Oludemilade Alejo, popularly known as YCEE , hugged the limelight with his hit songs, ‘Jagaban’ and ‘OmoAlhaji’. In this interview, YCEE opens up on his blossoming career, his musical influences and how he manages to juggle school and music.
You studied Marine Biology at UNILAG (University of Lagos), how were you able to combine that with music?
YCEE: When I finished secondary school, I did not apply to the university immediately. So I had about a year to myself. During that period, I was basicallyjust trying to get a job to earn some extra money for myself before sitting for an exam and getting into university. I did a couple of minor jobsat the time, that was when I started recording my own music professionally.
From just starting out as a hobby, I got a record deal and released my first official single in 2012. So the music actually came before I got my admission into UNILAG in 2013. At the time when I wanted to go into school, I just asked, “what’s the science course I could do that isn’t really tasking?” and everybody said Marine Biology.
But it wasn’t what I expected because all science courses are really tasking, but at the end of the day, I am able to balance it all out. I have to give props to my label and manager. If I have to be at school at a certain time, they make sure I meet up with my deadlines and if I have a show, they make sure everything is prepped and ready. Basically, we are all working hand in hand to make everything work.
You were already a celebrity on campus. How did you cope with the demands of being a celebrity and still being on campus?
YCEE: When I got into UNILAG, I will say only a handful of people knew me or knew YCEE as an artist. Most people were just like “Who’s that dude that has rough hair?” (laughs). Then came Jagaban and OmoAlhaji, then everything changed. I couldn’t sit in class like before, I went to see my course adviser and he said I must sing for him, things like that.
Most times, it’s all fun and love, but other times, like when I’m in school and want to focus on something but people come around asking to take a picture. Most times in at school, I try to disguise myself as best as I can; I sometimes cover up my dreads and wear glasses to do what I have to do.
Jagaban was like your big break, it pushed you into the limelight. When you were recording that song, did you think it was going to be that big?
YCEE: As a young artist putting out music and trying to get that hit song, you just have that default thought – “this is the song that’s going to do it for you”; but when it eventually happens and the song becomes a banger, you really don’t expect it but you realise you’ve surpassed everybody’s expectations. When I recorded the song, I had a different feeling about it, I felt really good about it.
When we put it out and the response from people was positive, the feeling of having a new song was very new to me and before I knew it, it was everywhere – clubs, radio, and it was topping charts, I was performing at more shows, etc. That big break I was waiting for finally came through and, trust me, no one expected it would come the way it did, but it surpassed everyone’s expectations.
Were there moments you felt like giving up?
YCEE: Yeah, there was a time I actually wanted to quit music all together. I just wanted to leave my label, stop making music, go back to school and focus on that. I had been putting out music for two or three years and there wasn’t much happening.
I wasn’t looking for stardom but I wanted a little recognition at the very least, but the songs weren’t getting on the radio, myfan base was small. So I asked myself if this was the right decision and, for some reason, I was convinced to try and keep working. I did take some time off, went to school for a bit, butI was still working underground. I returned in 2015 and that was when everything changed.
What kept you in the game? Was it love, passionor you knew this was just a little glitch?
YCEE: I would say a bit of love and a bit of passion. Music is something I know how to do, it’s one thing I can boldly beat my chest and say, “I know how to make music”. During that period, while in school, I struggled through my classes, so I knew it’s me and music till the end. I went back to the studio to record and I had to change my mind-set and block all distractions so I could focus and try make it work. It paid off.
People talk about lyrical content these days. They say “they just sing anything and as long as the beat it good, it becomes a “club banger”. For you, how much work do you put into your lyrics? Is it about just getting people to dance or is there a message behind what you do?
YCEE: There aren’t many artists putting out conscious music because, at the end of the day, the songs that become hits are those played in the clubs which is why you see people putting out a lot of dance tracks which are considered extremely commercial. But, my own twist to it is, in as much as Iwant to create a song with a banging beat to be played in the clubs, I also try to put out lyrics that people can easily relate with.
In OmoAlhaji I said, “You came in a Benz but you left in a car”, which refers to a situation where a girl comes to the club with one guy but leaves with another. I take experiences that are relatable, things you see daily, and put them into the lyrics because for your song,as an artiste, to last it goes way beyond the beats and the lyrics have to be something people can sing along. Once they can sing and dance to it, I think most of the work has already been done.
For me, I try to put in a bit of, I won’t say consciousness, but more content than what others are doing. A lot of people ask when I’m going to release conscious music; while I’ve recorded a couple of songs, I also know that there is time for everything and you have to be grounded first so when you do put out that kind of music people will actually listen. So that time will soon come.
Where do you see yourself in terms of making an album that defines you as YCEE and truly reflects what an album should be like?
YCEE: An album shouldn’t be a situation where you go into the studio and say “okay, I’ve recorded these 12 songs in 2015 so let me put them together and call that an album”. An album should be like a story where each track is connected to the next. A lot of people ask if I’ve started working on my album. I reply yes and no because there are some songs I work on and I think this song is really one in a million, so I keep it for my album.
When it’s time to release the album, I’ll go into the studio and draft a plan on subjects I’ll be speaking on in the songs for the album. It should be more than just a listening experience, it should be more like a journey where you’re telling your experiences, past and present, passing on messages, and so on. An album is what truly defines an artist, not just the hit singles or the amount of money made at shows. It comes down to how well you’re able to structure a body of work and not just a compilation.
What inspired Jagaban?
YCEE:Jagaban was inspired by the need for me to do better and also do something more engaging. The first single I released before Jagaban was Condo. A lot of people listened to it and asked who this African-American person is because they felt I didn’t sound Nigerian. I feel like a lot of people got the wrong message and thought I was trying to fake being someone else.
So what I wanted to achieve with my next single was a hit song that the streets would take to, it had to be a banger, the verses had to show I was still a rapper andhere to stake my claim in the industry. I had all that in mind while working on Jagaban and as soon as I heard the beat, because I was working with the producer hand-in-hand, as he was laying the pattern for the verses, I was laying the lyrics for my verse. This is why all aspects of the song go together so well. I cleared my mind and went into the studio looking to do something great and I thank God it came out well.
How long did it take you to write it?
YCEE: I’ll say about four to five hours.
You were influenced by hip-hop music and your uncles played music growing up in FESTAC. Who would you say are your greatest musical influences?
YCEE: My greatest influence in music, first of all, would have to be Lil’ Wayne. As a kid, I would sing every popular song out there from D’banj to Kanye West, I could sing them word for word. So, at the time I thought if I could sing these songs so well, I should be able to construct my own music.
At that point, I was listening to a lot of Lil’ Wayne, so he basically influenced my style at that time. I look up to him a lot. I also look up to Drake, Kanye West, and M.I. because M.I., for me, came into the hip-hop scene, started making music, and showed us that hip-hop could be profitable. I give much props to M.I.
What was the last book or novel you read?
YCEE:(laughs) The last book I read was actually a crime-thriller novel called Detective by Arthur Hailey. I used to do a lot of reading but in recent times, I just go online and source through different kinds of information. I can be on Wikipedia just reading about various things for hours. But I do have a couple of books. I’m currently reading a book written by Stephen King called Cujo.