Since 2000, iLLBliss has grown his status to the upper echelons of the rap game with his streetwise indigenous sliced rhymes, uncanny album titles, and the braggadocio boss persona comparable to that of an Igbo don.
iLLBliss speaks on his upcoming 6th album, role in King of Boys and getting the respect he deserves
Rapper iLLBliss belongs to an elite list of rappers who have successfully maintained a consistent buzz since the pop evolution era.
The self-dubbed Ibo Boy has endured many battles since he made his industry move with life throwing different challenges across his path, but he remains steady, five albums and a mixtape done, delving to the big screen with the movie, ''King of Boys'', and a sixth album on its way, iLLBliss stays confident reflecting on a career that he says has been full of peaks and valleys.
In this exclusive interview with Pulse, iLLBliss traces back the years, speaks on his upcoming projects and shares his thought on the rap scene.
Getting to interview iLLBliss for me was a big deal, he was one of those rappers I followed keenly as a member of the Breds in my early affinity with Nigerian hip-hop and shaking hands with him just as we got into some quick talk before the interview, this was a fulfilling moment, seeing an idol in the form that my mind had pictured.
He was a member of the rap affiliate, Da Thoroughbreds, which was a truly diverse crew of rappers made up of Tochukwu Nwosu aka Elajoe, Bright Nwagor better known as B Elect, Obiora Nwokolobiagu (Obiwon) and Tobechukwu Ejiofor aka iLLBliss and Amaka Nwosu aka Da Chief Rocka, sister to Elajoe and the first lady of the crew.
Five albums after, Dat Ibo Boy (2009) to Oga Boss (2012), Powerful (2015), illygaty:7057 (2016), illy Bomaye (2017), Illy has settled into his space and with the upcoming album illy Chapo, set to complete the illy album trilogy, he admits this is yet another indication of his consistency in the game.
How was the transition like from Thoro Breds to being a solo artist?
''First of all, we were never really a group, we were a collective of artists that just loved the same genre of music. We met up. I went to University with Obiwon, and then we finished from UNN and I came to Lagos and I met Elajoe, Elajoe's sister, Amaka and B-Elect.
We just decided to collectively put our efforts together and make music as a crew and then launch off individually.
Making the decision, I had always wanted to be a solo artist but I also felt I could also drive the crew part, so when it was time for me, it wasn't tough, it was a natural progression for me.''
How has iLLBliss managed to maintain being the only remaining visible member of the team?
''That wasn't the intention, till today I regret that I don't have my entire squad in the business, Elajoe is putting out his project, finally, and he will tell you that I am always on his case, I be like, 'Ela, you had that Stylee shine, you had it before any of us, that big opportunity,' but Ela is a perfectionist.
I feel lonely sometimes but I got used to it, I am a very self-sufficient person, I am like 10 guys in one, I push myself, I put out records and I just keep it going but I am in touch with all of them.
B-Elect schooled me on what I eventually became, he used to give me tapes, introduced me to DJ Premier, all the records that would mould me and helped my lyricism was by B Elect.''
Talk us through your journey from the start, the whole movement from Enugu down to Lagos.
''I was born in Coal City, Enugu, I grew up there, all my schooling there, they call it 042 because of the phone code.
In UNN, I started rapping, I started rhyming over instrumentals, first of all, then I decided it was time to start making my own records. Then when I graduated, I came to Lagos for my Youth Service, I tell people, your journey in Lagos depends on how you came in, some came in by flight, their family come pick them up, I came on a night bus, straight from Ifesinachi, got on the bus and dropped off at Berger.
It was raining, Saturday morning, I was trying to find the NYSC camp at Ipaja and I saw like 3,000 people moving at the same time, culture shock cause where I was coming from in Enugu, it's a small town and its quiet. This was around 2003/04, so I came in and just headed to the camp and blended in and from there started looking for a job in Lagos, trying to settle in and eventually got a job as a banker.
I kept making the music on the side, but I could never really come all out to make it cause banking has its requirements, I don't think its that rigid now but back in the days, it was a taboo to do anything in that space, but weekends if I didn't have any training, I just go to the studio and record.
In the mid-2000s the Bred were rumoured to be working on a project, ''Fela Was Hip-hop'', one that was never released,
''Thoro Breds helped me a lot at that point,'' he explains, ''because I had my job and I had the help of my crew and we recorded a lot of music together, we even had an album that never dropped.
