Lagos, Nigeria is arguably Africa’s entertainment capital. With the world’s most prolific film industry (sorry, Bollywood) it is one of the world’s entertainment capitals. One reason is that Nigerian’s really like to have a good time, especially around the holidays. During Nigeria’s Christmas festival season thousands of fans crowd the cities music venues and clubs to celebrate the biggest pop, hip-hop and R&B stars from the continent and around the world, however, in this pop Mecca there are just a handful of record labels that you need to know about. Empire Mates Entertainment is one of them.
Founded by 31 year-old Nigerian-American R&B artist Bankole Wellington, AKA Banky W., it’s been on the rise as the platform for both Banky and 22 year-old urban pop phenom Ayodeji Balogun, known to the stage as Wizkid. Preparing for his break-out is young singer and rapper Skales, who is 21.
When the trio arrives at the MTV Iggy offices for an interview and photo shoot all three are visibly exhausted from the previous night’s performance at the Nigerian Entertainment Awards where Wizkid won best pop/R&B artist and album of the year for his debut, Superstar, but they perk up when talking about their music and Empire Mates. It’s evidently an outlet for passion in addition to being a successful business venture. The new single “Baddest Boy” has the glossy sonics of club and radio ready urban music the world over, but it has an urgency and fire that’s pure Lagos. Stars they might be but EME started as a DIY operation and in many ways it still is one. Everything from production to management is done literally in house. Everyone lives and works at EME HQ.
Read on for the full details on that plus their origin story (pure hustle), how they’re going global, and what happened to Wizkid this year after the BET Awards. Also included: words on they’re new all-hands album Empire Mates State of Mind.
Wizkid, Credit: MTV Iggy
How did you found EME?
Banky W: I founded the label in 2002 when I was still in university. The first income that EME made was when my partners and I would go to hair salons and nail salons in New York and ask the owners if I could sing for the customers. And they would let me sing for the patrons and we would sell CDs for five dollars a piece and that’s how EME was born. This was upstate. I went to school in Albany. Everybody knew us in the neighborhood. We were like the local celebrities.
By 2008 I moved back to Nigeria, set up the label there, established a little success, thank god, then signed Wizkid.
So, with the Nigerian music scene growing the way it is, it must be getting crowded. What is Empire Mates doing to set themselves apart?
Wizkid: For the label, it’s always been about the music. You know we’ve definitely tried to differentiate our material from every other thing that comes out of Nigeria. Definitely we’re bringing something fresh to the table. Everybody has a different talent. Skales has swag … We’re definitely going to be around for a very long time. As the name implies, Empire Mates is an empire, and we’re going to be building for a very long time. That’s why we double up on the work with the songs, we triple up on it. Every body is always in the studio, trying to work, trying to make things happen. I feel so blessed being with the family, man.
BW: Each and every artist on Empire Mates is special and unique and different and nobody’s trying to be like somebody else. Everybody has their own lane. I remember when I started everybody was like, “oh, R&B would never work in Africa. Don’t bother. Just stay where you are. And when I signed Wiz, nobody had been that young and been that successful. They we’re like, “he’s too young, he’s too small, he’s this.” Skales and everybody else on the label, it’s the same thing. It’s unique, it’s fresh, it’s different.
For us it’s all about being ourselves. Each artist is true to himself or herself. Each artist does what they want to do and I think when you stay true to your art form and to who you are people will connect with that. It’s when you’re trying to be somebody else that you fall flat on your face.
What was the process like for writing the single off Empire Mates State of Mind, “Baddest Boy?”
Wizkid: It was funny. It was crazy. We were just in the house one time and there was something going on on the Internet. People were talking about our label. Stuff like, “oh, it’s time to leave.” [Laughing.] Stuff like that.
As you said, the industry is getting so crowded. People are coming up and trying to sound like you and be like you. People are saying there’s a lot of competition and things going on. But we just believe in work.
So, I went into the studio and I heard the beat. And Skales starts working on this verse. And then I came on. And then Banky did his verse. And then the song came out and it’s a successful song. I’m thankful for that.
So, “Baddest Boy” is a response song to people talking smack on the Internet?
Wizkid: Yeah, you know, every artist everywhere in the world gets just a little bit of hate.
BW: And we appreciate the criticism and all of that. But sometimes you just feel like you’ve just got to make a statement and that’s what that song is. It’s just a statement song.
Another song on the album “Change” talks about some of the issues facing Nigeria. What motivated you ti make that song?
BW: A lot of young people are frustrated that we’re seeing the same issues have been plaguing Nigeria for years on end. It just feels like it’s time for us to speak up and to stand up and just force things to go in a different direction. And when I say force I mean not violently or anything crazy like that. I just think things remain the same because we don’t do anything about it. Nigeria can change for the better and it will change when young people especially decide that enough is enough and that’s really what the song change is about.
What is a major issue that you think is important?
I think one of the biggest things in electricity. It’s that basis of any modern society. I think the day that Nigeria has something close to constant electricity, it will solve so many problems almost over night. It’s time for us to get there. It’s not rocket science. Other countries have it. Other countries that are not as blessed as Nigeria have electricity. I think the powers that be really have to address that.
And then of course there’s security with the terrorist attacks and Boko Haram. Used to be armed robbers, now it’s suicide bombings. That never used to be something Nigerians worried about.
Banky W., Credit: MTV Iggy
What was the purpose of Empire Mates State of Mind? Why make an album right now that just brought everybody from the label together?
