Interview

King of Amapiano: MGM Is Playing The Long Game

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Michael Gichure Mwaura, popularly known as MGM is the undisputed king of Amapiano in Kenya. While the sound was already bubbling under by the time of his mainstream debut, he came and took it to new levels and stages. An introspective & retrospective thinker, MGM is playing the long game.

MGM argues that “we need to create a chain [of paying-it-forward] to see overall industry growth.” Further, he urges discernment and business acumen is important while making business deals. As an artist, MGM bears all the pop qualities and angst of the era where he blows up – when African rhythm has spread so far globally that there’s an increase in demand for more voices like his. With few exceptions of those who made it in the space during the lockdown period, it looked like MGM’s rise was instantaneous. On the contrary, this has been 8 years in the making.

As his style mutates, MGM’s love for energetic music remains strong, and the exclusive track playing at the moment (we are at Trace Radio with Onedown) from his upcoming EP doesn’t hide the excitement. “It has taken a while to release cause I have been chasing perfection as it’s my first big body of work.” The lockdown made MGM part of a generation of artists that experienced dealing with an audience in a unique and unexpected manner. Approaching things from a DIY perspective, MGM has worked several strategies to make it work.

As he prepares for his debut EP slotted for April 2022, Sound Safari caught up with MGM in conversation at Trace Radio Studios, and later at AMP Studios for a podcast recording of whom he was an unexpected guest. Our conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows as below.

Sound Safari: You pushed hard during the lockdown period, what was the strategy behind this?

MGM: We tried everything, man! I used to record with Muluvi’s phone – any iPhone I could find. It was a very DIY approach because there was no money to hire equipment. It’s all on you and what you have. People used to think I’m crazy when I borrowed their phones to record, “1-hour recording?! Hiyo ni GB ngapi??” We also did Livesets dot com mixes in the dead of the night, Instagram live with my 6 viewers, lol. Somehow it just worked out.

How many years have you been deejaying?

I started in 2014. Some people think I started with Amapiano which isn’t the case. I used to be an open format hype DJ mbaya! Dancehall, Wizkid, all the hype music bro. It was a great time, too bad Mixcrate collapsed on us and the mixes from back then disappeared from the internet. I even used to do Dubstep man, good times.

That was a peak era for EDM around the globe and Kenya at large.

I should go back to that one day and tap into it cause I know people who are into it. We can push EDM even if it’s a small venue.

Something changed around 2016 and everyone started pushing Afro House. It became a catch 22 situation where you had to push the same sound to make bookings.

I never thought about it like that before but it makes sense. It’s all about the influence from your environment ee?

I would think so.

So in 2014, you were on campus or already out on the streets?

I had already cleared. I went to Shang Tao Media Art College and studied Animation & Film, and Music production. At the time I was doing Virtual DJ mixes and uploading on Mixcrate. My first gig if I remember correctly was the Smirnoff Campus Experience in JKUAT Karen.

My friend, DJ Darlington, booked me and at this particular point, I didn’t know how to use decks or any hardware. He gassed me up but I was scared I would mess up. DJ Darlington didn’t hear any of that and was like “bro I’ve already given you a job you have to do it.”

My set was peak time, Afro House when everyone is lit AF. You clash two-three songs then you get the hang of it. I didn’t even know how to use the jog-wheel. I killed the show and with my 3k, I went home feeling like a star. Nobody could tell me anything; I had got my friends drunk and we still had some drink leftover. It was amazing, that’s when I knew I could do this as a side-hustle. My main career path at the time was Interior design, animation; just something to do with design.

You were on top of the world…

Sure man. Right now I can’t even take that kind of compensation, we leave it for the up and coming. If I think about it, I’ve plugged in a lot of people as my way of paying it forward. If I was selfish I would be doing most Amapiano events right now but it doesn’t make sense. The cake is big enough for everyone.

The concept of Afro Blue at Blue Door was to share the table with other artists not me alone. Blue Door shut down and I created House Haven that’s here at Deja Vu with the same concept. You play your part and you give others their time. If you don’t know Obwaka when will you know him if we don’t start at these small stages? Someone opened a door somewhere for me to be in the position I am today, we need to create a chain to see overall industry growth.

Do you come from a musical background given your sister is one of the most interesting vocalists right now?

Everyone in my family apart from my brother is in music. My parents even have an album out. Then here comes my sister with all the heat. I fear her, man, the unreleased music that she has! Let me not even say, bro. I keep telling her 2022 is her year. Tina will sing in different languages from Kenya and East Africa at large. She’ll practice her diction, pronunciation and all the nitty-gritty of the language before submitting. There’s no half-assing for her, she gives it her all.

When you book Tina you know you are booking an artist that will deejay and give an outstanding vocal performance. We shouldn’t all be the same (mixing with USBs) and seeing her occupy this niche makes me proud.

