JJC aka Skillz
(Abdul Rasheed Bello)
(Harry Olufemi Williams)
(Segun Oladele Adegunwa)
M.P. aka Masta Plan
To the UK Urban/pop/mainstream music scene London-based JJC is better known as Skillz, a much sought-after producer whose credits include Jamelia, Jay Sean, Big Brovaz, Liberty X and Lemar.
But 26-year old Nigerian-born JJC (real name Abdul Rasheed Bello) is also an artist in his own right whose music is an exciting, fresh fusion of hip-hop, African flavours and much more, almost avoiding categorisation. JJC’s unique rapping in half English and half Yoruba (his native Nigerian language) stems from his belief to be real to himself: "I find myself speaking half English, half Yoruba and if I write a song I'm gonna do it half English and half Yoruba. When I first started rapping that way, it was a joke – but people suggested that I took it seriously seeing how real and different it was." JJC proudly refers to himself and his music as not only Nigerian but Afropean, i.e African European. His humorous and positive approach, as shown in his lyrics, adds to the universal appeal.
JJC’s group, 419 Squad, an all-Nigerian outfit consisting of S.O. Simple (18), M.P. (25) and Smokey (25), are named after section 419 of Nigeria's criminal code, which makes the infamous Nigerian advance fee fraud illegal (i.e. the emails promising X% of millions of dollars) and is also a play on the word ‘fraud squad’. Their aim is to change people’s perception of the stereotype of the “dodgy, fraudulent Nigerian”.
As for 'JJC', this stands for 'Johnny just come', a term used to describe naïve African newcomers to countries such as the UK. It is a playful insult that African people tease other Africans with.
JJC arrived in South London’s inner-city neighbourhoods, aged 14, after having been raised in Kano, Nigeria's third biggest city in the North of the country.
Music had been an important part in his upbringing and it helped him make sense of his new environment:
"I grew up in Nigeria with my dad listening to country music, especially Don Williams, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.
Then I started getting into Nigerian music like [Afro-Juju by] Sir Shina Peters and [Afrobeat by] Fela Kuti, and later Michael Jackson and pop music." As a teenager he became consumed by hip-hop; the music room at Dick Shepherd School in Brixton became his escape as well as the springboard that eventually led to the formation of Big Brovaz, initially a production company and collective, then later a 6-piece group.
Big Brovaz went on to achieve numerous Top 10 hits in the UK and the rest of the world, including “Nu Flow” which saw JJC being involved as a performing group member in the video and on the track as opposed to just his usual role as Big Brovaz producer behind the scenes.
In 2003, JJC & 419 Squad first released their album “Atide” (meaning “We have arrived” in Yoruba) which was independently marketed, promoted and distributed by his production company Backbone Music.
Despite the lack of backing by a major label or distributor, the strength of the music, its originality and determination, meant a lot has been achieved: The album has received critical acclaim (see below) and it is probably the only release ever to be reviewed in both the World Music section as well as the Urban Music section of the BBC’s music web site (and no “EXPLICIT CONTENT/PARENTAL GUIDANCE” sticker in sight).
While tracks like “Jekalo” and the life-affirming “Maje Aye” contain traditional African elements, the album goes far beyond what is usually described as World music.
The track “Atide” (feat. Cherise from Big Brovaz) is a Latin-flavoured Anglo-Yoruba feel-good anthem which has been featured in Stephen Frears’ Oscar-nominated film Dirty Pretty Things and is included on Charlie Gillett’s World 2004 compilation (Wrasse Records). There are also elements of salsa (“Malemicita” – included on Union Square Music’s Afrobeat Sessions compilation).
Most of the group's repertoire will encourage you to get on your feet and dance (e.g. “Ewajo”, included on Manteca/ Union Square Music’s Global Hip Hop compilation), and even when the lyrics touch on more serious issues, such as the ethnic and language divides among Nigerians (i.e. Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, etc.), there is still a light-hearted, positive approach.
JJC concentrates on the perspective of young Nigerians outside their native country, like the curious fact that a number of young UK-based Nigerians 'want to be Jamaicans' (the group’s signature track “Gbao”) - "We are all Africans", JJC remarks. Whilst a lot of people may not understand all of the songs’ lyrics, the mix of Yoruba and English works very well because of the way the words are constructed and the energy behind the performance. For your first Yoruba language lesson check out “Kilonsele” (meaning “What’s up?”) which is on heavy rotation on UK-based African TV channels BEN TV and OBE TV, as well as MTV Base Africa and Channel O. JJC & 419 Squad were also involved in a Channel 4 TV drama called “Stealing Lives”: the group made cameo appearances and their music is used throughout the film which is based on the true story of London-based Nigerians being involved in identity fraud.
