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Monday, February 23, 2009

M.I. aka Hip-Hop Messiah, Uncut, a Ladybrille Exclusive

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It is past midnight in Nigeria and roughly about 3:00pm in California when I get the call from Jude Abaga aka M.I. [pronounced ‘em eye’]. He has been out and about all day plus he tells me “dealing with Lagos traffic jams” aka “go slows” so he renegotiates our interview time. When his call comes through, he is full of apologies his voice taking on a humble tone, quite contrary to the one I am used to from my sound system i.e. bold, strong and unapologetic for his mad talent, intelligence and refreshing MC skills.

“I’m o be in da house and MCs they shall bounce and go home to their spouse
‘cos to stay might be detrimental. Better flow, better instrumental.
You gotta learn the fundamental and my flow is so essential!”
are examples of lyrics from one of his highly popular songs “Safe feat. Djinee” where he consistently and authoritatively ask other rappers to, “pack your load dey go because M.I. don come!” As in counterfeiters, the genuine deal is here, so time to bounce!

Time is money and money is time. Nevertheless, I am not upset. Actually, I am well aware the “Short Black Boy” aka Producer/Rapper/Poet is in very high demand. Witty, sharp, sarcastic and incredibly intelligent with his flow, it is no surprise many call him “Hip-Hop’s Messiah.” Yes. The comparison IS on a global level as he produces hits after hits he aptly calls “M.I. Instant Classics” With lines from his recently released album titled “Talk About It” that ask what is now a rhetorical question, “I’m not saying I’m the best, but I’m asking who is better?” it is no surprise that 30,000 copies of his album released on December 10th, 2008 sold out in the first thirty minutes. As M.I. infiltrates Africa’s hip-hop scene and raises the standard, he prepares to do the same in the USA and European markets with the “One” album produced simultaneously with “Talk About It.”

In any event, I am intrigued with the apologetic voice on the other end of the line. We begin our interview . . .

LADYBRILLE.com: No worries. How are you?
M.I.:
I’m good, I’m good.

LADYBRILLE.com: So where are you calling me from?
M.I.:
I am actually at a [h]otel in Ogun State for a show.

LADYBRILLE.com: Great. Good for you. [I attempt one of his rap lines from his track “Safe” feat Djinee] “People ask me who he? They call me em eye just because I’m getting higher.” What’s that all about?
M.I.:
[He laughs and I am convinced his laughter is at my poor attempt to rap] That song came about from hooks of other Nigerian artists, like their popular songs. “They call me Timaya because I am getting higher,” that is a very popular song. So, I was like “they call me ‘em eye’er’ just because I’m getting higher.

LADYBRILLE.com: [L]et our audience know who you are, your background?
M.I.:
[I] was born and raised in Jos [a city in Plateau State located in Northern Nigeria]. I grew up loving music. My dad was a Pastor and my mother a stay at home mom. I had a really simple family life, “aje butter life” [“aje butter” translated in this context to mean ‘easy family life’]. I went to secondary school [high school] and then I went to the [United] States for four years. I [attended] Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was tough because there wasn’t much money. So, I left in my senior year because I did not have enough money and. . . I was also having problems with my visa. . .

LADYBRILLE.com: Tell us a bit more about your money and visa problems at the time?
M.I.:
The college bills were just so much and I [returned to Nigeria] because I missed a semester one time because I couldn’t pay. Also, for [foreign students on a visa] you had to go back to your country to renew your visa and then return to the States once it was renewed. I had all these scholarships and I was feeling good and I had to go to Nigeria, renew my visa and come back. But, when I got to Nigeria, the visa people were like you have this problem and that problem with your visa. They started dragging their feet and before I knew it, I was there for a year.

LADYBRILLE.com: You were back in Nigeria for a year?
M.I.:
Yeah, a year.
LADYBRILLE.com: Oh whoa.
M.I.:
It started becoming apparent the school was less and less interested because they had actually been sending me letters and renewing my scholarships, even though I was not around. But after a while, it was just like I did not want to be stuck in that loop not allowing my life to continue because I was trying to go back to the States. So, I started working and while I was working, the music came along because people heard some of the stuff I had recorded . . .

