A-Q: Relentless God’s Engineering
Just before I spoke to A-Q sometime in April, I read an article in which he was described as relentless: having consumed his music for more than nine years, I knew that description was apt. His body of work, unrivalled by those of many Nigerian rappers who have enjoyed more fame than him, his rap art and how he has chosen to carry his persona are a testament to his relentlessness.
The Nigerian pop culture is heavily reliant on music, and rap has more than invested itself in that space since the days of Lord of Ajasa, AY, Remedies, Swat Roots, Ruff Rugged and Raw, and of course, the inimitable Trybesmen.
Rap artists supplied street lingos, pioneered fashion trends, called out politicians on their BS, and gave hope to youths in the inner streets of Lagos, Jos, Kaduna and Enugu. But Nigeria has shown little kindness to rap music and its artists.
Like the legendary Modenine, A-Q is well aware of how inclement the industry is to someone like him, whose oeuvre thrives on lyricism instead of beat-driven catchphrases and streetwise lingos. And for almost two decades, A-Q, maybe stubbornly, has stuck to his “blueprint” and in the last few years, his stubbornness has been paying off.
An acknowledgement of that is on ‘Class Act,” a track on his new LP God’s Engineering released last month.
“I’m a risk-taker, not a hitmaker/Don’t imitator, but I’m good with data/Scripting java for cd sales, hard copies I still retail/Merchandise I would soon reveal/Record labels wanna see me fail ‘cos I go against their blueprint, signing rappers with new ink/’Imma stay on track if it all derails.”
The Start of Conversations
Two years after his single “Agu Ji Ndi Men” was nominated in the Best Rap Single and Lyricist on the Roll categories at the Headies 2016 (he won in the latter category), A-Q was a part of LAMBAugust, a rap campaign spearheaded by M.I.
That campaign – largely hinged on a three-album rollout including solo efforts from M.I and Blaqbonez and joint LP from A-Q himself and label mate Loose Kaynon – introduced A-Q to a larger audience base and ignited fresher conversations about the state of the Nigerian hip hop.
A couple of controversial cyphers, the second which featured, Loose Kaynon, A-Q, Blaqbonez and M.I, grew the conversations started by LAMBAugust.
M.I told me a few days before the LAMBAugust started that the need to rev up hip-hop in the country was acutely needed at the time. A-Q said that aim has largely been achieved.
“We thought it [Nigerian hip-hop] was not in competition as at that time. So we decided to do something that will bring competition back to hip-hop. Whether they like to admit it or not, what we have done for the past two years have really helped from LAMBaugust to cyphers.”
For a genre that does not get much of the monster bucks by big brands and look in from concert organisers, A-Q knows there is still much to be done.
“I believe there is still a lot to do, and we have seen the impact of collaboration,” he said. “I believe rappers are having conversations now on how they can collaborate. I have seen some already: it is good they can see what we are doing and they can replicate it in their way.”
Reluctant Celebrity, Bonafide Hustler
With 12 projects (5 solo albums, a joint LP with Loose Kaynon, 1 joint EP with M.I and another solo and four mixtapes) in two decades, A-Q’s status as a veteran is not in doubt. But his self-effacement means he is more focused on the larger picture instead of himself. “Never call me no celebrity, I’m a hustler with integrity,” he says on ‘Class Act’ “What I’m selling is not a remedy, it’s a way out of uncertainty.”
And there are uncertainties.
He came up in the game largely pushing and selling himself to an audience that was more accepting of Afrobeats and rap music heavily inflected by local nuances than his type of music. That he achieved a modicum of success is more than a triumph of his blueprint over the treachery of the Nigerian music industry.
But he does not think the industry is the only guilty party: he thinks rappers are undercutting their own hustles, the influence and commercial viability of hip-hop in Nigeria by focusing on selling hip-hop as a music genre instead of as a culture.
“We need to build, we need to put the music and the standard other artists doing other genres are putting to theirs,” he told FilterFree in an interview in 2017. “If more rappers get involved in building and creating a system to propagate hip-hop not as a genre but as a culture then it would be easier to sell the music.”
He reiterates those points when we spoke: “What we need to do is understand our market and audience and monetise,” he says.
No lies, told how I rose
It is God’s engineering not my own
Navigated the game with one eye closed
From the slums I rose, I compose
His latest album – God’s Engineering – was released on March 20 to critical-acclaim. He did more than spit bars on the project. He executive-produced it and mixed and mastered all the eleven tracks except one.
The album underscores his penmanship, the reluctance to “sellout” and provides an excursion into the inner mind, and his past struggles to succeed, first as a human being and then as an artist.
“Everybody saying that I never could make it. And I kept praying that the lord won’t forsake me/Lost in the matrix stuck in the basics,” he raps on “Egg Rolls,” a song that also touches on his humble background.
Less than three weeks later, A-Q hopped on a six-track EP with M.I – The Live Report. The making of the EP is reminiscent of Tupac’s posthumous album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. The 12-track album, released under ‘Pac’s alternative stage name – Makaveli – was written, recorded and mastered in seven days.
The Live Report took only five days, albeit with only six tracks. Still, pulling off such a stunt, especially when both rappers have just released new projects (M.I release Judah The EP on March 6), indicates their strength as performers and songwriters. Somehow, the coronavirus lockdown in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun State also played a part.
“The reason we did it in 5 days is because we thought the lockdown was going to be over after two weeks,” A-Q said. “We had just one week left. We wanted to do it in five days and put it out on the 6th day so that we can go back to what we do naturally.”
In 2012, A-Q featured Vector on ‘Distractions,’ a track on his Make Your Best Rapper Look Stupid EP. ‘Distraction’ is a scathing diss track aimed at Reminisce. The year before then, Vector was on A-Q’s ‘Ginja’.
But seven years after Distractions, the former collaborators became foes, with Vector throwing subliminal shots at A-Q on his ‘Judas The Rat’ diss track aimed at M.I.
Although A-Q fired back with ‘Distractions 2,’ he is still miffed by Vec’s claims on ‘Judas The Rat’.
So when I asked him if he would be open to doing another song with his friend-turned-foe, A-Q’s reply was neither welcoming nor dismissive.
“Honestly, I am not looking forward to a record with him, it is not in the plans,” he said.
“First, I think I deserve an apology. If the apology comes, it is fine… I don’t care if it is public. Any apology is as good. If that happens, we can do a record. I am not against any record; it is not just in my plans.”
Continuing the Conversations
A-Q is not looking to release another personal project again this year. That, at least, he told me. But his hands will definitely be in many pies. There is a Blaqbonez project in the works and he plans to do videos.
The conversations about Nigerian hip-hop has to continue, he says. And if there are rappers with “sellable” skills, he is willing to look their way. But there is a catch.
“In 100 crowns we are not looking for the next Wizkid, if we find him that will be great,” he says.
“But that is not the criteria. The criterion is being able to sustain the business. If I put this amount of money, am I making any profit? That is the only criterion that we have.”