Robert James Fischer. For several reasons, the life and times of Nigeria’s self-acclaimed greatest rapper, A-Q, mirror that of the American Chess grandmaster.
Popularly known as Bobby Fischer, he lived as one of the most enigmatic chess prodigies of his generation.
He became the stuff of legends, winning the US Chess Championship at age 14. However, while he clinched fame as a global chess grandmaster, for a greater part of his life, Fischer also stood out as highly anti-institution.
He rebelled against cabalism, ruffling feathers with the World Chess Federation, and even the US government. He later moved to Iceland, spending the rest of his life contributing to the growth of the sport that stole his heart. He died in 2008.
Yet, for some reason, A-Q, born Gilbert Bani, believes that he is the reincarnation of Bobby Fischer. In his Twitter bio, the descriptor ‘Young Bobby Fischer’ sits there, aptly summarising the interesting career stint of the 35-year-old rapper. Like Fischer, A-Q started the pursuit of his passions from a tender age.
At age 15, he had already started recording his first songs, being signed to Big Leaf Records in Nigeria. At age 17, he quit the label, and released his first song and music video a year later, as an independent artiste. Seven years later, he floated his own record label, Hustle Inc. He struggled for years to become solid proof that independent artistes could thrive in a world where label gatekeepers decided who could and could not bask in the limelight. His thought-provoking discography, including 7 studio albums and 7 EPs/Mixtapes/Collaborative albums, became an indisputable currency for his success.
After decades of being a master strategist, he stands tall as one of the most consistent figures uplifting the Nigerian Hip-hop scene. For four years, the ‘Young Bobby Fischer’ spearheaded 100 Crowns, a subsidiary of Chocolate City Records, which amplified Nigeria’s Hip-hop scene and discovered new acts, including Blaqbonez.
“For me, my Legacy is now,” he tells Guardian Music, as we sit down to talk about his latest studio release dubbed, Behold The L.A.M.B., a 10-tracker collaborative album with Blaqbonez, Loose Kaynon and MI Abaga. The dialogue sways from the intriguing rap record to an immersive insight into the waning growth of Nigeria’s Hip-hop community; A-Q’s bohemian philosophies that continue to thrive as law in his world of sonics, strategy and self-dependence; his newest business venture, a marketplace for music talent, dubbed, The Connect Head; as well as his temptations to quit music when his long-time collaborator and award-winning record producer, Beats by Jayy, died of COVID-19 complications, eight months ago, and many others.
How did you guys come up with Behold The LAMB?
We had done a couple of rap cyphers. And before we even did that, we had done LAMBAugust, which was three albums in a month. It was The Crown, with myself and Loose Kaynon. Yung Dnxl, by MI Abaga, and Bad Boy Blaq, with Blaqbonez. The reception was good.
LAMB became a thing. It was the first letters of our names merged together. That was, in 2018. We took it to another level in 2019, where we did two cyphers. One on January 10, and the other on September 10. We didn’t do anything in 2020. I released my own album then, God’s Engineering, and I also released The Live Report, with MI Abaga.
In 2021, I felt like it was time. I needed to secure something like a budget to have Behold The LAMB done. Our schedules are also crazy. Loose Kaynon is a businessman in music distribution. I and MI are very busy with things we are doing. Blaqbonez is focused on his music career right now. So, we decided to take two weekends out – eight hours on Friday and Saturday, and then we can take off on Sunday.
We set up camp in a service apartment. After we finished recording, I took everything and put it together. It is the hardest project I have ever done. The vocal texture of everybody is different. I mixed and mastered it. It wasn’t a situation where you could just simply put presets on the vocals; you had to pay attention to each vocal.
Loose Kaynon and MI have deeper vocal textures, while Blaqbonez have lighter ones. So, I had to arrange that in such a way that it came out perfect. It was a crazy process because we had limited time to do it. Somewhere along the line, as we just finished, I lost my producer; we couldn’t release the album. We needed time, but we were under obligation to release a track off the project called The Cypher. We put it out and it did pretty well. The process was really crazy.
Sorry about your producer, BeatsbyJayy, it was a big loss for us all. Tell us about the concept behind the A&R on this project.
So, my philosophy was this. Blaqbonez had his fans, and for me, they are the most important fans; the more recent your fans are, the more engagement you would get. Fans from back in the day have grown a lot older, but new fans still find everything fresh and they want to engage. So, I thought about building the album around him. So, the first thing I did was get to Blaqbonez’s computer and pick a theme for the project.