LADYBRILLE.com: What kind of work were you doing?
M.I.:
I was working with an internet service company. We use to make internet calls and I was part of the staff that ran the internet calls part of it. It was actually a good company, innovative, really fresh at that point and a lot of young people with a really nice environment.

LADYBRILLE.com: What were you studying at Calvin College?
M.I.:
I was a Business major and an Economics minor. [I] started Engineering but after the first year, I was like, “this is not really for me” and I switched to Business, so I was right about done when this [visa problem] happened.

LADYBRILLE.com: You return to Nigeria and you are technically stuck there for a year trying to figure things out. How difficult was the transition into everyday life?
M.I.:
The transition wasn’t that bad. I was one of those people that really wanted to leave Nigeria. I really hated everything about it. When I got to the States, it was a rude awakening for me because I discovered it was just people and they were living their lives just like we were in Nigeria. So, when I returned to Nigeria, in my heart I had this premonition that I would not leave again. When I got back to Nigeria and things were not working out, I did not let people know I [had just returned] from the States. I sort of went about my business and tried to get my life going again. The transition was not that difficult. My experience in the States just helped me to know more about [myself].

LADYBRILLE.com: What was your experience in the States and what did you expect it to be?
M.I.:
I don’t know what I expected but I thought it would be heaven.

LADYBRILLE.com: [I laugh]
M.I.:
[laughs] I thought people were like. . . you know? [He does not complete his thought] I had seen movies and I just thought everything was just, you know, heaven.

LADYBRILLE.com: [I laugh] Yes, I thought that too. . .
M.I.:
Yeah and you know it’s just people! You know what I mean? They eat, go to work and sleep. I started thinking to myself, “if it is just people that are doing the same thing that we Nigerians do, why do I have to come here to be happy? Why do I think I have to be here to be happy?”

LADYBRILLE.com: Yeah. I think one of your colleagues sings the song ‘I am a King in my own Country’ and basically why do I have to go to a foreign land to suffer when I am a King in my own country? What’s his name again . . . gosh I forget. Oh! Sound Sultan . . .
M.I.:
Oh yea, yea, yea, yea!

LADYBRILLE.com: That's a good song. Okay, now you are in Naija [Nigeria] and hustling to get your act together. What are the things you do musically to enhance yourself and how did you find your record label, Chocolate City?
M.I.:
Well, Chocolate City found me to answer that question first. They signed a good friend of mine Jeremiah Gyang and for a while he had been telling them, “you need to listen to M.I.” and for me I was not really looking for a deal but I told myself to go with the flow. So, when they offered me the deal, I was like, “okay.” However, [for] improving myself musically, I started a studio in Jos. I [started] learning how to produce, engineer and be a musician. I had always been a fan of music. I mean I came back to Nigeria with probably about a 1,000 CDs that I had accumulated while I was in the States.

LADYBRILLE.com: 1,000? Oh whoa!
M.I.:
Yeah, that is where a lot of my money went, like I just LOVE music so much and I just kept listening, listening and listening. That is what I tell everyone, “just keep listening and learning.”

LADYBRILLE.com: Chocolate City finds you and you have already been refining your skills and I guess ready to deploy. Let’s talk about your brother Jesse Jagz. I think he is an absolutely amazing beat maker. Were you guys working together before Chocolate City and then you brought that to the label?
M.I.:
Yeah. Jesse and [I] started the studio in Jos and I kept saying to him, “okay we are going to have our label and we have a few artists we will sign.” So, when I got signed [with Chocolate City], I kept saying “Audu [Maikori CEO of Chocolate City] you need to sign Jesse, you need to sign Jesse too because it is a whole movement. We have a very weird relationship. We are more like friends than brothers. He is three years younger than I am but he is just an amazing person to work with. He is so spontaneous and comes up with music. I am more of a deep thinker but he just comes up with music. He came up with the initial music for ‘Blaze,’ ‘Anoti.’ [‘Blaze’ and ‘Anoti’ are tracks off the “Talk About It” Album]. When [we were] growing up, he played drums and I [played] keyboards.

