Reggie Rockstone cracks a generous nostalgic smile.
“Who would have ever thought that these same words that I spoke in ’93, ’94 would become as is today?” his voice a sprightly upspeak.
The famous words? “Nightlife in Accra.” I have invited the hiplife leader to juxtapose between the city’s nocturnal scenes during the early 90s—when he released his popular soundtrack to Ghana’s capital—and what the situation is today.
Sporting a neat grey beard, Rockstone cuts a sexy grandpa look, his eyes concealed behind sunglasses. But for the faded denim on his lower limbs, every other component of his apparel is red—like the pillows on the massive couch where our conversation occurs. His vintage flat cap, the long-sleeve split-neck, and shoes on his feet are all flaming red.
He has one leg up against the Hennessy-branded table before us—like he owns this place.
Actually, he does—this whole tavern complex: the Django Bar (where we currently are), Grand Papaz, as well as After Werk. “I did so much nightlife that I had to make my own.”
Rockstone exhales, before plunging into a methodical reminiscence of the good old days. His reply to my opening question, and indeed, his tone the entirety of our conversation this Tuesday afternoon is largely characterised by biting humour, and a distinctive New York hip-hop twang that also rebels against syntax.
“Nightlife was different from what you guys experiencing today,” he notes. The first disparity, he recounts, has to do with the number of spots: “Today, there’s a pub in every corner. Everywhere you turn, there’s loud music.”
Next, “Saturdays was the joint. Friday was the warm up. In your time, Saturdays are weak now. Fridays is heavy; Saturdays is the hangover. Kids got wilder.
Again, back then, “if you looked like KiDi or Kuami Eugene, best believe you wasn’t getting no club. Trust me,” he chuckles. “If you looked that young, nope, you not coming in! Today, if a sister wears some lipstick, some high-heels, body’s popping even though she looks young, she would slide right past the bouncer. If you some typa star or celebrity, or perhaps drive a fancy car, and you are able to catch the bouncer’s eye with your parking skills, you’ll probably get into the club.”
There was also the dynamic with the bouncers.
“Back in the day, we knew the bouncers. We hung out with them. We would eat omu tuo (an indigenous rice dish) on a Saturday, and catch them the next week. We had allegiances and bonds.”
Finally, the disc jockey. “The DJ was pivotal. I mean, the DJ was the man!” he nods, laughing as he recalls a few names: “DJ Explo, DJ Shirup T…”
“Today, you don’t even know who the DJ is”, he teases. “He just comes in with some little machine and plugs it in—nevertheless, nightlife in Accra. The capital? Accra.”
If that last line sounds familiar, it is because they’re also words from his track discussing the subject.
I bring up another line of his—this time, from a popular collaboration with M3nsa (now one half of the controversial music collective, FOKN Bois).
“Disco biaa nni wiase mu aa Reggie tua wura’m. Wo te sɛ ɛhɔnum yɛ dɛ aa, me ne me crew hyem.”
Rendered in the rapper’s native Twi, the verse proclaims Rockstone’s far-reaching popularity as an entertainer—one that has ensured that he neither has to pay to enter clubs nor oversee dull moments whilst in them.
So where did he go?
He doesn’t recall them all, but emphasises that he has “always been certified.” His trek to nightclubs began as early as 11 years old. There was Black Caesar’s Palace in Osu, which he often attended with his fashion designer-dad, Ricky “Ricci” Ossei (Saint Ossei); Maharani, which later became Glenn’s and a host of others.
“I am not new to nightlife. Mete aseɛ. Mbɔsuɔhene,” he brags.
Rockstone has held the title of connoisseur for a long time—well over two decades. It is not for nothing: his perpetuity on the entertainment landscape has been conserved with elegant tact. Indeed, the trajectory of his career is the first we are witnessing in a whole generation. We’ve not seen anybody remain youthful, renewed, and relevant for as long as he has. Today, at 55, he shows zero signs of slowing down.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is how he sees it. A symbol of dynamism, Rockstone prides himself with being able to constantly reinvent himself. “I used to be Reggie Rockstone, Oseikrom President, hiplife, blah blah. Now I’m a member of VVIP (formerly VIP). And then I got the grey, but I’m rapping young. [See 11: 11, one of two scorching singles he published on April 11 to coincide with his birthday –also his daughter’s. The joint, which Rockstone has lauded as a ‘lyrical statue’ guests Sarkodie, currently stationed at the pinnacle of GH rap].”
