“Jealous” by Fireboy DML

The history behind this clean, crooning vibe.

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The first time I heard “Jealous” by Fireboy DML, I was seized with that frustrating feeling of knowing that you’ve heard this before, but being unable to place exactly where, or what it’s called, or when it happened.

The first few bars took me to very distinct memories: of road trips in my Dad’s Land Rover when he would play lots of different African music, of this one time that I was in a music store with my godparents and they picked up some niche, vaguely afro and asian music-inspired fusion CD, which was always my favorite at their house but being so long ago I completely forgot what it was called or when that trip was; I think I was under the age of 10.

This music came from somewhere, and I didn’t know what it was called. I was all-consumed with needing to know what “Jealous” was musically rooted in, since it was something so special I remembered it from almost twenty years ago.

I immediately messaged West African friends — “help what is this called where is it from?!” and received a variety of responses. My friend Pelkins from Cameroon said the distinct guitar notes were likely inspired by Palm Wine music, which was almost true but a little too happy and kick-back sounding. Fireboy self-describes his music as “afro-life”, which made me wonder if it had anything to do with Highlife. The only thing that came close were some Fela Kuti jams. The breathy background vocals in particular were what I was looking for an answer to — I felt they clearly reminded me of something…but unfortunately I never found an answer.

Regardless, even the few leads I did have sent me down some interesting directions.

Palm Wine Music

This clip of some palm wine music did seem like it could be the guitar in “Jealous”, though most of this genre (like Highlife) didn’t quite have the melancholy, chill vibe of “Jealous”.

Traditional Percussion

There’s definitely some traditionalish percussion going on in the back beat. A Ghanaian friend, Emmanuel, turned me on to couple interesting instruments that could be responsible (or inspired) some of the percussion.

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The shekere or cabasa is something most people have probably seen and heard, but not known the name of — the traditional version is a bead-covered gourd that can make soft percussive sounds. The cabasa is a later, Latin version of the instrument.

There was also this wild instrument I’d never seen or heard of before — the Patica. I really can’t explain how it works…just watch the video lol.

Production

After researching heavily for this article, I found a video that I thought might make writing it unnecessary — an explanation by producer Cracker Mallo.

He drops several pretty great quotes throughout:

“This is one of the easiest beats I ever made. It’s one of the best I ever made, but it didn’t stress me, because we were both on a vibe together…it’s something I would call a master mind...”

“We tried to give it an international vibe but an African vibe as well”

“You can’t be making African music without bass.”

“I decided to add the guitar to just give it something very emotional, make it sound African and at the same time Arabian and at the same time emotional…”

The only instruments specifically mentioned by DJ Cracker Mallo are the two guitars, the bass guitar, a kick drum, castanets, and, vaguely, some “shakers”. However, he continuously refers to wanting to give it an African vibe — which, perhaps knowingly, perhaps not, is defined by generations and generations of experimenting, of influence, of kids growing up listening to Fela Kuti and then making music themselves (for proof of this fact look at pretty much any Nigerian pop artist’s ‘musical influences’).

My question is how much creators are consciously paying tribute to this fact, and how much of it is an ambient, built-up awareness of what the “African vibe” is. I would love to know what’s going on in both artists and listener’s heads , about how much of this is intentional. What I’d love to see more of is the deliberate use of traditional instruments, rather than just the synthetic experimentation.

I realized that there are other songs I could have written this post about — maybe “Oshey” and “Your Corner”, both produced by Juls. Something about “Jealous”, though, gave me a strong reaction — I think it was the background vocals, to which I never found an answer. So maybe it is not so explicitly conscious, but what is clear to me is that there is a thread of continuity we can draw to the history behind modern African music, all the different things that make an “African vibe”, whether intentional or not. I only wish there were more people talking about it!

Let me know what you think, or what modern songs make you nostalgic~

Written by

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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