Alex O: We’re Looking for Better Ways to Adapt, Break into the Industry Again

Alex Okoroigwe, popularly known as Alex O, is a Nigerian pop musician, singer, songwriter and music producer, who rose to fame in the nineties after he released his most notable song “Celebrate.” In this interview, he talks about why he decided to travel out of the country to further his education and to develop himself at the peak of his career. Alex says he returned to the country armed with skills in film production, animation production and a whole lot of new stuffs as well as a stronger passion for music. He talks about his new songs and urges all Nigerians to strive towards making the country a better place. Ferdinand Ekechukwu  provides the excerpts:

We have not been hearing much about Alex O, is it deliberate or you just decided to stay away from music for other engagements?

I never actually went away from music. Even when I travelled out in 1998, I was still in music. I travelled out to a couple of countries and I was also in music while I was out there, performing at concerts, producing jingles and also studying. So, I have always in been in music. The only thing that I haven’t been doing has been releasing new songs which I have started some two years ago.

The expectation then when you were at the peak of your career was that you are going to either sustain it or you take it higher, but all of a sudden we didn’t hear much again from you?

Yes, my career peaked, and as at that particular time the industry was going through a whole lot of difficulties that were making it challenging to continue to practice what we were doing, to continue to record, release music, market and all that the companies were doing. The companies were also going through their own problems too. And I remember that before I travelled, I actually finished a complete album and took it to the record company and the company said, ‘oh we are going through a rough time’ and they didn’t have the resources to be able to put it out the traditional way we used to do it and I looked at a whole lot of things that were going on at that time and I decided to upgrade myself, learn new skills and study. All that was a bit difficult to do back home then. So, I decided to ‘japa’ some kind of. And I’m back again after those number of years. I’m back again armed with the skills in film production, animation production and a whole lot of new stuff. I’m back again practicing what I used to love, what I still love and I have passion for. Now, I’m now more into film production and post-production.

What impact did your travelling have on your music career artistry and the entertainment culture?

Part of the reasons why I travelled was to go out there, experience what’s out there, learn, study and expose myself to new ways of doing music and other areas of life. As I am back now, you know especially in the film industry, I’m into visual effects. These are the things I’ve been doing and Nollywood is only gradually getting to know. I have worked with a couple of them. Those who have experienced how I work today continue to come and it’s just a couple of time before everybody gets to know this is what is going on. But the major challenge is the funding for a lot of the movies that are produced here don’t make it possible for you to get remunerated as much as you are supposed to. So, a lot of times producers don’t want to come because they think you are expensive. But these things cost money, they cost resources to be able to put together. So, films, visuals and then with my experiences, I have performed, worked with Americans, worked with British, all the people out there and learned so much. And now I am armed with the visuals aspect of things, I can make music, make songs and produce visuals for the song. It’s more like being armed and ready for the industry right now.  

You started your music journey quite early in life, was there any parental or family influence?

 My father was into music, mainly playing piano and stuff in the church, though he passed away while we were all young. I also had an uncle who was leading a local band then when we were all in the primary school and all that. I have always loved music and from my primary school, I was in the school band; in secondary I was also in the school band and I was also listening to very powerful songs that were coming from the United States. All those great bands and wanted to be like them, I wanted to sing like them and I wanted to perform like them. So I can tell you right now that during my secondary school education, I was also getting into music as much as possible. In fact, I used to run away from the dormitory on Friday night, I would take night bus to Lagos, to see if I could get some kind of sponsorship. You know all that time, Chris Okotie, Felix Liberty, were all reigning and I also wanted to perform as little as I was. And the most important thing is once you have identified that you have this talent and you have the passion for it and also willing to have the patience to develop it, all one needed was to look for where the channels were; look for where you could get whatever it was you were looking for to help you step up towards what you want to do. So I identified music as part of what I wanted to do as early as possible at that time.

You travelled abroad and now you are back, was there anything you missed while you were away and what is your assessment of the music industry at the moment?