So, I arranged the project as thus: the first half of the album appealed to people who don’t really listen to our music, but are music lovers and are excited by the prospects of the collaboration. Now, from the middle to the end of the album is arranged with our cult followers in mind. We expect you to be patient with us; not that the earlier songs would not be appealing to you, but we expect you to have a certain way you want to experience us. So, from the second half of the album, songs like +254, Fears, Pray For The Crown, and so on, were targeted toward our cult followers.
The earlier half, songs like Snapchat vs Facebook, featuring Chike, and Groupie featuring Oxlade, were targeted at those new fans. Blaqbonez was going to anchor a lot of the hooks for the project. However, when it came to the other half, we gave MI Abaga a whole track to set the tempo for the whole thing. I and Loose Kaynon also did our thing on Pray For The Crown. The reason it is titled Pray For The Crown is that we had done The Crown album, and we wanted to continue that feeling. If you listened to The Crown album, you would realise that that song can fit perfectly into The Crown album.
It seems all your recent projects have been a consistent effort at improving the Nigerian Hip-hop scene. Is this the case?
Not really. I am basically uplifting myself and my listeners. For me, the Hip-Hop scene would be great, if everybody were in great positions to impact. At some point, we used to do a special rap cypher called The Coronation, but the truth is that it would be more impactful if we all reached milestones and returned to promote the entire community.
For The Live Report and God’s Engineering, I found myself doing what I really wanted to achieve as an artiste, with how I wanted to present my music and brand. I discovered this when I wanted to record the second cypher. I initially didn’t know what to say when I wanted to record it, but when I found it, I knew it was what I wanted. I want to be able to say something that can be of value to the listener. I wanted to continue that journey.
For Behold The Lamb, I didn’t set it as a priority, but on the tracks that I came on, I made sure I tried to lean toward that direction. The Nigerian Hip-hop culture would do very well if there can be individual success. It can also come out great if there can be a collaborative success like we are doing. I believe that, with LAMB, we are achieving success because we came together.
I am looking at the younger ones and I am hoping that they can understand that they can achieve more if they come together, instead of the whole ‘I can do it myself mentality. All of that ego in the air and all of that need to go. That would push the culture forward, more than just saying I would use my album to uplift the culture. I don’t think one person can do that. You have to connect so many dots.
What else does the Behold The LAMB theme represents, apart from your initials?
It also means that we are putting ourselves forward. You know how they say in the bible, ‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?’ We would be that sacrifice. When we put out the cyphers and we got the backlash for saying that a certain brand has to pay more. We would always make ourselves an example so that others can see that it can be done. If you cannot make a number 1 album on your own, you can collaborate and make it happen.
Over the years, you have honed your career as a business-minded artiste. Has this always been the typical A-Q?
If you ask Terry Tha Rapman, he would tell you about who I am and who I was. He agreed to do a record with me, which was awesome, at that time, which was way back. I had tried to reach a lot of other bigger rappers at that time and they did not give me the chance. Terry did at the time.
He was confused because we had not even done the song and I had already started marketing it. He was like, ‘You don’t even know how the song will sound!’ I went to the Alaba market and observed their business model; it didn’t appeal to me. I took my own record and started selling on the streets for N300 naira; we sold 5,000 copies. We also sold copies in private universities. Sometimes, I had to be snuck into the universities to sell autographed copies. I used to go to Shoprite and I used to be one of those guys that would be like, ‘Yo, please listen to my album.’ I went with some girls on branded tee shirts to make it feel like I wasn’t begging for their money. I really wanted them to just listen. I was paying the girls off each sale.
I have always been this way. Every step that I have taken has always been in the direction of creating an alternate industry. I felt like, from where I was coming from, I was too young to just start the music business. I made my first single at 17, but I wasn’t let into the business, but I felt like I had a lot to offer. So, I just felt like they didn’t let me in easily.
Even till date, I feel like I have been outside the mainstream industry too much. I feel like if you aren’t let in through the door, create an alternate industry for yourself. If there is a mainstream distribution model, and it doesn’t help what you do, create your own distribution model, because you can. When I push an idea to my partners, they are always like ‘this is too big.’ But I always execute the ideas. I am not saying that I didn’t fail sometimes, but I have gathered that experience and I have continued moving.
It hasn’t always been business without passion. The passion is what created the business side. I figured out that passion would always be the driving force. I would not succeed if I focus on my passion without creating some sort of transportation for that. In one of my songs, I said ‘On the road to success, transportation is passion-driven.’
Now, your passions have landed you with ‘The Connect Head.’ What prospects does it have for aspiring musicians?
The music business is very broad. As an upcoming artiste, it feels like it is very simple. However, an artiste is a whole company; there is the brand, the social media, production, distribution and promotion. There is every aspect a core company has and an artiste is all of that. When you think about that and realise that a young artist just coming into the game doesn’t know about that, then it becomes a problem.
