Behind every great artist lies a shit-hot producer, or so the saying goes. As a formula, this undoubtedly holds for Lagos-based DJ, producer and music virtuoso, London – one of the youngest, most prolific producers currently setting Nigeria’s music scene ablaze. At the tender age of 22, London – born Michael Ovie Hunter in Kaduna, northern Nigeria – has more than earned his producing stripes, and already has the markings of a seasoned veteran. He's the mastermind behind monster hits by compatriots like Ayra Starr’s ‘Bloody Samaritan’ and Rema’s ‘Soundgasm’, and is now racking up composing credits spanning the seven seas, setting off for the British Isles to work with the likes of Sam Smith and disembarking stateside for the Coming 2 America soundtrack. In a full-circle homecoming moment, he contributed ‘Gyrate’ to Wizkid’s critically acclaimed ‘Made In Lagos’ album, earning him his first-ever GRAMMY nod from the Recording Academy earlier this year.
As a producer, London marches to the beat of his own drum. “I feel like that’s an edge I have over everyone. I’m not scared of experimenting. Just because it hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be,” he asserts. Nowhere can this daring approach be seen more clearly than in his latest craftsmanship on Rema’s debut album ‘Rave & Roses’. London leads production on 14 of its eclectic 16-song tracklist, crafting beats that are at times fusionist and euphoric, and other times moody and ambient. He has a unique, almost superhuman sensibility when it comes to creating music, skilfully painting from a palette of distinctive sounds and capturing a plethora of moods: from the heady warmth of romance and nostalgia to the darkest depths of danger and desire.
“Working on Rema’s album is one of my proudest achievements, honestly.” he says. “To see how people are accepting it and vibing to it really just gives me more motivation to keep going, to keep doing what I know how to do best.” Tag-teaming with Benin City’s bright young phenom – arguably one of the biggest exports to come out of Nigeria’s new school of Afropop – as well as an all-star cast of leading African acts, London is the lifeblood to big, career-defining sounds that speak even bigger volumes. From ‘Bad Commando’ to ‘Bloody Samaritan’, ‘Calm Down’ to ‘Koroba’, ‘Fashion Killer’ right through to ‘Addicted’, his catalogue is a sonic Tower of Babel housing the wonders of the musical world (from trap to traditional Afrobeats, amapiano to new wave electronica and much more), taking Africa’s contemporary music landscape to dizzying new heights in the process.
When he’s not busy cooking up a storm in the studio vaults of Mavin Records in Lagos, he’s on the road with his long-time friend and collaborator Rema, fronting DJ sets for his worldwide tour. This is where our Facetime takes place: the deliciously cool winds of his Lusaka backdrop contrasting hilariously to my own: the blazing trinity that is Lagos heat, hustle and bustle.
Hey London! Where are you calling from?
I’m in Lusaka right now, in Zambia. Are you in Lagos right now?
Yeah, can you tell? I’m in VI (Victoria Island) and I’m sweating. It feels like hell.
[laughs] Bruh, over here it’s so cold. Yesterday it was like 9 degrees.
How’s the prep for Rema’s show going?
So, we arrived late for the show because there were a lot of complications, and our flight got delayed. We couldn’t travel until like 5:AM and everyone was so tired. I don’t know if you saw Rema’s Tweet but we’re doing another show on Monday to make up for it, so the fans will still get to enjoy the whole experience - I’m heading to soundcheck for it in about an hour.
What are three things in this world that you can’t live without?
My laptop. My hoodie. Can I say a smoke? Yeah, that.
You’re in the studio about to lay down a track. What do you need around you to get you in the zone creatively?
A mojito. Get me a mojito and I’m fine, man! I like making beats alone in my private space – I’m more of loner. My laptop, my headphones, my smoke and a nice glass of mojito and I’m good.
Who inspires your music the most?
Top five songs you’ve produced and why?
‘Soundgasm’ by Rema, ‘Electric’ by Wizkid, ‘Bloody Samaritan’ by Ayra Starr, ‘Bad Commando’ by Rema and ‘Temptation’ by Tiwa Savage and Sam Smith. Is that five? Can I add Crayon ‘So Fine’? [laughs] That was my first major song. I feel like every song I mentioned was kind of like a breakthrough for me. Each song was a level up, taking me from one place to another, taking me higher.