LADYBRILLE.com: Let’s get into the actual music you produce. One of the things I hear often is, “M.I. Hip Hop Messiah out of Naija.” I happen to think lyrically you are so intelligent.
M.I.:
Whoa.

LADYBRILLE.com: It either comes naturally or you have to really put a lot of effort [emphasis added] into it. Tell us about that creative process and what is going through your head because what I am noticing is you actually rhyme and it is intelligent! That is unreal in hip-hop today! Tell us what is going on in that mind of yours “Mr. Short Black Boy!”?
M.I.:
[laughs] Whoa. I have always been someone who thinks very deeply and ask a lot of questions. When I was growing up, I would ask my parents so many questions and they would sometimes stand and say, “What?” I used to think really deeply about everything. So, even with my approach to music, it is always like who am I and how do I feel about this issue? Then I try to make it as simple as possible to sell the idea to people. It is really work, work, work, think, think, think. I am all about the music. I have an idea and I play with the idea to see how it comes out. A lot of times, at night, I am just listening to different music. I go to poetry shows, read and listen to other people’s music. You never know where it is going to come from. For me it is more of, keep trying till you get it. Once I get an idea and see the angle, then I can write about it. If I want to write about a topic, I think about the angle and hook. Once I figure it out, everything just flows out of me. Sometimes I write songs in ten or twenty minutes.

LADYBRILLE.com: That is an amazing gift you’ve got and I honestly have not heard great hip-hop for a long time and I am very picky.
M.I.:
Whoa . . .

LADYBRILLE.com: [O]kay, enough of blowing your head up!
M.I.:
[Laughs] Yeah. I know. My hat just fell off. [laughs]

LADBRILLE.com: [Laughs] Let’s come down to your height level. How short are you again?
M.I.:
[Gives a hearty laugh] Can we just move on to the next question because anytime you ask that question, the network is going to be fuzzy. [laughs]

LADYBRILLE.com: [laughs] No we are gonna talk about that because I am 6ft 2in and a lot of short men that come around me typically are intimidated and they definitely don’t want to talk about their height. So, I have never heard a short man who every verse he gets in his rap, he tells you he is a “short black boy.” I am like, ‘okay we get it Mr. Short Black Boy.” You even have a whole track called ‘Short Black Boy!” Why the over-emphasis?
M.I.: [Gives a hearty laugh then gets serious] When I was growing up I really had self-esteem issues. . . but when I reached like 17 or 18, I was like, “men this is so stupid! Why am I trying to live my life for other people? Why do I care?” Like it really bothered me that I was short and I knew I wasn’t going to be tall and I thought, “I can’t live my life for other people. Let me just appreciate who I am.” So people will tell you that in college, I played basketball and I played hard and dudes that were two times my height are like, why are you playing so hard. I played hard because I kept saying, “people will look at you and expect nothing.”

LADYBRILLE.com: [laughing] So you are one of the short dudes I gotta watch out for on the [basketball] court because when I am playing them, they be trying to elbow me!
M.I.:
[laughs] yeaaaaaaaah, exactly, exactly!

LADYBRILLE.com [laughs]
M.I.:
[Joins laughing then switches into a serious tone] it keeps you humble when you are real about yourself. The “Short Black Boy,” I had the concept for the hook and I thought everyone expects me to say something cool. . . but I was like ‘it’s that Short Black Boy’ and they say it now like it’s no big deal. It’s just become something cool like ‘Short Black Boy.” It is no longer like “oh, you are short,” because they already know you are short before they see you.

LADYBRILLE.com: You have definitely helped the self-esteem of all the short black men in the world.
M.I.:
[laughs] Yeah. I hope so. I hope.

