CRUISE! The new DIY sound of Nigerian nightlife

Thanks to the likes of DJ Cora, Slimfit and DJ Stainless, the Lagos cultural underground is alive with a cutting-edge new club sound. We investigate the scene’s rapid evolution, speaking to some key players as cruise looks set to go global

A new genre of homegrown electronic music is forming in Nigeria – so new that no one has settled on a name yet. Some are calling it ‘freebeat’. That’s how producers tag the beats when posting them on local blogs (which are also full of bootlegs and unofficial mixtapes) but that’s just because they’re free mp3s. 

The other name floating around is ‘cruise’, a descriptor which emphasises the freewheeling and joyful nature of the sound. Producers like DJ YK, Slimfit and DJ Stainless are some of the pioneers in this fast-moving and chaotic scene. Part deconstructed amapiano, part meme music, its creators bring the no-nonsense energy of ’80s Chicago house, and jack up the tempo for street dancers. 

“Most people in Lagos are ‘cruise people’,” says cruise producer DJ Cora. “They love to laugh, they love to dance. They want to hear things that make them laugh, dance and scatter body.”

“It was ostensibly stuff that people were putting out there for vocalists and rappers to jump onto,” explains Ian McQuaid of MOVES Recordings, who are helping to document this scene through a compilation release. “More often, the dancers were downloading this stuff and then speeding it up, putting on TikTok and making dances. Within a couple of months, producers were putting out records that were reflecting the speed of the dances themselves. You could see this virtuous circle was being created on social media.” 

As part of a label that specialises in showcasing undervalued strains of dance music from across the globe, the sound instantly caught McQuaid’s attention. To state the obvious, cruise is incredibly distinct and ear-grabbing. Low bite-rate samples are triggered and retriggered over hectic but minimal instrumentals. Songs are often just a couple of minutes, and follow no traditional pop format. They operate more like on-the-fly DJ cuts, uploaded directly from a cracked version of FruityLoops. When McQuaid reached out to his contacts in Lagos, the impact of this sound became obvious. 

“It turned out that on an underground level, this thing was blowing up massively,” he says. “For me it was the first example of what you could call a homegrown Nigerian techno sound.” There’s a practical reason for the frantic nature of the beats, too. Just take the incessantly looped producer tags, which were borne out of necessity, but now feel like a built-in feature:

“All of the producers now know that they break their tunes on TikTok,” McQuaid explains. “Audiomack is another big platform for it. The reason it goes on there, and the reason you’ll hear producer name tags all the way through the tunes, is that there’s a lot of scurrilous behaviour that goes on. The dancers are not tagging the producers when they upload it, because they’re trying to build their own brand. As a response to that, as a producer, the only chance you’ve got of people knowing that you made this tune is if you hammer your name tag all over it.

“That’s a very pragmatic way to ensure that you get the attention that you want. That’s an example of it quite clearly affecting the content of the music by responding to the form and the way it’s being shared.” 

“It’s important because when I first started making beats, my beats were popular but I wasn’t getting any recognition,” agrees another cruise producer, DJ YK. “I made the viral ‘Ogo Agege’ beat but many people don’t know because my tag wasn’t on it, so artists just took it and were making their own songs from it. A friend of mine noticed and advised I start adding these skits to it so that there’s no space for anyone to record over it, and over time people fell in love with it because they find it funny, entertaining and it makes them dance. Now it’s my signature as it distinguishes me from other people.”

The conversation between producer and dancer has led to an exciting evolution in how cruise sounds. Producers work at a flat-out rate, throwing everything at their beats to see what will catch on with the dancers. This reveals that people’s tastes are often far weirder than slick pop producers estimate. 

Take DJ Stainless’ ‘No Comment Freebeat’, a borderline atonal one-note jam that rides a midi guitar into oblivion for over three minutes. Whatever sticks for one producer ends up influencing the freebeats that get posted on TikTok for the next few weeks. 

“I draw inspiration from Instagram and other social media sites,” explains DJ Cora. “People keep tagging me on these videos and sending these memes to me and they’ll say, ‘Can you add a beat to this so we can dance?’ Once I get the vocals, it takes me an hour or two to get a beat ready. The inspiration comes from the vocal, if it’s the kind of vocal that suits makosa, I’m going for makosa production, if it fits street I’m going to do street vibe, if the vocal fits amapiano, I’ll do amapiano vibe.”

