The Alté Playmaker: The GMK Story

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Perhaps one of the greatest signs that Nigeria’s music industry is slowly progressing comes in the existence and healthy coexistence of a wide range of genres. It speaks to the availability of an audience, the increased sophistication of listeners and the existence of viable lanes for the artistes to express themselves. The Alté set bear evidence of this. A generation of kids shaped by the best of Western and local cultural references standing outside the mainstream have built a community for themselves that has added a new dimension to the creative scene. While Santi and Odunsi front the movement, one man has subtly set the tempo. If the former two are the Messi’s of the movement, GMK is the Iniesta or Xavi, the player dictating the tempo and making game changing, zeitgeist shifting contributions which serve things up on a platter for the key actors. As he readies himself for the rollout of two pieces of work and further contributions to the advancement of the culture, we explore the GMK story and his role in a movement which takes its place at the forefront of the current Nigerian cultural renaissance.

GMK’s base is a home studio in the middle class suburb that is Magodo. I catch him on a rare quiet day. Fellow Monster Boy, Genio Bambino makes an appearance before heading home after what had been an all  nighter. Pause. The Monster Boys is the collective which consists of Santi, Bankyondbeat, Genio and GMK. It’s reminiscent of those high school days where crews dotted around the firmament had dreams of impacting the music industry. Next came university and then a grudging acceptance that a 9 to 5 was where “success” truly lay. If the odds aligned, one of them would go on to make it. Well, not in the case of GMK and his friends. While he’s keen to point out the Alté tag was not something they sought, they were very receptive to it as a cloak for the movement. While the roots stem from their use of methods that were alternative to the mainstream, it has metamorphosed into a whole subculture built across the spheres of Photography, Fashion, Music and Art. He speaks of truly acknowledging what it meant after a chance encounter last year. On this day, he was grabbing a meal at Maison Fahrenheit with his crew and a certain British- Nigerian rapper walked up to them and told them he was a fan. The rapper? Skepta. The boys from Adeniyi Jones had done good. Their music had reached the ears of a Mercury Prize winner. It also underlines the honorary ambassadorial role Skepta has played for the Nigerian music ecosystem. The same guy who plugged Wizkid with Drake was so down with the culture he was up on what was next. In the process of reconnecting with his Nigerian roots, he has unwittingly sped up the growth of the scene. 

Just as Mo Dogg’s studio is in our consciousness for the role it played in Wizkid’s career, Deposit’s studio on Adeniyi Jones was the incubator for the Alté kids. L.O.S. were regulars there as were Santi, Esojay Luciano and a young Odunsi. It was from there GMK started expressing himself musically functioning largely as a rapper while also moonlighting as a “trash producer”. It was after a stint studying Audio Engineering at the London campus of the SAE Institute that he began to focus on Production. The initial music stimuli? A visit to Fela Kuti’s shrine as a child. His parents were match made by the offspring of Nigeria’s greatest musical family. His Pilot father and Femi Kuti are childhood friends. His TV actress mother is good friends with Yeni Kuti. They hit it off at a Kuti gathering and nothing was the same. Growing up, he was exposed (obviously) to Afrobeats and his father’s rock and jazz leanings. He would go on to develop an interest in rap and also learnt how to play the trumpet and keyboard alongside Made, Femi’s son. His mother, Carol King is TV royalty. After becoming a national treasure with Tajudeen Adepetu’s Everyday People, she currently stars in Tinsel. When taken into consideration that he has a limited Piloting license, it becomes glaring the influence his parents have had on him. His understated nature makes sense when he’s not even the most famous person in the family picture. His parents also understand the fickle nature of work in the creative industry and this speaks to the strength of his support system.