From there, I continued with my banking life, I ran through four banks, I left banking as an assistant manager, my life is in chapters. A lot of people know me from couple years back, some people think I am a new artist.
The last bank I worked for collapsed, I tried to get another bank job, I was getting shortchanged because I was coming from a distressed bank, so all the other banks would give you three steps below cos they knew you needed to get in, so I just said Ok, lemme leave the country for a while, So I moved to the UK, which led to another segment of life, I moved back like 2.5/3 years later and the game had changed and I came back as ill Bliss.
I had planned to just stay for 2 months and be back, two months became almost three years, it was trying, having to not go there as a student, having to do menial jobs, like a lot of things, don't move me because I have seen lack and I have had a lot.
I had all my savings stupidly invested in the bank shares, which was something we were encouraged to do, so I put all my money running to millions because I was saving to go to school, to go do my masters in the UK, I had this lofty plan but it just quite never happened.
Banking taught me a lot though, I moved a lot, I went from Human resources to Customer Care, Fund Transfer, Credit, Lending, Commercial Banking, Oil and Gas, I did everything, the only thing I never did was Teller.
How were you mentally at this time?
''My heart was always in the music, at a point I had four jobs, I was a Tunnel guard at the Arsenal stadium, Highbury, that is how I became a gunner, like I am a proper authentic gunner, we are the ones that go and clean the dressing room, go and cut the grass at Highbury, we did the transition into the Emirates we have community works.
I met so many people from that gathering, but I always made the music, I stayed focused on the music, I knew I was going to go back to Nigeria and sort out my career again, so I had producers in Nigeria, because production in the UK was expensive especially for the kind of music I was making, BoomBap, which was underground, so I always needed specialist producers.
I had a producer Jonah D Monarch and like three of them, they used to send me beats and I would take it to the studio, a sound engineer called Ian Carter, at some place in Woodgreen, I would take a train from West London to his studio which was in a basement.
He just basically knew how to engineer my music and I would come in and pay for like a 3-4 hours session and would bang out like nine songs and Ian would be like ''Tobe, you guys are on fire, it takes me and my band like two weeks to make a song'', so that is what England made me become, I recorded load of songs because I was by myself and we became really cool friends and that is how I continued to make music while in England.''
On 'It is God', You have always had this conscious mien with songs like 'A Different Kind of War' and 'National Cake', is this a direction you would encourage rappers to talk about more?
''We must reflect the times, our music must reflect the times, these are words that resonate in my head, what is the essence of being a communicator and affecting the culture if you cant reflect the times through your music?
Rappers are scared, rappers want to be singers, rappers want to be pop, rappers want to make money, rappers want to embrace hits.
The depth, the consciousness, the introspection, every single thing that makes you a rapper is missing today minus albums like Falz's Moral Instruction, which is a modern day classic as far as I am concerned.
I think the rappers need to readjust the position they play in the business, we are as scholars, I feel like a lot of rappers don't even understand what power they have.
Up until last year, between MI, Loose Kaynon, A-Q and Blaqbonez, they restored some kind of sanity to rap music. I like to call it rap music because once you go in that hip-hop direction, it starts to become a problem because everybody shows up and have a way to define things.
The hip-hop culture is overtly revolving, so I would rather just say I am a rapper to be more specific.
Rappers need to go in that direction because society is looking at us, we are the ones that are edgy, the ones that are bold to say it as it is, the singers are not wired that way.
Imagine if we had a lot of us rappers just putting out records about the times, so because we are not doing enough of that, because everybody is in that Lamba tunnel.
Social media recently went on a #10years challenge craze, if we are to do same for the rap game, what really has changed?
''At one particular sitting, I met Terry Tha Rapman, Modenine, OD, SixFootPlus, we were so passionate, we just wanted to get the records out, then we were like aliens, there was no industry for rap, we were looked as like the mad ones, the leftists and we were very puritanical the way we approached the music, very militant, message-driven, punchlines and the intelligence of the music, we didn't know so much about the business side of the music.
But there was this comrade spirit, we were like brothers, Modenine would go to Abuja, he had a radio job then and take all our records and played, I sold his ''Malcolm IX'' at one banking exhibition we had, that's missing.
