Shaped by life experiences from living in Lagos and Accra, Odunsi is pushing the afro-fusion genre to the Nigerian audience and the world, but are they ready to listen?
Nigerian music is entering its fourth cycle since the turn of the century. New acts like Ycee, Dremo & Lil Kesh dominate the air waves. Your girl’s favorite love song isn’t one from Banky or Wizkid, it’s a Kiss Daniel song. This generation is heavily influenced by the trap movement, by the Afro-pop material pioneered by D’banj and Don Jazzy. Then there’s Bowo Odunsi, more commonly known as Odunsi the engine.
With his unique approach to production and song writing, you’re hard pressed finding any references to current trends in his material.
In person he’s a reflection of his music. Calm and reserved. No visible tattoos. No piercings. A regular t-shirt and pants type of guy.
“I just want it to be like a cool shower you know” was his reply when I asked what emotions he wanted a listener to feel. “Like when you just return from work and you take a cold shower, that refreshing feeling. Comfortable vibes. Not too hard not too soft just in the middle”.
Like most 90’s kids born into the Hip Hop generation, Odunsi started out as a rapper. “I was in this group called Yo Gidi with my friends and we used to just do rap freestyles after school, my first rap was me flipping Lil Wayne’s Amili” he says. Then the challenge and complexity of creating beats started appealing to him, “the more I went to studio to hang out the more I got interested in production. So I got the beat making software from the in house producer, Deposit, and I used to try it out on my mother’s laptop cause at the time I didn’t have my own laptop”.
Switching schools and getting his own laptop gave him more freedom to work and for a while all he did was produce as studio access was limited, he had at the time just a laptop and a few contacts on the underground music scene. In a bid to perfect his production he would go on the internet for tutorials where he found his first production mentor of sorts, Ryan Leslie “Ryan Leslie made me enjoy production. He was the first guy I saw start a beat from scratch cause he was one of the first producers to post videos on YouTube of himself working”.
After graduating high school, Odunsi spent a year in Ghana. He credits the time spent there as an international student at Asheshi university with helping him develop as a person and also musically. “Ghana is like my second home you know.” he says, smiling as he spoke. “I got a lot more self-confident. I learnt a lot about ethics and working hard to achieve your dreams”. It was also during his time in Ghana that the transition from just producer to producer and artist started, as he says “they got to witness it first”.
On returning to Lagos in January 2016, Odunsi went through a troubling period. “I went through some personal issues and it was a very dark period for me” he says with a dark change in his tone, choosing to not elaborate on the subject, but then his mood lifts as he continues talking about the creation of his debut EP. As he put it “The EP is just a reflection of my life at that point, being positive, going to the studio, meeting friends. For the first time in my life I was making music without feeling guilty, like I wasn’t hiding it from anyone.”
The result of all those positive vibes is a 7 track body of work aptly named Time of Our Lives. We are introduced to his style, which is heavily based on combining mid-tempo melodies and soothing nostalgic beats inspired by house music with relatable lyrics in English, Yoruba and Pigdin. Afro-fusion.
From its mood lifting lead single Happy Hour featuring Ghanaian act Okuntakinte to reggae inspired Vibrate and my personal favorite Uber, the sounds achieve their creator’s intent, they’re like a cold shower after a long day. The melodies are not too soft or too aggressive, the beats relax you all without becoming monotonous at any point.
The attention to detail is also very impressive, with all the sounds organically created “I didn’t want any samples for this project so all the instruments were recorded live” Odunsi replies when I ask about the recording process. “So the sound was as authentic as possible. I did a lot things production wise that I hadn’t done before for the EP. I was more mature with my approach to it” he says. “It was just about good vibes and also a creation of timeless sounds. That’s why I named it time of our lives, basically I wanted to create music that you couldn’t match to a specific era.”
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Influential A&R exec Bizzle Osikoya became a fan after discovering Odunsi on twitter, he’s getting airplay from radio stations all the way out in Ghana, has the second most popular song on Ghanaian iTunes and a few days after this interview Happy Hour was number 2 on The Beat FM UK’s afro beat top 10. Some of this Odunsi finds surprising. “To be honest I have no idea how they got the song” he says when I ask how the song got on Ghanaian radio. “The only radio station I sent it to was the Beat FM in Lagos and I don’t think they’ve even played it yet”. He’s also not frightened about crossing over to the mainstream and owning it. When I ask him if he feels Nigerians are ready for Afro-fusion as an alternative to mainstream Afro-Pop he confidently replies “I feel like Afro Fusion is up next for the Nigerian market”.
But Perhaps the biggest co-sign he has gotten so far came from Blackmagic earlier this year. After hearing Vibrate on Odunsi’s soundcloud page, Blackmagic got in touch and the two of them have been creating a lot of unreleased music for Blackmagic’s new yet to be named album and a joint project is also in the works “Me and Blackmagic have been talking about creating a joint project, Afro-Fusion Vol 1, just to make the style more popular in Nigeria.”
At the same time all the heat he’s getting is attracting a few records labels, and some have been in contact with his team “We’re speaking to a couple of people but I’m keeping my options open and anything can happen” he says in a passive non committing way.
And you can’t really blame him. From Runtown to Skales to Milli, getting signed by a label hasn’t gone as planned for some major members of the 4th generation. When I ask for his take on this, he’s frank with his answer, business like even “I’m learning every day and from what I’ve seen as much as Music is an Art, it’s also a service and striking the balance between both is essential” he says. “If a label is willing to invest resources they expect results cause in the end business is business”.
Our conversation then veers back to the music and his Happy Hour producer challenge. Basically he asked as many producers as possible to recreate Happy Hour to their own taste and the results have been very impressive drawing attention to another world he’s a part of, the producer underground. As he put it “I’m connected to the upcoming producer community and a lot of the time their work is tailored to suit artists and their creativity is limited in a way, so I wanted to show people that we have some really talented producers in the community”.
As news starts to filter through that Manchester United have just beaten Leicester to win the Community Shield our interview draws to close. Being a passionate football fan I was gutted that I had missed the whole match but spending the time with a musical genius more than made up for it.