On The Fringe: Kondé Oko's Rebirth
With a new sonic identity, Kondé Oko – formerly known as YCG - is feeding his unending desire to expand his artistry.
There’s a certain verve and gravitas that accompanies Kondé Oko’s demeanour when he goes on endless rants about music and his creative process – something that he does on numerous occasions during our conversation one evening in late August. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to know he takes his craft very seriously; he’s extremely meticulous and ardent when he speaks. “Rap is very important to me…music occupies a very physical space in my head. When I listen to music, it comes with colours, rooms and locations,” he tells me enthusiastically.
With the passion that he exudes, one would assume Kondé has always been engrossed by music, maybe from birth even; this, however, isn’t the case. Rap hasn’t always been important to Kondé, and neither has music in general. “I wasn’t interested in music in any capacity beyond this is something that was fun. As regards the music I was listening to growing up; I honestly couldn’t tell what was playing around my house at the time. I know they played Sammie Okposo and deep Christian music but outside of that, I have no idea. I couldn’t tell you who my mum or dad’s favourite artist is,” he tells me.
Kondé spent his early years shuttling between Lagos and Jos. His love for music wouldn’t start until when he heard Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” blasting from a senior students’ room back in high school. “I feel like something opened up in me,” he says, almost like a clergyman describing one of his many encounters with the spiritual. “I didn’t even necessarily know what [Lil Wayne] was doing, but I just knew I wanted to do it. Up until this point, rap had just been something that just [existed], but I didn’t really know what it meant or didn’t bother to engage with it. And when I heard “A Milli”, I was like, “oh, this makes sense! This sounds fun. Whatever he is doing, I want to learn how to do that.”
Luckily for Kondé, a short, gangly M.I Abaga was turning heads and making waves in Jos at the time. He would be one of the first artists to present rap in a digestible and relatable form to Kondé. Before discovering M.I, rap had been this complex, distant thing that he couldn’t decipher; M.I made it arrest his attention. But while it fascinated him now, he still didn’t know how to approach it. “So this was around 2010 to 2011 in Jos [when I found Wayne], and M.I was just coming out hot. Keep in mind this is his hometown – M.I and Choc City were just next door [and] they used to come to my school a lot. Jos is kind of small; everybody knows everybody, so he came around a lot. There is this song “Safe” that features Djinee. That song was the song that contextualised rap for me. Rap now came in a package that I could relate to more,” he reminisces. He also credits Saucekid – who he claims is the greatest rapper we’ve ever had in Nigeria – for helping him understand rap better.
As time went on, and after discovering several other artists on the internet who inspired him, Kondé eventually got a better hang of rapping and music generally. And then came his initial moniker, “YCG”: “The idea came before the name. “YCG” was not something that I chose as a rap name. I was putting music out and didn’t know what to call myself, so I just went with something that could stand for anything and “YCG” was something that I could make into whatever I wanted it to stand for.” “YCG” quickly went from simply being a stage name to being a tool for experimentation and a project of some sort, one that involves constantly seeking improvements. “I [knew] I [rapped] well; I also made some beats. If I [liked] it, [I] put it out, but as time went on, I started asking some questions. Could I write this better? Could this beat sound different? I don’t like the way my vocals are mixed, could it be done in a better way?. So the idea of YCG quickly went from a moniker that I just dropped music under to a research project. So with each project that I dropped, I had a concept or idea that I wanted to explore and very often after I was done with these projects, I would realize there’s a technical aspect I was lacking. So the idea of YCG was asking questions and using these various projects to answer them.” This constant hankering – which ultimately served as a double-edged sword – and the need to find answers is what would birth six full-length albums and 2 Eps in the space of three and a half years. It would also help him morph into an incredibly well-rounded artist who wrote, produced, and engineered his songs all by himself.
While he was churning out a lot of music, using every project as an avenue to tinker or experiment and to ultimately better his artistry, it would also eventually constrain him. “People will often listen to an artist and determine what that artist should sound like,” he says, “and so when I had made a shift and tried to do new things outside of what they were used to as YCG, they didn’t take to it, not because there was anything wrong with it, but because that’s wasn’t who YCG was to them.” The idea behind “YCG” eventually became shackles, which didn’t leave much room for experimentation anymore. So after his 2020 EP, It’s Not Safe Outside, he realized there was a need for change. That’s when his new moniker Kondé Oko (derived from his panegyric Akande Oko) arrived.
Hi, My Name Is, the first project under his new moniker, deftly highlights the transition he’s made. “Mr Gidigba” and “Sweet”, the two records on his new project are both melodic and groovy. While they are not too far from his earlier hard-thumping bangers and gritty rap style, as they still retain hip-hop influences, you can tell he’s softer in his current approach. “I don’t want to do anything else besides rap, but I don’t believe that rap should exist in one certain form. So with “Mr Gidigba”, I rapped the entire way, but because of the structure of the song, it didn’t necessarily feel that way,” he says, explaining the stylistic and structural change in his current records.
Kondé Oko never wants to be constrained. Throughout our lengthy conversation, I realize he sees music differently from a lot of people. It’s an avenue, or better put, a constant journey seeking various modes of expression, not just in the words he’s rapping but in the way he presents the music. For him, music is fluid and conceptual. So when YCG was no longer serving its purpose, he shed that skin, slipping into another vessel that embodies what he currently wants to be.
While he possesses that unending desire to expand his artistry constantly, Kondé also has the self-awareness to realize these transitions might be a tad bit difficult to keep up with. He’s got that covered, though: “So [with Hi, My Name Is] I’ve shown what Kondé Oko can do, but I’ve still got something planned to port over the YCG fans. I want to remind them that nothing has changed, and I’m just wider now. So the next thing is going to be for YCG fans, to bring them up to speed, and then after that, who knows?”