“I represent the possibilities of rap music in Nigeria”: An Interview with Zilla Oaks
"...and I’m aiming to take it higher"
"...and I’m aiming to take it higher"
Zilla Oaks’ confidence in his skill-set as a rap artist is unshakeable. Falling in love with the art of penning and spitting bars about a decade ago, Zilla has been sharpening his abilities for quite some time. He’s deep into the proverbial 10,000 hours required for mastery, a fact he’s well-aware of and isn’t afraid to give himself props for. “People tend to underrate me,” the Abuja-based lyricist tells me over the phone on a Tuesday evening, “but I know what I can do so I just keep doing my best.”
In 2016, Zilla dropped his debut EP, ‘NE:GRO’, one of the first projects to properly capture the possibilities of Nigerian (rap) artists successfully adopting Trap, the Hip-Hop subgenre that had grown into dominance in the years prior. This was the time where SoundCloud was the safe haven for young artists making and releasing music that didn’t necessarily fit into mainstream Afropop conventions, a befitting time for the release of ‘NE:GRO’, an impressive Trap tape that still holds up till date and foreshadows the style’s increased spread. On the album, you can also hear Zilla trying to reconcile his Nigerian roots with his multi-cultural upbringing, which now forms a definitive part of his approach to making rap music.
“Not a lot of people know that I was born in Lagos and after a few years, my family moved to the U.S.” Zilla explains of his background. “We stayed in the U.S. for like nine years and we moved to the UK for like five years, so the rap culture has been embedded in me from time.” The effect of that early exposure is evident on his new sophomore full-length LP, No ZZZ2. On the project, Zilla hopscotches between varying styles to project the portrait of a rap artist in full artistic bloom. It’s a wonderful intersection between bars and vibes, a lyrical offering that is in tune with the modern trends of rap music from Abuja to London to Atlanta.
No ZZZ, the 2018 prequel, was a strong statement with a tunnel vision focus on delivering hard-nosed Trap cuts and telling listeners of the obsession with his grind. Exhibiting a lot more growth, No ZZZ 2 finds Zilla embracing range, both in thematic concerns and in musical choices. The intro song, “Dirt,” is uninhibited chest-beating over brash, cinematic production, “Vibez on Vibez” folds Afropop and Trap into a festive bop, AYÜÜ-assisted “Bussdown” has its roots in Roadman Rap, while “Yuu” flaunts a lesser-seen but compelling tender side.
Fitting all these sonic choices into a 53-minute set, the project is neither scattershot nor remotely winding. Even with a fair bit of stellar guest appearances, Zilla stays the main attraction, tying all the colourful threads into a vibrant and captivating whole. He’s dropped his best project yet—and one of the better rap albums of this sprinting year—but in true self-confident fashion, he’s “aiming to take it higher” very soon.
Our conversation with Zilla Oaks follows below, and it has been lightly edited for clarity.
NATIVE: How did you get into rapping?
Zilla Oaks: I started rapping from, let’s say, 2011. Ever since I put out my first song, I’ve always felt like, ‘yo, I’m good at this thing.’ I first started recording with Tay Iwar, he was on the R&B side and he used to produce stuff for me. I met his older brother, Suté, and we just built this rapper-to-rapper relationship. I was highly affiliated with Bantu, Sute and I had a couple of songs, they helped me out with my first project, NE:GRO, they had a lot of production credits on that and ever since then it’s been madness.
I consider NE:GRO to be an important tape for Trap music in Nigeria because it preceded a lot of things. Do you think so?
Yeah, because I was one of the first to do it on that level. It makes me a pioneer and it makes me happy to know that a lot of people are now on this wave, a lot of people are listening and can express themselves in this way. It gives me confidence that Africans are going to take this genre higher, it’s just a matter of time.
How were you able to adopt that before a lot of rap artists in Nigeria?
Well, the thing is, not a lot of people know that I was born in Lagos and after a few years, my family moved to the U.S. We stayed in the U.S. for like nine years and we moved to the UK for like five years, so the rap culture has been embedded in me from time. It’s not like I just came and started rapping or having in these accents in these rap songs, or sounding like I’m from New York or even when I chat Grime and sound British. These are all parts of my life. Even though I have a couple of Afrobeats songs, it’s easy for me to get in the booth and rap rap, that’s why I was quickly comfortable on that Trap vibe.
I like that you mentioned being a pioneer, it’s just symbolic of how self-convinced you are, even in your tweets.
Well, a lot of people will say I brag a lot, I’m feeling myself and whatever. It’s just the confidence. All my favourite rappers are confident and cocky, so it’s part of the rap game. I’m not riding on any specific trends, I’ve just worked on my craft to the point where I’m very confident in myself.
Speaking of your upbringing, how does your assimilation of these different rap cultures play into your creative process?
For me, it’s just about making shit that’s mind-blowing. I can make five records in a week and I might like only two, I can play the five for my guys and they’d like the other ones. It’s just that Mamba mentality, like greatness only. There are days when it’s like war, where I can’t even bang out one track, that’s when I step back, listen to more music, get more inspiration then go back and rap. That’s it.
Since you record so much, how did you know you were making No ZZZ2?
It was putting out No ZZZ and I knew I wanted to have a sequel because many rappers have this thing with following their albums with new parts. No ZZZ made a statement and I wanted to continue that, but the thing with that tape is it’s basically all about grinding, don’t be on your snoozing level and all of that. So, it was just me making tracks that could fit into that mood but also pushing myself further. After 2018, I was just recording a lot, like a hundred songs between 2019 and 2020, so it was just about picking and putting the best ones together and that was it.
