BY KEMI YESUFU
He started out as a music producer. But when it was time to kick off his career as a rapper, Abudulrasheed Bello chose to be called Johnny Just Come (JJC). From his days as the founder of the group, JJC and the 419 Squad, which had D’banj and Don Jazzy as members, till now when he is a solo artiste, this musician who is also known as Skillz has remained relevant in the scheme of things.
While most artistes who started out in 1999 like he did are panting for breath, JJC just scored another hit with African Skank. His earlier single, We Are Africans still draws music lovers to the dance floor. In this interview with TS Weekend, the KORA award winning rapper talks about almost everything from his love life, religion, career and to why it makes sense trying catching up with those he once taught how to play music.
TODAY IS SUNDAY, DID YOU GO TO CHURCH?
No, I didn’t. I went clubbing yesterday. So I slept late. I couldn’t go to church and this question kind of makes me feel guilty.
DOES THIS MEAN YOU ARE THE CHURCH GOING TYPE?
I actually have a colourful background. We are 13 in my family. I am in the middle. I am a born-again in the sense that I was born a Muslim but I do go to church. I believe in God and I pray in the Muslim way. But I haven’t made up my mind (which religion to adhere to).
SO, IT WON’T BE WRONG TO SAY YOU AREN’T STRICT WHEN IT COMES TO RELIGION?
I am not strict about religion. My mum is Christian while my father is Muslim. Every Sunday, I learn about both Christianity and Islam. My brothers and sisters argue back and forth about both religions. The atheists in the family do chip in on the arguments. So you could say that we are a family of free thinkers. We were raised not being extreme about religion.
THE LAST 13 YEARS HAVE BEEN GREAT FOR NIGERIAN MUSIC. AS ONE OF THE EARLY STARTERS, DID YOU ENVISAGE THAT THE INDUSTRY WOULD GET THIS BIG?
I started doing music for Nigeria in 1998/1999. But I had my breakthrough in 2000 with the winning of the MOBO award. At that time when I started, I felt that the Nigerian music industry was amateurish. I did the best I could to contribute to the growth of the industry from London. And I also came home to promote the industry through different ways, including training artistes. But I knew that the music industry would grow. There is nothing that you work on diligently that doesn’t get better with time. I guess that’s why I did songs to inspire people, songs like Nigeria Is The Best Land. I remember people looking at me like I was crazy singing a song like that. They used to tell me that I could sing a song like that because I lived in England. But I used to tell them that if they could only look into the future, they would see that Nigeria is indeed the best land especially when it comes to the music industry. Fortunately for us, we own the industry, unlike in England where big international companies are in control.
YOU AND SOME OTHER GUYS ARE FORERUNNERS OF HIP HOP IN NIGERIA. BUT MOST OF YOU AREN’T IN THE FRONT NOW. HOW DOES THIS MAKE YOU FEEL AND DO YOU THINK YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS ARE APPRECIATED?
One I thing I know is that one has to work hard and leave the rest to God. He is the one that determines what happens. Like you said, there are some of us who led the way and are still in the game with the rave acts. Judging by what you said, I shouldn’t complain. If someone like you could mention my name and other pioneers like Eldee, Kennis Music and DJ Jimmy Jatt as the guys who laid the foundation, then, I cannot complain. Even if you look at the hip-hop scene in America, it is not the forefathers of the genre that are reaping from it today. I am like those guys in America. Just like me, that they aren’t the rave act doesn’t mean that they have resigned to fate. They still re-organise themselves to be relevant in the industry that they helped to build. The music industry is all about rejuvenating oneself.
DO YOU EVER GET TIRED OF REPACKAGING YOURSELF TO FIT WITH NEW TRENDS?
I actually had a similar conversation with some younger colleagues recently. They expressed surprise over how I still have vigour for the industry. They told me I promote my music like an upcoming artiste. They asked if I didn’t know I was JJC. I don’t see things that way. Rather, I am grateful that I am still around kicking things with the younger artistes. I am happy that I can still do all I need to do to be relevant. It is really not hard to understand because I am doing the same things all artistes need to do. I perform at shows. I go on radio; I am in the print media and social media to talk about my music.
Just like in the beginning, I want to create a fan-base that will support me in the next 20 years. I want to be like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles who have fans cutting across four generations. It is only in Nigeria that people will expect that after releasing certain number of albums, you retire or start doing something else. I am not for that ideology because music is all I know. I loved doing music, I love doing music and I will continue to love doing music.
OBVIOUSLY, YOU LOVE THE MUSIC BUSINESS. BUT HAS IT BEEN FINANCIALLY REWARDING?
I have been fortunate in the sense that aside from succeeding in making a career from music, I have made money. I have been able to build houses from music. I am fortunate to have been brought up in the UK. I feel for majority of Nigerian artistes, because over here it is hard to make money from music. Here, you have to spend a lot to get noticed. In Nigeria when your song is aired on radio or TV, you don’t get paid royalty. In some cases, the artiste has to pay for his/her song to be played. So, in most cases, Nigerian artistes work so hard when they should be enjoying what they do. For me, I have had my good and bad times in Nigeria. I am at the verge of going to the next stage of my career, the stage where Tuface, P-Square and D’banj are. These guys enjoy corporate branding. They have gotten to the level where powerful people are willing to collaborate with them because they know that these guys have a large fan base.
PEOPLE WOULD WONDER IF IT IS A GOOD THING FOR YOU TO ASPIRE TO BE LIKE D’BANJ, WHEN YOU GROOMED DON JAZZY, WHO IN TURN CREATED THE KOKO MASTER’S SOUND?
