In conversation with Toye Aru, the producer with an affinity for big sounds

Toye discusses influence from Don Jazzy, working with Illbliss and understanding his role as a beat-maker & collaborator

As a beat-maker and producer who understands the importance of catering to the strengths of vocal artists, Toye Aru is always looking forward to what’s next and this is the defining quality of his striking contributions to Illbliss’ latest studio album, ‘Illy Chapo X’. On the 17-track project, Toye is the producer behind five songs, making him one of two producers with multiple production credits on the album. With that sizable contribution, Toye not only delivers five of the album’s best beats, he’s essential to the album’s musical fabric.

Helming the straight run of tracks that make up the top of the album (except the intro), Toye helps in setting the tone by matching Illbliss’ varying themes with subtly eclectic beats, all of which are tied together by a consistent knock. The meditative candour of “Heal” is underscored by a radiant soul-sampler, “Kiss the Ring” is cut from the Lex Luger-era of chunky thumpers, while “Goddess” is an afropop-indented banger with darkened edges fitting for a commercial rap song.

“Most of the songs I make for Illbliss, I start with the drums first ‘cos he has a character and identity already. For a song like “Bizness”, I wanted a commercial hip-hop song that knocks—it’s at 100BPM, which is typical for an afrobeats song, but the bounce is very hip-hop.”

In his approach, he forms an incredible synergy with Illbliss, emphasising the rapper’s known flair as a dependable artist and also driving his sound forward.

By extension, this also shows Toye’s strong understanding of what it means to be a producer, in every sense of the word. For him, producing is an avenue to get artists into their essential elements without ignoring their need to grow beyond previous works. An example is his April-released single with DJ Yin, “Se Mi Lese”, where her sultry voice glistens over an ambient neo-r&b beat, which is a change of pace from the house-inflected forays she’s more known for.

He’s also just as keen-eyed when it comes to his beats. Going through his older beats on SoundCloud and listening to the four singles he’s officially released in the past year, Toye works with an experimental flair which informs the boundlessness of his music. “I like big sounds,” Toye admits over the phone, minutes after namechecking Don Jazzy and Timbaland as his biggest influences. Even when his beats aren’t big, intricacy and colour are present, an effect of the years spent remaking beats and honing his chops—up to the point where his variety of beats can stand alone and he can collaborate with a diverse range of artists.

Our conversation with Toye Aru has been edited for clarity.

How did you get into making music?

I started making beats in secondary school, I was probably like 15, around 2008/2009. Before then, I was already playing the keyboard, cause I had lessons and that’s how I started music, really. I used to be in the church choir as an instrumentalist and sometimes I’d sing backup, then I started making beats later on. Bridge (of L.O.S) and I were in the same class, and he was already making beats—at the time they had already put out a mixtape, ‘What You Looking For’. He could play the piano, and he told me that you didn’t need to learn how to play the piano to make beats and that shocked me a bit. So I took his flash drive with the beats from that mixtape—he made those beats—I got fruity loops and I remade all the beats. I left the drums ‘cos I only knew how to play the keys, so I remade all the other sounds with the piano roll and I brought it back to him. Then I started remaking more stuff before eventually transitioning into my own stuff.

When did you fully transition into making your own beats?

That started at the end of secondary school, I had a gap year ‘cos I didn’t go to uni straight away. During that period, I went to studios a lot, made my own beats and worked with artists. That year really made me better, all I was doing was working on music.

I think my own beats were good from the jump, ‘cos I had that piano background and even back in school, I was among the few that actually took music seriously. So yeah, my beats were good but my arrangement and actual production weren’t there yet, I wasn’t yet versed on how to properly structure a song. With time, I learnt to do that especially during my break from school. I used to go to L.O.S’ studio a lot then, that was when I started meeting more artists and learn how to produce a song and not just make beats.

What were your major production credits from that period?

I produced a song for Kid Blaize called “Shuga”. There was also this song I co-produced with Liber T for BMM, “Foreign Love”, they did a remix with Teezee and they shot a video for that in South Africa. Those were the major ones for me, a lot of other stuff never got released.

Was this also when you started putting out your own stuff on SoundCloud?

Yeah. The years after that, for me, was about learning more and finding my sound instead of what the artists only want. I’d watch people record, people even used to come to my house to record and even just hear their beats cause I had speakers and equipment that many people didn’t have. Also, Don Jazzy was heavy at the time and I was trying to emulate him while I figured my own thing out.