Corona also helped me out, ‘cos that period was just dry. I left my mum’s house, started renting Airbnb’s, apartments, hotels and recording in these places, that’s when I knew I was working an album that was going to be ready. It’s like when Kanye and Jay-Z were traveling to record [Watch the Throne], it was just that type of vibe. The same thing kinda happened when Apex was making Welcome to the Ville, we were all in Nigeria that time, knocking out records in the same place and then picking for the final cut later. That’s basically the process for us.
Great that you mentioned the Apex compilation because I’m sure a lot of people would like a sequel.
Definitely. In fact, the songs we’ve recorded for Welcome to the Ville 2 are crazy! It’s just like watching the whole Marvel universe grow and assembly, we’re making better music, we’re having more experiences, everyone is evolving, everyone is in their bag. It’s just great.
From Bantu to Apex Village, how did that happen?
The Bantu situation was more of an affiliation and family, and at the time, I’m not sure if we sure of their structure but they were clearly building something. The Apex thing just happened based on the facts that me and my guys—that’s [Psycho] YP, Marv [OTM]—were mostly located in Gwarimpa in Abuja. We just found that we’re always linking up, always making music, and we were just like, “hey, let’s just form a collective.” We have artists, we have photographers, we have videographers, so it’s a family-type thing and we’re moving at everyone’s pace.
View this post on Instagram
No ZZZ2 is much more musically diverse than your last, what would you say you represent right now with this project?
Right now, I represent the possibilities of rap music in Nigeria, and I’m aiming to take it higher. No ZZZ2 was a bar I had to personally set, to top everything I’ve done yet. It’s just me putting out more of who I am, letting everybody know my pain, my confidence, my endeavours, and more. When people listen to Rap and Trap these days, it’s more braggadocio than storytelling, which is something I do but I put a little more thought into all of it so people can know that Zilla Oaks and his gang are very much on top right now.
The tape has several really good features, but which one would’ve made you flip a table? For my money, I’d say D-O’s verse on “Ogini” because that shit is crazy!
Yo! Yo! Yo! D-O’s verse has to be number one for me, too. D-O showed me nothing but love, man. He gave me a verse and also the hook on “No Conversate,” and what he did on “Ogini” was mind-blowing. Many people don’t really look at D-O as a rapper, but you check the lyrics and he’s absolutely going off. He’s talking about living in bondage in Nigeria, coming up in Port Harcourt and Lagos, grinding every day, and more stuff—like he’s a badass rapper. I’d heard him on Blaqbonez’s “Nikes” and I remember thinking that I had to tap in with him immediately before shit gets too late, so I DMed him to shoot my shot and now when he comes to Abuja we link up, which is basically what happed with “No Conversate.”
For “Ogini,” I was chasing Prettyboy for like six months. Dremo sent me his verse in like two months, and I’d played him the song in the studio—he’s always in the studio—when I was in Lagos. There was another time I played the song for Telz and Damayo, they were like, “D-O, you have to do this. You have to hop on this.” That’s how it all happened, and he hit me back with that crazy verse.
You also have a reputation for killing features, that verse on Alpha Ojini’s “Pop II” is nuts.
Yeah. Alpha sent me that track at night around like 8 pm and I wrote that verse almost immediately. I always time myself when I’m writing, if I’m taking more than three minutes to come up with stuff I’ll just go open Twitter and tweet some shit. The vibe was there, my guys and I were already jamming to the original “Pop”, so when Alpha sent me that I was like, “yo, major win.” For me, when I get that excited like that is when the bars come out, so I opened my notes, wrote in like ten to twenty minutes, recorded and sent it back to him.
Artists would kill for that type of feature verses.
Yeah, and that’s my mentality with features, especially last year when I was just about working on my project for this year, so I took a lot of features during that time like my personal projects.
Earlier, you mentioned a positive representation of rap music in Nigerian, which can be difficult to do due to perceptions. What do you think needs to improve for our rap music to be a bigger deal?
I feel like a lot of good things are already happening, people are already coming from outside and looking at us. The other day, [UK rap star] Backroad Gee was on Twitter the other day asking for the hardest Drillers in Nigeria, and a lot of people mentioned me. Next thing, Backroad Gee DMs me to check his last tweet and send him something, he wanted artists to put their verses on a potential remix of his song, “A Yo”. That got me excited and, bro, I went hard!
Yeah, I heard the snippet you posted.
Yeah, man. Basically, we just need people who care about rap, people who have the infrastructure and the resources, just to help strengthen the foundation and everything will fall into place. So, I’d say Apex Village is one of the more structured collectives around, and we’re doing okay for ourselves, but if you give us more infrastructures, more platforms to amplify our songs, trust me the rap thing will grow by a lot. People don’t pay attention to rappers till they see that glory, that shine. Migos came to Nigeria back in 2017, and before then a lot of people used to be like, “you guys are listening to Migos, the mumble rappers.” Migos were in Lagos, they sold out that show and everyone in there was shouting their lyrics word for word, and some of them in there would’ve been part of those saying those mumble rapper things. All we have to do is figure out how to step and stay in the limelight, and at Apex Village, we’re not waiting for anybody to do that for us.
When I spoke to YP for NATIVE’s Issue 004, he flat out told me that moving to Lagos was a NO for him. Are you also an Abuja guy till the end?
Firstly, there’s a lot of structures in Lagos that we know we have to tap into, so we know if we’re going to Lagos it’s going to be for a week. It’s to get an apartment, go to MTV Base today, go to Trace tomorrow, go to another place the next day, and we know all of these places are not in Abuja. See, we can operate from Abj and do the frequent in-and-out of Lagos. It’s not like it’s hard, we’re in Lagos every few months for shows and other stuff, but I don’t see myself moving there even as I get bigger. I want to drive my Lambo without all that traffic, haha. YP will tell and I will tell you, it even shows in our analytics, it’s a lot of love for us in Lagos, anytime any day.
@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.