Patrick Crowley

Toto's 'Africa': The Oral History of '80s Pop's Most-Spoofed Megahit

by Andrew Unterberger
February 01, 2018, 3:04pm EST

In 1981, a band of six studio musicians from North Hollywood tried to record an album’s worth of hits to save their flailing relationship with their label, Columbia Records. It worked: Toto IV, released in April 1982, went triple-Platinum, generated the band’s first top 10 hits on the Hot 100 since their 1977 debut, and helped Toto win a stunning six awards at the 1983 Grammys. But while the band and label’s attentions were centered on the set’s funky lead single, “Rosanna,” it was a cut that barely made the final track list that ended up as its biggest hit, and eventually, the band’s signature song: the soft-prog ballad “Africa.”

Released as the album’s third single, “Africa” one-bettered the No. 2-peaking “Rosanna,” becoming the band’s first (and to date, only) song to top the Hot 100. But even more remarkable than its initial popularity has been how decades later, the song has re-emerged not only as a pop culture staple -- appearing on such hit TV shows as Scrubs, Community, South Park, Family Guy and Stranger Things, all within the last ten years -- but a millennial anthem, getting streamed nearly 270 million times on Spotify (far more than any song by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, U2 or Madonna), and inspiring memes ranging from the video-looping ibless.therains.downin.africa website to the lyric-spewing @africabytotobot Twitter account (37,500 followers!). 

With Toto celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and preparing to release the upcoming best-of compilation 40 Trips Around the Sun (out Feb. 9 on Columbia), Billboard spoke to three of the band’s original members -- as well as several collaborators, and younger artists keeping the song vital in pop culture -- about the makings of an unlikely classic, and about how “Africa” is arguably more popular with millennials today than it ever was among the MTV generation. 

“IF YOU GUYS DON’T PULL ONE OFF ON THIS, IT’S OVER…”

David Paich (singer/songwriter/producer, Toto): We’d been making music for ourselves. And after having gone out there and toured more after the first album, we realized we were looking for more stuff that was conducive to playing live concerts, and playing more harder edged rock and roll.  We'd lost a little bit of our songwriting sensibility that we had gotten on the first album.

Steve Lukather (guitar/backing vocals, Toto): They gave us three albums to try to go our artsy-fartsy selves, particularly Hydra and fuckin’ Turn Back. We were trying to find our sound!

Steve Porcaro (synths, Toto): With that success right out of the gate, I think we maybe just started to maybe getting a little indulgent, going for it. Of course, any band’s first album is the best stuff they've done all their life for the most part. Following up is tough sometimes.

Lukather: Oh man, [Toto IV] was a do-or-die record for us. [The label] even came out and said, “If you guys don’t pull one off on this, it’s over. That’s the end of your contract.” That’s sort of a motivator! [Laughs.]

Porcaro: We definitely felt like our backs were up against the wall. They wanted us to deliver. We pretty much did whatever the hell we wanted to do in the studio. We had never felt any kind of pressure before, but boy, we were definitely feeling it at that time.

Lenny Castro (percussion, Toto): That album was an alignment of the stars, basically. 

Paich: All of us put our heads together and decided we were just gonna go back to what we did on the first album -- just make good songs, and try and not worry if they were commercial or not. But make stuff that was radio-worthy, as well as satisfying us musically. That’s what we did with “Rosanna.”

Lukather: I mean, if you really wanna know my true opinion of what the band Toto sounds like for real, I would use “Rosanna.” It has everything that Toto is -- the groove, the solos, the multiple vocals. Is it rock? Is it funk? Is it pop? You know, that’s really what we are, we’re an amalgamation of all the music we grew up digging.

Bob Sherwood (svp marketing, Columbia): Ray Anderson was my promotion VP. We both happened to be in L.A. when Toto’s managers Larry Fitzgerald and Mark Hartley asked me to alter plans and come to the studio to hear final mixes on Toto IV. The of us heard “Rosanna” and went “Whoa, this is gonna be a killer record!” We just loved it. 