It’s the same philosophy that has carried over into how he runs this place. Many years ago, he set this venue up as Rockstone’s Office. Over time, the place has witnessed rebirth and expansion, now catering to patrons of varying demographics: from young professionals to older folk.
“It’s just reinvention,” he reiterates, hopeful that his course will prove a well of inspiration to aspiring youths.
I suspect that hiplife, the energetic sound he led has driven his consistent ethic and abiding charm.
He agrees. Aside from eating right and keeping a strict workout regimen, hip-hop and hiplife have indeed preserved him.
“Because I’m affiliated with a youth-oriented art form, which I spearheaded, I’m always around young people—so I’m young at heart.”
But more importantly, “the reason for my continuous relevance is that I refuse to fade away. That’s how strong I feel about what I do. Also, because what I do is from a passionate place, it’s not a fad, it’s not a trend. It’s something from within. I could close my eyes and pick out clothes and know what beat I wanna be on.
In doing this, I’m also myself. I remain myself.”
Rockstone was born Reginald Yaw Asante Ossei in the UK but grew up between Kumasi and Accra. As a young boy, he developed a huge attraction to the arts, and hip-hop culture specifically. A consummate performer, Rockstone trained as an actor, and quickly courted a reputation with his talents in dance.
His first experimentation with rap arrived as a member of London-based collective, Parables, Linguistics, and Zlang (PLZ), authors of the EP Build a Wall around Your Dreams. He returned to Ghana to originate the “hiplife” movement—the feat for which he is most widely known. At its very core, hiplife draws from hip-hop, the music of his youth; and highlife, the melody of his ancestry, to create a new pulse. His experimentation resulted in joints as “Sweetie Sweetie,” “Tsoo Boi,” “Agoo,” “Eye Mo De Anaa” and “Nightlife in Accra.”
A five-album catalogue followed (between 1997 and 2010). The rest is the present—an entire generation of creatives who have become beneficiaries of his genius; an entire movement that identifies as “hiplife,” cementing Rockstone’s place as a cultural icon.
That did not come easy. For nearly as long as he has been “Reggie Rockstone,” he has been cast in the role of chief antagonist – his claim to the title of “hiplife founder,” or “hiplife grandpapa” frequently heavily-challenged. It is not a subject I want to belabour this fine Tuesday. Besides, he is done on the controversy of who founded the genre anyway, he assures.
Instead, I want to know if he’s comfortable with the state of the hiplife conversation today—that hiplife remains in discourse pertaining to modern sounds at all.
Before he proceeds to answer though, there is a residual harangue on the saga. He maintains his smile, but his voice assumes renewed pitch for the next few sentences.
“It’s called the Jesus Syndrome,” he starts. “I mean, who would have ever thought that after 25 years of hard work and sacrifice, at some point, knowing very well what the truth is, that someone or some people would actually question my input or who I am to hiplife. It’s strange because the same thing was done to Dr Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana’s first president). They even tried it with Sark (rapper Sarkodie). It’s just some real—excuse my language—bullshit that my people seem to thrive on,” he shoots.
Rockstone even coined a name for it: “G-Hate”
“We seem to have—I don’t know where we get this bullshit from; whether it’s because we were colonised by the British…I don’t know. But it’s absurd for anyone to even question my validity when it comes to hiplife.”
“And what’s even more amazing is, the people who spoke on it or tried to fan the flames of this bullshit actually did not give you an answer to who created hiplife,” he says mockingly.
“I have irrefutable proof by human beings and by music and by videos,” he declares.