DJ YK’s process is similar. “TikTok is where my sounds do the best. As creators use my sounds, they spread fast.” Like Cora, he makes his beats fast too. “Say about 15-20 minutes.”

DJ Khalipha

The rapid creativity of cruise has been the biggest hurdle for MOVES, as they release the first international compilation of cruise beats as a four-part EP series. Nevertheless, documenting the early days of this movement has been a rewarding task. 

“We’ve signed some stuff that’s going to be coming out six months after you’ve signed it, which is crazy when things are moving so quickly,” McQuaid says. 

That’s made even more of an issue given the EPs will be releasing on vinyl during a time where pressing plants are badly falling behind on orders. The incongruity of capturing such an intentionally disposable and digital sound on record was too good to pass up on, though. 

“We wanted to print on vinyl because we wanted to do this kind of ludicrous thing of taking this ‘throwaway’ sound and putting it on a record. Vinyl is a ridiculous format – it’s an antiquated luxury format, which I quite like. But I liked the wrongheadedness of taking this complete throwaway thing, which in some cases it’s just mp3s without any real project files. ”

Cruise is not yet in its final form, and there’s no way of knowing where it’ll end up. “I’ve no idea where this thing will be in six months’ time,” says McQuaid. “It’ll probably be growing and spreading. I’m also aware of the distorting lense of bringing foreign money into stuff. It’s like quantum physics; when you measure something you change its position. 

“I don’t want our presence to have a distorting effect in a negative sense. I want to be able to support people to grow in the way they would have done naturally, and like the best scenes, they tend to grow outside of the limelight to get to a solid place before they blow. I know it’ll change. I think it’ll grow first before you see the changes, but it’ll be driven by what people start dancing to.”

“I see it as a new thing,” says DJ Cora. “I can say I’m the first of the DJs that started cruise, I see it as something that people hadn’t really indulged in when I started. Once I started it, I saw a lot of attention, a lot of opportunities. That was when I became conscious of what I was doing.”

In the beginning, McQuaid and MOVES reached out directly to artists on social media. Some of the download links even had phone numbers attached. That led him to artists like Slimfit. Next was DJ Cora’s manager. Some were harder to find than others, like DJ YK, who has since become one of the most prominent figures within the scene. 

Soon, he was building relationships via WhatsApp, and setting up cross-continent meetings with producers and their managers. This unorthodox approach wasn’t without its problems. 

“There’s a lot of culture clash. None of these people have had any kind of experience of mainstream DSPs [streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music]. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s a lot of people thinking that you’re scamming them. Sometimes it’s good, because you get challenged on a lot of basic stuff that you just take as read. If someone says ‘Why is it like that?’, you have to think, ‘Well, why is it like that?’ If it doesn’t make sense and they want to change it, you think, ‘You’re right, I’m wrong, let’s change it.’”

This fluid, non-traditional approach mirrors how exciting it is to follow the music itself. The artists and the label have been keen to use the immediacy of the platforms they work on to their advantage, spotting gaps that antiquated parts of our industry simply don’t see. 

“The technology has enabled us to speak and engage with so much more immediacy. I can phone someone up at any time – or more realistically they can phone me day or night, which is what often happens. We’ve got tunes now where people have been WhatsApping demos and slapping a verse on in one place, and sending it onto the next place. For me, there’s a new route that completely circumnavigates all the traditional structures of power and control that are largely in a very small group of companies. We’re finding ways to work around that and hopefully give artists better deals using the tools that we have.” 

Here we can see that cruise is part of a bigger conversation, in which artists on the outside aren’t let in until it’s overwhelmingly obvious that their sound is part of the current landscape. At that point, they’re exploited, their sound diluted, and the money often wasted.

“Everything is still done in the same way.” McQuaid says. “It’s unconscionable that a label can take an 85% cut of someone’s money. That only made sense if you were making physical products and you controlled all the distribution systems. How the hell was someone going to get a record in Taiwan from Hull without a huge machine behind it? Now, I can do that with a Tunecore account. What the majors have done is started ramping up video budgets to justify this huge swinging amount of royalty rate, to tell artists who’ve got to be on this level which makes it beyond the reach of most people. That’s bullshit. You don’t need that.”

