A Conversation on the State of Rap with Illbliss

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The history of rap music in Nigeria will not be complete without Illbliss’ name on the list. With over 15 years experience in the music industry, he has etched his name on the list of elite rappers that came out from Nigeria. With a sixth album on its way, the Don from the East (Igbo Don) is not ready to give up the throne. Oga Boss has played a key role in breaking artists into the Nigeria music industry and he is at the forefront of the preservation of the hip hop genre. I sat down  with Tobechukwu Melvin Ejiofor (IllBliss) to discuss the state of Nigerian hip hop, his new album, the loss of B Elect and the future of rap music in Nigeria.  

You recently released a joint EP with TeckZilla and a solo tape called illosophy. Can we expect a new album in 2019? 

I have a new album coming out in October this year. The album is titled IllyChapo and it’ll be my 6th studio album. The EP with TeckZilla is called IllZilla and it came out in January, while Illosophy came out in August, 2019. Both EPs are precursors to the main album coming in October.  

You came into rap alongside the recently deceased B Elect as  part of the thoroughbreds collective. What did B Elect mean to you and how have you taken his death? 

B-Elect was my gateway into rap music, he taught me a lot about hip hop culture and exposed me to a lot of rap in my earlier years at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was my big “homie” and mentor in hip hop and life. Illosophy was executive produced by B Elect. He picked the beats and the subject matter that I spoke about. He supervised some of the sessions and we were working on a project before he passed. He pushed me  to put out the project before he passed. The album is dedicated to him.  

A lot of people say that the problem with the Nigerian rap scene is that, unlike their South African counterparts, Nigerian rappers have not cracked it at making music that resonates with Nigerians? What do you make of this? 

Hip hop in Nigeria is a game of balance and it depends on how you want to approach it. I approach it from a balance perspective. I make some hit records that the mass market can accept. I make my core hip hop records that is more lyrical for my fans. Nigeria is a dance and rhythmic market, and there is nothing wrong about it. Nigerians are all about the groove. As a rapper you have to know this and make the kind of records that will appeal to both sides.  

You delved a little into acting last year with Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys, should we expect to see more acting from you? Or was it a one-off?

I will still act again, but the story needs to be right and it has to be the right role for me before I act. King of Boys set a very high standard, so any acting role I will take next must be bigger that King of Boys. A big shout out to Kemi Adetiba, she gambled on two rappers that have never acted before. Myself and Reminisce, Kemi made it happen for King of Boys. 

What was your experience working on King of Boys with Sola Sobowale, Reminisce and Kemi Adetiba?

It was a great experience. Kemi Adetiba made it easy for me to ease into my role. She is an amazing director, a leader and very passionate about  what she does. Working on King of Boys gave me an insight into the amount of work actors put in that a lot of people don’t give them credit for. Aunty Sola is a living legend and an excellent actor, her acting is always A1. She made me and Reminisce comfortable on set. We had a great time working with her as one family. We both believed in the roles, accepted the challenge and took it head on. 

Do you think you restrict your potential audience by rapping in Igbo and does this affect your charts?

Who decides the charts? What charts are we even talking about? 

Streaming platforms like Apple Music, Boom Play, Spotify, etc.  

The truth about it is that it depends on who you’re making music for. Phyno is getting amazing streams, Zoro is getting decent streams, same with Flavour. I get very decent streams as well. People stream what they want. People that listen to us are not primary guys that stream. They are guys on the streets in the South East – they are our primary constituency. It will be great if they can get into streaming. It has to do with educating our fans in the East and all over the world to embrace streaming so we can make more money instead of looking for our CDs in traffic, because that’s not how music is consumed today. 

What can artists like you do to help with educating your fans to key into streaming? 

A lot of fans don’t know how to buy music from Apple Music or Spotify, they see these streaming platforms as long thing. They would rather go and  download music from dodgy sites or websites that put our music for free. Some still buy CDs, especially in the South East and South South were majority of our fans are based. It is left for the artists to educate our fans on how to buy our music, encourage them, Have open day with your fans, teach them how to stream and the benefits of streaming.  

Nigerian music is trending right now globally, where do you place yourself in that conversation?

I place myself as a hip hop artist that is based in Nigeria, and is working to reach the fans here. I don’t think I have even covered as much ground as I should and deserve even here locally. From here I take my music to the rest of Africa. When the international deals come, they will come. Right now that is not the focus. But it is amazing to see how a lot of our artists have crossed over and their conversations are being heard globally. As an artist you also aspire for that, but that is not my immediate aspiration. I want to be able to get a solid Illbliss fan base in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Zambia. Those are the conversations for me, I am more African minded than globally at the moment. 

You’ve evolved from a rapper to a talent manager and to a label CEO. Transitioning from front line of music through talent management- how did you find the experience?

I have always been a rapper, talent management was a side hustle- a business I set up on the side. I set up the Goretti Company to manage and develop artists. My music stays, that’s permanent and every other thing is a side hustle. Talent management gives you a lot of experience when you also have to deal with artists, developing the artist, running expenses on the artist, promote and fund all the needs that are required for an artist to blow up. It gives you more insight on how the industry works than just being an artist. 

Working with Phyno and Chidimma at Goretti Company, how did you break them into the industry. What are the lessons/observations you made and things you did?

