Lifetime deal: Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s visit to Uganda recently took very many people by storm and we cannot imagine how tough it was for the guys at Swangz Avenue to keep their lips sealed on this one. Isaac Ssejjombwe spoke to one of Swangz’ bosses Julius Kyazze about the experience working with the star.
How did Swangz Avenue get the deal to work with Kanye West?
Because of the nature of this job and the non-disclosure contracts we signed, there is a lot that you want to know but I cannot disclose. The one thing we learnt about Kanye West is that when you work with professionals, there is a lot you discover but you cannot say because that is what earns you the next job. These guys want to know whether they can trust you.
But Tshaka Ssali, on his Jazz Safari Facebook page spilled that the deal came through a South African company called Gearhouse.
Kanye’s team contacted Gearhouse for references but because Gearhouse works with Tshaka Mayanja a lot, they needed recommendations, so he threw in our name, they did their background checks and I believe everything checked out.
How many people did Kanye West come with?
About 50 people; a private chef, security team, producers, writers, musicians, and people to look after his family, among others.
I thought Swangz was contracted to work on the production?
We set up four recording studios and all those studios were working all the time, so that explains having the different producers, writers and artistes that we did not even know, but are big apparently, for example Tayana Taylor, Big Sean and Marie Berry, among others. We noticed Big Sean after Kanye called us in studio with Benon and it was Benon who recognised him.
Were these artistes part of Kanye’s album as well?
Not exactly, I think Kanye wanted to create music for the album and maybe pick inspiration from Africa and he probably wanted to surround himself with creative people.
Which studio was Kanye West working in?
He was working in our studio – the main studio. That is the studio we were in charge of and not even his team would access it. It was us, him and his engineers.
How many songs did Swangz Avenue record for Kanye West?
We cannot discuss details of the production. When that happens, people will ask for a track list and people in other markets pay for track lists. That hinges the contract but what I can tell you is that Kanye came with a lot of material and kept adding and taking out things.
Shall we see the brand Swangz Avenue written somewhere on Kanye’s ‘Yendi’ album?
We do not even know what the final product is and we doubt Kanye knows too. You have to ask him. It is big for us but things change. Back in the day an album would come out and you would see a thousand people given credit, now everything is digital. You only see the artiste and the name of the song but we might show up somewhere, who knows?
Besides recording, visiting the President and Masulita, what else did Kanye do?
Visiting Masulita was never on his programme. It happened on the actual day he left. He knew he was going to meet the President, but after work. So it was more about recording.
How big was this deal to Swangz Avenue?
This was even not about money but rather about the experience of having shared that studio with Kanye, watching him work, talking to him, sharing things. That experience has opened our eyes to a lot of things.
Our thinking about business and music. It cannot be the same again. It is entirely up to us what we do about that experience.
Besides Chobe employees, were you guys (Swangz Avenue) the only Ugandans at the safari lodge?
There were four teams at Chobe; Kanye’s team, Chobe staff, SFC security and Swangz.
How many members were on the Swangz team?
Because of the production demands, we outsourced some equipment locally from different people, for example cables in other studios. We worked with Jemiworld, but as Swangz, we were only four people.
The whole outdoor studio thing was different. Tell us about that experience.
We had not done anything like that before but when Kanye’s request came through, we had to do it. The thing with Kanye is that impossible is nothing. He is the kind of guy who wakes up and says, “This is beautiful, but I need another studio.” It was new but we embraced the challenge. We have an attitude of doing different things, and we met a guy who does impossible things. The dome and everything is what we are going to borrow actually.
Tell us about Kanye’s work ethic.
Kanye West is a workaholic. Sometimes you would work, maybe up to 11pm, and you think you are done then he wakes up at 1am and wants to record. And then sometimes you would think he is sleeping and while you are about to let the team go, the man shows up.
Are Swangz Avenue artistes going to benefit from this?
There is quite a bit of things we are working on with Kanye West going forward.
This was not the only deal?
It was the only deal but when he got here, he was so excited with what we did and our previous works, and he said we need to be working more together. So we are working on a number of stuff.
