[Cover Story] Nnamdi Ogbonnaya On Being the Gateway Drug for Rock & Hip-Hop Crowds to Co-Mingle

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

When Nnamdi Ogbonnaya speaks, it’s with the wry ‘everything is an absurdity’ of a hyper-intelligent 13-year-old with ADHD who’s skipped a grade and makes a sport of humiliating substitute teachers.

Nnamdi is musically confident and his current project, DROOL, is possessed of the unapologetic weirdness of a Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon joint, mixed with the humor of a Quasimoto track, bolstered by the musicality of that character’s creator, Madlib. He comes off something like a Kid Cudi, with better raps, art-rock and jazz fusion chops, and the vocal buoyancy of a Swae Lee.

Nnamdi chuckled a brief synopsis of himself: “I play drums mainly. From Chicago. I live in Chicago, I wasn’t born here, I was born in L.A. Aaaaand, I just make a lot of music, all the time.”

He goes on, “I really like weird, dissonant hardcore stuff. I like this band, Daughters a lot, which is kind of thrashy. I like this man John Zorn – he’s a composer and saxophone player. He had this group called Naked City, which is pretty wild. I like a lot of weird stuff.

“But, I also really like Busta Rhymes. I’m really into melodic new type R&B. Like I really like all the new Frank Ocean stuff and I have a love/hate relationship with Drake, it’s just too catchy for me to avoid. So, I guess that means I like Drake.”

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

He continues, “I listen to a lot different stuff, mostly weird rock and jazz type stuff. I just saw this kid, Jacob Collier perform and he was amazing. He’s a composer, piano player, he played everything. I mean, I don’t even know what to call his music. I really like people who just do their own thing and don’t restrict it to one genre.”

Nnamdi is a multi-instrumentalist, and a highly prolific veteran of the Chicago music scene. “I started out playing piano, but I’m the worst at piano and probably play it the least. My main instrument is the drums, but I also play bass and guitar.”

Nnamdi, who started playing in punk bands, has ventured into avant-garde, jazz ventures and recently started experimenting with hip-hop, beginning with his last release. He explains, “The last thing I put out was also a hip-hop record. It was my first 100% hip-hop thing. But this one, its more structured, less orchestral. Like, the songs aren’t as difficult and more straightforward musically. And I focused more on the lyrics.”

Nnamdi rapped a taste about more thematically open post-millennial hip-hop: “It’s come a long way and still has a long way to go, you know the more mainstream type rappers that have the persona that you have to be tough all the time, there’s still a lot of that.”

He explains, “I like Migos a lot and I feel like even though they’re within that realm of ‘they’re tough’ and people think they’re badass and cool and shit, their adlibs are so goofy. Like, there’s an element of silliness that’s allowed even in stereotypical ‘tough guy’ rap music. You can be funny. I feel like it’s kind of frowned upon in a lot of music to be silly.”

He adds, “I don’t feel like you can separate that as people. That’s why I had a problem with a lot of hip-hop people, because you’re putting on this front like you never smile, like you never have fun. You know you’re not like this all the time and no one is like that 100% of time. It’s just a persona. Which is cool. People are attracted to personas, but I like that hip-hop is becoming more open and allowing people to just be themselves, without having to be a specific way.”

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

Nnamdi goes on to discuss his identity and musical evolution, “Growing up…I was around mostly white dudes because I would play in punk bands and shit and none of the black people that I was around where into the things I was into. But then I go home, my family is black and at church everyone is black, so I would go back and forth between these two things. It opened me up to lots of different music. But showing any black people [my] music early on, like I’m in this band and they’re like, ‘Man, nigga you’re weird as fuck. Why are you making this psychedelic shit?’ Because I like it.”

Nnamdi proceeds, “But I’ve always been into hip-hop, like I’ve never divided into different things. I just like what I like and I just happen to be playing a type of music at a certain time. When I started making music, I would just record any idea that came to my head, be it rap, some weird goofy stuff, or heavy grunge or grind, I would just do whatever.

“I feel like people open up as they get older, as they experience different things.  I feel like it’s kind of a young person’s mentality, that’s being faded out with young people today too, because we have more access to all this shit. But when you’re only around one type of people, people are kind of like, ‘This is all we do’ and you get stuck in a rut. Which is hard to get out of.”

Nnamdi also explains how his musical adventurousness has helped expand his worldview, stating, “I’ve gotten to see all sides of everything. I feel like I’ve got to be in the church with people doing that shit, I’ve got to be in basements at hardcore shows, and I’ve gotten to hangout with gangsters. I’ve been exposed to all that shit and I try to bring people to realize, yeah we have all these different cultures, but people don’t realize the different privileges they have until they see other sides of the shit. So, seeing all this has helped me be diverse as a musician, like I can’t imagine a different type of life where I wasn’t exposed to all these different people and different types of friendships.”

Nnamdi also speaks on coming of age in Chicago, “Early in my college days, I drive from the burbs up into Chicago and go to school downtown, then I would go hangout with friends in Englewood. So, I would be all over Chicago in the course of one day. There’s drastic differences, just going up and down one main street of Chicago. You turn a corner and it’s like, What the fuck is going on?’”

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya

Nnamdi went on to describe what drives him creatively, saying, “My goal musically is to, I don’t to want say bridge genres, but I want to be like a gateway drug to certain people. I want to make some things that bring hip-hop fans over to rock and bring rock fans over to hip-hop. But I don’t want to do some corny like, ‘Awwwwe yeah, Linkin Park/Jay-Z mash up!’  type shit.

“I want it to happen organically. I want to challenge people and to make things that will get played on the radio, that wouldn’t normally get played on the radio, because we keep hearing the same shit. I want to make it popular to try to be your self. I feel like the biggest thing put on black men is to be macho and be tough. I feel like that is sooo toxic, because no one wants to be that person all the time. It’s toxic.

“But my main goal with my music is to just encourage young people to do what they think they should do and try to perfect their own crafts,” Nnamdi adds with finality.

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya Drool

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya Drool

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Drool

Standout Track: “hOp Off”

Follow on Twitter @NnamdiOgbonnaya

All Photos by Johnny Fabrizio

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