By Fatiat Saliu
The city of Port Harcourt, situated in the Southern region of Nigeria, is known for being a major hub for crude oil and other natural resources – one whiff of the air will put paid to any contrary opinion – but it also serves as a breeding ground for some of Nigeria’s finest musical talent. Over the decades, the emergence of brilliant music maestros like Timaya, Duncan Mighty, Burna Boy, Omah Lay and the Ajebo Hustlers do is a testament to this fact. In typical tree-sprouting fashion, a new wunderkind has joined the ranks of brilliant exports that cut their teeth in the tiny but bustling city fondly referred to as Pitakwa.
Godson Epelle, professionally known as 1DA Banton, is never bashful when it comes to holding out his Port Harcourt roots. Beyond his Niger-Delta heritage, however, what makes this crooner tick is his unique sound and style. His sound can be (elementarily) described as a blend of reggae and dancehall, and his vocals have a distinctive edge that is impossible to ignore. Veteran music executive Adasa Cookey was quick to spot the raw potential, and not only influenced 1DA Banton’s decision to relocate to Lagos, but also helped to negotiate a record deal for the budding superstar.
1DA Banton’s first release was the DJ Coublon-produced “Love Her Daily”, and after that, his music career took off. The mastermind behind sleeper hits like “Whine Fi Mi” (featuring Kranium), “African Woman”, “Jowo” and “Farabale”, 1DA is clearly on an upward curve, as far as his artistic journey is concerned.
1DA’s sound is hinged on the theme of living la vida loca. He preaches happiness in every variation, and always advocates the doctrine of Y.O.L. O. The influence of this rhetoric is seen in the lyrical and sonic direction of his debut album, Original Vibe Machine. Speaking of the record, it makes a pretty huge impression, with a level of ambition reminiscent of Wande Coal’s Mushin 2 Mo’hits, Wizkid’s Superstar, and Fireboy DML’s Laughter, Tears and Goosebumps. Unskippability is a major metric in determining the success (or otherwise) of a debut record, and Original Vibe Machine somehow manages to pass that test.
I met up with him virtually to discuss his childhood, his artistic trajectory, and all the other things that he happens to prioritise in his (exciting) life.
What is your earliest memory of music?
That would be me going to the studio with my elder brother in secondary school, because he used to make music; he used to be in a group back then. They were really hot in the streets of Port Harcourt. I was always with them, even though I wasn’t really interested in singing at the time. Football was my first love.
One day while we were at the studio, I decided to test my voice and it sounded really pleasant. From then on, I started writing songs, putting them together, and going to the studio more often. I used to play drums in church, though. I used to be part of a Boys Brigade. I played cultural drums because I’m from Opobo, Rivers State. We have this thing called Nwaotam. That’s where I really learned how to play drums, and if you listen to my beats, I play really dope Konga.
Checking out the credits on your album, it appears that you produced most of the songs on there. What came first for you? Was it singing or producing?
I started out by composing songs as a recording artiste, but I soon got to a point where I wanted to work more to improve my sound. I was working at a crazy pace because I had linked up with two producers at the time, but I really wanted to make music on a whole different level and I didn’t think they were ready to go on that journey. That was the moment I knew I needed to start producing.
I dusted my laptop, installed new software and I started playing with it. It didn’t make sense at first, but along the line, I found clarity. This was in 2017. I’m glad I went on that journey to start producing because it really helped me understand my sound better.
When did you decide to embrace music professionally, and how did you secure your deal with Squareball Entertainment?
That would be the year 2014, back in Port Harcourt. I had started composing music that was making sense and everyone was vibing to it. My elder brother, who has been hugely supportive of my career, began to reason along the lines of “we really need to do this for real. We need to do it big, like the Lagos kind of big.”
I started reaching out to music executives via my Facebook page, and I texted Adasa Cookey. He responded, and I told him I had songs that I had recorded. Luckily for me, he sent a mail and I responded by sending some of my songs. He got back to me and said he liked them, so, he sent me a beat – I think it was a reggae beat – and he wanted to hear how I sounded on it. I did a crazy thing, and he was so impressed. That was how we made arrangements for me to come to Lagos, and we started working together. I think that was when I knew that it was time to make music professionally.