LADYBRILLE.com: Let’s talk about your album release and go into more specific songs on your ‘Talk About It” album. I heard “Talk About It” sold out of its 30,000 copies in the first 30minutes of its release.
M.I.:
I try to speak about this as humbly as I can but it really has been amazing! First of all, we got a marketing deal [he reveals the details off the record of a really rosy contract] which for a debut artist has almost never been done in Naija. It is unheard of and it was just based off of the buzz. The first day they were thinking how well can it be? And we sold out of the 30,000 copies we had in the first 30 minutes of its release, so it sort of set the tone for what is to come. We did a press release on that and the album keeps moving off the shelves. The people listening to the album don’t even know who M.I. is. They are more used to Nigerian Fuji and Afro-pop sounds. So for an unknown rapper speaking plain English, and I don’t really have party songs on the album, it is doing so well. People are buying it and it is shocking even me. It is really doing very very well.

LADYBRILLE.com: That is awesome. It is true most of the songs on the album are not party songs which is what makes its success so amazing. So, let’s talk about the song ‘Safe feat. Djinee.’ How did that come about?
M.I.:
‘Safe’ was just a humbling experience. There was another song called “This Year.” I made the music and I was done recording it and we were in the studio mixing it and as the music was playing, I started joking just saying, “it’s the way that it do me” [This is the hook of the song ‘Do Me’ by Nigeria’s R & B MTV Music Award winning Singers P-Square]. Someone was like, “that will be mad if you recorded a song like that.

So, I went into the booth and recorded thirteen minutes off the top of my head, [he raps the intro of Safe] “it’s the way that dey do me, crowds use to boo me, now ladies woo me.” I picked another Nigerian song and rapped another 5 minutes of it then Djinee [artist signed on Chocolate City record label] came and did another 5/6 minutes of it. It was a really long recording. Later that night, I chopped it and laid it properly into a song. I started giving it out for free because I just thought it was something fun where people will hear and say, “that’s cool.” Before we knew it, it was #1 on TV charts. It was just mad!

LADYBRILLE.com: Another one that I really like, “Pulling me back.” You use a lot of profanities in the track. But even for an audience not into profanities, you draw [people] in with what you [are] saying. You actually have a very strong story line that most people can relate to. Tell us about “Pulling Me Back.”
M.I.:
“Pulling Me Back” is a song that I had to either be honest or not do the song. You always want to sound good and clean. At least people sort of see me as the clean rapper guy that everyone can listen to. But there are some things that you talk about where you are just like I need to be honest on that song and say this is what happened. It came from a situation in my life where I was dating a girl and we were going through this really difficult time in our lives were we were arguing a lot. I was going through how I felt and how she felt and how we sort of figured it out.

So, I needed to do it or else I would not have felt the music. Especially when I talk about love, I am brutally honest and also when I talk about myself. There is another song that is going to come out in June [2009] and people were like, “are you sure you want to put that out?” And I just say, those songs are not worth doing if you’re not honest.

LADYBRILLE.com: Speaking of being honest, what became of that relationship?
M.I.:
Nah, naaahhh . . it’s done, it’s done. In fact, there is another album that goes a bit more into the relationship and talks about how that relationship ended. It is serious and really real.

LADYBRILLE.com: Hmm . . . interesting. What songs on your “Talk About It” Album resonates with you the most? I loved “Hustle” by the way.
M.I.:
You liked Hustle?

LADYBRILLE.com: Yeah. A little slow on the beat but lyrics strong and overall good.
M.I.:
All of the songs inspire me. For “Hustle,” the intro, “tororo torororororo” . . . I remember I came back from Lagos and I was like, “you know you are carrying this dream and you come back and the people in Jos are looking at you and they are expecting to hear good news. Like, are we going to get paychecks from all these hustling.” So, it is a very personal song and I am surprised at people that like it. I also started thinking about my friends in the States that are hustling, working hard and wanting their H-1 visa, the whole shebang and I am like hustle but don’t forget Nigeria and where you are from.