Porcaro: I think “Africa” was like, the very last thing that we did, and kind of like a throwaway thing. There was one more slot there, and no one else stepped up, and Dave was like, "Hey, I've got this thing,"

Paich: We had this experimental cut, and we decided we wanted to do something different. So I asked Jeff Porcaro to compose some authentic kind of African loop of percussion.  

Castro: We took this "Africa" groove that Jeff had, and we filled up a complete 24-track reel of that groove. We just sat there and we played until the tape ran out.

Porcaro: I remember we used these Yamaha GS-1's, this synthesizer. There was only like, three of these programmers in existence that could program sounds. This guy came in and totally dialed in those kalimba, marimba kind of sounds that we did.

Paich: It was an eleventh hour cut, and in those days you could only put so many minutes on vinyl. We used to make a joke -- when something doesn’t fit on a Toto album, “Why don’t you save that for your solo album?” And they knew I wasn’t doing a solo album, which means we just put that aside and table it.

Lukather: That’s the first thing that gets said when somebody doesn’t like the song. “Hey that’s gonna sound great on your solo album, man.” And then it’s like, “Oh really, you don’t like it, huh? Fuck you, we’re gonna do it anyway.”

Paich: There’s so many more songs... like [Toto IV single] “Make Believe,” I thought it was a stone cold smash. And "Africa," while it was a nice song, it was so eclectic and different. I thought it was just was a nice closer for the album.

Porcaro: I didn't think it should be on the album. Now that's not to say I didn't kill myself on it, I worked very hard on "Africa.” But all along, I never thought it should be on the album. I just didn't think it fit, I didn't think it was us. Lukather felt the same way.

Lukather: I’m the guy who said I’d run naked down Hollywood Boulevard if this thing is a hit. Not because of the groove or the track. But because of the fucking lyrics! I’m going, “We’re from North Hollywood! What the fuck do we have to sing about Africa?”

Porcaro: I was always rolling my eyes at Dave's lyrics. Do any stand out as cringeworthy? Oh god, are you kidding? They all do. 

Lukather: Dave goes, “It’s just a fantasy song. People write about places they’ve never been before. There isn’t a ‘Margaritaville.’”

Paich: I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. I'd seen it on films when I was a kid and everything, as a National Geographic nut. I used to extract poetry from the different countries and stuff. And I'd gone to an all boys Catholic high school, where we were taught by Marianist brothers and priests who had done missionary work in Africa. They'd come back and tell these fascinating stories... “We’d basically come and we’d bless the village. And if they had books, we’d come and we’d bless the books, we’d bless their crops if they had crops, and if it rains, we bless the rains down there.” And so that was one of the inspirations. I became enthralled with going to Africa, but I had never been there.

"NOBODY'S LAUGHING AT IT MORE THAN WE DO..."

Porcaro: It was so from left-field, it was such this indulgent Dave song. [And] it was never like Dave going, "You guys are full of it, this is a hit." Dave was as doubtful as we were.

Sherwood: We heard “Africa,” and we were over the moon. We decided that “Rosanna” absolutely had to be [single] No. 1, because it was really up-tempo and pop, and a smash. And we then could come with “Africa,” probably being as big as “Rosanna.” As it turned out, it was better.

Paich: It barely made the album, and the last thing it was gonna do was sprout legs and become a single. No one was more surprised than myself and the band.

Carl Wilson (cultural critic): It became a dance hit first, right? Like, they weren’t expecting it to be a big single, and they found out that dance clubs were playing it.

Paich: I think that Sony in New York at the time had popped it into a dance place or a disco, and someone started placing this beat, and it started getting some legs. So they followed through and thought, "Well, let’s release one last thing here," and decided to put it out there.

Sherwood: We gave [Toto IV] a monster push, and of course “Rosanna” was a huge success, and it set up “Africa” to be their only No. 1 record.

