Amidst celebrations of the 10th year anniversary of Nigerian Pop Icon, D’banj, it poses a theme of reflection. I vividly recall the first time I heard Tongolo 10 years ago. I was drawn by the great music. Looking past the low quality video (which was forgivable due to the condition of the industry then), I saw a brand on that screen. The timid elderly looking music maven, Don Jazzy with his walking stick whispering his thoughts (true to the title, Don) to his energetic and charismatic artist, D’banj. Ying Yang! It all made sense, for the first time in my age of engagement with Nigerian music, it seemed there was a star with the total package. They were a few years ahead of their peers in terms of branding and business nous. Off the success of Tongolo, D’banj released his debut album, No Long Thing in 2005 which birthed a few other minor hits like Socor and Mobolowon. D’banj and Don Jazzy immediately returned to the studio to create songs that would alter the course of Nigerian music. They released D’banj’s sophomore album Rundown in 2006 with hits like RunDown, Tongolo Remix and Why Me. Why Me garnered mammoth success, earning D’banj the second ever MTV EMA Best African Act in 2007.
At this point, D’banj was without a doubt the hottest act in the country. The next release was the compilation album, Curriculum Vitae unveiling the acts signed to Mo Hits Records; Wande Coal, D’ Prince, Dr Sid and Kay Switch. D’ Prince and Kay Switch no doubt benefiting from being siblings to the main protagonists. The album provided those acts the credibility that would come handy when they worked on their individual debuts. Amidst all the talented acts, a black diamond was unearthed. Armed with a special voice, Wande Coal was well primed to succeed as he sang most of the choruses, playing a significant role in ensuring those songs became hits. His solo record, Ololufe was a particularly impressive ballad.
D’banj returned to the solo stage in 2008 with what is now his last popular solo album, The Entertainer which consisted of hits like Olorunmaje, Suddenly, Gbono Feli Feli, Igwe and Fall In Love. Even though D’banj had returned to the solo stage, he and Don Jazzy were strategic in giving Wande Coal a pronounced presence. Wande Coal’s background vocals had become an integral part of D’banj’s sound, hence he was not missed at all by fans. Neither were the rest of the all stars as they were all appearing in videos and always with D’banj on stage delivering records from the compilation album which were still relevant.
That year, Wande Coal’s career finally had its lift off moment. Mushin 2 Mo Hits was an undeniable classic released via a mega album launch at Eko Hotel (one of the first of its kind). As a piece of work it was able to draw upon his Fuji influences without losing the essence of the sound and blueprint Don Jazzy had mapped out for him. Describing it as the premier Nigerian album of the 2000’s would not be hyperbolic. Its significance underlined by acts like Wizkid, Davido, May D, Orezi referencing it as the blueprint. The Mo Hits All Stars were the popular kids in the playground. Everyone wanted to be friends with them. It was the validating seal.
With D’banj embedded in the fabric on the Nigerian psyche and Wande Coal singing away the hearts of Nigerians all over the world, it was time to introduce another all star. Dr Sid’s solo career was launched in 2010 with Turning Point, a moderately successful album with Pop Champagne, Something About You and Over The Moon. Being that Mo Hits were already the dominant label in the industry, even if Dr Sid whispered on the album it was guaranteed a degree of success. The Mo Hits brand (and Don Jazzy’s production) was that powerful. However, it was easily the least successful record the label released.
D’ Banj recorded a lot of highs: a line of low end Mobile phones, Koko Mobile. The annual Koko concert which went on to become a Lagos Christmas tradition (the last one in 2012 had Pusha T, Tinie Tempah, Big Sean and Idris Elba in attendance. There was also Mr Endowed remix featuring West Coast rapper, Snoop Dogg.
At this time, D’banj was nearing invincibility. A year after the release of Dr Sid’s album and midway through the prep for D’Prince’s release ( Give It To Me was doing well), news filtered that Kanye West after a conversation in the Dubai airport signed the duo of D’banj and Don Jazzy to GOOD Music with recording and production contracts respectively. It was confirmed with photos, videos of the contract signing with Jay Z, LA Reid and the whole GOOD Music family present. Unforgettably, Mr West flew out immediately after the VMA’s to chain D’ Banj at the Hammersmith Apollo Koko Concert. Canny observes would have noticed he performed in the same clothes.
D’banj and Don Jazzy had done the unthinkable. They did not score a deal with just anyone but Kanye bloody West. Assisted by GOOD Music and Def Jam, D’Banj signed a distribution deal with Mercury Records as the UK was going to be the entry point of D’banj’s next project. D’banj’s single at the time Oliver Twist was doing well and the Mercury deal was to facilitate a UK release with larger scale promotion. Memorably, D’banj made a cameo in the visual accompaniment to the hit single Mercy by Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music. Starting with the UK made perfect sense as there’s a respectable West African demographic in the UK.
Amidst the anticipation of Mo Hits new move, fans were dealt a tough blow. D’banj and Don Jazzy were going separate ways. Till date, there’s been so single, corroborated account as to what went wrong. But from the various statements by both parties, the basis of the separation seemed to be contrasting goals. D’banj, the business mind seemed optimistic on their new conquest while Don Jazzy seemed unsure of leaving the certainty of being African giants to start as International dwarves. There was also a degree of concern on his part about the careers of the other Mo Hits acts as they were in Nigeria without their producer thus lying idle. At the height of their disagreement, Don Jazzy reportedly returned to Nigeria to be with the other acts leaving D’banj behind. Rumour also has it that as the two were apart, Don Jazzy released new singles from Wande Coal. Wande Coal’s return proved popular and this reportedly did not go down well with D’banj. Cracks started to become more obvious. Prior to this, rumours of Wande Coal being held back by D’banj in particular hence wanting to leave Mo Hits on various occasions had done the rounds. This reportedly made the separation a done deal.