The worst kept secret in the world is that GMK is currently readying two projects. One will be a tape through which he showcases his Production. The first single, Call On Me with Tomi Thomas and Kida Kudz is out. The follow up singles will definitely shift the zeitgeist. One is a reunion that will make fans wistful. The other will see GMK play the the role of tooth fairy and facilitates the coming together of Santi and the artiste who features most prominently on the list of fantasy collaborators. There’s also a GMK rap project on the way but for now, the former takes precedence. “I like rapping but it feels like a hobby. Producing is something once I started learning, I started to enjoy. I actually enjoy creating music”. The Production tape was largely inspired by the aforementioned latter collaboration. The Rap tape which was essentially done has made it back to the cutting board as he seeks to sharpen up the writing to offer a stronger reflection of his experiences. This was partly inspired by his first listen to Dave’s new album Psychodrama. 

The Nigerian producer is an undervalued specie. The informal nature of the industry isn’t exactly protective of their rights and it can be a challenge making money from it particularly for actors in the startup phase. The real cash cow? “Audio Engineering”. He’s keen to point out that due to the indie texture of the Alté community, there’s a bit of a waiting game. The players have an unwritten covenant to support themselves in the belief that by serving the greater good, the returns will come as their art gains its footing and ultimately, becomes bankable. As that wait goes on, there’s a conversation to be had about the role of Soundcloud in the come up. The Alté artistes were derisively tagged “Soundcloud artists” years ago due to their popularity on the streaming platform of choice of upcoming artists. This was further down the line of evolution from the also derisive “Twitter Artist”. Soundcloud served as a valuable gateway to the music industry. It was on that platform he reached out to his favorite Nigerian Producer Sarz whose words of admiration and encouragement spurred him on. “Soundcloud was where it really started. Before then, it was 4Shared, Hulkshare. Everyone who was trying to be serious about music opted for the SoundCloud Pro. That gives you all your analytics. That’s when you start learning “Oh! I’m getting played in Belarus. I’m getting played in Croatia. Who the fuck knows me there? From there, it builds confidence and a community for the music itself.” In essence, if it comes across that today’s freshmen are savvier than their predecessors, it’s because they’ve had to take more responsibility on the business side and thus gotten some sort of grounding as music executives.  An added plus as Adey noted in a recent podcast interview with Tola Sarumi, is that this deep understanding of the audience they’re catering to has essentially cut out the shamelessly exploitative radio personality who leverages off his platform to charge artistes for plays.

GMK is built on family values. He has no desire to seek the limelight because as far as he’s concerned he has the “love and respect” of the people that matter. He also takes gladly to his role as a playmaker functioning behind the scenes. He says “everybody serves a purpose. Santi and Odunsi are at the forefront. If you’re glory hunting, you’re not going to get anything. Santi, Odunsi, Genio, Higo all know that they serve a purpose and do it well. That’s the only way I can explain it.” On Odunsi’s Universal Music debut, rare  he played a significant part of the process as a sounding board as the roots started to manifest before going on to share production credits while mixing and mastering the project. Santi’s current success is viewed as the peak thus far. He speaks of the manifestation of a lot of the conversations they had as kids and looks ahead to the forthcoming release of the new album as a moment that could potentially serve as a catalyst for these times. 

Hindsight can prove a powerful tool in making sense of the context and nuances of current events. Just like Drake’s Best I Ever Heard underlined that he was built different, Gangstar Fear was the moment where everything shifted. It emphasized Santi’s evolution from Ozzy B and gave the larger world a glimpse of Odunsi’s potential away from his debut Time of Our Lives. The song and video effectively served as the real dawn for the movement. “Gangstar Fear was a song we made ages ago. We still get cheques off it. They just used it in a BET series. They’ve used it in like 3 movies. This is a song we made on Skype. I was here in this room, we were Skyping, he was in Dubai. I shared my screen with him and we made the beat together.” Remember when Gangstar Fear got played on OVO Radio?  Canada’s greatest export since Celine Dion was a fan. “It’s those little wins that make this thing worth it”. GMK has reached the point he dreamt of- the feeling that everything you’ve ever imagined is coming to fruition. There’s more to come.

Photography- Ojuolape Agbaje

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