When did you release your first song, and how was the reception?
My debut single was “Love Her Daily”. I like to think that it was a banger. It’s one of my favourite songs to date, and it was produced by DJ Coublon. Everybody that listened to it at that time loved it, and I think that earned me my current fan base. Shout-out to DJ Coublon, Adasa, and Mr. Nelson, my then manager. We made magic.
Your genre sounds like a fusion of reggae and dancehall. Who or what influenced that particular path?
While growing up, I listened to lots of dancehall music. Sean Paul was popping in the early 2000s, then you have Duncan Mighty, who has this reggae touch in his sound. I’m a big fan of Duncan, I listen to him a lot.
I was also inspired by the sound of Damian Marley and the other Marley Brothers; I believe that Nigerian music draws a lot of influence from Jamaican music. We incorporate dancehall in our music here. Ultimately, I think listening to multiple genres as a kid inspired my style.
What inspires your creative process?
I’m inspired by the willingness to make music all the time. I have guys with whom I always vibe. I call them “vibe Machines” because they spark off the light. Of course, when we roll up a joint, the next thing that comes to mind is to make music. I love melodies a lot. So, I turn on my system, start playing around on Fruity Loops, we start putting melodies together, and boom, we have mad songs coming through. I make music every day unless it’s impossible for me to be on my system.
Everything inspires me. I could just be chilling, then a melody would come to my head and we’d run off to the studio. We might be discussing and when we stumble on a hot topic, we are off to the studio. Sometimes, inspiration comes after a spliff or two.
Your song, “Way Up”, was used as the opening theme song for the 2018 edition of Big Brother Naija. What did that mean to you? How did it feel, and how did it impact your numbers?
I was just chilling, and suddenly I got feedback that my jam was being used on the show. It was a great feeling; a lot of people got to hear my music, and the song charted in some African countries. I don’t even think it was intentional, because we didn’t plan it. They just kept bumping the jam anytime they wanted to introduce somebody on stage. It provided me with great exposure.
Your first project, The 1DA Banton EP, was released in 2017. What informed your decision to release it at the time you did?
Prior to 2017, I had dropped “Love Her Daily” and a couple of other songs, and they scored good numbers. I felt like it was time to give the people a sizeable body of work, and that’s how we put it together and dropped it. “Way Up” was off the EP.
Your album, Original Vibe Machine, is pretty cohesive. On Twitter, you mentioned that you wanted to make an album like Wande Coal’s Mushin 2 Mohits and Wizkid’s Superstar, both impressive debut LPs. Did that desire influence the general vibe of the project?
Yes, of course. I’m a big fan of Wande and Wiz. I listened to those albums back then and I knew that if I were to drop an album anytime, I’d want it to be of the same standard. I listened to Mushin 2 Mohits from the beginning to the end, and I felt that was what an album should sound like. Same with Wizkid’s Superstar, legendary stuff.
There are a good number of albums that have the same kind of quality. Shout-out to Sean Tizzle, Kizz Daniel, and Fireboy DML; their debut albums were all crazy and inspired me when I was working on this record. I wanted an album with no skips, one that everybody will listen to even if it’s not their kind of music, simply because it’s dope. I’m pleased with the reception. I’m original, I’m a vibe, and I’m a machine.
You infuse a lot of Port Harcourt lingo in your music, and every chance you get, you let your listeners know that you are from PH. Did the city influence your music, and is it important to you that your audience knows that you are from there?
Yes o. I’m a bad boy from PH City. I’m so glad I grew up in PH. That’s the best place anybody could ever come from, no disrespect to any other city. I always infuse my origins and heritage in my music because I need to let them know that we have this unique lingua, unique sound, and unique vibration coming from PH. As you can see, it’s evident in everyone who’s representing Port Harcourt. You can hear it in their sound: it’s different, it’s fresh. So I’m always proud to let people know where I come from.
In most of your songs, you advocate living life to the fullest. May I ask why that is? Was there a particular experience that prompted it?