Now there is a lot of posturing, everybody claiming boss, I am not seeing the unity anymore.
I see a lot of individual amazing talents that have gone ahead to become big but I don't see anybody doing it for the next person, there is a lot of competition, quiet competition, I guess that is what comes when the money hits the table, then we didn't have much money.''
But a lot of you guys have been accused of not supporting the younger cats?
''I opened the doors for Phyno and he went ahead to become so massive in the game now he is opening doors for people.
I am still looking for new talents that I can take support and nurture and support, probably not sign on like a typical label structure, but I agree a lot of rappers in my generation are guilty, just trying to make music on their own, but also realise that a lot of them also didn't make a lot of money, so how they were supposed to have that structure.
They were fighting not to drown, so how are they going to put people on, maybe because I came from that banking background, I had a more holistic approach.
I have always said to myself, you have to run this like a team. I put Chidinma on, put Phyno on, partnered with Clarence Peters, flipped the business and I want to do that again because as far as I am concerned this is all past glory but in doing all of that I needed to stabilize myself musically because in doing all of these partnerships, sometimes you destabilize from the music. So I just needed to be able to be consistent with the music then I will get back into mentorship.''
Even though he belongs to the old generation of heads naming his early influences to include the likes of Nas, Jay Z and Dre, Illy has grown with age, diversifying his craft and while he still embodies his signature boss persona in the music, he has also been one to embrace collaborations and he explains,
''First and foremost, I have always been a child of change. I have always morphed, all the guys that I have looked up to are multi-platinum artists; Jay, Nas, Biggie, Dre, you name it, all the people that helped me mould my personality, even Rick Ross in modern times, all of them are dynamic acts.
They have always measured their trends and that is what informed my decisions when I make records like 'Alhaji' with Runtown, 'Jawonlaya' with Eazi and Reekado, if I wasn't supportive of them, I just don't go to them, I have to be a fan of their music before we can collaborate.''
You have done records with Terry G, done Trap records, do you see trends before they happen?
''I am just a fan of music, a fan of urban music.
I kind of tap into a thing that will work. I remember when I went to Terry G to collaborate, Terry started to make a hip-hop beat for me, I told him, No, I need a club record.
I just collaborate and inject myself into that person's energy. But never lose yourself as you try to collaborate.''
Talking about mentorship, what's happening with the Goretti Company?
''The Goretti Company has been quiet, to be honest, we moved into content, started creating for advertising agencies and we put a pause button on signing talents because you also need to realise that music doesn't come cheap anymore.
If you are putting talent on, you need a war chest. I am taking my time, I don't want to sign artists that tomorrow you have record labels vs artists situation, I never want that.''
Over a decade long career in the game, do you think iLLBliss gets the respect he deserves?
''Can I be honest with you guys? I am the number one underdog in this business. I have never gotten the respect that I deserve, never, sometimes it makes you sad, sometimes it makes you wonder what you have to do, sometimes you are like 'my records are dope', 'the videos are fly', 'I am consistent', what's the problem?
Every time I go back into the studio, I go back like that is my debut album, so I just told myself, you are a King man, so you continue to move the way kings move and never be bothered about where you are placed.
I have a lane and I am on that lane, I have been on that lane and I can't see too many cars on that lane, sorta I feel like I own all the cars on that lane, so I have just decided how I want to move artistically and I stay there, I don't come to your mind readily when it comes to popular Nigerian music, but you know deep down that if you back at the discography, if you look at impact, you would know that Illy has been here for a minute and Illy has been freaking consistent.
Illy Chapo is my sixth album and it is dropping this year, how many rappers have six albums?''
How have you kept the inspiration going?
''God. It's God, I don't know how it's done, I just know that I wake up and I want to put out a new EP, new project, I just know I am not done with the music that God put in me.
I am working harder than artists that just got into the game, with each release I put in more work, I just feel like this is who I am and it's all going to add up.''
Your albums have always been praised sonically, what is your album creating process like?
''I make all the serious songs first, all the thought-provoking and introspective, politically charged, personal records.