Paich: The album was already in the spotlight here. And then “Africa” was kind of like the cherry on the sundae. It was euphoria by then, and the Grammy nominations and everything, it was all within a short period of time.

Wilson: The course that the song has taken since then, it feels like the band is probably surprised about, and the culture in general is surprised about. It kind of went from being an ‘80s period joke to a kind of evergreen, humorous-but-also-serious classic-level embrace. It’s kind of become detached from its context.

Lukather: “Africa” has taken on a life of its own. It’s really fucking unbelievable. [Laughs.] Nobody’s laughing at it or appreciates it more than we do. We’re just going, “What the fuck? We recorded this in 1981, man!”

Paich: We got back together for [bassist] Mike Porcaro in 2010 because he had fallen very ill to ALS [he died in 2015], we wanted to help him out and raise money for him. So we were just doing a bunch of night clubs in L.A. and things like that. We decided to get back together and do a summer tour for Mike Porcaro and his family, and also help awareness with ALS.

There’s the part of [“Africa”] where we chant with the audience, and we do a breakdown, where we sing and the audience chants. And all of the sudden these audiences were responding to it -- like, it was huge. And every time we go back -- because after it being a one-time thing in 2010, we decided to do it every summer -- the responses kept getting bigger and bigger.

Lukather: Really in the last year, the millennials have taken a shine to it, like “Don’t Stop Believin” or some shit. My oldest son is 30, he goes out to the clubs, he goes, “Pop, you won’t believe this shit. The place goes bezerko when they play this song.”

Wilson: I feel like it’s sort of the past decade in general. Partly, it’s just daily anecdotal experience: it’s the kind of song that if it’s on in the background, everybody starts perking up and singing along. But it also started to show up in pop culture, on sitcoms and animated shows as a kind of meme.

"ITS APPEAL REFUSES TO DISSIPATE"

Paich: We’ve been on Family Guy, and Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did a spoof on it. We have a good sense of humor about ourselves.

Karl Wolf (artist, “Africa” cover): Dude, I saw it on Stranger Things. I was like, “Are you serious?”

The Duffer Brothers (creators, Stranger Things): There’s something that’s just magic about this song! It's always made us feel happy and cozy and safe. It’s just incredibly transportive. And the love for the song is not fueled by nostalgia or irony; it really works with anyone of any age. It’s everything we wanted our show to be.

Dave Campopiano (director of marketing, New England Revolution MLS team): Early in [2014] I was told I could pick one song to be played at one of our home games. I chose “Africa” by Toto. After that, the team went on a crazy winning streak at home. They went undefeated for months. And we ended up going to the MLS Cup, which is our championship game, that year. So all of our fans embraced it. [The song has since become the team's unofficial anthem.]

Wilson: It’s a perfect marriage of terrible and good. Like, the craftsmanship that goes into it is really impressive -- it’s a really well-played, well-sung, harmonically enticing, rhythmically enticing song that is married to this completely incoherent text about Africa. The band tries to play cleanup in later years, saying, “Oh, it was all about this white guy that was clueless about Africa!” But that’s nowhere in the song. That’s a thing that they imposed later, on their own romanticism.

Paich: I’ve had people come up to me from Johannesburg and Cape Town and say, "So when have you been to Africa before? How were you able to write this so good? When did you go to Africa?" And I’d say, ‘[I'd] never been to Africa.’ And they’d say, "That’s insane, how were you able to describe it so beautifully? We thought for sure that you had been to Africa."

Jean-Phiip Grobler (singer, St. Lucia, “Africa” cover): I grew up in South Africa. And so in some kind of weird way, it was almost like an unofficial national anthem. I remember there was one particular advert for like the most popular South African beer brand, which is called Castle Lager. And, if I remember correctly, it used “Africa,” and it was just like a very stirring advert of people in South Africa doing what South African people do.