Yes, when I left, like I said, it was a conscious decision to see how I could develop myself, get to acquire more knowledge, not only about music production, but also acquire other skills in entertainment. Well at the moment, yes, have things changed. Of course I missed some of the shows I used to do then. Port-Harcourt was home, Owerri was home, Lagos was also home. Everywhere – Kaduna, Kano and other states were all home. But while outside Nigeria, I was also performing in a couple of countries. So, I never really missed music because then while I got out there, I was able to have my own recording studio and I started producing jingles, sound tracks, even some Nigerians who knew where were also sending materials. It’s always been music, nothing was taken away I will tell you. But right now, as I’m here I have seen that the younger ones have changed it all, in fact technology changed it all and made it possible for everybody to have access ownership of studio right now and it’s more competitive now.

You recently released two new songs – Munachi and Take a Break – which you said signpost interesting times ahead and marked the beginning in preparation of a full album you planned to release later in the year. Can you speak to us about this album?

One thing is to work hard and make good music; another thing is for people to get to appreciate it and for it to ‘blow.’ That’s the word everybody is using now, ‘blow’ you know. It’s the same me, it’s the same thing, but the difference is right now the music promotions and marketing and everything has all changed now. So, one has to adapt as much as possible and look for better ways to fit in and be able to succeed and achieve again. The sound has also changed. Like I said, technology has made it easier now. You can decide how hard you want to work on materials that you have, unlike those days. Those days the record company gives you a number of studio sessions; most times about six or seven or eight sessions of eight hours for you to finish like eight songs or ten songs. So, you needed to work a whole lot harder before you can actually succeed and anything you didn’t prepare at home before coming to the studio you will find it difficult to be able to achieve inside the studio once you have started your sessions. And once your sessions are finished, you are on your own (laughs). But these days, it’s like everyone has a studio in their house, in their rooms, laptops and all that. Now, what separates everybody; what separates every artist, no matter how many that are coming out now is how harder you work, even with those equipment because of competition. You have to work a lot harder to be able to be held, for people to raise up their hands and say ‘oh we voting for this guy, his songs are great.’ Of course, once you have the passion for what you want to do, you can work hard, you can be patient and be able to do it and let it come out the way you want it to come out. So, this full album will eventually come out after a couple of more singles. We are looking at between eight and ten songs. But let me also hint you that all through the years that I have not been releasing new songs, I have also been writing, I have also been putting songs together in demonstration tapes. Some recorded; some just sketched and put down. I have so many songs right now that the moment my label starts to come up, I have enough materials that can actually push four artist or five artists none stop.    

How has your acceptance in the industry been?

So far people have been showing a lot of attention and interest towards the new songs that are here at the moment. Whenever it’s played anywhere, wherever I go or whatever it is the event is, people react positively to them. And that’s encouraging because a lot of people had been a bit worried, you know they tag all of us as old school musicians and all that, but when they listened to the new songs that I have, they are actually not far from what we have musically in Nigeria right now. The difference is you hear me singing and then you hear my lyrics style. But when it comes to their beats and their sounds, they are all there. So they all blend and we thank God for that. We want to do more promotions; we want to spread more and have it reach a lot more people. So far whenever I send a song to somebody, the feedback I get is always encouraging, that’s one. Two, I have also been to a couple of events and when I get there, like the very last one we had, they called me up to come and sing and everybody was expecting me sing ‘make we take some time to bubble and shuffle’, and I said ‘okay, everybody knows I do this one but I’m going to do a new one which is different from the old ones and I sang ‘Munachi’ and to my surprise, everybody, the applause, the reception it got really amazed me. That was a song that wasn’t yet known to them before I started performing and by the end of the song, the attention, the applause, the response, was very positive. I thank God it’s coming; a lot more work has to be done. I have to do a lot more work with the promo with also enforcing this whole new idea. One thing you need to also remember is from the onset of my music career, from my first album you can see there’s this whole, let me call it metamorphosis that kept coming from the first album that sounded a bit too British you know. The second one started coming with pidgin rap and all those other local elements that I started adding into it. And I can tell you that some of those experiments that we made those days are what crystalised to the quality and the style of music that is going on in Nigeria; mixing R&B beats with Yoruba songs with Igbo songs and choruses. So it’s a continuous process in the industry that you must continue to evolve, continue to experiment, continue to add whatever the ingredients or the elements are that the people want to hear in what you are doing.