One day, I paused to think – with a Mary J between my fingers, of course – and I was like, “What’s going on with the world? Are we just going to worry all the time and wait for God to come back and take everybody home? Are we not taking life too seriously, living it the wrong way?”
We should be happy more often because it’s just one life and we have limited time. At the same time, wahala no dey finish. You always have something to solve, something to take care of.
Shout-out to my guys. The energy is contagious. We are just happy people. We woke up one morning and chose to be happy all the time. So, it’s not just because I’m comfortable singing about it. It’s real for me. That’s the essence of my existence. I just want to be happy, irrespective of whatever challenges are happening in my life.
If problem dey, we go solve am. I just want to make music, really. If any trouble comes and I can solve it, I will. If I no fit, we move. But anything that involves enjoyment, happiness, joy, I don’t postpone it. I do it right away. I love to be at the beach, I love to play soccer. Staying happy is a mindset.
You already spoke about what OVM means to you. What do you want it to mean to your audience? What message did you intend to pass with the project?
With the OVM album, I wanted people to understand who I am. I’m original, I am a vibe, I am a machine. It’s a 15-track album with no two songs sounding alike. I’m not trying to sound like anybody. Every sound you hear from the album is original.
The album radiates positivity, enjoyment, happiness, and joy. You feel it on “No Wahala”, “Flenjo” (featuring Duncan Mighty), “No Sleeping” (featuring Zlatan Ibile), and a couple of other songs. When you listen, your soul is uplifted.
I have a special attachment to Track 14 (“Untop Untop); it’s a very uplifting song. I also wanted to experiment with sounds on “The Benz”: that one has me combining trap (music) and Afrobeats. It’s something fresh, and I’m serving up inspiration for the streets. If you are reading this, listen to OVM.
The last track is a remix treatment for “Way Up”. It features Ghanaian singer, Stonebwoy. It was previously released on The 1DA Banton EP. Why did you include it again in this album?
Stonebwoy has always been a fan of 1DA Banton, and he loved the original “Way Up”. We’ve had this remix for about two to three years. I always knew that song was going to be in my debut album. The song is very personal to me. I had Stonebwoy on the remix, so why not? It was why I chose it as the only old song that was going to be on the album.
There is an abundance of talent in Port Harcourt, from Burna Boy to Omah Lay to Ajebo Hustlers. The support you give each other is pretty amazing, too. Recently, Burna Boy bagged a Grammy award for the album Twice As Tall. What did it mean to PH people that one of their own is now a Grammy winner?
As a PH boy, Burna Boy’s success is an inspiration. I’m not just “hoping” to be a Grammy award winner. It’s something that I believe I’ll do. With the kind of music I make, it’s only a matter of time until I start bagging all the awards. As a PH boy, anything I want, I work hard, I pray and I get it.
He [Burna] is a big inspiration. I was ecstatic on the night it was announced. I always knew it would happen. We have a sound. What we do with music is phenomenal and unlike any other region. You haven’t even heard the last of Port Harcourt boys. There are boys who are brewing, working, and waiting for the right time to explode. The South has something to say. It’s our time. We are going to make our voices heard. We are going to leave our legacy for the younger generations to come. Big ups to everybody representing the South, and putting Africa on the world map.
What’s the ultimate goal for you?
“In everything I do, I dey try satisfy my soul, o da na.”
That’s a line from “No Sleeping”. That’s all I want to do, satisfy my soul. My purpose is to make people happy and sharing my gift with the world. I want to do that effectively, and as a happy man. I don’t want to be troubled. At the end of the day, what I want the most is peace, happiness, and joy. I know the world makes it so hard to appreciate these things, but I’m going to try my best as much as possible. I want to share my music with the world. Music is powerful and spiritual. I just want to share positivity.
For your fellow Vibe Machines who have been supporting you from the start, what message do you want to pass on to them?
To everyone who’s supporting me through the years, I appreciate you. Thank you for sticking with 1DA Banton. I promise to always make amazing music to keep you happy and inspired. There’s more to come.
I’ve been recording wicked music recently. We are just getting started. You all just stick around and keep supporting 1DA Banton. I love you all. Original say so.