By Dennis Peter
Mo’ Hits wasn’t just a nominal means of identification, it was an identity. Spearheaded by the revolutionary duo of contemporary Nigerian music icon D’banj and legendary producer Don Jazzy, Mo’ Hits was a dominant powerhouse in Nigerian music, a gale force wind that didn’t let up from its massive breakout until its heart-breaking but, in retrospect, fulfilling end. Throughout its towering existence, the label delivered hit song after hit song in staggering, unprecedented fashion – like YBNL boss Olamide once said, “back to back to back!”
Predicting that a song, or a significant amount of singles off an album, bearing the Mo’ Hits insignia was going to be a hit song is like saying Steph Curry was going to knock down an open three-pointer – you’d get no prizes for guessing. During its prolific run, the label/collective never failed to live up to their name, which reads more and more like a self-appointed title when you sit and reflect on the fact that Mo’ Hits, in all its plaintive glory, was a declaration they were going to constantly make and release music that would be wildly popular.
Early at the turn of this decade, Mo’ hits came to its end after its founding duo were rumoured to be at loggerheads as regards the direction and expansion of the label. While no one was expecting either partner to reach the storied heights of their just-concluded endeavour, it was very much expected that D’banj and Don Jazzy would continue to make and push music, just on different paths. It’s hard to picture D’banj, in all his effervescent glory, leading an ascetic lifestyle, or even the more reserved Don Jazzy take his thumbs off the pulse of Nigerian music.
Born Michael Collins Ajereh, Don Jazzy was, at the time, one of the hottest music assemblers in the country, and is revered as one of the greatest Nigerian music producers. While he rarely works with artistes outside his camp, Don Jazzy’s skill level is not up for debate- he was more musical director than producer in the way he tailored and never failed to elevate the music from artists under his guidance. Beyond his mark behind the boards, he was also a benefactor, and he sure moved and dressed like it: the godfatheresque appearances in music videos and his ever-present, royalty evoking walking stick, the closest thing to a Nigerian version of Diddy.
With technical prowess and proven entrepreneurial acumen on his side, Don Jazzy was bound to hit ears with post-Mo’ Hits music, and he struck just as the dust was settling off that public break-up. Solar Plexus, a compilation album from Don Jazzy’s new Mavin imprint, was the move from the super producer. A serviceable, if grossly imperfect but finely ageing, body of work, Solar Plexus was a display of Don Jazzy’s newly formed Megatron comprising three ex-Mo’ Hits acts in Wande Coal, Dr Sid and younger brother D’prince, alongside a newly singed Tiwa Savage whose stock was rapidly rising, in all of its nascent glory.
In starting Mavin, Don Jazzy wasn’t working with unknown quantities—even Tiwa Savage, the only artiste he hadn’t worked with until then, was well on her way to stardom—but starting on solid footing, with the context of a daunting legacy still in mind, had its own challenges. Besides, Solar Plexus exposed the fact that Mavin lacked an individual with the magnetic star power D’banj brought to Mo’ Hits. Regardless, Don Jazzy’s new foray was guaranteed to bring its own measure of success, he had talented artists who knew their way around making hits, and it showed in how successful “Take Banana” and “O Ma Ga,” solo songs off Solar Plexus by D’ Prince and Tiwa Savage respectively, went on to become.
In over half a dozen years since its establishment, Mavin has gone to become a prominent label in Nigerian music, mainly through the accumulated accomplishments of the acts under its roof. Where Mo’ Hits reflected hierarchy and prioritization in its one after the other mode of operation, Mavin embraced something more lateral, finding a way to help all artists thrive concurrently without stuffing anyone in the margins for too long.
With the exception of Wande Coal, who left the label after a drawn out, public brawl at the end of 2013, the three other artists released solo albums within a year of each other, between the end of 2012 and 2013. First came D’prince’s long-stalled debut album Frenzy, then Tiwa Savage’s debut album Once Upon A Time, and finally Dr Sid’s sophomore Siduction in December 2013. In that pivotal year, all released albums spawned massive hits of their own, from D’prince’s Wizkid, assisted “Painting The Town” to Tiwa Savage and Don Jazzy’s mammoth single “Eminado” and Dr Sid’s anthemic, evergreen “Surulere.” Even Wande Coal’s loosies, “The Kick” and “Rotate,” released under the Mavin roof were huge singles as well.
