Back in 2008 when rapper Illbliss dropped his first ever Igbo rap song, Dat Ibo Boy, it looked like ‘mission impossible’ selling Igbo rap to a cosmopolitan city like Lagos. But to the former banker, who had just returned from England then, representing his heritage in music was a risk worth taking.
Despite criticisms and reservation by some music promoters, the Imo State native stood by his guns, pushing his brand of music to mainstream, even as he maintained his paid job with Planet One Entertainment, Ikeja, Lagos.
As it turned out, his creative ingenuity earned him many nominations and awards, the most notable being the award for Best Hip-hop Video for the hit U Go Wound O! at the maiden edition of the Soundcity Music Video Awards. American hip-hop star Nas, who was guest artiste for the day, presented this award to him. Suddenly, the name Illbliss began to ring a bell; his music began to spread.
His 2009 debut album, Dat Ibo Boy, features Aiye Po Gan! (Enough Space), a song that eventually solidified his position in the country’s music industry. Today, Illbliss has become a household name in rap music, with his sixth studio album on the verge of dropping. A talent manager and astute businessman, he’s the owner of the talent managing outfit, The Goretti Company, which was responsible for launching the careers of Chidimma and Phyno, his one time music producer.
Before venturing into music, rapper Illbliss had a career in the banking sector, which saw him work for three different banks.
“I started from Citizens Bank, then moved on to another bank, then to another one. The last bank I worked for collapsed; it was sort of you come to work you don’t have access. So, that threw me out of employment,” he recalled in an interview with Guardian Music.
His first attempt was to secure yet another banking job, but coming from a distressed bank, it was a tough move. Again, having attained the position of an Assistant Manager worsened his case.
“I couldn’t get another bank job because everywhere you go, they give you three steps below. Of course, they knew you were coming from a distressed bank; they want to get you cheap.”
Tired of roaming the streets of Lagos in search of banking job, Illbliss resolved to take a break in England to cool off.
“I had been working from my service years; I served with Citizens Bank. Having worked that long, I needed to just go clear my head in England since I had my visa. It was supposed to be for two months, but I ended up staying in England for almost three years. I was just basically hustling, doing four to five jobs at the same time,” he revealed.
While in England, Illbliss picked a job as Tunnel Guard at Highbury Stadium, then home of Arsenal Football Club; that was when his love for the Gunners started.
“I was part of those people that guard the tunnel when players are coming out; I did that for a while. I had always liked Arsenal, but it wasn’t that religious up until I started to work there. I started to inculcate the culture of the club, I started to do community service; I was an integral part of the away team,” he enthused.
Arsenal at the time had great players such as Henry Thierry, Frederick Lumberg, Sol Campbel, Reyez and other, who were part of the ‘Arsenal Invincible’ that went unbeaten. Somehow, Illbliss had special likeness for young Cesc Fabregas.
“I really liked Fabregas back in the day,” he noted. “I like the whole team; I like everybody. That was the period slightly after they went unbeaten around 2003/2004. The year 2005/2006 was when the slight decline started and then people like Ashley Cole moved over to Chelsea. I was one of the people that stood in front of his house in North London shouting ‘Cashley Cole’ because he left for the money. We were mad that he was going to a team like Chelsea because we knew what that would do to our defense; that was when I became a proper Arsenal fan,” he said.
Illbliss returned to Nigeria is 2007 and took a job with Planet One, a Lagos-based hospitality and entertainment company. Even on the job, he had his eyes on the music industry.
“When I came back, I didn’t want to do banking anymore; a lot had also changed in the industry. While I was in England, I kept making music, trying my hands on different sounds. By the time I returned, I realised that the music industry had really changed. When I was leaving, the music business was still in its very infant stage; MTV had just come into Nigeria, but they weren’t playing a lot of Nigeria videos,” he recalled.
Before his sojourn abroad, Illbliss was part of a rap group known as Thoroughbreds, which also had the late rapper B-Elect, Obiwon, Amaka and Ela Joe. At the time, they were making music for the fun of it.