He’s not done. Nooooh! There’s more spleen to be vented:
“You ask them, so if Reggie did not originate hiplife, who did? And then they be looking at you. Then they say [highlife great] Gyedu Blay. And you ask Gyedu Blay, and he’ll tell you ‘I never said those words, hiplife.’ And then they’ll say somebody like K.K Kabobo [also a highlife great]. Basically, they reaching, and it’s not working. K.K Kabobo, he never said no words called ‘hiplife.’ You know when you saw me in the trenches; when I was bare-chested, wearing my camouflage, putting in the work…”
The punctuation to this tirade arrives; a comment his mother made regarding the whole back-and-forth—which Rockstone deems an affront to both his intelligence and integrity; “real sweet bullshit” if one truly evaluates his contribution to the culture over the years
“Reggie,” she had told him, “even if you did not invent hiplife, you invented hiplife!”
He finally comes around to speak to my original question; that hiplife remains in 2019 conversations at all, in spite of the proliferation of fresh genres and labels: “Afro this,” “fusion that,” “this pop,” “new that.”
Hiplife ignited Africans everywhere—not just Ghanaians, he holds. If you think about it, it is the launch pad for running rhythms these days, the new Afrobeats sound inclusive. “Up until hiplife started, you didn’t have nothing like what we had.”
To Rockstone’s mind, it should be a source of national pride, because, however, they are labelled today, contemporary sounds are a tribute to both highlife and hiplife. Therefore, the new generation, Rockstone optimises, must “nurture and hold their own—because that’s what these other folks did with Afrobeat (the genre created by Fela Kuti). It’s not too late. Music is music, but the branding is really important. You can call it whatever you want. If your music is dope, and you decide to call it Hennessey life, that’s what’s gonna be popular. So if you already have a name…if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
But how does Rockstone take it when a section of the new crop of musicians refuse to refer to their music as hiplife, even if it is essentially what they’re practising?
“To each their own,” is the simple response. “You could call your music whatever you wanna call your music. And for whatever reason why you feel like it’s slick to call your music anything other than what your folks sacrificed for,” he continues.
A hesitance precedes his next sentence. “Sometimes, it irks me smaaall,” he does acknowledge.
“It’s like ‘Oh come on! We work so hard for you to get on, and now you’re gonna deny what it is that we did? Come on!’ Sometimes I get that vibe, but then, in the same breath, I’m like, well, it is one Africa, and I’m pan-African to the bone. So do I really care if it’s called Afrobeats or hiplife? As long as Black people are getting it, and young people are making money, feeding their kids, I think I’m okay. So, to each their own.”
“However,” Rockstone cautions, touching on the irony of foreigners identifying as hiplifers, but not new age Ghanaian acts who are actually walking that specific sonic tangent.
“To the individual, your conscience will speak to you. Because, when you know very well that this is where this comes from, but you’re like ‘oh, lemme jump over here cuz this is where everybody is at, then you know who you are too!
“If your father raised you and called you an Ossei, and all of a sudden, the Tawiahs are making money, so you say ‘you know what? I’m not an Ossei right now, I’m a Tawiah…Ge-ra-ra-here!”
The punchline detonates laughter throughout the room.
When decorum returns, I quiz Rockstone about his opinion that production by Da’Hammer (best known for conjuring instrumentation on Obrafour’s seminal 1999 debut, Pae Mu Ka) best identifies hiplife. Where does that leave fellow pioneering producers as a Zapp Mallet, for example, or a JQ?
That statement did not set out to exclude other producers, he expounds. It was purely his personal sentiment that while evolution is constant in music, it is in our best interest to have a unique sound—like is the case for, say, reggae, or dancehall, or jazz.
He does understand the flak he attracted for the comment. He holds utmost prominence as far as the hiplife movement is concerned after all. His voice holds extra impact, and his every pronouncement will be subjected to extra scrutiny.
Still, his opinion stands. “Hammer’s sound, for me, really encompasses the whole tradition of what we thought hiplife would be—but then again, so was JQ,” because, like hip-hop, of which hiplife is a tributary, the Ghanaian genre is driven by variety, and so it surprises not Rockstone that hiplife too has supplied multiple traditions. There are branches that cater to love, politics, party etc.
Rockstone is a man of nerve and has no problem saying it as it is. Damn the consequences. The titles of his first three albums speak to his courage with speech: Makaa Maka (1997), Me Na Me Kae (1999), and Me Ka (2000) translates as “I said it because I said it,” “it was I who said it,” and “I will say it.”