How sure are you that he will live up to that promise?
People think Swangz working with Kanye is going to studio and recording a song. Kanye West is bigger than that, Swangz Avenue is bigger than that. This project was not about sitting on the mixer. Us working with him means we are looking for bigger projects, making superstars in Africa, grooming talent. He is a big global brand and we are using that connection to elevate African art to a big stage.
Talking of uplifting African art, we saw a video of him dancing to a Nigerian song, couldn’t he have danced to a Ugandan song instead?
We played him all kinds of songs from Africa, including Ugandan content and there is actually a lot that we still have to learn, so for us it is capacity to get our producers to that level.
How about a collaboration with a Ugandan artiste?
Then what? Can I get producers from Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria producing on the same level then we get the Jay Zs, Alicia Keys and many more coming to Africa to record? We have been engaging with some producers for the last couple of days telling them how we can lift our game. We need to be thinking global and Kanye helped us open our eyes to a lot of that. We had meaningful conversations.
What songs did he listen to?
I cannot disclose that but he asked to listen to our content.
Was he impressed by what he listened to?
I do not think I can answer that because people will hate me if I go into details of what went on in there.
How is Kanye West’s personality?
He is different, he is a star, he is a genius and I think people misunderstand him because most of us are normal, which makes us struggle to understand someone beyond our thinking (ability). You do not get at his level by being normal. There is something special about him. He is very abstract and spontaneous. You do not know his next move.
Do you believe he is crazy like some people say?
For him to be able to accumulate the wealth and success he has, I do not think any mad person can do that. People just cannot figure him out.
Before meeting him, did you have any expectations?
Nothing. Initially when we started communicating with his team, it was too good to be true. We kept it to ourselves and not even the rest of the Swangz team knew because we thought it was a hoax. It sunk in after I met his personal assistant and she was telling me stuff like we need to shift this because Kanye won’t like it. Kanye doesn’t like plastic bottles around, he is cautious about the environment and so on. That is when it dawned on me that we are actually in charge of this thing.
Does he ever laugh?
The times we spent with him, he was a pretty serious guy but chill, calm and collected.
What was the first word you said to him when you met?
I told him, “Kanye, don’t get me wrong, we are all excited that you are here, we are privileged to be working with you, but why of all places Uganda?”
He said: “I don’t know, my head is empty. It’s spiritual.”
What about his character? What is he like?
Most of the times we were with him, it was mostly about work. But he is a health freak. He likes working out and walks a lot.
How would you relate him to our artistes?
I have worked with these stars; Tarrus Riley, Morgan Heritage and now Kanye, and the thing I have noticed is that our artistes do not work as hard. These guys work way too much, and professionally. For them, it is a job. Some people [in Chobe] even had to leave after messing up.
How can an artiste not go to studio in two weeks?
Tell us about Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian.
We did not interact with her much. We only saw her a couple of times when she came to studio to see Kanye.
What did you learn from him?
Impossible is nothing. When you work with him, you do not want to have people around you that are going to say ‘that is hard, you can’t do it’. With him, things have to happen.
How long does he take to record?
There is no standard but he has high energy, sometimes he wants to be alone with his engineer, sometimes with other people.
What was the mood like around him?
It was hard to keep calm around him because he was treating us like professionals since he had been told that we were the best guys, so you could not turn and become a fan, but we managed to stay cool and do the job. We could not even ask for a selfie.
Had you finished work when he left?
We were contracted until Wednesday, but we were done a day early.
Any challenges on this project?
Setting up a studio in a very unconventional way. There is a time when we worked with him during the night and there was a bit of slap back on the PVC in the tent and we needed to figure out a way to treat it acoustically, but we were given a plane for anything that we needed in Kampala. So we bought about 600 metres of some fabric to try handle the acoustic treatment, put it on the plane and took it to Chobe but every time we tried to fix the problem, something came up and we actually ended up not using it.
Your take from this experience?
I am so happy that we did it but I do not want to take all the credit. This does not mean that we are so special, but God just put us in that position to learn and use what we have learnt to help other people.