How To Make A Hit Song

Artists today will do anything to get that hit song in this crowded music space, but if one is observant enough, there may actually be a working formula for how to get hit songs. (and NO, its not being on whats trending that day, nothing could be further from the truth) Here is the formula; The reason the 1980’s were ‘music gold’ with the likes of Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan is because they were inspired by the 1960’s era of music even while using current writers of the day.

The reason 90’s Hip-Hop was so good is because they sampled ‘soul, funk & disco’ from the 60’s & 70’s (like music from the Isley Brothers). Wyclef Jean sampled from the 70’s to make hit songs for the Fugees in the 90’s, so did Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, and not forgetting successful female MC’s like ‘Da Brat’ who made a whole Album called ‘Funkdafied’ by sampling 70’s & 80’s Funk on the entire Album and in the process, making her the first solo female rapper to go platinum, she didn’t go with what was trendy in the 90’s, she went with what was trendy 20yrs before her in the 70’s, put her own spin on it and boom, a platinum record.

Recently Rolling Stones writer Christopher R. Weingarten wrote about Grammy Winner ‘Chance the Rapper’s’ Music (which Won ‘Best Rap Album of the Year’ for ‘Coloring Book’ at the just concluded Grammy Awards 2017) that, the gospel choirs were the foundation of the mixtape’s music, functioning in the same way disco interpolations had worked on the earliest rap records, the same way James Brown rhythms had worked for Public Enemy, and the same way soul samples had worked for Kanye West.

Almost all Dr. Dre’s samples were from the 1970’s and yet he was appealing to teenagers & twenty-somethings in the 1990’s. And despite what you saw in “Straight Outta Campton”, Dr. Dre did not create that “Nothing But a G Thang” beat from scratch. In what is arguably one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, Dr. Dre massively samples off Leon Haywood’s 1975 classic ‘I Want’a Do Something Freaky To You’. Here it is…the Leon Haywood song.

And the reason the 2000’s-2010’s should have been good (translated: ‘SUCKED’) was because they refused to sample from the 1980’s (which would have been a natural nostalgic progression from the 1970’s) but they chose to go with what was “trending”, explaining all the bubblegum pop that came out during this period.

There were certain exceptions though, with a few brave producers like Kanye West and his break out hit ‘Through the Wire’ in which he samples Chaka Khan’s 1984 classic “Through the Fire” or where Rapper Cam’Ron samples Lionel Richie’s (The Commodores) 1977 classic  “Easy…Like Sunday Morning” for his 2002 runaway hit single “Hey Ma”. Even Jay-Z and Kanye’s 2011 hit ‘Otis’ is a remake of the 1966 classic “Try a Little Tenderness” by ‘Otis Redding’.

‘Through the Wire’ by Kanye West (2004)

‘Through the Fire’ by Chaka Khan (1984)

The 1966 classic ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ by Otis Redding

Now, the reason the 2010s-2020s+ should be good for you (the Ugandan Musician) is because you should (now) be sampling from the 1990’s and early 2000’s to make hit songs. And here is where UG comes in. Uganda actually has lots of 90’s music you can find to sample from…Steve Jean, Sematimba, Shanks Vividi, Chameleone and hit song writers like Tempra Omona, there are Kadongo Kamu songs, Folk songs, Gospel music songs etc.

Everyone Remembers this Zouk inspired Hit ‘NEN AWENE’ by Gulu-Based Artiste Tempra Omona that took over the airwaves in 2001.

Here is Tempra & GNL Zamba in the more recent release IMARA

It’s also important to note that the Ugandan music industry is out of sync with the music industry in say the U.S.A (which is a very mature industry) and that’s why its a dangerous thing to try and copy whats trending elsewhere internationally because it will be out of sync with the fans here who you’re trying to sell your music to (even if it sounds like a hit song). Ugandans would be hard pressed to find Ugandan music from the 60’s and 70’s here, the industry here is still very young and so everything should be taken in stride.

Swangz Avenue knew this (or learned it) when it decided to move Irene Ntale from performing alternative rock music that she loved (when she was singing lead with the UnEven Rock Band before she was signed to Swangz Ave as we reported in 2010 and again performing her alternative rock at Club Rouge with the UnEven Band in 2011) to performing Afrobeat which Ntale admits she didn’t initially want to do. But it was what the fans loved to listen to and once she got the hang of it, she loved it too and thus a star was born.

