The untold story of Calif Records

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Juacali, Clemmo and Nonini.

It started with a beat in a living room in Nairobi’s California Estate, but became one of most listened to beats in Kenyans homes and clubs.

Calif Records was conceptualised in 1998 by Clement “Clemo” Rapudo and partners. However, the partnership did not work out, and the Calif Records that would alter Kenya’s music landscape was born in 2000.

Clemo studied food science in university, but his passion was music. While still a First Year, he started producing music in his parent’s living room in California Estate. His love for electronics helped him to build the record company’s rudimentary studio equipment.

“He was making the tracks in the living room, all the equipment fit on his parent’s dining table,” Calif’s CEO, Thomas Mahondo narrates. “And because the vocals needed to be crystal clear, he went to other studios to do the recording.”

Clemo wanted to know how things work, the science behind the making of music. His modus operandi was not making ready beats. He first wanted to hear how the musician sounded before he did his thing.  

Though Clemo loved soul music, he was open-minded, and let other genres and artiste’s preferences to be infused into the genge sound. For instance, Flexx’s music was dancehall-ish, but was still “genge” to the rhythm and beat.

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Beat ya Clemo

Clemo did not have to look further than the brick walls of his ‘hood for a musician to test the waters. Jua Cali, his homeboy, was the first musician that the budding producer experimented with, on what later became known as, “Beat ya Clemo”.

He was joined by another unknown quantity from the same ‘hood, Nonini who put shock-and-awe in his repertoire, with such songs as, “Wee Kamu”. The song’s title, meaning, “You Come”, had a double entendre and was not a mere booty call. Nonini was the first musician to be signed to the then fledgling Calif Records.

Thereafter, came, in no particular order, Pilipili, Flexx, Lady S, Jimwat, Mejja and to quote Mahondo, “more than we can remember or count”. 

Mejja, Clemmo and Juacali. Photo: Courtesy.

“We produced music for many musicians, but once they left the studio with the CD, we never heard from them,” Mahondo laments. “There are truckloads of Calif music gathering dust in Kenyan homes.”

Most musicians were brought by the reputation that Calif was building, beat-by-beat. But some were led to Calif by fate and destiny. Cue in, Linet Munyali. She did not make the cut in a music talent show where Clemo was a judge. Clemo gave Munyali his business card.

Sometime later, in the studio, Clemo made a beat to go with Munyali’s song, “Size 8”, which would become the songstress’ stage name.   

Genge by any other name

“In terms of the name, it was simple; Kenyan music didn’t have a name,” Mahondo explains. “Tanzania has Bongo Flava and we wanted Kenyan music to be called genge.

“It was music by the people for the people. That was the whole idea behind the name, genge; mass, crowd, public. At that time, television and radio presenters from Tanzania called Kenyan music, genge.”

Around that same time, two ‘hoods in the capital city, Eastlands and Nairobi South, were trying to carve their own distinct musical niche.

Dandora and Eastlands in general had conscious and street-sy lyricists who kept their brand of hip-hop basic and badass to the core.

Nairobi West, Madaraka, South B and C had a sound called kapuka, which was derided in a diss track, “Kapuka This”, by K-South’s Abbas and Bamboo. K-South’s fans and other hard-core hip-hop aficionados said that kapuka was feel-good music by rich bored kids from the ‘burbs.

The Eastlands posse thought of themselves as the real ghetto revolutionaries.

Calif’s attempted creative coup was met by resistance from producers and musicians, from both sides of the divide, because the idea came from a specific area code.

And then musicians, even one-hit wonders, took the genre madness notches higher…or lower, depending on how you look at it. 

Fade out

To appear fresh and innovative, some artistes came up with their own sub-genres, which were basically genge by another name. There was Kenrazzy, whose execution and nuances sounded so Jua Cali that, I am sure, Jua Cali must have thought it was Paul Nunda from another epoch. Kenrazzy said his sub-genre was gipuka, explaining that it was a mix of genge and kapuka.

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Clemo fell off with some artistes in his label because of myriad reasons. There were those who felt that he was slow. Clemo countered that he had a different work ethic. That he could not produce just for the heck of it. There were accusations of favouritism in producing beats; that his blue-eyed boys were being fed the top layer. He countered that not all songs could be club-bangers. That it depends on different variables; like airplay, promotion, timing and even plain luck.

And there was that age-old problem that plagues record labels: enough cheddar to go around for all and for yonks.

“We realised that we weren’t monetising the music, and that the only time we were making money was when the musician was on stage,” Mahondo says. “This made the artistes, even now, to become frustrated with their producers and labels, and caused them to go independent.”

Pilipili, who had lit the scene with “Morale”, left and started his own label. Size 8 alleged that, though she was releasing hot singles, she was broke and could barely get by. She left and now sings gospel music.

Flexx, who took a leaf from Nonini’s lyric book with such songs as “Amejibeba”, “Namba Yako” and “Nyundo” lives in Sweden.  

Things did not work out between Calif and Nonini, with the latter leaving to make hits and history with producer Eric Musyoka of Decimal Records.

But to his credit, Nonini planted the genge seed in his protégés, P Unit.

Jimwat aka Jimwizzy has been on a rollercoaster, personally and musically. He has struggled with substance abuse, but he is slowly getting back his groove. Time will tell if he will return to such highs like “Under 18” and “Sitoi Kitu Kidogo”, which made him a household name.

“There’s a street saying to the effect that you don’t dry your body where you took a bath,” Mahondo says.

“We’ve pressed a pause button on recording music. We will return to it, but under different circumstances.”

Mahondo says that, as the years went by, they learned, through trial and error, that the issue was not making a hit song or killer beats or launching a Mejja artiste straight outta Nyeri’s dusty Majengo, but creating more revenue streams and distributing the music widely.

“As long as the pressure will always be on the artiste to make money to sustain the label, there will be a problem between the artiste and the label,” Mahondo says. “Period.”

Changing the beat

Four years ago, Calif, which has now rebranded to Calif Ngoma, moved to their new office in Kilimani. It’s a far cry from their humble beginning in Block D5, or their first real studio on Forest Road or even their immediate former workspace in Greenfields Estate.

This is just a breath mark, though. Their dream is to have a place that is purposely-built for their multi-pronged creative empire.

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Though Calif disrupted the industry with their beat, they have had to contend with digital disruption. Mahondo, who is also from California Estate, and graduated from university with a B.Ed. is of the opinion that disruption can either spell doom or inspire a rebirth.

“Calif and Ngoma are separate entities,” Mahondo breaks it down. “Calif deals with music. It has recording, video production, artist management, events, promotion of music.”

Ngoma is more tech and deals with distribution, online branding and promotion, coding, programming, e-commerce, SMS and mobile telephone platforms.

Ngoma, which has been licensed by YouTube as a service-provider, works with musicians, chefs, stylists, comedians and animators, like Karao TV – whom they turned from an idea in a phone to a viral sensation – to push their content online and monetise to the max.

Ngoma has written online blueprints for Willy M Tuva, Millard Ayo, Diamond Platnumz, Ali Kiba, Nandy, for Clouds TV and creatives in Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe.

This is Kenya. We do not have a culture of ascribing historic importance to sites and sounds that have shaped our destiny.

But in countries that cherish such matters, that nondescript fourth floor crib in Block D5, in California Estate would be a must-tour national treasure.  

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