Steve Barron ("Africa" music video director): There should have been [backlash]. But I don’t think there was. Because I look at the video, and I have now obviously traveled to Africa, and I’ve been to Rwanda, and I’ve been to Kenya, and… yeah, that is probably kind of a white guy’s, outsider view of the meaning of the song. 

Paich: There are the haters out there sometimes. I don’t really listen too much to that. Everybody has their right. People send me stuff, where people are saying what a ridiculous song this is, and how dare these guys do this… We kind of laugh it off. You have to learn to take the good with the bad when you’ve been around for forty years.

Lukather: The only time it backfired on us is when Mandela passed away, sadly -- some idiot on some local L.A. station played our song, and there were people from Africa who were deeply offended by that. We felt just awful about that. Like, “Oh, lemme see. I’m a white guy. What would Africans like? ‘Africa’ by Toto, sure, why not?’”

Wilson: I think it’s too dumb for anybody to insult their own intelligence by mounting a serious critique of it. Like, you’d be the biggest fun-killer in the world with your politics if you were like, “I want to seriously talk about Toto’s ‘Africa’ now.” Although, there’s this very charming video that Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard made of their African vacation, soundtracked with “Africa,” and them, like, lip-synching and air-drumming to it... 

Dax Shepard (actor): As Kristen and I prepared for our trip to Africa in 2012, I started singing the song around the house. Then I started playing it. It became our pump-up anthem for a much-anticipated trip. As we got closer to leaving, either Kristen or myself proposed making a video for the song while we were there. Filming the short little video took more effort than is probably evident in the finished product. But suffice to say, our entire trip was defined by this song. We sang it every single place we visited. Our guide thought us completely mad. The true magic of the song is that we sang it from sun up till sun down, 15 days straight, and we loved it even more when we got home. Its appeal refuses to dissipate.

Wilson: Watching that video, I begin to feel a little bit like, “Guys, I don’t know -- projecting ‘Africa’ over the real Africa feels like a bad idea…” It’s very charming, but it’s also like, the whitest video in the world.

"WE COULD HAVE DONE A LOT WORSE"

Shepard: In my late teens or early 20s, it occurred to me just how brazen it was to use the words “Serengeti” and “Kilimanjaro” in a pop song. 

Lukather: I mean, anybody that can write a song that has the word Serengeti in it has to get an award of some kind. [Laughs.]

Paich: People try to get me on it, but you can see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti, and vice-versa.  I’ve sent some people pictures of it. I have a lot of defenders who live there and said that was a beautiful description of it.

Wilson: I think that the contrast between the kind of California cool of the verse and then the complete losing its cool of the chorus is kind of the magical thing. Like, it jumps up in register and sudden impassioned-ness. That moment is really key to the joy of "Africa." 

Castro: Aw man, you know the chorus is a motherfucker.

Porcaro: I get it now -- you just get caught up in the chorus. But how this particular song has latched on with people like it has? I have no idea. 

Lukather: If you had told me I had a 20-inch cock, I’d believe that before I believed this. I mean, of all songs?

Sherwood: It’s really in that handful of songs that defy time, because no matter when they’re out, they sound different than most everything that you hear on the radio. That’s why I think it holds up.

Lukather: I would never sit around my house and play it. I appreciate the fact that 10,000 people scream for it, and we can stop playing and they’ll singing the whole fucking song. You realize that something you wrote in North Hollywood translates over the whole world.

Castro: I was recently in Japan, and I went to do some shopping to bring back some spices that my wife wanted. So I'm talking to this guy who's selling me these spices, and my friend tells him, "This is Lenny Castro, he's with Toto." This gigantic Japanese guy stands up and he starts singing "Africa," full-voice, in this room full of people selling food. It was amazing.

Porcaro: As far as songs you have to play for the rest of your life, we could have done a lot worse.

Shepard: I like it more now, 30 plus years in, than I did when I was young. It’s timeless. It’s inspirational. It’s bulletproof. Fuck yeah, Toto!

A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Billboard.