In Lagos, that process has resulted in a divided culture, where those without lavish lifestyles on the Island (aka Victoria Island, an exclusive, affluent part of Lagos) don’t have music that’s about their own lives. After the Afrobeats explosion around artists like Burna Boy and Wizkid, huge production budgets became a selling point for many artists, promoting an unattainable lifestyle that alienated some of its listeners. Cruise is in some ways a response to that. Like the familiar narrative of the original punk scene growing out of a desire to subvert a bloated and expensive prog-rock market, cruise has developed out of necessity and community spirit.

“It’s created a void where this music has come in to fill,” says McQuaid. “It’s cheap. It’s very DIY. Anyone can make it with a shit laptop and a rip of FruityLoops. It’s found a gap where people actually need something that reflects their lives, as opposed to the aspiration of the mega-rich. There was a big gap where the scene was providing what people needed.”

The filling of that gap can be seen in real time at New Afrika Shrine, a venue co-managed by Femi Kuti. Unlike many other club venues that cater to high earners, the Shrine has an open door policy that makes it accessible to working-class people who are frequently priced out of other live music venues. At the club’s afterparties, venue goers started requesting sped-up amapiano, and eventually, original freebeat tracks. That sound began to bleed into venues elsewhere. Now, a rural and unpretentious street sound is beginning to take over Lagos. 

This has also led to smash crossovers, like Portable’s ‘ZaZoo Zehh’, produced by P Prime. Prime made the smart move to reign in some of the wilder tendencies of the sound, sculpting into a more accessible form, and the results have pushed cruise into the mainstream. Hybrid forms of cruise seem to be popping up everywhere.

DJ Cora

“What makes this exciting to follow is that it is driven by people’s burning desire to make music, outstripping the technical requirements that might hold them back,” says McQuaid. “It’s is comparable to the early house music scene, or the early grime scene, or jungle, hardcore, or jersey club – any of these really exciting dance music scenes. There’s always been this incredible creative moment where there’s no rules. No one even knows what it’s called. The people making this, they don’t think there’s any sort of reward attached to it. They’ve not come from that position. They’ve come to get these tunes out to dancers. Quite a lot of them are erratic people. There’s a certain wildness in it. I find that incredibly exciting because it’s music where as much as possible, the distorting influence of commerce has been minimised.”

At its heart, cruise is a vehicle for a constant stream of bangers, simply because that matters more than anything else to the people making it, and the dancers dancing to it. What’s notable is that many of these songs are constructed like punchlines. DJ Cora’s Street Virus mixtape ends in a flurry of fart samples for no other reason than it’ll make people chuckle. Even in the most serious and substantial examples of a cruise song crossing over, there’s a sense of fun that permeates everything. 

In a recent mix for CRACK, DJ Cora was given the task of representing cruise on an international platform for the first time. His mix is a giddy and energetic journey through the various strains of Nigerian street and club music, not discriminating between afrobeat, amapiano or any other related sound that you might hear when walking through a neighbourhood in Lagos. It’s an ideal entrypoint for anyone interested in the genre. 

“I want people to be familiar with DJ Cora, to associate DJ Cora with cruise when they hear it,” he says when we mention the mix. “Cruise is happiness. Cruise is what will make you happy. When you laugh you’ll be happy. When people hear DJ Cora they’ll hear happiness; DJ Cora is happiness; DJ Cora is cruise.” 

Just like the Cruise! EP series, his mix highlights the conversation happening between creators, and between the audience editing the tracks for their own purposes. There’s a sense of healthy competition within the scene which makes it exciting to follow – even with all the ripping off and unofficial uploading that goes on. 

This is a crucial turning point for a genre that, in places like the UK, might be dismissed simply for the cheap-looking single covers and its freebie delivery; yet to do so would be to miss out on music that’s hard to listen to without beaming. 

“I honestly wish I could take my sound more than Nigeria,” says DJ Cora. “I want to travel to more countries, maybe Kenya, so I can use their shit, what’s trending there, for cruise. I’m sure they’ll love it.”

“In many cases, the stuff that’s seen as the most throwaway in society often goes on to define it,” McQuaid says. “That’s what I think is happening here. It’s a process I’ve seen happen a number of times. I’m old enough to know that when things are demonised as useless crap in the mainstream, we should be paying attention to it.”

Lead photograph by Olapixels