“By the time I came back, I realised that the business had changed and identity had become a real deal. So, I said to myself that I wasn’t just going to be Illbliss; I was going to become ‘Dat Ibo Boy.’ That was the first thing that came into my mind; play up on your heritage, play up on where you are from. I come from eastern Nigeria; that was where I grew up. A lot of us growing up in the east wanted to make music in our dialect, but we weren’t sure if it was going to work in Lagos. It could work in the east, but we didn’t want to be eastern artistes; we wanted to be national artistes,” he said.
Available record shows that the first rap artiste to experiment with Igbo was Mr Raw, then known as Nigger Raw. With hits such as Obodo, Hip-Hop Gyration, Spiritual Conji and others, the Enugu brought up indeed paved way for the likes of Illbliss to explore.
“Mr Raw was a very successful artiste; he did a lot of the Star Trek and other major shows then. The great thing about Raw is that he would be in Lagos and still be getting shows in the east and abroad. He was one of the first Igbo artistes that could go to South Africa to shoot standard videos. Then, our videos were inconsistent; this was before the era of Clarence Peters and DJ T. A lot of our videos then lacked quality and Raw decided to go to South Africa to shoot his videos. Though videos for his breakout singles Obodo and Hip-Hop Gyration were done here. So, Raw literarily opened the door for eastern rap music, we must give him a lot of credit,” he noted.
Though other Igbo rap artistes, such as the late MC Loph, made noticeable impact in the industry, most of them found it difficult to hit the Lagos market.
“They just kept looking at these entire Igbo fusion in music as an experiment; nobody understood where it was going to. Then, I came in. When I came through, I had that song, ‘Okwa Dat Igbo Boy, chilling in the club, buying drinks anyhow.’ So, everybody was like, ‘okay, this is not your typical local Igbo song. This sounds hip, but it’s not typical.”
Even at that, Illbliss didn’t get support for the track.
“In fact, someone even spoke to me once, he was like, ‘you have a lot of nerves trying to come to Lagos and make records in your dialect. Why don’t you rap in Yoruba? Why don’t you collaborate with Yoruba artistes? So, when I was making my next singe Aiye Po Gan, I decided to feature Terry G. Funny enough, that was the song that broke me into the Lagos market,” he enthused.
Though Aiye Po Gan was entirely different from his earlier recordings, Illbliss retained the message; his Igbo consciousness remained intact.
“I didn’t change the message because, even in Aiye Po Gan, you will hear, ‘People said Illbliss had a lot of guts, how he was using his language in Lagos, how it wasn’t going to work…’ So, for me, what I did was that I kept growing and adding dialect little by little into my music. Up until 2012, after I had hooked up with Phyno, who produced my song Anam Achikwanu, it was like a reminder that this is the same guy from Dat Ibo Boy.”
Then a producer, Phyno was on the chorus for Anam Achikwanu, the song that eventually put him on limelight. It was after the single that he teamed up with Olamide to record his first hit, Ghost Mode.
“I was having a conversation with Phyno one day and he said to me, ‘Boss, I think you need to do more Igbo songs; we need more help for our culture.’ Shout out to Phyno because, for me, I look at it like, ‘this is why people should always open door for others.’ The same guy I opened door for, who came to Lagos as a mere producer, has become one of the biggest artistes out of this country; he’s the same guy that told me to make more records,” he confessed.
Following Phyno’s advice, Illbliss went back to studio and dropped Bank Alert, which became an instant hit.
“Immediately I released that song, the eastern conversation came back from my own perspective. Phyno had already started championing that cause; Flavour has been championing the cause for the singers for a lot of years and promoting our culture through his music. All of a sudden, Bank Alert came and became massive. Then followed by Chukwu Agozigo Gi… there were so many of them like that,” he said.