I put a lot of my personal records into the music. Let me tell you about the first song on my next album, 'Glory', (He raps a few lines)... That's what I am, these are my lines, this is me, damn, I don't get the credit I deserve [Laughs]
People have come at me from different angles, 'Oh he can't make commercial records, oh he is not such a lyricist, he doesn't have punchlines, oh, he just knows how to choose beats, I have heard everything, then on the other side, I have also heard great things.
The game changed and became dialectical, I became dialectical. I went back to the Eastern sounds, I dropped records like 'Bank Alert', 'Chuwku Agozi gogi', '40-foot containers', I have out in all I can, I do the records for women, for kids not to get stuck on social media, its how it comes to me.
You just talked about the first song off your next album, which is a personal record, I don't know if this is an intentional plot but the first song off your last album, 'Illy Bomaye' was also a personal record where you talked about your daughter?
''It was intense. My wife and I were childless for eight years and then God just blessed us at a point when we didn't even know what to do next, we didn't know what the problem was, we were just optimistic and prayerful and I felt how else was I going to drop the album, this has to be me saying thank you, so I recorded my daughters cries, sampled it on the record.
That is me. A lot of my friend says, I have never made a 'Shaku Shaku' record, and I am such a Shaku Shaku fan, but I won't make a shaku shaku record, it has nothing to do with pulling down the genre, it just has to do with you can't be everything.''
How was that eight-year waiting period like for you?
''I was sad a lot of times, you know when you feel like God just left you, you were watching kids grow, so we put all that love into kids around us. We have a lovely family, not a second of pressure.
Her name is Sochikaima, it means its only our God we know.''
Let's talk about your role in the movie ''King of Boys'', how was that like for you?
''So I spent a lot of time watching Juice, Menace to the society, Boys in the hood, Above the rim, all the films that successful rap artists were part of.
Kemi [Adetiba] called me in September 2017 that she had a role for me, I said I wasn't doing, I didn't want to act cos I was scared, I have seen a lot of people try to make that transition from music to television and when it fails the media will crucify you.
She sent me the script, I didn't read it, I left it in my box.
I just lost touch with Kemi, so January 2018, I saw King of Boys PDF file and I was like let me even look at this and I read the first five pages and I called her immediately like have you done the film, she said 'No' and I was like thank God, I am joining.''
''The story, I liked the story, I liked the character, I needed a character that I would ease into and Kemi would tell me my 'Bank Alert' video helped her develop this Malay guy, then I heard Reminisce was on set, if there is any rapper I am going to do a joint album with, that is Reminisce. ''
''Our thinking, the way we envision rap, he is so passionate and such a hip-hop artist, such a lover of the culture and he is an authentic dude. He can flip it and still keep it real.''
How challenging was it for you?
''Kemi made us relax, she just eased us into our roles, she kinda of broke that the barriers of are we going to do well?
I heard Reminisce spazzed out the first time he saw Sola Shobowale on set, he was like this is a set-up, but Kemi will come and stand next to us and directed us well. She is also a hip-hop person, so she understands us.''
Did you envisage your first movie to be this successful?
''It's crazy, when I open my inbox, it's a whole different set of people, These are not hip-hop fans, just messages from people who had seen the movie, then I had people stalking me because I killed Reminisce, so I am like, you guys take this thing seriously though.
I took my parents to watch it and they literally were in tears, everybody was proud.
I have about 16-20 scripts now, they are all Odogu Malay archetype, they want to put me in that box, No, I want dynamism. Thank God for King of Boys.''
Back to the music, It's 2019, what do you have in store?
''I finished an album last year, it was supposed to come out last year but I held it back, I just didn't feel the timing was right.
I started working in May, the first single was '40 feet containers', the second single was 'Is it your money' ft Dice Ailes, it's 11 songs, again its premium ill Bliss.
It's growth, my album reflects my status. 'It is God' is on the album, there is 'Remember Me' ft Johnny Drille, 'Fever' ft Yemi Alade, 'Superman' features Niniola and the rest I did it myself.
The track-listing will hit everywhere soon. I am just looking for the elections to be done with, then I roll out.
There are also couple EPs I have finalised, I am always looking out for the gems, the producers, so I have an EP called IllyZilla, it's down with TeckZilla, its coming in a week, just 6 songs entirely produced by Tec.
I have another EP with a kid called Black Intelligence, we have five songs done, mixed and mastered. Then Bigfoot and I have our EP coming towards the latter part of the year, so its back to back materials this year.
