Music sampling, the reuse of a sample of a sound recording in another new recording, has for long been part and parcel of music production processes. Some of the mainstream music genres are known to have the core of their sounds coming from sampled beats. The golden age of Hip Hop, for instance, the mid-late 1980s to early-mid 1990s, was associated with an eclectic experimentation of sampling old records to create new transcendental Hip Hop songs.

C.R.E.A.M by Wu-Tang Clan ( which is a backronym of Cash Rules Everything Around Me ) was sampled from The Charmel’s 1967 song As Long As I’ve Got You. Mobb Deep’s Shook Ones, Part II, which is regarded as the best produced Hip Hop single of all time, was sampled from  Jessica by Herbie Hancock and Kitty with the Bent Frame by Quincy Jones, while the drums were sampled from Dirty Feet by Daly-Wilson Big Band.  According to American rapper, singer, and record producer JPEGMAFIA, sampling is a form of ‘high art’.

In Kenya, new age artists have in the past year undertaken to mirror these Hip Hop acts of the golden age, by aiming to make themselves emblematic of an evolution in Kenyan music which involves sampling beats from Kenyan Classic songs. Music producer Morris Kobia, AKA Motif Di Don, is at the forefront of this new wave, with the name given to the type of music being produced using the sampled beats being Arbantone.

Arbantone mirroring Gengetone in terms of the lyrical themes and vocal delivery technique, has made some term the former as just another iteration of the latter. But even for a subgenre, Arbantone songs have been gaining extensive traction with some of the highly rated Kenyan songs of 2023 being ones sampled from Kenyan classics.

Soundkraft, another producer who is at the forefront of purveying for this new genre, is behind the most successful Arbantone single so far Tiktoker. Tiktoker has garnered over 4.2 million views since it was uploaded on YouTube, indicating how Kenyan music fans are embracing the new Arbantone aesthetic. With a beat sampled from Jua Cali’s Bidii Yangu, Tiktoker taps into the Gen-Z prerogative of making content creation through the popular social media platform TikTok a daily lifestyle activity, and achieves an appeal due to the introspection of this relatable aspect of modern life. Soundkraft features the artists Gody Tenor, Tipsy Gee and the prince of  Gengetone Kappy in the song.

The other Arbantone hit song of 2023 was Bubbly Bubbly (Na Niki) by Songstress Maandy, which has garnered over 2.5 million YouTube views, produced by  popular  local producer Metro. The most successful of artists so far from the genre, or rather subgenre as others might term it as aforementioned, is Buruburu based artist YBW Smith. In 2023 YBW Smith gained profound notoriety from tapping into this new wave to establish himself as probably the first wonderkid of the Arbantone genre. Some of the hit songs he released include PIC, Lele and Nakudai which is a track he is featured in by SeanMMG. 

Still Cooking

Although Arbantone seems to have already established a mainstream fan base and even resulted in some Kenyan music acts entrenching themselves as potential household names, the genre has not yet been ascribed a viable compartment of Kenyan music.  In fact some mainstream local artists have sounded their reservations on this genre that relies on heavy sampling. Gengetone female act Ssaru is known to have dismissed the Arbantone wave on Ghetto Radio calling it a passing wind due to its overuse of sampled retro-beats.

It is known that for Hip Hop to grow from an underground inner-city art to commercial success, artists had to adapt to the appeals of mainstream music audiences. They also had to tap deeper into the artistic core of Hip Hop as an art, whose one aspect is poem-like lyrics that allegorically explore real life settings, banes and delights alongside as well. Even for a heavily sampled song, Shook Ones Pt 11 is known for having daringly explored the innermost dark thoughts and feelings of a black man living in 1990’s inner city New York. 

The main criticism that Kenyan modern music has faced in recent times pertains to  the relevance of the lyrics in the songs. It has been argued that  Kenyan artists, especially those engaging in the Gengetone genre, fail to showcase an ethical fortitude in their music as they embrace profane lyrics in lieu of those that depict real life situations in Kenya’s social-cultural life. Using the relatively new genre, Arbantone artists can embrace the curation of lyrics which take into account the appeal classic samples afford them, to shine light on situations Kenyan audiences would love to see explored, thus in the process ensuring the acceptance of the genre as a viable iteration of Kenyan mainstream music.

It is also known that for an art genre to grow it needs some ambassadors to showcase its germane-ness to mainstream aficionados of the art in question. In Arbantone, the internet sensation turned artist Lil Maina is probably the best shout. This is an artist known to be prolific enough not to conform to the boundaries of one music genre, and who in 2023 everyone witnessed to be clean-cut every time he released an Arbantone song. From his numerous collaborations with the artist Danski,  in songs such as Shikisha, Ngwai, Cocoa Butter and Saa Sita which features YBW Smith as well, and also his hit song Kinare which features Mtapeli na Bado, Lil Maina  proved to be an artist with a dexterity which if combined with his already established fame could advocate for the genre as the newest viable offering of Kenyan musical art.

The core phenomenon of musical culture remains evolution. Some might fault Arbantone for its heavy reliance on sampling, others might dismiss it as just another replication of Gengetone. But Arbantone serves as evidence of a Kenyan music industry that is evolving. And that is something that should delight every Kenyan music head – or anyone really who has their finger on the pulse of Kenyan popular culture.