BW: We had a fantastic year last year. Actually, the last two and a half years we had a really good run. Last year we did Wiz’s album and it’s probably the most successful debut album … I don’t want to brag or whatever but it’s done extremely well. I’ve established some success as a solo artist myself and were gearing up for Skales’ album. We just signed a couple new artists like Shaydee and Niyola and everybody just had so much to say. I had started working on my album and Skales’ album and of course we joined the joint venture to do Wiz internationally [with Akon’s Konvict Music]. We just had so much more to say than an individual album would do. People were screaming for new Wizkid music, my music, Skales’ music, we had new artists, so I kind of made a change in direction and said okay let’s do a group album.
And the beauty of EME is that everybody is so talented. It’s a label based solely off of talent. It’s not because we grew up together or you’re my cousin or anything like that. It’s just extremely talented artists. And when we made the decision to do a group album it was pretty easy because everyone was just there in the house.
Tell me about this house. It’s featured in some of the videos.
BW: The EME house. The house is the central location. It’s the home and the studio and so there’s always a lot of activity. There’s always a lot of people.
You live there?
BW: Yes. We all live there.
Skales, Credit: MTV Iggy
What’s it like living together?
BW: It’s fun, man. It’s a family atmosphere, especially Wiz and Skales. They’ve been around the longest. They’re like my little brothers at this point. I’m familiar with their parents. And it’s just easier when you’re comfortable and you live together. Any time you have an idea you can just go down to the studio. Shout out to our engineer Suka. We wake him up at all times of the night and just drag him down to the studio.
Do you operate as a collective or is there one person who has the final say musically?
Skales: The way we do it, Banky’s kind of like our mentor. We have our ideas, but they might have loose ends and he sees that. Or he might too, so we just tell him the idea. There’s room for correction. We’re more like our own A&R sometimes. We’ll listen to songs and say, “oh, I like this one. I think this is going to go far. I don’t like this one.”
You guys have all been touring a lot. What was the craziest show that you guys have played recently outside of Nigeria?
Wizkid: Definitely London. The love in London is crazy. The first time I performed in London alongside Ice Prince and P-Square and at that time it was crazy we had like 5,500 people in there. I came to show love. And the second time it was just us, EME crew and we still sold it out that much. That was really pretty special for me.
BW: That was at the Hammersmith [Apollo] and people were lined up for hours, like a new phone or something was coming out. The energy was just insane.
Was it mostly all Nigerians?
Wizkid: You had people that came from nowhere. You had Jamaicans.
BW: They have the term Afrobeats and that’s like the genre name that everybody is going by, but the music is international. I don’t feel like Wiz is just for a Nigerian audience. I think good music is good music.
Have you seen signs that people who are not of Nigerian descent are getting into some of these artists?
Wizkid: I’ve done some collabos with other people, with Kardinall Offishall, with Wale, with Young Jeezy, Beenie Man.
How did all those guys find out about your music?
Wizkid: When I recorded with Young Jeezy and The Game, I met them at the BET’s, when we went for the BET’s in L.A. When I met Young Jeezy it was with Boo. Boo works with Konvict as well. He hadn’t even heard my music at that point. It was so funny for me. We just went into the studio to create music. We went into the studio that night until like nine in the morning. We all went out that night. We went to Trey Songz’s party and then after that we went into that studio.
Okay, so you were at the BET Awards and you won best international artist, and Young Jeezy hadn’t even heard your music …
Wizkid: Yeah, but Boo had been talking to him about me. And we just went from there. He saw the confidence that was showing in my face. He was like, “are you sure you want to go to the studio tonight?” I was like, “yeah, let’s go.” We recorded like five tracks.
And then The Game came down?
Yeah, The Game was coming down to work with Young Jeezy and we were recording a track and he just did a verse on it.
How do you draw on the more traditional music that you might have grown up with and incorporate that into what you’re doing now?
BW: The beautiful thing about urban music now and hip-hop and that whole landscape is that everybody is into it and you can draw from any experience that you have and you hear, like, sometime Timbaland will use like an Asian influence or a Middle Eastern thing. That’s what music is today. And I think the beautiful thing about Nigerian music is that, it’s fresh, it’s hip-hop, it’s pop, but then it’s Nigerian. I think that’s what sets it apart.
When Wiz puts his Nigerian influence or some lingo or some slang, or the producer uses a traditional African drum pattern or whatever, I think that just sets it apart. You can’t get it anywhere else. I think that’s why Nigerian music is moving at the pace that it is. It’s because we found a way to be ourselves.
Wizkid: [Sings a bit of “Baddest Boy”] See that’s Yoruba. That’s not English, you understand. So, like, me growing up, I listened to a lot of Fela, I listened to a lot of King Sunny Adé. My dad used to play his record every morning.
I’m a Yoruba boy. I grew up in the hood where that’s the kind of music they listened to. Not that that’s all I listened to but that’s kind of where I got a lot of inspiration from. I listened to a lot of reggae. I listened to anything that sounds good. I draw inspiration from everything. We all just draw ideas from everything we listen to.
Skales, you’ve got an album coming out what can we expect from that?
Skales: Right now, I’m just trying different things. Right now people know me as a rapper. I’m trying to come out as a singer too. I’m just trying to bring the singing thing into my hip-hop joints.
What’s a good show you played recently?
Skales: I would say, the ATL and the one yesterday.
Tell me about the show in Atlanta.
Skales: It was great.
BW: It was at the Velvet Room. It was packed.