The scene has dwindled since then, surviving mainly in tucked-away places like a Portlandesque record store called the Jazz Hole, or Bogobiri House, where fashionable young Lagosians smoke imported cigarettes and do graphic-design work on their MacBooks. But it's still there if you know where to look.
One night I visited the home of a musician named Seun Kuti. Seun, 29, is the youngest son of the late Fela Kuti, a titanic figure in Nigerian music. Fela invented the genre called Afrobeat and, with his band Egypt 80, spread it all over the world. Seun has led the band since he was 14, following his father's death.
Seun lived on a quiet street in the suburbs, in a three-story house with a Mercedes SUV in the driveway. He had a show that night, and when I arrived he was still upstairs getting dressed. In the living room, his entourage was sitting on a pair of leather couches, watching Scare Tactics on a flatscreen.
"Hello, welcome!" said a kindly, white-haired old man who greeted me. He held out his hand. "My name is Priest David, but you can call me Papa D. Where are you from?"
I told him New York. "Ah, New York!" he smiled. "I lived in New York from 1974 to 1981. Avenue C and 6th Street. Tell me, is Studio 54 still there?" I told him that unfortunately it closed about 20 years ago. "Oh, that's a shame," he said. "The owner, Steve Rubell, was a good friend of mine. We used to go there with David Bowie." He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a joint. "Tell me, do you smoke ganja?"
Seun came downstairs about a half-hour later wearing a crisp purple shirt and a saxophone strap. He was trim and handsome, the spitting image of his dad. A big mastiff-looking dog was plodding behind him. "That's Vybz," Seun said. "He's a Boerboel. They were bred by South African farmers to attack blacks, but I'm training him to bite white people instead." He looked down at Vybz, who was licking my hand. "I guess it's not working."
We drove through a neighborhood of discos and fast-food joints, passing several prostitutes along the way. (Sunday said they were called one-five girls because they cost 1,500 naira – about $10.)
The show was at a club called the Shrine, which used to be Fela's old headquarters. It was a massive place, the size of a large warehouse, with pool tables, a dance floor, go-go dancers, and several bars. In the back, some food stands sold suya, a kind of Nigerian shish kebab, and sweet palm wine, a frothy drink made from palm-tree sap. Seun played for more than two hours, fronting a 12-piece band with three bikini-clad backup singers that only got tighter as the night went on.
In the Mercedes on the way home, he drove fast and swigged palm wine from the bottle. A man whipped past us going the wrong way. "Look at this animal!" Seun exclaimed. "He's trying to get himself arrested! If you want to break the law, don't break it big," he smiled. "Break it small, like me."
Seun was born in Lagos and had lived here all his life. Though he'd spent time in New York, London, Paris, and Berlin, he always came back. "If you don't know anyone in Lagos," he told me, "then don't come to Lagos. But if you have friends here, Lagos is the best place in the world. Lagos is a hustling city. Lagos is alive."
The next morning, I woke in the guest room to the smell of the Colonel's Secret Recipe. Seun and a friend were downstairs on the couch, eating KFC and watching the Australian Open finals. Seun was wearing an Arsenal jersey with his nickname – shots – printed across the back. Vybz was on the floor, hoping for some chicken. After a while, we headed out for a tour of Fela's old compound.
It's nearly impossible to overstate Fela's importance in Nigeria. Imagine a combination of James Brown and Malcolm X, and you'll have some idea. An outspoken government critic, he was arrested more than a dozen times, usually on trumped-up charges. In one gruesome raid in 1977, a thousand-man army platoon raped Fela's wives (he had 28), set fire to his studio, and beat Fela so badly that he was hospitalized with a fractured skull. They also threw his 77-year-old mother out a window; she later died from her injuries.
The compound, which Fela dubbed the Republic of Kalakuta, is three stories tall, surrounded by a cement wall topped with shards of green glass. When we arrived, an older woman in a headwrap was standing on the front steps. "Hey, Mama!" said Seun. "This is my stepmother Najite. She was one of my father's dancers." She lived in the compound with her daughter Motun, Seun's half sister. A dusty display case in the entry held several of Fela's shoes. Seun's office was on the second floor, along with a music room where his band was rehearsing. He watched them for a while, checking Twitter on his phone and occasionally looking up to correct a mistake.
Traffic was a frequent subject for Fela. In his song "Go Slow," he used Lagos' congestion as a stand-in for the hopelessness of Nigerian life. In the 30-minute epic "Confusion Break Bones," meanwhile, the traffic on Ojuelegba Street – a chaotic intersection near the heart of town, with no traffic warden and no stoplight – serves as an allegory for the whole broken country:
Moto they come from east
Moto they come from west
Moto they come from north
Moto they come from south
And policeman no there for center Nah, confusion be that.
Fela died in 1997, of complications from AIDS. Nine days later, his body was put in a glass coffin and driven through the city for people to pay their final respects. All of Lagos shut down; a million people filled the streets. "There was a lot of traffic that day," Sunday said.