LADYBRILLE.com: You said you got friends hustling in the USA for H-1 visa. Expand on that?
M.I.:
For Americans, it is a hustle but especially for Nigerians. I love my people. I am very passionate about my people. When I lived in the USA, I did everything. I waited [tables], I washed toilets. I really had nothing. In fact, at one point, my girlfriend at the time wanted to go see a concert really bad and I could not afford a ticket to take her. Another guy who had been trying to get her for a while could afford it. He eventually bought the ticket and took her. [He gives one of those ‘life was hard’ chuckles] and I was working that night. So, that part of hustle comes from as I say to my friends, keep doing your thing but don’t forget where you are from.

For me, I am the first person from my village to ever study in the States. People laugh at me for that but it was really big for me. So, I feel a responsibility to come back [to Nigeria] and do well here. Obviously I am able to do well because of the choices I made, my father made and his father made. So, we are responsible for the next generation of Nigerians. Even though we hustle all over the world, I feel that sense of we need to remember where we are from.

LADYBRILLE.com: You will soon be releasing an album for the Western market and some people call you “Kanye West of the West” and even you have alluded to it in your lyrics, some say “Lil Wayne.” How do you intend to penetrate the Western market?
M.I.:
[He laughs] Well for the Western market, I want to put my name out there because I believe it is an important statement to make for Africa, for Nigeria. I realize that I may not be the dude that will make it. I hope I am the guy and I hope I am someday at the Grammys and going up for an award. For now, I just want to put out the purest music I can and be good, like be very good. The “One” album I feel is better than Kanye West. It’s that good. . .I really think and work as hard as I can to let people know we can do it.

LADYBRILLE.com: Well I think with the way you flow, you CAN do it because you make people listen and that is power you have. Your voice is strong and more kudos to your brother because his beats are what brings everything together.
M.I.:
Thank you. Thank you very much,

LADYBRILLE.com: So the album for the West is called what again?
M.I.:
‘One’ and I feel it is a fantastic album. Nobody has it yet but it will soon be released.

LADYBRILLE.com: Great. You will let us know when it drops?
M.I.:
Of course I will. I have the perfect song for you.

LADYBRILLE.com: Cool. Just make it a Ladybrille song.
M.I.:
It’s done. In fact, we are mixing it right now.

LADYBRILLE.com: [laughs] That’s wassup! It’s been my absolute pleasure.
M.I.:
Thank you. Thank you so much for everything . . .

~Interview by Uduak Oduok

To listen and purchase M.I. aka Jude Abaga's songs, visit his Reverbnation profile.
For extensive listening, visit M.I.'s Truspot page.


6 comments:

Bobby Taylor said...

Goodness Uduak you are great with the interviews!

This is by far one of the most open and humble interviews i have seen in ages!

MI rocks and we approve this message!

Bobby Taylor

plastiQ said...

Wonderful interview Uduak. This made my day.

@Bobby T: L. O. L. (I love the way f=you follow through on everything relating to your job, aggressive, yet on point)

@MI: You are not only blessed, but the combination of humility, giftedness, talents and a big self esteem has made you who you are today. Stop being surprised, it's time to bask in it.

@Uduak: You came through in a powerful way. Again.

I think it's time to bring Jesse Jagz a little bit under the spotlight too. He compliments his brother and the world is ready for such a monumental talent.

Cheers peeps. It's Naija

Anonymous said...

Uhmm....I am a very fanatical fan of M.I..I am hooked on this one and there is no going back.

This has got to be one of the most humble, honest and tell it like it is interview I have ever read. This is the beginning M.I..Just the beginning!

notjustok said...

Very good Interview... You are a natural Ladybrille... We got to know M.I better

sdotgang said...

All I can say is WOW.. M.I really opened up and was honest about his personal life and of course the rest is about to be revealed in his upcoming album "One".

Really good interview and thanks Ladybrille for asking the right question.

Anonymous said...

I never knew nigerian celebrities talk openly like this. loving the 'tell all' mood.

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