In fact, if you listen to “Shuga”, I tried to remake D’Prince’s “Give it to Me”. That was also the time I was working closely with Bayo Beats, he was my neighbour and he was really good—he was like our Sarz, I can’t even lie, plus he used to get packs for Sarz as well. He was working with guys like Ozzy B, Adey, Oshmann, SOJ and I’d tag along and learn stuff. All of that was how I formed my own way of approaching music.

Great that you mentioned Don Jazzy. Is he a major influence in your career?

Definitely, Don Jazzy was my biggest influence, I can’t even lie, his sound was very big and heavy. In terms of foreign influences, Timbaland is number one for me. His sonic choices and percussion use were unorthodox, and his music had a crazy bounce to it as well. Don Jazzy too had big sounds, intros that would make you go ‘what is this?’ and a bunch of live instruments.

How did you start making music with Illbliss?

I used to work for a production company, Zero Degrees, under X3M ideas & advertising agency. I was an associate producer and engineer in the company, and one of the accounts we had was Hero Lager Beer, which Illbliss is one of the ambassadors. The creative director Steve Ndukwe was trying to pitch a jingle/song idea to the client as part of a campaign called “Echefula”. He had been telling me that he needs a beat and I played him some but I don’t think he was feeling them, and I wasn’t even pressed cause there was no company brief. Credit to Ndukwe, though, he was persistent to make it happen. I had a session with Efe Jazz and I played some of those unfinished beats for him and one of them happened to be the one for “Echefula”, the song with Illbliss and Zoro.

Before then, I had met Illbliss, he had come to the studio to record a radio commercial. In fact, when he heard that “Echefula” beat, he came to the studio to record but we couldn’t get it done for some reason. Eventually, he did the song with Zoro and when they sent it back to me, I got Kingsley from the Cavemen to play bass and I basically rearranged the whole song. After that, he came to the studio for a couple of Hero-related stuff and he already even had an album ready then. I sent in a couple of beats and the first song we did was “Bizness”, which is my favourite one on there. We kept working from then and his album started changing, he was removing songs and including some of the ones we did. He opened up the album, really.

What was the dynamic between the two of you like for the remaining songs that made the album?

Most of the songs I make for Illbliss, I start with the drums first ‘cos he has a character and identity already—his themes are respect, hustle, power, money, family. For a song like “Bizness”, I wanted a commercial hip-hop song that knocks—it’s at 100BPM, which is typical for an afrobeats song, but the bounce is very hip-hop.

We had several hard tracks and I had all these other beats that I really wanted us to go harder on, but he was like, ‘guy, they won’t call us for show’. We’ll likely end up doing a joint project sometime soon, but I respect the fact that he did these ones for his album, because I’ve been trying to work with artists like him. Those are the exciting people for me to watch, and he’s been the only one to get in with me from jump. Some of them want melodic tracks, and I just want them to go hard. I mean, I get the terrain of Nigerian music but I really want to do hard tracks with them, even if it’s commercial rap.

Is there a feeling of disappointment when these artists are requesting stuff that you feel doesn’t suit them?

Not really, because I understand the pressure to be relevant with the times, unlike us younger artists who came up doing the type of music we wanted to. When I work with these artists, I want to make stuff that fits them and no one else is making. They forget that they inspired a whole generation and in that era, none of them sounded alike – from Naeto to Illbliss to Ikechukwu to Weird MC. Even production-wise, Don Jazzy had his own style, Sarz had his own, Dr Frabz had his own, not like now where it seems like there’s a template.

The sound of your own recent singles are notably more experimental and different from what you’re making for other artists. Is the distinction deliberate?

As a producer for other artists, I try to make what I think fits the artist’s strengths and what they should be making next, it’s not really about what you’ve done in the past. For example, my song with DJ Yin (“Se Mi Lese”) was done in one take. We tried to do a house-type of song with several beats and it just wasn’t coming in, then I pulled out this r&b beat and she zoned out in one take, she could not even do a backup because she didn’t know what she sang. For my own personal sound, I try to make sure there’s a hip-hop bounce to it, no matter what the sound is. I also try to go for the pop/EDM stuff, like DJ Snake and Major Lazer-type vibes, just blend all of that for my own releases.

Are you looking to put out a project anytime soon?

I actually had some songs for a project but I think I’ll just keep putting out singles cause I’m trying to grow my own fan base. I don’t think I should put out a solo project just yet, because singles will make my promotion more specific than an entire body of work. The current goal is to attract more ears to my music, really.

Featured Image Credits: Instagram/toye.aru

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