However, in one of his last interviews, Fela revealed to Keziah Jones that one major label had actually made a concerted effort to sign him in the early 1990s:
Motown came here some time ago to sign me up. In the first place the deal they were offering me was so ridiculous. These bastards came all the way from America to come and talk this shit? I said to people: “Look at this name ‘Motown.’ That word is Yoruba: mo-ta-ohun, it literally means ‘I sell my voice.’” [Laughter.] I said: “Anybody who goes with these people will be finished.” Then later Motown collapsed or the head was sacked or something like that. They had been found out! Yoruba is the secret of universal witchcraft. I was born here to understand that language, see?After being turned down flat by Fela, Motown's emissaries were not about to leave Lagos emptyhanded, even if it meant settling for the next best thing. I'm assuming that's what happened anyway, because around that same period, Femi Anikulapo Kuti was signed to Motown subsidiary Tabu.
Before it was acquired by PolyGram and merged into Motown in 1993, Tabu had been an independent label best known for cutting-edge modern soul releases by 80s acts like Alexander O'Neal, Cherrelle, and The S.O.S. Band. Under Motown, it was being refashioned to serve mostly as a World Music™ boutique, with signings such as Lucky Dube and The Wailers Band. While Fela remained unobtainable, the addition of his son to the roster was a credibility-boosting coup for the new Tabu.
Femi wasn't exactly a Johnny-Just-Come himself, having cut his teeth as a saxman in his father's Egypt 80 organization in his teens and fronting his own Positive Force band since 1986. His 1989 debut, No Cause For Alarm? and the 1991 followup M.Y.O.B. had both enjoyed moderate success in Nigeria, but Femi remained shrouded by his old man's shadow. The public found him to be a nice enough lad, and a competent musician (possibly even more so than his father, as his fluid, circular-breathed sax lines sanded away Fela's characteristic discordant honks and squawks) but utterly lacking in the hard-headedness, the brio, the gra-gra that made Fela the patron saint of the sufferman. Needless to say, not too many people expected him to graduate to the world stage so soon... Not even Fela himself.
(As much as Fela may have later railed against Motown, Femi has reported that his father was at the time deeply impressed when he scored the Motown deal, and proudly trumpeted it to all and sundry as evidence of his own superior child-rearing technique.)
Unfortunately, the Motown contract was short-lived; as alluded to by Fela in the above quote, the record company was about to hit some hard times.
In 1995, Andre Harrell was appointed president and CEO of Motown. Harrell--who had revolutionized and reenergized the R&B genre in the late 80s and early 90s with his Uptown Records label and was expected to retool and refocus the legendary label for a new generation--ascended to the throne with an extended self-promotion campaign of astounding profligacy, but seemed unable to produce significant results. Perhaps he was lost without the two men who had helped him make Uptown a success--New Jack production whizkid Teddy Riley and a young, visionary intern named Sean "Puffy" Combs--but of the 30 new acts signed by Motown during Harrell's tenure, only a handful managed to release product. And they mostly sucked. (Remember Jason Weaver? Taral Hicks? That girl group Shades with that song "Tell me your name, what car do you drive, how much money do you make"? Of course you don't! And trust me: you are the lucky one!)
By 1997, with losses hitting the $100 million mark, Motown was forced to give Harrell the boot and prune the company, in the process scrapping subsidiaries such as MoJazz, Mad Sounds and yes, Tabu. The company did not exactly collapse as Fela described, but the bad publicity permanently tarred the label's reputation and ended its almost 40-year run of relevance.
Even though Motown crashed, Femi Kuti didn't. After Fela's death, Femi took over management of The Shrine, scored a massive hit with the saucy "Beng Beng Beng," landed a new deal with MCA and became a highly respected figure not just among fans of afrobeat and funk, but also in the realms of house, techno, hip-hop, and neo-soul.
In May 2000, he was honored as the Best-Selling African Artist at the World Music Awards in Monaco, where he also took the stage with his band. His rendition of "Beng Beng Beng" got the audience of international music stars and sundry stuffed shirts so hype, it reminded me of the reaction to Ricky Martin's performance of "La Copa de la Vida" at the 1998 Grammys, which led directly to the late-90s "Latin Explosion." If Femi had gotten a chance to play on an awards show that people actually watched, I have no doubt that afrobeat would have really blown up on a global level.
Yesterday, for the first time in maybe seven years, I listened to the one album Femi Kuti released with Motown and was surprised at how great it was. I'm tempted to say that it's his best album, in fact. (Of course, I'd have to listen to 1999's Shoki Shoki again just to be sure; I've not listened to it in a while either, but I remember most of it being fire.) It's interesting, in retrospect, to hear Femi making a run for greatness at a time when Fela was still alive; he sounds hungry, energetic, and most importantly, unladen by the weighty mantle that I feel has burdened his last two albums.
I saw him when he toured behind this album (on the Africa Fete revue with Baaba Maal, Oumou Sangare and... was Lucky Dube on that bill? I forget.); that was the first concert I ever went to in the States. I remember I got a promo cassette there that had a bonus non-album cut. I should have posted that, huh? Okay... I'll dig it up later.
FEMI KUTI - FEMI KUTI (Tabu, 1995)Download the ZIP or get it track by track:
Femi Anikulapo Kuti - Lead vocals, alto saxophone and solo, soprano saxophone and solo, baritone saxophone
Dele Sosimi - Background vocals, Yamaha DX7, Korg M1, keyboard solo on "Nawa"
Otolorin Laleye - Background vocals, trumpet and solo, flugelhorn solo, percussion
Gbenga Laleye - Background vocals, flugelhorn
Yinka Osindeinde - Background vocals, tenor saxophone and solo
Tiwalade Ogunlowo - Background vocals, trombone
Yemi Folarin - Alto saxophone
Gbenga Ofisesan - Percussion, conga solo
Efosa Igbineweka - Background vocals, rhythm guitar and solo
Obinna Ajuzigwe - Background vocals, bass guitar
Jude Amarikowa - Background vocals, drums and solo
Yeni Anikulapo Kuti - Vocals, tambourine
Sola Anikulapo Kuti - Vocals, clefs
Alaba Otomewo - Vocals, maracas
Funke Yusuf - Vocals
Josh Milan - Korg X1 solo
All songs written by Femi Kuti
All songs produced by Andy Lyden and Femi Anikulapo Kuti
1. Wonder Wonder
4. Nawa (Introduction)
6. Plenty Nonsense
7. Stubborn Problems
8. No Shame
9. Live For Today