The fall of an empire. Mo Hits had a synergy that might never be witnessed again. With the musical genius of Don Jazzy, wisdom and charisma of D’banj and Wande Coal’s vocals which were also very integral to the Mo Hits sound, Mo Hits had the perfect formula to consistently rule the Nigerian music industry. No Nigerian label has been able to garner the sort of momentum Mo Hits garnered. Every single release from the label was a smash hit. Mo Hits hit their targets. Year after year, their releases became the sounds of their age.
Fans and artistes immediately started to take sides, very few remained neutral. The break spurned all sorts of reactions from artistes and fans, even with old colleagues coming out of the woodwork. Don Jazzy seemed to garner some favour from the public. He was clearly blessed musically, hence fans knew he would go on to make great music. D’banj however was the scapegoat constantly being criticized for his artistic merit, or lack of it and there were doubts over his ability to survive on his own. The resentment towards him peaked during the removal of subsidy on petroleum goods by the Nigerian government. D’banj who had previously interviewed Goodluck Jonathan as the voice of Nigerian youths was held accountable by the same youths he claimed to have been representing. He gave a car crash of an interview with Sahara Reporters in which he suggested he had failed to show up at the protests outside the Nigerian Embassy in London/New York because he wasn’t a fan of the cold weather.
D’banj embarked on a self imposed exile from the country. A video for Oliver Twist was shot with GOOD Music’s most notable stars present, even the head honcho Kanye West standing by D’banj at the end. His laudable drive and focus paid off as Oliver Twist debuted at number 4 on the UK billboard charts. This was huge. Oliver Twist immediately became an international hit with covers from different languages, most notably Pitbull’s spanish version. The success of Oliver Twist triggered UK’s interest in the genre that has mystifyingly been titled Afrobeats. The song was a hit and saw D’Banj performing at music festivals and the record made an appearance on soap, Eastenders.
Amidst D’banj’s new found success, it was clear Don Jazzy had to make a move. Drawing on the formula he formulated with his ex partner, he released a compilation album to kick start the new label. Mavin Records consisted of the original Mo Hit’s crew excluding D’banj and his brother, Kay Switch (who never released a single in the Mo Hits era). Don Jazzy also made a smart decision, teaming up with 323 Entertainment to sign Tiwa Savage. However, the album was released to mixed reaction. The songs on the album were generally short lived. The whole Mavin picture and sound was not clear yet. It seemed like the group had lost their IT factor. The enthusiasm D’banj brought was missing. His final touch and A&R direction was desperately missing. Don Jazzy seemed to be having a bit of a down moment as a difference was clear. Don Jazzy never missed in the Mo hits era, the Mavin album had a handful of misses.
Today, it is a new era and hopes of the empire coming back are buried and gone. Both Don Jazzy and D’banj are well into new chapters of their career both heading new labels. D’banj set up his company, DB Records in 2013 with artistes like Kay Switch and J Sol (who has left the label). He launched the company with a not very well received compilation. The album captured D’banj’s struggle to find his feet musically, going as far as including Olamide as one of the owners of the compilation (D’banj allegedly proposed to sign Olamide but was refused). He even employed Olamide’s manager at the time, Tony Nwankolor as his personal manager. It was an understandable strategy as Olamide was clearly heading for greatness.
Not only D’banj was having a tough time settling in the new era as things turned sour in Don Jazzy’s Mavin Camp. Wande Coal who was undoubtedly an asset exited the Mavin camp after a public fall out over intellectual property rights. This reopened wounds for Mo Hits fans. If Mavin was then being touted as Mo Hits moving on without D’banj, now it was something more complex. Wande Coal who might have been considered the third pillar of Mo hits musically had begun a new era toeing his path as CEO of Black Diamond.
Today Mo Hits remains a fond memory and an integral aspect of every teenagers growing up. The ex members have been seen reconciling in public. Unfortunately, D’banj may not have found his feet musically but he has made a few decent efforts. His formula of remixing popular songs and riding the wave of younger, less popular acts has worked for him. Don Jazzy has built Mavin into one of Africa’s leading labels. He seems to have learnt from the D’ Banj years and has stepped into the limelight using social media as his weapon of choice and being more camera friendly. Mavin has successfully released solo albums for Tiwa Savage and Dr Sid. New talents like Di’Ja, Korede Bello and Reekado Banks have been recruited and are doing well.
D’banj has also made changes to his company with the addition of actress, Tonto Dikeh and group 2kriss. They are yet to deliver hits. D’banj’s company seems to lack a steady structure. D’banj has gained notoriety for constantly changing management. Most people can’t confidently declare who exactly D’banj’s manager is as various individuals have been touted at different points. The label has just one producer, DeeVee who after many attempts has proven not to be a hit maker. D’banj needs a good producer who can harness something credible out of him and possibly a strong vocalist to enhance his music. D’banj has endorsements from Globacom (a fellow brand ambassador with ex label mate, Wande Coal) and the Bank Of Industry. He is a One campaign ambassador which is focused on promoting agriculture amongst Africa youths. Leveraging from the benefits, he has ventured into agriculture with his brand of Garri, Koko Garri. He has also struck a deal with Apple on a line of Beats By Dre headphones for Africa.
As D’banj celebrates his 10th year anniversary, I am grateful for witnessing The Mo Hits era, one which I will surely tell my kids about. Today the industry is full of crews who struggle to garner half the momentum Mo Hits garnered. No record labels have recorded as many victories as Mo Hits till date. Aside from music, Mo Hits was the lifestyle. Whatever slang D’banj uttered was the slang for the year. Mo Hits captured Nigerian youth culture. The prosperous modern Nigerian music industry is a house built by Mo Hits.