We would like you to do a comparison between the music we had in your generation and what we are listening to now; in terms of the quality, do you think anything is missing?

In terms of the lyrical contents and style, I can tell you that we were doing a lot better than they are doing right now. But when it comes to instrumentation, the sounds, when it comes to the mixes, they are doing very well, they are a lot better. The reason is because they own their own studios right now, unlike during our days. During our days you have limited times in the studio and anything you didn’t finish well, it goes. But these days you have your own studio in your home and technology has made it a lot easier, technology has changed it all positively for the musicians of today. So they all have their own studios. You can choose to work on one song for one whole month until it comes out the way you want before you release it. Unlike those days, once your eight hours per day session is running out, they are locking the studio and asking you to leave. Because for you to own a studio those days, your father has to maybe know some oracle that knows or control a couple of banks or something. It was difficult to own recording studio those days. That’s the difference, that’s why the music is a lot stronger. But we also tried when you compare the little or no resources that we had those days. When I listen to the song ‘Celebrate’, listen to the mix, that was the reason why the DJs at events and radio stations were mixing ‘Celebrate’ with other songs and all those ones coming from the United States because it was strong enough to match the quality, the standard and then of course I had my local elements, I had some of the melody lines in Igbo, adding more flavours to it and it helped the success that we were able to achieve that time. 

But are the right messages being passed through the lyrics we have today?

Some of them are; some of them are doing well. I don’t want to talk about the gospel artists because their own is a given that it is morality and all that. But when you are talking of the mainstream musicians, if you look into it you will see that Nigerians love to party now than during our time. So, the music that the young ones are playing are most of the time for the entertainment; for party goers and party people. So, they are actually looking at whatever will come up at the party to dance on the dance floor and the more they do that, the more people want to dance to their music. So, it’s a completely different trend from what we had then during our time. And more so, during our time, what was reigning more was the reggae music and the reggae music that they were playing that time was coming with a whole lot of rebellious tone against the government. It was in their lyrics and all they were saying. Though I was on the R&B side and not into reggae, but at the end of the day, I made sure that my lyrics also made sense to people. And if your lyrics didn’t make sense to anybody during that time, they are not going to listen to you. So it’s equally important. The artists of today, they are trying; some of them, not all of them. There are some of them that are very serious with the work they are putting in and I encourage them to continue to.

You earlier talked about adaptation and you know collaboration with the new artists is also important if you need to adapt. Which of the current musician are you looking forward to working with on some of your works?

Collaboration, I look at it as not only from the musical studio recording studio musical point of view. Sometimes you have to put it into prayer for God to send somebody you are compatible with, somebody you can work with, and somebody you have the same level of understanding with so that when you start a project it can be taken to fruition. You know why? A lot of people are doing things differently these days and I have seen situations where two people try to collaborate; they start a project and they end up quarrelling and fighting and the project doesn’t go anywhere. By this time money had been put in, resources and time have been put in, so I must make sure that it’s somebody that I’m compatible with, somebody who, yes, my spirit agrees with and somebody who would want to do with me as well. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be going out of my way. Collaboration if it comes, it comes. And if it comes from somebody I can work with, oh fantastic. If it doesn’t come, I’m a very hard working musician and can I always hold my own and I’m telling you right now that at any time any day, I can always work hard and hold it on my own. And if somebody I’m compatible comes, somebody I have the same level of understanding comes along, why not. It will be a good idea. After all, I did one with Prince Amaho, the famous Nigerian artist based in Germany two years ago titled, ‘Shine Like a Star’. We did some of the recordings here, shot some of the video here, some in Germany and they are promoting it in Germany and it’s doing very well as well. So over here, yes it’s possible and must be somebody I’m compatible with and somebody who wants to work with me too.