Just when people were asking of his whereabouts, Illbliss returned with 40 FT. Containers ft. Olamide. The track came with a video that shows both artistes together in a tune flaunting their Boss status.
“40 FT Containers became that highest point for the ‘Igboness’ in my music; it was just about celebrating commerce, trade and everything that Igbo people are known for. So, we put our lives in the music; we collapsed everything about ourselves, about our hustle, commerce, trade, doggedness. That’s what I embody; I embody the soul and the vibe of the southeast,” he declared.
The conscious side of Illbliss was evident in his track, It’s God, which talks about police and SARS brutality in Nigeria.
“To be honest, there’s a side of me that is very critical, which is the social conscious side; the side that tries to spotlight the ills in the society. We have a tendency as entertainers to just keep trying to entertain people, just trying to come up with records that play in the clubs and radio. Sometimes, We depart from the real issues we are going through. My mother will always say that Nigeria is a ‘fourth world’ country with first world aspirations; we always like to cover up the real issues,” he said.
On the inspiration behind the track, the rapper explained, “My manager got pulled up when he was coming back from an event on the Island; he was literarily almost manhandled by SARS officials. They asked him who he was and he identified himself; we always carry our IDs. Whenever they pulled us up at night, they usually looked at me and say, ‘ah, Oga Boss…’ But he was alone this particular night; they tried to extort money from him. We’ve heard a lot of stories like this, so, I needed to make a record; I need to contribute my own quota to this police brutality. People are getting pulled up and taken to ATM and being manhandled to pay money to these officer that are meant to protect us. So, I wrote It’s God.”
He continued: “I wrote three verse of this song in about 30 minutes because, I was just sitting in the studio playing the music; I needed a sober beat. When you want to make records like that, you need to keep it sober so people can understand. When it’s a fast paced song, they dance to the beat and forget the message.”
Meanwhile, plans have reached advanced stage for the release of his latest album, Illychapo. The 12-track work will include hit singles such as 40 FT Containers ft. Olamide, Superman ft. Niniola, Fever ft. Yemi Alade, Upper Iweka Ft. Phyno and Heaven Ft. Johnny Drille, which he dedicated to his late father.
“You know El Chapo, the Mexican guy that keep breaking out of the prison? I liken myself to him, though creatively because you cannot keep me in a box. So, being IllyChapo is a flexible guy that can rap in English, rap in Igbo and can make socially conscious records. It’s also an album on consistency because, for me, a lot of people I came into the music business with are no longer here. When I look around me and I see that I’m still here in this business, still part of the rap conversation, it just gives me joy and I’m thankful.”
Not minding his obvious achievement in the industry, building the Illbliss brand was indeed a tough job. In fact, it took about 12 years for the rapper to secure his first endorsement deal with Hero beer.
“Sometimes, I wake up and I quit; there were some times that I quit. I’m coming from banking where you know that your money is always sure every month. I’ve done Television, hospitality and all that. It was when I moved to TV and became a production manager for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire first, then Project fame, that I met Chidimma. When Chidimma won Project fame, she was handed over to me to mentor; she became my guinea pig for artiste management.”
He continued: “There was an era in my life when a lot of people though I was an artiste manager; they didn’t understand I was building The Goretti Company to handle management. Eventually, I went on to handle management for Phyno and secured endorsements for him. But I also continued to do my music. Now, what that does is, sometimes, it kind of takes away the shine from you because you are supposed to be the artiste.”
The Goretti Company, according to Illbliss, is focused on building an artiste from point 0 to 100.
“Chidimma and the things she achieved while she was under The Goretti Company remain outstanding for her in this business. Phyno starting out, being designed as an artiste, the music videos that my partner Clarence Peters did for him, were also channeled through The Goretti Company. Goretti is mine, Clarence is Capital; so, it’s called Goretti Capital; we are partners. We are totally creative company; we are creating television contents, we are creating digital contents, we are doing below the line activations for agencies. There’s a TV arm to it; you know I’m an Igbo man,” he enthused.