Same thing with Juliana Kanyomozi who has always wanted to perform love ballads in english just like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey but the music didn’t connect with the fans until she did ‘Mama Mbire’ with Bobi Wine which instantly connected with the fans, so much so that it compelled her to do ‘Nabikoowa’ and alas a Ugandan superstar was born. She can now use this ‘superstardom’ to propel her to do the kind of hits she has always wanted to do including ones that connect with the fans even more.

I still can’t believe no Ugandan Hip Hop artist has yet made a hit song by sampling from say Philly Bongole Lutaaya’s Christmas Album and yet that album still outsells any new album during the month of December every year.

Simply put, when you upgrade the production, capture the nostalgia, add your flavor and writing to it and make it new for today, you have a hit on your hands. That’s how hits are made, if you want to get on the radio and stay there for weeks or months, you have to do that. The other new “trial music stuff” can go onto the album as the hit song carries it along. Its easier to market something brand new when you already have a nostalgic hit.

GNL Zamba did it with the Elly Wamala sample of “Ani Yali Amanyi” and to this day its still one of his biggest hits (plus its one of UPC President Jimmy Akena’s favorite Ugandan hits). Navio did it with “Nawuliranga” and “Leka Kwenyumiriza” which both sample music from the 1960’s (he didn’t quite target his audience of 20-somethings well but the songs still worked).

This is one of the major reasons “BAX” or “Bakisimba” is finding its way back into Ugandan music today in form of Bax-ragga, Bax-pop etc…this is because every Ugandan kid danced to Bakisimba at one point in their school life and that is where the nostalgia comes from.

And that’s why (a dancehall artist) Bebe Cool with ‘Kabulengane’, (an afropop artist) Winnie Nwagi with ‘Kano Koze’ and (a hip hop artist) Navio with ‘Njogereza’ are doing so well performing “BAX” within their respective genres. None of these hits is an “accident”, there is a formula (its almost mathematical) and these artists know it and see it. Its called “a hint of nostalgia”.

For good effect though, the sample can’t be more than 30yrs old unless you’re sure everyone knows it (like ‘Bakisimba’ from Buganda or ‘Larakaraka’ from Gulu) or has at least listened to it at one point (I should add here that Ugandan musicians actually have fantastic congolese music to sample from as well, as every Ugandan knows, they listened to Lingala music in the house growing up in the 80’s & 90’s when UG music was hard to come by and yet thats something Ugandan musicians have still ignored).

Heck, I can’t get enough of Kofi Olomide’s 2015 Hit “Ekotite” (Selfie Song) all because I grew up listening to his music and it sounds so familiar and brings back all these childhood memories, I love it and yes I play it more than a lot of the Ugandan music around me (Fact).

Here is GNL Zamba’s Elly Wamala song “Ani Yali Amanyi”:

And here is the Original: “Ani Yali Amanyi” by Elly Wamala

Here is the logic…If you’re trying to sell music to teenagers and twenty something year-olds, you have to sample nostalgic music from when they were kids, its the hit music their parents used to listen to around the house (that would be when their parents where in their 30’s and 40’s and when the kids were between 4-12yrs, so basically primary school).

So for a Kanye West “College Dropout” Album to be successful in 2004, he had to sample a Chaka Khan from the 1980’s (when he was a kid) to make music a college kid would buy in 2004, get it. And their parents would recognise the sample too as a song they loved as well.
That’s how it works, thats how nostalgia works, and you can’t wish nostalgia away just because you have new music you want to bring out to the public.

Why do you think the best standup comedians always have funny nostalgic stories from when they where kids…because nostalgia sells, you think Air Jordans sell because they are good shoes, its an emotional purchase and thats why I still can’t understand why there is no Akii Bua Athletics wear on the Ugandan market today.

Everything Akii Bua and athletics would sell, from running shoes, gym shoes, track suits, t-shirts to freakin’ yoga pants would sell. But back to the music…whichever way you slice it, nothing is more certain than an “emotional purchase”. I leave you now with these Ugandans in Dubai enjoying a performance by Steve Jean (in January 2017 by the way) of his early 2000 hit song ‘Mwana gwe Wanema’ and the Bax-pop/Bax-ragga hit from Bebe cool “Kabulengane”…like I said “Nothing beats that Nostalgia”.

“Bax-pop” hit ‘Kabulengane’ by Bebe Cool

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