What are you currently working on right now production-wise?

MGM: I have a 6-track EP that’s coming out this April. I’m finalizing on recording two songs and the artwork. It has taken a while to release cause I have been chasing perfection as it’s my first big body of work. One thing I’ve learnt from South African artists is you record a song today, play the teaser tomorrow, get the feedback and release it in a few weeks.

For me, I have learnt that quantity also increases the value of your back catalogue

True man, even search engines will know what’s up when someone looks you up. Just release and let the people decide.

Tanzanians are also doing the same with Swapiano.

Artists like Nelix are pushing new music every day, you’ll know the tunes as time goes by. This year my goal is music and content. If you check, some people are popping because of the content they’re putting out. Someone might have like two songs out but they have a lot of content. My weakness is that I am not into taking pics a lot. Muluvi is the one who reminds me.

You have to be engaging with your fans because the Kenyan crowd is a tough one. People will move on fast because there’s a lot of content and distractions. Content is king. You log in to Youtube you find MGM, Spotify, Apple – all these platforms. I even want to grab advertisements.

So far you have done a few brand partnerships, tell us about that.

I have done with Max Fly Energy Drink, Hunters, Jameson, Gilbeys among others. First of all, it is very rewarding financially and brand-wise. However, you have to be on top of your business. You need to be smart to get a good, long-term and beneficial deal that will push you to the next level. Sometimes I don’t even do the deals cause of the money but to build partnerships and visibility.

So long as you are on their radar anything can happen. For Trace Radio, it was the same case, I went in with my angle knowing I was going to stay long term. People like DJ Protege and DJ UV have been on the radio for years and radio is one of the biggest platforms around. Someone in Nakuru might not necessarily know what MGM looks like but they listen to me. Everywhere Trace radiofrequency reaches in this country they will hear my name. Play the long game.

Then it follows logically that there are certain levels of exposure that are beneficial?

There are, you just need to be discerning. If a brand is monied but they don’t give you 100k but are taking you to national TV don’t turn it down. do you know how many people are watching that show? Millions. They can call someone else and they will show up and you’re told to up and leave.

Let me give this piece of advice, some people have some mindset that people out here are making bank per event. They are but the rate cards aren’t that crazy, it is not like that all the time. Nobody is giving you 250k in this game right now. Not all clubs and promoters have that kind of money. Having sponsors in a gig also matters.

We are still not there yet.

Yes, there are some areas where we are still struggling in our scene. We sometimes rely on gate charges that we then split, you go home with maybe 10k. We are at a place where corporate want to give money but for big festivals.

I’m interested in partnerships where we can do a Thursday night and then build to big stages. That’s how we build a community. These big things with “numbers” are okay but they are not frequent.

MGM

You are pushing House on a weekday, that’s dope.

It is. House music events are relegated to the weekend, nobody was doing it on a Thursday last year. I hope there are people out there who are watching and appreciating. Much love to everyone who is coming to support us. We started at The Kraft with DJ UV but it ended because of budget issues, went to Blue Door, Muze, Honey & Dough for a while and now we are at Deja Vu. We have travelled in this Nairobi. Mombasa is the next thing, Shangatatu is onto something.

What’s the difference between having a manager and working independently?

I have been working with Brian Muluvi for about two years now. There are a few advantages to having a manager. First of all, your presentation to partners out there is that you are at a certain level of your profession. Secondly, you don’t necessarily have to represent yourself in boardrooms. I’m the DJ, I can’t do all these so management takes care of that.

I can’t push Instagram, do my styling, follow up payments, give rider requirements and deejay. At one point it can be overwhelming. Having a team that helps you in areas you are not capable enough can propel you. They also bring you jobs cause their cut comes from there. Your manager should also have a level of access that you might not be having. On the other hand, some people are doing it solo and doing great though that requires a certain level of discipline.

We also work with Sharon Mulwa on the ground as the stage and events manager. If I have to travel for gigs she’s the person I will arrange with.

Which is the biggest stage you have performed at?

Muze Outdoor with Black Coffee and Pianochella with Major League DJs. People came from from Nakuru, Mombasa to Kisumu for Pinaochella. It is one of my favourite gigs to date.

In closing, when did you move from open format deejaying to House music?

Towards the end of 2018 is when I started knowing about clubs that had dedicated House Music nights; 6 pm to 6 am. I found myself at Captain’s Terrace in early 2019 and the energy was crazy. My friend Wandia told us to head out to Temple, another event that was happening in Westlands and eh, my friend!! The energy vibrating from that small space was it for me, I got hooked!

I started playing House music in all my gigs cause at this point I was sure some people vibe to House music and they would come. That’s what has kept me going.

djfita

DJ Fita is a Kenyan DJ, music producer and music journalist. He is the founder of Sound Safari.

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