While 2013 was a banner year, the only stumble being the exit of projected marquee act Wande Coal, 2014 was the year Mavin established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Nigeria. If they were very noticeable in the previous year, the moves made, along with their undeniable impact on Nigerian music in 2014 only made the Don Jazzy led outfit inescapable.
First came the signings, the trio of Reekado Banks, Korede Bello and Di’Ja, all singers with clear mainstream potential, were announced as the Mavin 2.0 acts individually over the course of three weeks. Shortly after came the nationwide (re-)introduction of a now expanded label via a massive new single, “Dorobucci.” Unless you were living under a rock with a total of zero working ears, it was impossible to not hear Dorobucci a disturbing amount of time; it is the actual definition of a scale-breaking song. Also, the video literally broke the internet, all because of a wink. Madness. Other group singles, “Adaobi,” “Looku Looku” and “Jantamanta,” mainly featuring the new label cast, followed, all quite successful but still dwarfed by the colossal impact of “Dorobucci.”
Similar to their senior colleagues, the new signings picked up from the success of those communal singles, and ran with it in their solo careers, simultaneously. Although none of them put out an album—the only Mavin act with a project in 2015 was Tiwa Savage, her sophomore R.E.D came out in the dying seconds of the year—each artist had at least one huge single under his/her belt in the following year. Di’Ja’s “Awww,” crossed over from late 2014 to become one of the biggest songs in 2015, Korede Bello’s cross-generational phenomena “Godwin” might as well have been the Nigerian national anthem for 2015, and Reekado Banks got more than a fair share of Nigerians singing along to “Katapot” and “Sugar Baby,” so much so that it resulted in that controversial Next Rated award at the 2015 edition of the Headies.
Riding on a high, Reekado Banks followed his big entrance year with his long-awaited debut album, Spotlight, in 2016, which housed popular singles “Oluwa Ni” and “Ladies and Gentlemen.” At the same time, Korede Bello continued to be consistent, putting out the ubiquitous, Tiwa Savage-assisted “Romantic,” also snagging a highly coveted Asa feature on “Somebody Great,” and rounding out the year with the edgy, well, for his image, “Do That Like That.” Add the slow but sure success of the Wizkid-assisted “Bad,” and “If I Start to Talk” featuring label mate Dr Sid, both singles off Tiwa Savage’s grossly underappreciated R.E.D album, 2016 turned out to be a solid year for the Mavin imprint.
By any standard, 2017 was a good year for Mavin, but it had its less than ideal parts. On the lukewarm side of things, Korede Bello finally released his debut Belloved to mostly tepid response, and Di’Ja’s criminally underrated EP Aphrodija came and went like a good thief at night. On the positive side, Reekado score another chart-topper with “Easy (Jeje),” while Tiwa Savage, first lady-turned-preeminent signing, returned with Sugarcane, a well-received EP led by huge single “All Over,” and also featuring wildly successful songs like the Wizkid-assisted “Ma Lo” and “Get It Now,” which had a remix featuring American R&B singer Omarion.
On the expansion side, Don Jazzy announced the addition of DNA, Johnny Drille and LadiPoe to the Mavin family in February of 2017. (Iyanya also briefly joined the roster in 2017, releasing a project, Signature, before his unceremonial departure.) Apart from DNA, twin brothers who were former X-Factor contestants and whose introductory single “How Can” is a chippy slice of bubble-gum afro-pop that fit right into the musical terrain Mavin largely occupies, Johnny Drille and Poe are totally different from who you’d expect a very mainstream tilted label to sign. Both artists already had formed identities to an irreconcilable extent; Johnny Drille, an alumnus of MTN Project Fame talent show, makes music that’s at the confluence of folk, R&B and Sophisti-Pop; Poe is a dynamic, wordplay-heavy rapper. The prominent question was what working arrangements would look like between these rather unique, heavily talented artists and a label that had basically catered to strictly pop artists since inception.