I didn’t just make it for them. They did their own part and above all the divine mercies also blessed everyone. It is a combination of God’s grace mixed with strategy and teamwork. There is no blueprint in breaking a Nigerian artist, the rules change every morning. But the most important thing is for the artist to get up and get involved in what’s happening. There is no team there breaking their heads on how to push your music forward if you cannot be involved in what they are doing. Participation and entrenching yourself in the entire process, from the production of the music, recording the music and promoting the music. You’re your first marketer, I can’t market your music harder than you the owner. So if you’re not a hustler, you cannot work with me. You must have the drive to go get it yourself as an artist. That’s the first step, mixed with humility and creativity. 

Talking about promotion, what is the role of Alaba in today’s Nigeria music and what can artists do to change the conversation on how Alaba rip musicians off? 

The conversation about Alaba is changing, it has been in the process for a couple of years now. Alaba is a business and that’s what people need to understand. The guys at Alaba did set up a business and made it work. Nobody was distributing physical copies of music in Nigeria until Alaba came. They were traders and businessmen who started playing the roles of record label executives, they signed artists and paid artists advanced fees to shoot music videos. That’s the role of record labels. They started to tell artists what to record. A lot of people don’t know that Aiye Po Gan was recorded because a marketer told me you need to get Terry G on a record. That’s successful A & R. Alaba made their mark in the Nigerian music scene, they supported the business of music in Nigeria. 

Alaba served the industry but it wasn’t perfect. They also didn’t evolve over time, so when streaming and digital marketing for music came in, it destroyed a major part of their business. I don’t put out my music through Alaba, haven’t done that since 2012 and that was when I released my second album. Since then, I have been distributing my album digitally. I don’t need Alaba to distribute my music for now, some artists still do and it works for them. One problem with Alaba is that they will never show you the numbers you’re making. If you’re not showing me my numbers, how do I know how much I am making? Alaba was relevant when it was relevant. 

With your experience as a young rapper coming into the industry, what can young rappers learn from you and can you experience sustain them today?

Pray, work and hustle. Keep your eyes open and make  music people can relate, follow your heart in the process. It is a combination of many things, but all together the music is important, your timing is important, your brand is important and how you position yourself in the market is also important. 

Who are your favorite Nigerian hip hop producers to work with?

Suspect. Major Bangz. Legendury Beatz, when they make hip hop. They make dope hip hop beats when they are not creating afrobeats. I also work with a few underground producers. These are the guys that have day jobs but make their music when they can. Guys like BigFoot, Black Intelligence and XYZ. I work with them, all supervised by Suspect. 

What are your thoughts on the rap cyphers that are currently the wave?

Rap cyphers are great for the hiphop and rap culture in Nigeria at the moment. They keep the rap culture and competition alive, and it also gets talked about on social media platforms a lot. Because of rap cyphers, we are looking a lot more active and entrenched in the urban youth culture than we were a couple of years back

We’re also seeing rappers at war with each other. What do you think of the current rap beefs? 

Rap beef? Show me one person in Nigeria that has made money from rap beefs. Rap beef is irrelevant to me. If it is not making money there is no need for it. Let’s talk about the numbers. The only person probably that some sort of controversy worked for might be Blaqbonez. For saying he is the best rapper in Africa, everybody wants to listen and stream his music.  That’s the same traction for his singles, personality and brand. Besides that, I don’t know what rap beef does for the industry. Rap is competitive, everybody is king and at the top. Everybody is trying to get at everyone, it works for some people and doesn’t work for some. It has never worked for me. I try to keep the peace, because the art form is in bits and pieces. We need to advance and to advance we need to stay together. When you bring in beef, it is splintering a genre that needs to move together. That’s how I look at it, I might be totally wrong, but this is my opinion. If you want to move, you go together. Rappers can holla at Nigerian comedians to ask them, how come they get all the corporate sponsorship and everybody is shutting down shows back and forth. Rappers can ask the “Alte circle” how they are making advances, how is Boj moving, why are Santi and Odunsi making progress. So we have to find out what they are doing right, do we have such communal thinking within the rap culture? I don’t see it. The rappers can keep beefing and lessening their profit. 

We have a  new crop of rappers springing up. which ones have gotten your attention so far?

Blaqbonez, Poe and Phlow. 

What does the Nigerian hip-hop scene really need at this point when the world attention is heavily on Nigeria music/Afro beat?

We need to sell our hip hop music in Nigeria. To do that we need to create markets for ourselves, little by little, we need to create the concerts, create the podcasts, create the radio shows and do things that make rap fashionable. Until that happens, we are joking. What do you want to export? We haven’t finished working on ourselves and I feel we haven’t done enough here or sold enough records. 

Are we going to see an Illbliss concert in the future? 

I am working on unplugged sessions. “The IllyChapo session”, I will record a live session with a hip hop band, orchestra, featured artists and a DJ.  The concert is coming with my new album that will be released in October 2019. 

What is the future of rap music in Nigeria? 

There is no rap on radio. It’s almost gone. Radio stations are not playing a lot of Nigerian rap songs. All of a sudden, Nigerians woke up and stopped vibing with Nigeria rap. We have to remember that we have a lot of successful rap artists in Nigeria. Myself, MI, Reminisce, Falz and Naeto C. We have a success story for rap in Nigeria and for some reason we overlook this. It’s overlooked because everyone is in one tunnel pushing their own thing and rappers are trying to move like Mayorkun and Reekado Banks. These are all my friends, they are pop artists and have a different genre. Rappers don’t have their own platform and until they put the right structures for rap, have their own platform, they will always continue to play second fiddle in this genre.