In 2003, JJC was the host of African Vibes on BBC Radio 1Xtra where he showcasesd African hip-hop, Afrobeat, Raï, hip-life, kwaito, Juju and lots more, bringing modern African music to a wider (and young, urban) audience. Last year, in his quest to become an ambassador for young African music in the UK, JJC has become one of the on-line hosts of Africa On Your Street (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/africaonyourstreet/jjc.shtml), a BBC Radio 3 website celebrating the African music scene across the UK and beyond. JJC is mainly concentrating on the African hip-hop and R’n’B scene. He states: "As a host, I'm specifically hoping to reach younger people who may think that hip-hop needs to be American to sound heavy ... there's a lot of African hip-hop that's just as good - or even better! Many people will be surprised to hear some of the unique styles coming straight from the streets of Africa. Young Africans in the Diaspora will hopefully find things on the site that make them proud and teach them.” JJC is also the presenter of the fifth edition of Radio 3’s World On Your Street web radio show (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/world/onyourstreet/woysradio.shtml) where he focuses on UK-based African acts (previous presenters of this show include Gilles Peterson and Charlie Gillett). On a trip to France, JJC hosted a one-off African hip-hop show on Radio Nova, Paris’ trend-setting radio station.
JJC still works as a club DJ, using the name DJ Skillz for mainstream R’n’B/ hip-hop gigs all over the UK or, as JJC, for the African Vibes gigs. Unsurprisingly, with all these different projects, JJC was asked to present the award in the Africa category to Daara J at the 2004 BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music event. JJC & 419 Squad have been picking up awards themselves, too, such as the 2004 Kora award for ‘Best African Group’.
The group are also the recipients of an Award for Excellence for outstanding contribution to the positive image of Africa and Africans in the UK (presented to them by The Trumpet newspaper) as well as the Best Artiste Award presented to them by US-based Nigerian magazine Momentum MV at a ceremony in Maryland, USA.
Whether playing to World Music fans, a Nigerian audience or at hip-hop shows, JJC & 419 Squad feel equally at home.
The group have performed at numerous events, including the RESPECT 2003 festival at the Dome (main stage), the WOMAD 2003 & 2004 festivals (their 2003 performance on Charlie Gillett’s stage was broadcast on Sky’s AC-TV and live on BBC London radio), the Fast Forward event on Trafalgar Square, BEN TV’s Nigerian Independence Party at the Ocean, at the Barbican (part of the Black President Fela Kuti season) and both The Shrine and Out Of Africa at Cargo. Internationally the group have performed in Paris, Maryland/ USA (at the Momentum MV Magazine Award Show where they picked up the Best Artist award) as well as Lagos and Abuja/ Nigeria (MTV base Africa’s launch at the Nicon Hilton Abuja alongside Ludacris and 2-Face, as well as at Femi Kuti’s New Africa Shrine, Fantasy Land, Do It All and The Dome).
Towards the end of 2003 JJC set up his own production company, Backbone Music, and is currently developing a number of new artists covering African, hip-hop, R’n’B, Ragga and more. The group are now preparing for the UK re-issue of an updated version of their album to be entitled “Finally .....Atide!”.
It will include new versions of old favourites, remixes, as well as many new songs, including collaborations with Tanzanian R’n’B superstar T.i.D., plus a DVD featuring their music videos. In Nigeria a version of the album, “Naija, Atide!” has been released in January 2004.
In North America a version of the “Atide” is available via the group’s website www.jjc2uk.com.
When asked about the dilemma of where to file the album JJC has the perfect response: “Under J of course!“
“We’ve been waiting so long for this, it’s hard to believe it has actually arrived: a truly distinctive hip-hop record made by Africans based in the UK… A great party album!” BBC World Music & Urban Music web site (review by Charlie Gillett)
“Roar and sparky.” The Guardian
“It’s difficult to think of another person out there tryin’ to spread the word like JJC, and for that Pride salutes you.” Pride
“Distinct African rhythms are mixed with a pertinent lyricism that almost any black youth – regardless of their parents’ country of origin –can relate to.” New Nation
"Sometime Big Brova JJC and his 419 Squad’s edgy London Nigerian slant intrigues."
"Artists like JJC & 419 Squad are cementing Africa's reputation in Europe as a center for cutting-edge rap." Newsweek
“JJC has produced a record that demands respect from hip hop and world audiences alike... Musically, [the album] is as multifaceted as a London street market.
Arguably one of the most important UK albums of this year.” fROOTS
“The album should bring pride to UK-based Africans …
there’s humour and some exciting fusion which could only have come out of multi-cultural Britain.” Gargamel
“The beats are inventive, the energy is admirable and the feistiness refreshing.” Songlines
“Atide blends African flavours with beats and Anglo-Yoruba vocals to fresh, fun and varied effect.” Time Out London
“ The Nigerian hip-hop and blend of English and Yoruba has left the likes of the Respect and Womad festivals speechless.” The Guardian Guide
“An outstanding slice of modern Anglo-Yoruba, straight-up quality music … This is a very confident and entertaining release.” The Beat
“Atide brings a refreshing change from the predictable vitriol of hip-hop. It puts the fun back into just listening and dancing to music.” African Times
“UK hip-hop may receive a deserved kick up the arse in the form of JJC who intelligently fuses Latin, hip-hop and garage with the beats of his native Nigeria, creating a style that sets him apart from the bottomless sea of rappers and hip-hop artists.” Live Listing Magazine
“JJC & 419 Squad look set to conquer the world.” Africa Today
“JJC is representing Nigeria, and at the same time, educating and enlightening people with his music. No wonder they call him ‘Skillz’, he’s got lots of it.” Momentum Magazine
“The hottest Nigerian hip-hop band in the UK.” Crystals