How did you get into music production?
I grew up around music – pretty much my whole family was involved in the church choir. I started playing drums in church at a very young age, when I was seven years old. I remember when I told them I wanted to do music, you know Nigerian parents: they want you to go study like… engineering. But I had to make my own way for myself and prove to them, like yo, I wanna do this, and I can actually do it and be good at it at the same time. I was able to convince them.
You were pretty vocal about the time your laptop got stolen. What happened?
It was actually my hard drive that got stolen. We had a show in Sierra Leone and after we got off stage, the crowd came at us, you know, wanting to just take pictures and touch us and all those kinds of things. And in the midst of all that happening, people used that opportunity to steal. They took my hard drive. They took my passport. They even took my phone, but I held the guy [laughs]…I cut the guy and I took my phone back.
We were supposed to catch a flight immediately after the show, so we couldn’t travel. The hard drive contained Rema’s album [‘Rave and Roses’] on it – without the hard drive, the album was not gonna get out. So, we ended up extending our stay in Sierra Leone; we were moving around, getting soldiers, doing announcements on TV and radio like “yo, if you see this, can you bring it back.”
I’m so sorry you went through that. How did you deal with it all?
I was so sad at first but I think, like, after the first day I got over it. I have a backup for the album, but I was just scared about my other projects that were in the hard drive, you feel me? I was like “OK, what am I going to do? My full two years of work is inside this hard drive, and everything’s just gone.” It made me think, you know what? Maybe it’s just time to actually start something fresh, something new. It was kinda like a point of self-realisation. I had to process certain things for myself.
And what came out of that process for you?
That was when I decided “OK, after Rema’s album, I want to start working on my own project.” We found the hard drive at the end of the day. But by that point, I had kinda moved on. There’s a reason why these things happen. If that day didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have come to the realisation to start working on my own project – it really put me in this grind state of mind.
Right now, I’m really just focusing on myself. I don’t know if these guys are gonna get any more music from me [laughs]. I have a story to tell, you know, from being this kid in Kaduna up north, to being who I am right now. I need to tell that story – through my music.
How do you deal with life’s setbacks generally?
I tend to see every curse as a blessing, honestly. When I’m in these situations, I take time to always learn, to take everything in. To accept. A lot of people can’t accept failure or disappointment. I was not like this before. But growing up and being in these situations a lot really taught me how to accept certain things, learn from them, and then move on with your life, honestly.
Any words of advice for people struggling with this kind of acceptance?
It hurts, but at the end of the day, you’re not dead. It’s just a minor setback; now you just have to re-strategise. Honestly, just get creative. You’ve been cut in this way. Now you just have to find another way. You’re still breathing, and that’s what matters. As long as you still have your brain like, bro [laughs] you can still do whatever the fuck you want to do. You’re alive. You still have heart.
How has your craft evolved over time? In what ways?
Right now, I feel like I’m in a more confident space of mind when it comes to creating music. I remember when I started making beats I would always want to repeat a certain type of sound. I had a lot of fear, a lot of doubts. But right now, I’m just doing what I want to do. I’m enjoying myself. At the end of the day, you’re making music – there’s no book that says “you have to do this” or “you have to do that” or “that doesn’t make a hit song.” Now I’m so confident in whatever I touch and whatever I produce, and I just know that bruh, it’s so fucking dope and so fucking different from anything you’re gonna hear out there.
You and Rema make quite the dynamic duo. What’s your working relationship like?
Rema and I go way back. We kinda grew up musically together. Whenever we create, it’s never really serious. It’s always just cool, pure vibes. I could be in my room and then he just pulls up like “Ahh, guy! Wetin dey make like dis, o?” and I’m like “Oya, now hear dis, hear dis” and then we just start vibing. And then he’ll be like “Omo, change dat tin. Do it like dis, like dis, like dis.” And then we listen back and it sounds so dope, and he’s like “Bro, this is on some next level shit!” and I’m like “Yeah, yeah this is actually crazy!” [laughs]. We’re just enjoying ourselves – like, doing weird shit and then trying out different things out of curiosity. And that’s how we fucking made the album.