I have had experiences where artists I have worked with used YouTube beats to record their music and when they were about to go major, it became a problem. We had to talk to the Digital Streaming Platforms and bring down the old albums or start looking for the people that owned the rights to those beats to negotiate with them. A lot of those beatmakers, upon hearing that a major artiste was involved, skyrocketed the prices. For a young artiste, you might fall prey to using YouTube beats and it will affect you a great deal later. Someone might end up having 90 per cent royalties to your music. There are so many other things.
When I lost my producer, I found out that everyone was just setting prices for their services; they were the people we could see. They had a huge social media following and they had a brand. I don’t have a problem with that, but how does a young artist want to afford that? That is why they go to YouTube. If a regular beat is N500K or N300K, how can they afford to record constantly?
I opened the connect head platform this morning and found a beat on sale for N15,000 and it is a really dope beat. I always thought that mixing and mastering fees started from N80,000, but on the site, there are people offering to do it for as low as N30,000. I know that the prices would still be reduced. I saw N5000 graphic design fees too for album art covers. This simply means that if you put N50,000 together, you might have a full song.
The possibilities for emerging artistes are not only on social media. On social media, what you see are success stories. I wanted to create a platform where there can be competition, ease of transaction and quality control. You can basically just do everything on your own, with a low budget.
A guy in Kano can find his client in Ibadan, using the platform. People think that the platform operates just like Fiverr. However, they have not even tapped into their full potential yet. There is a crowdfunding feature on it. There are features that can help you with your distribution, roll and strategy. There are features for collaborations. There are so many features to it. You just need to register for its premium services to enjoy access to those things. I would include more features to it soon, to help people get more streams, and put them in the right direction.
There are a lot of hidden truths in the music business. For example, an emerging artiste doesn’t know how to pitch his music to Digital streaming services. However, it is very simple. Still, the distributors and aggregators would not let those secrets out, because that is how they earn. But everybody should be able to do it for themselves. Although, it is a lot of work if everyone knows how to pitch their songs. If you know, you know. What we can do for Nigerian artists is to help them stand a chance at success.
What advice do you have for emerging rappers who are pressured to join the Pop-monotony in the industry?
I have this idea that you cannot change the game from the outside; you can only change it from the inside. When I was doing stuff on my own, it felt like everything was just bouncing back at me. However, as soon as I got into Chocolate City, I understood how to do things. If you meet somebody that wants to help you with who you are, it would be easier. If it is not possible for you, do what they (your labels) are asking you to do and get yourself to a place where you can now make your own decisions.
However, I have seen a lot of artists find themselves enjoying making pop music after they tried it out. Sometimes, they would still rap on the side. Labels would continue doing that. I did not use to do that before, but I realised that I was actually stopping people’s growth by telling them to be true to Hip-hop music. There is nothing that is true about yourself if you cannot find a way out. If you can’t experiment with Pop, then you now have to take all the tools at your disposal to understand the music business and get the most out of your career. However, if you can find a balance between Hip-hop and Pop, I advise that you should.
As one of the most talented rappers in Nigeria out there…
I am not the most talented; I am the greatest.
Okay, as the greatest rapper out of Nigeria…
I am not the greatest of all time, but I am the greatest right now.
Okay, as the greatest Nigerian rapper right now, what would you want your legacy to be?
So, I have not really enjoyed rapping lately. I want to go back to performing my songs; I used to enjoy performing. When I had to stay behind the scenes as an executive, I stopped performing. I want to go back to performing and make albums that I can perform. So, there are going to be more songs like that.
I don’t care about legacy. My legacy is right now. People always look at legacy as something that is in the future. I won’t be alive to hear when people say I was the least or best rapper. What I want to do is really enjoy myself and enjoy the process of making music and putting it out there. I want to keep making the kind of music I want to do.
I tell people that I don’t have fans; I have friends. I interact a lot with my fans. Anyone can send me a dm. A lady sent me a message on social media saying that she would really love to hear me on a Drill beat. I asked her if it was a case of her not hearing what she enjoys now, and she said that she does. Then, I told her to take what she has right now because that is what I enjoy doing. Let the Drill guys do what they like. Enjoy Psycho YP, I don’t want to compete with him. That is my guy. I know you want to see me do numbers, but I am fine. My legacy is right now.
So, how are you coping now that BeatsbyJayy is no longer here?
At first, when it just happened, I wanted to quit music. At some point, I just felt like it was time to double down. I love Jayy. I didn’t want to make it seem that without him I couldn’t do anything; people are rapping on different beats every day. So, I started collecting beats from people. That is how The Connect Head initiative started. So, it took a while but I am ready to put out new music on other people’s beats.