Without the usual re-introduction group song (or album) treatment, it seemed as though the label understood the fact that two-thirds of the Mavin 3.0 class wasn’t quite conventional enough for the prototypical rollout. In fact, DNA, the most mainstream-ready of the set who you’d expect to hit the ground running immediately, have been rather quiet thus far. Instead, it’s the pair of Johnny Drille and Poe who are making noticeable splashes of their own so far.
While it has been a relatively quiet 2018 for Mavin so far—apart from Tiwa Savage, who put out the extremely catchy, Duncan Mighty assisted “Lova Lova” and, of infinite significance, became the first African female artist to win an MTV EMA, every other artiste from the first two sets have been rather anonymous—this somewhat transitional period has helped Johnny and Poe, slowly but surely, come into their own as distinct artistes, under the Mavin canopy.
Talk About Poe, Poe’s long-anticipated debut album, is the only project released with the Mavin logo on it, so far this year. Warmly received by fans and critics, TAP, an artist-centric body of work that is very different from what one might expect from the Mavin machine, focuses on Poe’s strength as a rapper and a burgeoning songmaker to great effects.
Similar to his colleague, Johnny Drille has obviously not been asked to make musical concessions, his music is as guitar reliant and starry-eyed as ever, and it’s already showing great results. During the last edition of the Headies held in May, Johnny was amongst the nominees for the Next Rated category, and while he didn’t win, it was a recognition of his immense talent that only preceded his next big steps. In August, Johnny released his most talked about Mavin single yet, “Hallelujah,” a heart-warming collaboration with X3M songbird Simi. Just over a month ago, on October 14th, Johnny at his own curated live event, an extension of his “Johnny’s Room” series, for the first time, thrilling a reported crowd of 3,000 people, including label boss Don Jazzy, who had only words of praise to offer his signee.
Today I witnessed greatness. I saw the beauty of patience, hard work and dedication to your craft. #JohnnysRoomLive tonight was the best live event I have ever been to in Lagos. And the @Johnnydrille fans are soooo amazing. Thanks to everyone for showing up. GOD bless. #Mavin
— ITS DONJAZZY AGAIN😉 (@DONJAZZY) October 14, 2018
The most striking part of Don Jazzy’s tweet is where he expresses delight at seeing “the beauty of patience, hard work and dedication to your craft,” because it reveals a different mindset from the producer. Perennially known for being able to finagle hit songs in conjunction with his artists, the above-quoted line suggests that Don Jazzy is not all too bothered about catching one with Johnny Drille, and by extension, Poe. Last year, Poe dropped the Don Jazzy produced, Tiwa Savage-assisted “Are You Down,” a glossy piece of pop-rap that found the middle ground between the Don’s ability to bring a layered groove and Poe’s sensibilities as a rap artist. For someone who’s once publicly renounced rap music, it’s safe to say Don Jazzy is catering to the specific needs of his new artists.
In a mainstream space often dominated by whatever style of Afro-pop in vogue, the chances that Poe and/or Johnny will score a hit song at the height of, say, Korede Bello’s “Godwin” is pretty slim, but it doesn’t make them non-viable. Although Don Jazzy and Mavin have thrived off being able to work artists into hit songs, they have a chance to work with Poe and Johnny on the journeys to potentially storied careers. Where hit songs create moments that feed into instant gratification, they also come with a lifespan and the following pressure and necessity of making another hit song to keep up, a rarely sustainable career model. By contrast, an artist building his base brick by brick until it cumulates into a steady career that doesn’t live and die by the demands of a hit song is a lot more rewarding. This longer route is only possible through patience, hard work and dedication, which is what seems to be afforded Poe and Johnny; creative control with a willing platform to support.
Where most record labels don’t try to touch mainstream ready artists with a 10-foot pole, seeing sui generis artists like Johnny Drille and LadiPoe receive maximum support from a prominent label Mavin is very refreshing. Record labels shouldn’t just be trampolines, they could also be stairways.
According to the dictionary, a Mavin is an expert in a field. By diversifying their portfolio and adjusting their approach according to artiste, the Don Jazzy led label is priming itself as a platform in helping artists reach their full potential, which is a hell of an identity switch up if you ask me.
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