With your wealth of experience in music as producer, songwriter/singer, are there any plans towards the younger ones in terms of grooming young talents?

At the moment, I’m starting out again or rather restarting out; now a couple of more singles, the full album comes out, we promote and then the next I will start looking at pushing my new record label and of course there are a whole lot of talents I can help that I can contribute towards helping to develop and put out there. But they must also be willing to work hard and they must be patient. You don’t want to go sign somebody who would start to give you headache from day one and they have to be put through proper training to be able to know how to conduct themselves in the public space especially these days where everybody can write, say, do anything online whether you like it or not. And sometimes the younger artists do these things and destroy themselves before they start a career in music. So, one has to pay attention to all the necessary things that need to be done before one starts to put the younger ones out there. But I definitely will as time goes on.

Sometime ago you had planned to remix your classic songs. How far did that go?

The moment I wanted to start it, my attention was called to the fact that the record company that released those songs also have a say in the remixes of all the songs. That is the company that sponsored and popularised those titles. So, at the moment we are in serious talks with them so that the project can go. In fact, they are even more interested than I am in doing the remixes and repackaging of the old songs to make them come alive again. We are in talks right now trying to round up. 

So as soon as we conclude with the arrangement, the songs will all be remixed all those hit songs will come up again.

What would you describe as the most memorable moment in your career and also the worst memorable moment as well?

 I can tell you anytime I’m in front of a very big crowd performing, those I don’t forget. And I remember one of those times in Port Harcourt when two journalists came to meet me at the Presidential Hotel. I had this big show then and they followed me to my suite where I was with my manager trying to dress up to go. The journalists, a guy and a lady were with us, they followed all through till I got to the stage, performed and sang and danced and all that whole energy and everything and at the end of the show they came back into the hotel room. They said ‘you know why they followed me from when they called me to come and perform? I said no. They said they wanted to know if there’s something I drink or smoke before I go on stage. And they realised I just took my water and I went and I performed. So, I told them it all has to do with how you are trained. Those were my most memorable moment I can tell you.

 And the worst moment?

Okay there was this show, one of them actually, at the University of Uyo in Akwa Ibom State; we went there I was called to come up on stage, I got to the stage before I started singing the first song there were gun shots inside the hall there with all that whole crowd. Everybody was running up and down and I jumped on top one of the loud speakers, climbed on top of the wall and jumped out of the hall. And when I landed I actually had to look up to see how high I jumped from. And I had to run, everybody ran, everywhere was scattered, the musician, everybody ran into the nearby bush and we were there till in the morning. We now came out and then they told us some rival cult guys that they felt that they were the ones that should have done that show and this other group are trying to succeed, they didn’t think they were going to bring me to the show and I was about to perform so they needed to do something. That was my worst moment.

Finally, what would you like to be remembered for?

 I would like to be remembered for my good music, for my good behavior. God has been helping me I have been trying to make sure that I cut excesses (laughs). I will like to be remembered as one of those great musicians that graced this powerful country of ours. And I also want to also be remembered as somebody who made contributions towards developing the music of this country as much as possible. And I also want to be remembered as a good man. As my parting shot, I would like to plead to everybody in this country to start thinking of how we can make this country be a bigger, better country for all of us. You really don’t know until you travel out and encounter people outside who have an idea of the potential of this country. We don’t know until we experience all that. I am asking my fellow Nigerians, whatever we can do, let us look inwards and see how we can build this country. Countries that were smaller and poorer that we were – a country like Singapore is now a first world country right and we are here still struggling with generator. This country must progress.

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