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The Sound Man

The Sound Man

When Ghanaian DJ and entrepreneur Sonny Louis — who has performed with many of Ghana’s top artists, including Sarkodie, Shatta Wale and Jay Soul — had to DJ a child’s christening, he was nervous.

The child’s grandmother had told him that if he didn’t play good music, she wouldn’t pay him, and he knew the christening would be a difficult gig. Louis, who goes by DJ Sonny, is accustomed to performing at clubs where he plays hit local and international tracks to get the energy going. But his usual playlists wouldn’t work at a family event. Wanting to take any DJing opportunity he could get, he decided to improvise.

After his set, he asked the grandmother if he had done a good job. She said that of course he did, because if he hadn’t, she would have told him. He was relieved, but this was more than just a paycheck. It’s a unique example of the chops needed to be a professional DJ.

“You will have a certain type of crowd,” he said. “They’re probably strong Christians or Muslims or they’re grown people or they don’t want young folks music. But some DJs just think, ‘This is the hit song of the moment,’ so they play it. No.”

Louis setting up his turntables.

For Louis, being able to play the right music for the right crowd is crucial. Besides making his employers happy, he gets joy from getting an audience into the music, be it a new, exclusive track or a throwback favorite.

“I put myself in the shoes of the audience,” he said. “How I feel, I want them to feel the same way. Or how they feel, I want to feel the same way, so we are just both doing it together.”

His goal is to make the audience love music as much as he does, but this is tough, because music is so important to him. He admits the thing he has spent most of his life doing is listening to music. Even though Louis, who owns Black Star Enigmatic Studios, spends his days building sound systems for his other company, Hot Vibe Entertainment, and his nights DJing, he can never stop listening.

“I would have headphones on and play music until I slept, and then wake up with headphones on,” he said.

Sitting in his living room, Louis is surrounded by sound, literally. Stacks of speakers, many of which he built himself, spill over from the connecting room. He jokes that if he turned all of them on, the force of the sound would knock the house down. But for Louis, this is home. Music not only keeps him centered, but also has the power to carry him away. It’s hard for him to describe his relationship with music, but he says it’s akin to the feeling of being in love. And when he hears a new song, it’s like falling all over again.

“If it sounds good, and it gives me some type of feeling, it’s like if you missed the one that you love,” he said. “It’s just some type of fulfillment.”

This is not a newfound romance; Louis’s passion started young. He grew up listening to his mom’s tapes, which featured American pop artists like Michael Jackson and Kool & the Gang, as well as Ghanaian Highlife acts that combined traditional, West African melodies with Western instruments and musical influences.

But when Hiplife, which fused Highlife with American hip-hop, became popular in the late 1990s, Louis’s taste in music shifted. “I started burning the new songs onto my mom’s old tapes,” he said. “She used to get mad at me, but that was how it really started, my love for music.”

Louis began going to a recording studio in his Accra neighborhood to watch producers work and eventually started making his own beats. While he enjoyed learning about what went into a hit track, he grew frustrated by the lengthy process. He also knew he didn’t want to be in the spotlight. “I didn’t want the fame and the publicity or the industry to change the actual person I am because the pressure is big,” he said.

Living in the Osu neighborhood of Accra, which he describes as “the entertainment capital of Ghana,” he would go to parties and clubs just to hear music, which inspired him to start DJing. He taught himself and performed any chance he got, even if it was just at his senior high school playing his mom’s music. Still, Louis wanted to follow his passion and get the training to become a licensed DJ. After finishing senior high school, he went to DJ school to learn how to mix tracks, make a playlist and tune a sound system.

During his set, Louis’s eyes shift from his turntable to his computer, to figure out what song to play next.

His experience making beats “makes it easy for me to choose hit tracks,” he said. “My playlist is always on point because if you’ve had the experience, you know the basics.”

During this time, he also started to think about sound. For Louis, listening to music was as much about the sound quality as it was about the actual music. He remembers going to one club in Osu called Connections that had exceptional sound.

“I used to feel like I was inside the speakers or something,” he said. “So during the entire production process, anytime I’m trying to get sound, I’m trying to hear sound like that. That has been the motivation. Anywhere I go, I want to hear the best, the best sound.”

Additionally, after spending time at recording studios, he was shocked by the difference in quality from his home speakers and the studio monitors. “I thought, ‘Wow. Can I do this? Can I have one of these? Can I also make a speaker that can sound like that?’” he said. So, like with DJing, Louis began teaching himself about speaker technology.

He looked to Dr. Dre, who marketed his high-quality headphones using his experience as a producer. “Obviously, he (Dr. Dre) knows what is good sound,” he said. “So if he comes out and he says, ‘These are my earphones, and you’re going to hear exactly how it sounds in the studio,’ everybody is curious to get them.”

Louis’s desire to make his own high-quality speakers influenced his decision to continue growing as a DJ. He knew if he could develop his own brand as a credible DJ, it would be easier for him to sell speakers to both a commercial and professional market. He met James Sapper, his current business partner, after volunteering to take apart Sapper’s speakers to increase the sound quality. According to Louis, Sapper thought the speakers were going to explode, but Louis made them sounded three times better.

Louis (left) with his business partner James Sapper (right).

Now, the two work together with their company Hot Vibe Entertainment. Their goal is twofold: produce the best quality sound with the smallest sized speakers. Given the number of churches, bars and nightclubs in Ghana, Louis is confident his products will have a large audience. Additionally, while it is challenging to get the materials needed to make speakers in Ghana, he sees selling Ghanaian made products as part of the company’s mission.

“A lot of people actually think that stuff that is made in Ghana is not really good in comparison to imported stuff,” he said. “You have to believe in Ghanaian products because if speakers can reach international standards, what’s the worry about buying made in Ghana speakers?”

His business is partially inspired by Louis’s own difficulties acquiring the quality of equipment required for a professional DJ. Because of shipping rates and the current state of the Ghanaian cedi, it is expensive to purchase speakers and other equipment. Currently, Louis uses a turntable that allows him to manually playback audio files from his computer. A special vinyl record connected to his laptop lets him scratch and beatmatch, which is a way to shift the pitch of the next song to match the tempo of the track that is currently playing. While this vinyl method might seem old school, he believes his equipment sets him apart from other artists.

“There are a lot of DJs here. If they have a computer, they can just connect to the sound system and play,” he said. “You’re a DJ, but that’s not like professional DJing. So if you’re a professional DJ, you have to have the hardware.”

But far from wanting to be better than everyone else, or at least having the equipment to appear so, Louis wants to use his skills, both artistic and technical, to help musicians around Ghana. He’s currently putting together a tour of Ghanaian bars that will feature local talent and is hoping for a company like Guinness to sponsor it.

“I want to go to all the big bars and the local bars,” he said. “If you go to the local bars, that’s like the real Ghanaians, the people that work on the streets, the people who just have like 20 cedis to spend that night. Just regular people.”

Eventually, Louis wants to play shows around the world and have Hot Vibe Entertainment go global. While these might be conflicting visions, he believes his dual roles as DJ and entrepreneur compliment each other. It’s a lot to manage, but Louis simply argues, “If I can do it, why should I pay someone else to do it if they’re probably not going to do it to my expectations?”

In the end, everything that Louis does comes from his desire to share the music that means so much to him with the world.

“Sometimes, I just listen to music and cry,” he said. “There could be no lyrics and just the music, just the beat could take me that far…It just takes me away. So, I bring that type of experience with me, and when I’m playing music or I’m trying to set up a system, I want to give the people, my audience, some type of feeling that makes them feel different.”