I don’t see anything wrong with it. Rather, it is a good story to tell that a teacher learns from his student. I was brought up with the mentality that there is nothing strange about teaching someone and he progresses so much that you can pick a few things from him. It is high time we started thinking that way in Nigeria. I applaud D’banj for what he has been able to achieve. He is a big brand. I doubt if I ask people walking on the street right now and they would say they don’t know who D’banj is. We should celebrate him and the others that have made Nigerian and African music global. Life is like a circle. I was like them years back and I helped them get into the game. Now, there are leading acts and I am studying their style to see what I can get from them so that I can get back into the lead.
LAST YEAR, YOU CAME OUT TO DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN D’BANJ SAID THAT HE WOULDN’T CHEAT DON JAZZY LIKE YOU DID. HERE YOU ARE COMMENDING HIM. HAVE YOU GUYS SETTLED AFTER THAT EPISODE?
I haven’t seen D’banj after what happened. But the air has been cleared between both camps. I have gotten several emails from common friends and I can tell you there is no bad blood between us. I guess it is just the way people like to do things in Nigeria. They want to know who is fighting who. For me, we are all brothers who should work together to promote the Nigerian brand.
HOW CAN NIGERIAN ENTERTAINERS MAINTAIN THE DOMINANCE WE ENJOY ON THE CONTINENT?
I am on my knees begging the government to support the entertainment industry by creating an enabling environment for it to thrive. With the enabling environment, we can actually take the challenge to the Western countries. We are so creative and determined, look at what Nollywood has achieved. Nollywood is number two in the world. If you go to clubs in the UK, Nigerian music rules. Back then, it was artistes from the Caribbean that ruled in the clubs. Now when the DJ plays a Wizkid song or any of our songs, the club comes alive. Government has to help with the issue of publishing rights. I hear that we now have agencies that do this but the musicians also should have a union that will ensure that people get what is due to them. For musicians, it’s harder because with time a song leaves the charts and new artistes emerge, so we need to earn royalty to invest either in the industry or in other areas. Ghana is a country where the government has helped by simply providing constant power supply. A Ghanaian artiste can sell his music online 24 hours because of constant power supply. If government doesn’t help the industry, we won’t be able to compete with our counterparts from other parts of the world.
YOU ALWAYS DO SONGS TO PROMOTE AFRICA AND NIGERIA. IS THIS YOUR OWN WAY OF BRANDING YOUR MUSIC IN A PLACE LIKE EUROPE?
When I started out as a producer, I did all kinds of music. I did club music, sex music and other kinds of music. But when I decided to create the foundation for my career and the character, which I would play, which is Johnny Just Come (JJC), I knew my music will standout. My story had to be about a Nigerian who hadn’t forgotten home. When I started out, it was the time that Nigerians weren’t finding it easy with the UK government. At that time, people were stopped and searched on the streets. You had to have your passport on you. People didn’t want to be identified as Nigerians but I was singing about Nigeria. But now people aren’t afraid to identify themselves as Nigerians anymore. I am happy I was a beacon of hope for Nigerians when things got tough in England.
YOU ARE A SINGER/PRODUCER AND YOU ALSO ARE A LABEL EXECUTIVE. WHICH ONE OF THESE THREE ROLES IS YOUR FAVOURITE?
I love being on stage. But my best moments are when I am teaching others. I feel great when I meet people and they tell how I taught them this or that thing in music. I meet people on the train or at shows and they tell me how big they have become from when I taught them a skill that got them where they are. Look at the D’banj story. Five to six years after we were together, he turned out to be a success story.
WHO IS THAT PROTÉGÉ THAT GOT THE BEST OF YOU?
I will say Don Jazzy because we were more like friends. We used to hang out a lot. We partied together. And he is the person who shares my ideology that we need to inspire artistes. We might not be close now but I see all the good stuff he is doing by discovering talented artistes and producers. I hope these people he has discovered will also pass down the knowledge to the next generation.
ARE YOU MARRIED?
At this point I am not married.
ARE THERE ANY REASONS WHY YOU’RE STILL SINGLE?
Music is partly to blame for my not being married. You know, I got into the industry at a young age and ours is an industry where women form a large chunk of the fan base. I guess I made a few stupid choices because I was young. It also is difficult balancing music with a career like mine. But right now, though I am focused on my career, I am also looking for the right person.
WHAT DOES YOUR MRS. RIGHT LOOK LIKE?
The funny thing is that the girl I will marry doesn’t have to be one that has a certain kind of look. I don’t have a model girl as such because I have tried beauty, it didn’t work. I have tried intelligent girls, it didn’t work also, I think what I need is a good friend. I need a girl who will be my friend and lover. But it’s hard to find a genuine friend and lover once you are a celebrity.
FROM WHAT YOU HAVE SAID, YOU MUST HAVE BROKEN SOME HEARTS?
(Laughs) Well, I have been a bad boy. I have had my share of bad relationships. But I guess its part of growing up. The only way to appreciate a good relationship is when you have been through a bad one. I guess this is why I am searching for that good relationship. When I find it, I won’t let it go.
WHAT IS THE TOUGHEST THING ABOUT BEING JJC?
I guess it is being Johnny Just Come. Like now, after spending 20 years in England, I have returned to Nigeria fully and I am learning how things are done here. I am getting to know simple things such as who-is-who in society. I have to learn how to greet people correctly. I could say a simple ‘hello, glad to meet you’ and people around would have to correct me because I have to greet VIPs appropriately. But I am happy that the work I have done in the UK has made it easy for people to relate with me now that I am fully back in the country. I hardly have to introduce myself to the people I meet.