the aforementioned E Pluribus Unum, has eluded Modenine since. It is not his fault that the audience wants music delivered in a certain away, but it takes away from his accomplishment that for all his brilliance, he cannot find a way to merge commercial success with his famed lyricism.
And don’t you dare tell me commercial success isn’t important to him; he keeps complaining about how he’s doing dope stuff and nobody cares. In addition, please do not delude yourself that any artiste will take time to create a body of work for purely altruistic reasons. He wants to earn from it. He deserves to. That’s why the fallacy of Modenine not caring about commercial success is just that – a fallacy. He desires it. He just doesn’t know how to.
Modenine has not achieved mainstream success like Jay Z, neither has he had any major influence on the Nigerian music scene, like Rakim and Eric B has had on their culture, or even like Don Jazzy in shaping Nigerian urban music.
They say imitation is the best form of flattery; no one has flattered Modenine by imitating his style. The audience doesn’t hate him; the audience just doesn’t get him like it gets other pop acts. We might slate them as not being pure hip hop heads, but they are the ones determining the Nigerian sound that is now being accepted world over, not a career-long underdog.
At 41 years old and on his fifth studio album, there’s no reason Modenine should still be the ‘Underground King’ he referenced on Alphabetical Order (2013) – and remixes on his new album Insulin.
All of this is not to say that Modenine isn’t a great lyricist, of course he is. But he is not the greatest Nigerian rapper. Lyricism is not enough to bestow that title on him. Complex rhyme structures and verbal gymnastics do nothing but impress the audience; it fails to carry them along and have them carry his brand aloft in their hearts and omnipresent mobile devices.
Ultimately, it serves no purpose if it has no identity or similarity with the actualities of listeners. That has been Modenine’s curse: his skill-set is an orphan in an environment that screams loudly for something entirely different. He wants to be the last Mohican, a shining beacon of dedication to pure ways of making hip hop. Only he is standing in the way of this happening. True greatness ought to know when to stoop to conquer. Modenine does not.
There’s a reason newspapers are written in simple sentences that an elementary school student can understand. Even as Professor Wole Soyinka wrote the almost incomprehensible The Interpreters and The Bacchae of Euripides, simpler works such as The Jero Plays and The Lion and The Jewel have gone farther than the former in elevating the man into Apollo status.
In music – be it hip hop, jazz or apala – a combination of commercial and critical success is too important to not be a factor to consider. Mode’s fans know that. And that’s why they get angry when this ‘greatness’ is called into question. It doesn’t exist on the figures on album sales or concert appearances (I’ve left out the pesky corporate sponsorships and endorsements), and it certainly doesn’t exist in the form of any notable mark on Nigerian hip hop.
Olusegun Babatunde’s greatest-ness exists only in the minds of his ever shrinking fan base, who cannot fill up Freedom Park if the man were brave enough to stage a Modenine concert there.
Now we could juxtapose him with a certain M.I Abaga and this entire conversation will change …
Jidé Taiwo is a Lagos based writer and journalist. He tweets via @thejidetaiwo.
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