“It pretty much tells you who you’re dealing with,” Rockstone says.
Hip-hop in itself, he observes, is founded on fearlessness. It is expressive.
Loud. Clear. Defiant.
“That’s hip-hop! This is why the young, and ghettos all over the world identify with hip-hop—and so when you see the kids in New York: Brooklyn…Flatbush…The Bronx, wherever, who identify with Wu-Tang Clan—and you come to Ghana and you go to Nima, you find the same vibration—the chest-thumping rhetoric of “I am who I am! I’m from the hood, but whatever. I gotta get that money! My hustle is this! We got our own codes!
Voice isn’t the only constituent of hiplife’s dynamism. Storytelling, which Rockstone considers his forte (not freestyling), is just as pivotal if you’re a true student of hip-hop.” Across hiplife, Rockstone has been responsible for some of the most vivid oral painting this town has witnessed; from relating the crippling emotional anguish from being denied a visa, or a nail-biting chronology of a cheating scandal involving one’s wife and his best friend.
“Some people are better than others, and some people don’t have that. If you don’t, I suggest that you practice this […] it is essential in this art form.”
It was hip-hop that opened him up to the possibilities of storytelling. Having had spells in New York (considered the Mecca of hip-hop), the UK, and now, Ghana, he has picked up essential techniques of relating convincing narratives: “I’m not no spring chicken. I have lived hip-hop worldwide. I know hip-hop very well.”
Work by US hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Slick Rick deepened his love for storytelling in music—so much so, when he returned to Ghana to pursue hiplife, that tradition found its way into his craft.
Via his resilient voice, Rockstone also plays the role of family head; whether it is coming to the rescue of industry black sheep Shatta Wale when everyone wants his blood or reminding all of Terry Bonchaka’s fire before his untimely passing.
“These things come really naturally to me because I am a natural leader,” he notes as he lunges into a series of adages: “The older you get, the wiser you get,” “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
“I’m an elder. I can’t be taking sides and getting involved in these rap beefs. That’s just entertainment stuff. I don’t expect them to always agree with each other. As long as they keep it civil, I’m good. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you the truth. You think 20 years from now, Shatta and Stonebwoy are gonna be in traffic and cuss at each other? I don’t think so.”
Our dialogue sets him back into hiplife nostalgia—a stream that sees him extol Obrafour and his debut album, calling it the best. “He’s the one that made you want to listen to lyrics,” notes Rockstone about the Pae Mu Ka man.
“Those were beautiful times mehn,” he recalls yearningly. “Nobody sounded the same. Lord Kenya was screaming over here, I had my style, Tic Tac, VIP. Today, I guess things have changed. They just got the trap sound and everybody is doing the same thing, but like I said…evolution. Times change, so I have to respect that too,” he sighs.
In 20 years, Rockstone expects to see hiplife bridging the gap, but on a truly global scale—like is happening with Afrobeats. This is not the first time he’s envisaging this. In a 2015 interview with CNN, he imagined a major concert at the Black Star Square featuring the biggest global stars. That concert, he’s convinced, will go down as a true African renaissance. Seeing what he has done with hiplife, it’s hard to entertain misgivings regarding his visions.
With the revival of his three-sixty-degree entertainment franchise, Kassarock Entertainment, Rockstone will also roll out multiple entertainment properties, including finally, talent management.
That one is a musical genius doesn’t necessarily guarantee that he will excel at managing other talents. “I had to take my time,” Rockstone notes. He had to amass much-needed experience. It is what he has done in his expansive career. So that, now, he “can only do this and make it work.”
When it fully unfolds, Kassarock, Rockstone is resolute, will be “the biggest thing since pounded fufu.” And if you cannot entrust your gifts to them to manage, “who you gonn’ trust with your talent? The government?”
The gathering rises in hilarity.
For his craft, Rockstone has won multiple international awards (including a 2014 Kora Award for Best African Video). His talent has taken him all around the world and has seen him collaborated on and off-stage with international stars such as Shaggy, Beenie Man, Wyclef Jean, 2Baba. Till date, he remains one of a handful of Ghanaians to have had their songs on the Billboard World 500.