This Ghanaian DJ Lays Beats for Beyoncé
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
GuiltyBeatz is one of Africa's biggest rising music stars.
By Eromo Egbejule
Long before melding vintage African sounds with contemporary Western music genres for Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated 2019 The Lion King: The Gift album, GuiltyBeatz already had a reputation for being a tinkerman.
“I started when I was 13, using my Sony Ericsson phone and there was an application on it called Music DJ,” says GuiltyBeatz now 30, with a laugh. “I used it to create instrumentals and that’s where my whole music passion began.” Over the course of his teenage years, the rookie graduated to beat-making software like Fruity Loops and eventually Logic Pro.
Born in Milan to Ghanaian entrepreneur parents, the music producer lived in Italy till he was six, when his family returned to Accra. There in the Ghanaian capital — still known only as Ronald Banful — he honed his ear for music and trained his keys to make even more.
Being the first of their two children and their only son, his parents ensured that young Banful focused on education. Nevertheless, he spent his childhood guzzling music fundamentals in a church brass band where he learned to play the euphonium — which he describes as “the tuba’s little brother.”
He graduated to the church choir, mastering the piano, then moved on to a six-person high school rap crew called Skid Boys, where he produced beats and wrote lyrics. Throughout, he fed his brain with jazz, traditional wedding songs and highlife music made by local legends like Daddy Lumba, Nana Ampadu and Kojo Antwi. The potpourri of influences that created his musical style and thus his career, was invaluable in crafting songs for Beyoncé’s album — unofficial soundtrack album curated by Queen Bey and tied in to the 2019 live-action Lion King remake in which she starred.
His new name was inspired by his favorite t-shirt — inscribed with the word “Guilty” — for which he became known while studying for his degree in social work. In 2014, a mutual friend linked GuiltyBeatz up with the Nigerian superstar Mr. Eazi, then himself an upstart. It was the start of a working relationship that launched the producer’s career beyond the borders of the former Gold Coast.
Their collaboration first bore fruit when they worked together on 2015’s Sample You — and a remix that became one of the biggest West African dance anthems the following year. They’ve been working together since and performed together at Coachella last year. GuiltyBeatz, who continues to frolic with stars from Lagos to London, has also worked with African music royalty Wizkid, Sarkodie and his erstwhile idol Antwi.
“His talent will always be undeniable,” says Mr. Eazi, whose indie label Banku Music signed GuiltyBeatz in 2018. “I think he can be the West African answer to [world-famous South African DJ] Black Coffee.”
Since then, a few of his other singles have also found cross-border appeal and this month he’s released his debut EP, Different, a six-song cycle that’s an exercise in genre obfuscation. “It’s distinct,” he brags. “The sounds that I chose, the artists that I chose … it puts them in a different light. For everyone on the tape, the songs that they’re on, is not what they usually do.” One of its standout tracks is the kwaito-inspired and aptly titled “Condom Collector,” where female duo South African singer Moonchild Sanelly and Kenyan DJ Poizon Ivy join Mr. Eazi in whispering innuendos in English and isiXhosa.
“GuiltyBeatz is amazing both as an individual and an artist,” says Ameyaw Debrah, Ghana’s best-known entertainment blogger and journalist. “When it comes to music, his focus is different and so his sound is different. He tries to fuse dance and electronic music with Afrobeats that makes his music travel well. Such out-of-the box thinking is needed in sustaining the growing emergence of African music on the global stage.”
Eventually three of the five tracks GuiltyBeatz forwarded to Beyoncé’s team were selected, and they atomize the album’s general theme as a medley of African music royalty outshining the world’s biggest stars as they all purr about love and celebrate blackness. His favorite, GuiltyBeatz says, was Keys to the Kingdom — on which his label boss traded verses with Universal Music’s Tiwa Savage, Africa’s biggest female star, on a track with an intro arranged to sound like a vintage highlife sample.
“Working with Beyoncé was a great feeling,” he says, beaming. “I learned a lot from how she works, she’s very hardworking and persistent.” It wasn’t just Beyoncé who inspired him though — meeting her husband was also a game-changer. “Just being around Jay Z, I got so motivated and told myself ‘Yo, I need to be a billionaire. I need to triple my hard work.’”
Beyond the dreams of fame and fortune, GuiltyBeatz is conscious about making music that can stand taller than his 5-foot-10 frame.
“I want to tour, do festivals and scores for movies,” he says, which would follow up the score he created for the Ghanaian TV series Heels and Sneakers. “Maybe even Black Panther 2.”
OZY’s 5 questions With GuiltyBeatz
- What’s the last book you read? Donald S. Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business.
- What do you worry about? Running out of boxers.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? God.
- Who’s your hero? God.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? DJing at the North Pole.
- Eromo Egbejule