“Are you scared of dogs?”
“No, not really,” I skeptically answer. The ominous ‘mbwa kali’ sign that is so typical of Kenyan households isn’t on the gate and so I silently pray not to be met by a ferocious guard dog that’s half my size (being 4’11’, this an unfortunate but regular occurrence). As I step into the compound, I’m met by not one, not two, but 7 friendly (cue wave of relief) dogs. Their mums name was 7 Taio tells me. He is casually dressed in washed jeans, t-shirt, a snapback and slides. Nairobi’s weather has been particularly temperamental and so he warmly ushers me into his home as the sky’s threaten to crack open.
Matthew Wakhungu, aka Taio Triiiper, came into the limelight as a member of Camp Mulla, a Nairobi based alternative hip hop group that catapulted to fame with the iconic and infectious “Party Don’t Stop”. Since then, his career has evolved, taking on various shapes and forms - member of Cosmic Homies; sound engineer; DJ; and more recently, host of Prototype, a digital series featuring peer to peer conversations on success, failures, and the experiences of working in Kenya’s creative industries.
Taio graciously sat down with me to talk about his career and future aspirations; his thoughts on Kenya’s music industry; and superpowers.
How long have you been active in the music industry?
I’d like to say more than ten years. I literally started when I was 14. Turning 26 it has been about 10 years and some change.
So you’re a veteran?
One of the vets yeah. Coz there’s people like Nameless and them who are actually veterans who have put more than two decades in. But I guess I’m one of the newer guys who could be considered a vet because at that time I was right at the beginning of when music and social media started becoming their own entity.
I feel I’d also say for the Nu Nairobi scene in general, with Camp Mulla and then Cosmic Homies, it was the beginning of pushing an alternative type of sound.
Yeah, exactly. And I think also just getting some more representation from the suburbs of Nairobi. With Nu Nairobi, some of these people are straight out of the suburbs, you wouldn’t consider them to be anything else but the rich kids. I don’t like that term but I would say we cut across the global middle class. That played an important role because it started that export of music in a way that was relatable to more than just the African market. That’s what I feel, in the last couple of years, has really catalysed the whole process of Kenya finally becoming known again as some sort of musical force just as it was back in the 70’s, even before the Ogopa times, when there were record labels here and people were producing a lot of international music out of here.
Since you started out to now, how would you say the industry has grown and changed?
There’s way more artists generally, or more that are known, because everybody manages their brand now mostly through social. There are also a lot more people who make videos that are of a certain quality that would qualify to be in awards. I feel also that in the past couple of years you feel more brand involvement which has meant more artists making significant amounts of money and its more out there. You’ll be driving down Ngong Road and you’ll see like Size 8 or Blinky Bill on a massive billboard. That’s also promoting the fact that these musicians are people in our society that are considered a success. That’s been really cool, to see musicians becoming respected and accepted and paid more.
And what would you say are some major hindrances holding back Kenya’s music industry?
I’d say a lack of people dedicated to just music as well as institutions. We don’t have performance rights organisations to protect artists and their music and make sure artists are generating enough revenue from their music. Another barrier is the quality of the music. We’re seeing our counterparts in South Africa, Nigeria and even Tanzania fully investing in their music. Kenyan music is like the omena. Some of the content is shiny omena but that gets gobbled up really quickly.
So what have been your major musical influences?
When it was really rap it was Young Money and Lil Wayne and Jay Z (he’s constantly been there). But there was a hype aspect to Camp Mulla and I think Young Money captured that. As I matured, I got into a lot of neo soul - Erykah Badu type vibes, Jill Scott...Then as I start moving towards understanding the techniques of being a sound engineer I started paying more attention to artists like Hiatus Kayote and Flying Lotus - just people who are sonically crazy. With the whole djing thing, I started listening to all types of music. I always wanted to have the freshest music so I became a fan of world music. I know that encompasses so many genres but it’s like finding different rhythms and patterns and styles of expressing emotion. For example, I love kamba music. I feel like it’s the next African rock and roll. There’s something about kamba music. It’s just high energy music (laughter).
I want to talk about one of your recent singles, Men.Tall.Wealth. What inspired that song?
It was just one of those days. I think it was more of just 2018 drawing to a close and reflecting on all the different things that have happened and haven’t happened in 2018 and being like damn through all of that though I’ve still managed to be here and to remain active and contributing and succeeding - there was so much to be grateful for about a year that had pushed me, and I feel many people that I know, to the edge in a sense of I really don’t know what to do now, everyone’s so cool, everyone’s got so many followers and I don’t really fit in with that so something must be wrong with me. I hadn’t really told that side before, where I’m openly vulnerable. The picture of it [song cover] was to show people that, the Taio Triiiper that you’ve heard about is the kid right there in Carnivore, orange mouth, drinking Fanta with his cousins, I’m not different to you.That was important for myself and my fans and other Kenyan artists who at some point will face questioning their sanity and what it is that they’re doing. It’s for them to be like oh yeah shit, I don’t have to be afraid of this, this guy did it.
You’ve been putting out a lot of singles. Are you working on an album?
Yeah, I’m working on two albums. One is a jazz album. Jazz has always been an interest of mine and as a lyricist, the way I think about my raps, I feel like I’m a percussive instrument which is why flows have always been my strong point. With jazz I feel like it challenges me to bring out flows that aren’t kawaida and that’s what I want to do, bring out some extra shit. The second project will be an electronic album. I’ll be working with a producer called Kevin Provoke who has been wanting to work with me for a while. He took a step back from the scene after working with Wangechi but we’ll be working on this project.
Why do think majority of Nu Nairobi artists have their music solely on SoundCloud?
‘Cause it’s not serious. Most people’s music is on SoundCloud because you’re still in the in-between zone, that in-between moment where you’re like am I really doing this or am I just going to experiment for a little bit. It’s a safe space and I feel that that’s the point at which Nu Nairobi is right now, just still polishing up and SoundCloud is something that serves that purpose.
Who are your favourite up & coming artists from Nu Nairobi?
Yellow Light Machine, they’re a psychedelic rock band. And Daisy because as an R&B songstress she’s amazing. I know if someone was to refine these talents they would just blow up.
What are your most memorable moments?
Uh, in no particular order:
Playing at SXSW.
My Boiler Room set.
Meeting Thunder Cat! That was a big moment for me because he’s just a strange awesome guy. To meet him in person was an honour for me.
Participating in Coke Studio generally. Finding yourself in that space and being like whoa! This is so cool. All these incredible artists from around Africa are coming to the same place and I’ll always remember what that’s done for me as a producer, sound engineer and as an artist generally
Camp Mulla’s BET nomination. That was a testament because we were like whoa! America recognizes us.
What are your future aspirations, in say five years?
I want to be sat at a creative space that is focused on musicians primarily for musicians. I won’t operate or run like a record label - I don’t want to be the head of a record label but I want to be associated with all the upcoming and most popping musicians, talents, brands, but also be able to provide them with the tools they need to flourish without having to spend all their money.
If you could have a superpower, what would you want it to be?
It would be being super smart. Just being able to make the right decisions and anticipate all the needs. And then I’d be able to work with anybody I want and for anybody I want. The pros are endless.