They say we should save rap, they say SA came and took it, so we doing our quota.
*Cuts in*... Do you agree?
''I have no views on that [Laughs], I just know that their climates are totally different.
In Nigeria, you have a rap show and you find a Kizz Daniel performing, its a mismatch, I am not here to talk about it, just do my part, shout out to Show Dem Camp who continue to grow their fan base and it keeps expanding.
Rap is ministry, that is what people don't understand, it's a calling, a sacrifice. Rap is not the number one genre in Nigerian, you have to work and find your fanbase, feed your fanbase, before the corporates can look at it.
What are the numbers? so if we don't develop the numbers and take it to them, we are just going to be joking, chasing our tail and blaming them all the time, meanwhile, they have the business and the balance sheet to protect.''
The titles of your albums seem to personalize your character, From 'Dat Ibo Boy', 'Oga Boss', 'Illy Gatti', why is that?
''Absolutely a reflection of my mindstate at each time, For Illy Chapo, you know El Chapo is the criminal that you can't put in a box, so I am still fluid.''
Of all your albums released so far, which is your favourite?
''Oga Boss has some records. I had not made music for like 2-3 years, so eventually when Oga Boss came out, that is the advent of Phyno, we made 'Anam Achikwanu', that is the album that 'Emi ni Baller' with Chidinma.
There are some songs there that are just personal.''
How do you feel about Illy Bomaye as an album?
''I feel I didn't promote it, I feel I should have done more. That was me just saying I would do an EP of like four songs, then I stretch it to nine songs and made it an album.
I loved the production, Praiz came through, the intro was a huge moment for me, I love the album and I have taken my learnings from the album.''
Are you still working with Suspekt?
''He mixes all my records, he produces every now and then, he is too busy doing a lot of work on Television, he has found the money, he is sitting on it. He has always mixed my album.''
How have you been able to keep that circle, you Suspekt and Clarence?
''We came from zero, so I don't even know how to stunt for them they were like 'look at you, now you Odogwu Malay shooting people.'
The whole office went to the Cinema, they were making so much noise, they were just so happy, we look out for ourselves and we don't give a flying f*** about the music industry, we don't care, we have seen people come and go, but our friendship stays.''
From changing Chidinma's sound with her feature on 'Emi Ni Baller' to introducing Kel with a guest verse on 'U Go Wound' we asked the man if the artists he has supported on their come-up appreciate his efforts?
''I know about Phyno. He knows. We speak all the time, we compare notes all the time.
About the rest of the people, I really couldn't be bothered, like to be very honest, our relationships are in good places but whether they appreciate it or not, they know it, they know how those hits came, 'Emi Ni Baller' was my record, I converted it to a Chidinma record and asked Suspekt to write the verse, so I am tweaking it, Clarence is tweaking it visually, Suspekt is tweaking it sonically, I'm coming up with the ideas, direction, swag.
Kel, I put her on a record on Clarence's request because he was trying to build his Capital team then.
Somebody told me something though, he said ''Illy, you are like the guy that cooked for a party and after the party, everybody eat so well, drank so well and they come to you and say, man, the food was amazing, and you didn't even know because you didn't keep a morsel for yourself and I decided I was just going to be all about ill Bliss and that is what I have been doing for some years, just putting out my music on my terms, increasing my fanbase the best way I can while looking for the next set of people to empower because I must continue to empower.''
How have you been able to stay off controversies?
''Because I mind my business, I go where I am loved, I stay away from the drama. They say its make believe, my family means everything, my business, health and above all God and these are the things I am focused on.''
What has been your most memorable moment in the industry?
''Been a couple, but that 2009 moment with Nas was epic. I was nobody at the time, they gave him a bunch of videos, he saw the 'U Go Wound' video and said that is hip-hop, I like it, that was a huge moment.
Winning the Headies couple of years ago was also huge I had been nominated a couple of times, 13 nominations actually, I won on the 14th and 15th nominations, Lyricist on the Roll and Best Rap Single, and for everytime my albums drop, it was a huge moment for me, whether it has that deafening buzz or not, it means much to me.''
The interview has been slightly edited for Clarity
JOIN OUR PULSE COMMUNITY!
Eyewitness? Submit your stories now via social or: