Fly Like Paper, Get High Like Planes: An Interview with Martyn Chika

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Some three years ago, Martyn Chika was in a hotel, going over his thoughts, and about to send a message that would change his life, forever: he was about to tell his father that he wanted to pursue music full-time. “It’s a funny story because the day that I decided to tell my father – my mum knew before him – I had made plans in case things went wrong but a lot of my plans were not working out, they were falling apart,” he tells me, a wry smile playing out on his face, but there’s the inescapable feeling that this was not an overly humorous time in his life. Thankfully, Martyn sent the message – a mail – and was able to get his point across, his father understood his desire, and has supported his dream as passionately as possible. “Ever since, he has been going really hard,” Martyn notes with gratitude.

The 25-year-old’s aesthetic minimalism is perfectly balanced with the percipient detachment that he exudes as he speaks; picking at his words to explain the thoughts behind them as well as can be done. The pitch of his voice rarely goes up unless he is discussing family or music, rap specifically. And he recounts that his earliest exposure to music came from R&B. “I didn’t even have a wide range of artistes I was listening to. It was mostly Chris Brown, Justin Bieber,” he tells me. “because I had more of a relationship with melody than rap that started when I learned to play the piano. Learning that and composing songs for myself made me have more of a relationship with melodies.” That all changed when he heard Anoti, by MI while in senior secondary school. “It was the first time I heard rap music that made sense to me because I love music language and poetry.”

The interplay of rhythm and poetry that drew him to MI’s record led him to Lil Wayne, to Drake, and then to Rick Ross as he found his own voice. It all eventually led him to book his first studio session in his sophomore year in university. The session was funded by the sale of his phone. The result was a track that is now lost to the world yet per his words: “if you listened to that track, you’d know that the core of who I am is still the same. I was dishing out punchlines every two lines.”

Years after that track, his well-received 2020 EP, Paper Planes, has put him firmly on the horizon as one of the rappers to look out for going into a new decade. Paper Planes, unabashedly a hip-hop project, is full of punchlines and references to events past that mark out Martyn’s lyricism and breeze-like flow as impeccable. At a time, when the rap community is locked in a debate about innuendos, ownership, and cultural identity, Martyn is not surprised that his project had acceptance value. “I feel like people have been fed with so much bullshit, it gets hard to cut through the noise,” he says about the surprise regarding the technical quality of Paper Planes – the first drop in a year of relentless music from him.

One Friday in February, Martyn Chika drops into the Culture Custodian office for a conversation on his upbringing, his music, creative process, and Paper Planes.

Our conversation, lightly edited for context and clarity, follows below.

Tell us about your upbringing?

I grew up in Lagos, in a family of five – I’m the first son, second child. It was sort of a conservative family. Growing up in that family setting, which is something I’m happy for, made it hard to state intention of pursuing music professionally. I’m so grateful that I have the support of my parents and my whole family. They go really hard, sometimes harder than I do, for my music; it’s been a blessing to watch that.

When did you tell your parents that this (music) was what you wanted to do?

It’s a funny story because the day that I decided to tell my father – my mum knew before him – I had made plans incase things went wrong but a lot of my plans were not working out, they were falling apart. I was in a hotel on the day that I texted my father, and I had nowhere to go; if it (telling my father) didn’t work out, I was stuck. I texted because I knew that having a face-to-face conversation with him, I wouldn’t be able to explain all that I wanted to. So, I sent him a mail where I was able to detail all I wanted to do. My mum was really scared, but later that evening I got a call saying that they had read the message together. It worked out and I was able to get my point across. And ever since, he has been going really hard, my parents are not necessarily the richest of people but they’ve tried (for me) in every way that they can: financially, with prayers, and moral support. Sometimes, it is depressing to put in all the work and not get the output that you are looking for. My mum is like my cheerleader, and my dad, he plays the songs into the ground. I have a younger brother, who before my parents knew, would help me sneak out of the house; those kinds of things.

What musicians did you listen to growing up?

I mostly listened to R&B artistes. I didn’t even have a wide range of artistes I was listening to. It was mostly Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, and all of that because I had more of a relationship with melody than rap that started when I learned to play the piano. Learning that and composing songs for myself made me have more of a relationship with melodies. I was mostly listening to R&B artistes until secondary school when we had a competition in S.S.S. 2 or 3, the dance group was having a rehearsal, and that was the first time I heard Anoti, by MI. It was the first time I heard rap music that made sense to me because I love music language and poetry. But it didn’t necessarily make it easy because MI is a rhymer and he was just going, so I wasn’t even thinking, ‘oh, let me rap now.’ But I started listening to rap music from there; I started expanding my taste for rap music, started listening to artistes like Lil Wayne, Drake, and Rick Ross. Those are pretty much the artistes that have shaped me in terms of rap.

How did music start for you professionally?

When I was in my second year in school (Ekiti State University). At the start of my second year, I started recording with student producers. I didn’t really have any experience recording and I had these friends that would come back and play me songs they recorded, and I was like ‘this is cool, I need to go and try this out.’ The first time I went to record, I sold my phone, and it was my first studio session ever. I wouldn’t say it was wack, it was good, but if you listened to that track, you’d know that the core of who I am is still the same. I was dishing out punchlines every two lines.

What inspired your Paper Planes EP?

I wanted to preserve the history of music that I had. Since I started recording music, I’ve put out three projects – three EPs – and they didn’t really see the light of day.

Did you release them?

I released them, but people have to listen to them to be able to give feedback and it didn’t get to as many people as possible.  They were just trial projects, I put it out for the sake of putting music out. There wasn’t really any plan for promotion or funding to do that. Also, a lot of the music was rushed, and with that comes lags in expression and interpretation of the music. So, I had these songs and just put them together. At some point, I had problems with my distribution company, the last one that I used (Okay Music). And because of that, I had to take down the rest of my catalog. So, I felt like there was no music out there for people to get to know me. I want to move forward, make new music, but I didn’t want the great ideas that I had before – that I think are really good – to be forgotten or just go away because I put in work into those projects. So, I thought of a way to put it out in a better way. The EP (Paper Planes) is an extract from a trilogy project I’m working on to bring those songs back. So, the trilogy project has three of the projects I did packaged, but I remade them for better expression, and I took singles from them to make the EP. The EP is like a taste of what’s coming, as well as preserving my catalog before moving forward. So, sometimes, if you listen to the EP, you might hear references from way back; and that’s the thing with rap, if you say something and it stays too long, another person will say exactly what you said. I remember listening to MI’s King James and hearing him say, ‘it’s like I’m killing vampires, I’m raising the stake.’ And I wrote the line two years before but those are the things you have to sacrifice, and that’s why I love to put out music immediately. But, in this case, if you listen to the Paper Planes EP, you’ll hear references because that’s just the history of who I am, and I don’t want to mess with that a lot. I wanted to preserve what I had before so that with the new music, people can see my growth as an artiste.

Is this year fully dedicated to putting out those preserved music from before?

Yeah, but that’s something I want to get out of the way, so it’s like this is going to be old music with new spins. You get the old music first, and then a lot of the new music.

How long do you reckon it’ll take to get all of the old stuff out?

There’s a timeline that we are working with but, realistically, there are different logistics that might alter what we have in mind. Personally, I would love to have the trilogy out of the way before…I don’t want to give a date, I don’t want to jinx it. But I would say that I want to put out my debut album this year, like the middle of the year, as soon as the trilogy is out of the way.

Can you detail your creative process? Do you extemporize or do you write your songs out first?

I’m not the kind of guy who likes to just go and freestyle. I love to write concise thoughts. Sometimes, I could sit and write a whole verse under five minutes. Other times, it could take me one month to finish a thought because I love to write things down. I wish I was the kind of person who could go in the studio and do a Jay-Z thing where I’d spit off the top, but that’s not me. I have to write the lyrics and put my thoughts into words. And I think inspiration comes for me with – and this is a very weird thing to describe because inspiration is not something you can put your hands on – having balance. It’s a mixture of feelings: I’m happy but at the same time I’m sad. I can be very moody and brooding but at the same time, I love to laugh. It could just be watching movies that make me nostalgic, take me back to some certain times when the movie is so good, I just want to cry. Every time that I am inspired, I want to push out all the thoughts that I have concerning that and then build it out afterward. I am very lyrical conscious; I want my content to be very multi-layered. That’s something I want to be identified with.

When your project dropped, there was genuine surprise at the quality. Was that surprise something you anticipated?

I think the first people who have ever listened to me, the first time people have ever listened to me, there has always been a surprise. Sometimes, it has something to do with my appearance. If we were together, and you listened to a song I did, a lot of times I get, ‘you don’t look like a rapper’ because I’m not on dreadlocks, tattoos, and whatever. Sometimes, the surprise is at the content coming out, and other times I feel like people have been fed with so much bullshit, it gets hard to cut through the noise. Do you know why people don’t take submissions seriously? When they try and the first 50 are trash, and they don’t want to keep looking, but somewhere 935 that’s the dope guy! And he gets lost in the noise. So, I feel like a lot of people are being bombarded with bullshit content, and when they hear something good, they get it. Also, I have a select group of people who listen to my music form time, and they’ve always told me this is dope, so it’s not surprising to me. People are just getting a chance to know me, it’s expected.

How do you try to balance crafting your rap records and being relatable to an average Nigerian listener?

I try not to make music for a particular demography. I try to make music that I know how to make because I know that there is always a market for it. If they are not the Nigerian crowd, that’s cool! I do know that Nigeria has a lot of hardcore hip-hop fans, and I’m talking about hip-hop like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar; so, I make music, and I know that the people it’s meant for will love it, I don’t try to lower the bar. The only thing that I try to do is like work in other genres of music, but still remain true to the core of rap. But that’s just a creative thing, it’s not like this particular group of people are going to love this.

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