And it sounds like you had a lot of fun on the album [‘Rave and Roses’] to be honest – I can hear it.
I enjoyed myself I can’t lie. I was just going off [laughs]. I was not thinking about anything – like we were literally not thinking about anything. We get in the studio without knowing what we want to do, and then we just fucking do anything. The whole transition from the first track [‘Divine’] to the second [‘Hold Me’], we were just like “Can we do this? Can we put a sample in front of this and just make it sound like this?” Like bruh, who does that? Everyone’s scared. We knew we’d get a lot of backlash like “Why is Rema doing this?” “Why’s he being too weird?” But that’s an opinion. My opinion is: I created a masterpiece. I did something that is dope. If you don’t like it, then it’s not meant for you [laughs]. It wasn’t made for you. It was made for other people. Everyone has their tastes and at the end of the day, someone else resonates with it; someone else connects with it.
There’s nothing sweeter than doing what you want to do and doing it how you want to do it and just putting it out there. If anybody doesn’t like it, fine. Cool. But at least I got to express what I wanted to.
Tell me about your creative process for a song like ‘Addicted’.
When I make music it’s an interpretation of how I feel in that moment. So, I’m able to interpret however anyone feels, you know, and just bring it out for them. It’s always so interesting working with Rema because he already knows what he wants, and me, I am very good at bringing out people’s ideas and imagination and putting it into music.
We first started the idea for ‘Addicted’ at the listening party. We were just going on vibes because Rema had the idea and wanted me to build on it. It was kind of tense for me, working on it in front of everyone there, like it was so crazy. It wasn’t as perfect then as it is right now, but we did it. Then, I went back and finished everything. When I was making that track, I knew it was totally different from whatever I’ve done. It’s something you’d expect The Weeknd’s producer to do. Or Quincy Jones to do for Michael Jackson. I honestly was just having fun, I can’t lie. Making that track was me stepping out of my comfort zone, wanting to experiment and also wanting to prove a point.
And what point was that?
That yo, don’t just see me as any typical Afrobeats producer. Just because I’m an Afrobeats producer, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do a pop record, or make a trap record, or a hip hop record. I can do anything at the end of the day. As I’ve said before, there are no rules to this thing. If I wanna do this, I will do it. And I will do it well and you will vibe to it. When I woke up the first day the album dropped and saw ‘Addicted’ was already number one, I was like “Oh! This is crazy.” The fact that a pop record by a Nigerian artist is number one? It’s actually insane.
Who’s your favourite artist to work with, and why?
I would say Rema because there’s really no limit to whatever we can do. Then Ayra Starr – she’s really dope to work with. She’s really an amazing person, honestly. She’s like my younger sister, we’re really close like that. You know before she got signed to Mavin, we used to talk on Instagram? I remember like, on the low, I wanted to sign her. On a low, low, low-key, like bruh, I was interested in Ayra Starr from the beginning! All of a sudden I came to the studio one day and then Don Jazzy’s like “Oh, there’s this girl named Oyinkansola. She says she knows you.” I knew her as Oyin then and I’m like “Are you serious?” thinking oh fuck, this guy beat me to it! Damn! [laughs] But it’s fine, at the end of the day we still got to create magic together. Like what a coincidence: her first hit record was by me, and we started talking before all of this. I’m really excited for her. I’m really proud I got to play a role in her journey.
One word: Wizkid.
Working with Wizkid was an amazing experience, honestly. I remember when he called me to the studio, wanting to meet up after ‘Electric’. We’d never actually met in the first place, that’s the honest truth. I always just send him beats and then he just texts me back. This was the first time we worked together in person, and it was pure vibes. He’s a cool guy – I see him as a big brother, honestly.
Artists you’d like to work with in future?
Just to name a few, I’d say Brent Faiyaz, Jorja Smith, Drake.
What are some of the goals you’re working towards, that you can share with us?
My goal is actually getting all of these people on an album, on my own project. Also, putting out my first single this year. Everything is already in the works for my album. It’s gonna take time because I want to do it well. I want to make sure everything is perfect. I’m not in a rush – I’m not in any hurry, honestly.
Shirley Ahura is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter