“I really have no business here whatsoever,” NAIKE jokes over the phone from his Chicago apartment. The 24-year-old born Ola Awonaike grew up in Edmonton, North London, before moving to Atlanta with his family in his teen years. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he moved to Chicago for a business consulting job. NAIKE soon picked up on the go-getter attitude of his adopted home and began independently releasing music in the after hours.
NAIKE’s latest project, King’s Drive, showcases his nimble rapping and club-friendly hooks, all at a 140 BPM tempo that elevates the energy beyond a typical rap beat. On lead single “GOYF,” NAIKE sounds high on his own confidence as he raps, “Get out of my feelings and into my bag, must be one of them traits of a Taurus / You know I was singing my heart out when I was writing the chorus.” “Fantasy” opens with a luxuriously slow soul sample, but the drums skitter through the organ fills rather than sitting back in the groove. The undeniable grime influence is a fresh sound in the local music scene, though the insistent hi-hat patterns pair well with native Chicago genres of drill and footwork.
Chicago artists Adia and Jessek5k feature on “Again,” signs of the MC’s expanding reach within his adopted city. NAIKE performed at open mics and DIY shows before the pandemic, and he’s kept busy with live streams in recent months, so he hopes to book legit venues as soon as shows begin again. “When that time comes, I’ll have a bunch of new content,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
I spoke to NAIKE soon after King’s Drive’s release about operating independently, getting familiar with Chicago, and how he preserves his background performing for foreign audiences.
How did you arrive at the King’s Drive title and concept for your album?
It is really simple. I moved to Chicago two years ago, coming up in March. I live on King’s Drive [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive] and all the songs that are on that project, I basically made in my apartment. I was just like, “You know what? I’ll just call it King's Drive.”
I’m on this street every day. My local grocery stores are on the same street. I have a few friends on 59th I go see. Semira[truth] came over, we made a song together on King’s Drive. That’s it. There’s no deep meaning to it. It was just the Chicago experience.
How have you been working as an independent artist during the pandemic?
To be honest with you, I don’t make music to support myself or make money from it in any type of way. I just make it because it’s fun. That’s the only reason I’ve invested so much money in my music. When I tell people how much I’ve spent doing recording or mixing or mastering, they’re just like, “Oh, do you think you’re gonna make that back?” There’s no way. At least not right now, anyway.
I think the pandemic helped a bit, actually, because I made a lot more music than normally. I recently just got into producing. The money I make from work, I put into the music. I have been making a little, tiny bit of money, so it shows maybe I’m heading in the right direction. But that’s not really the goal. I just like being creative.
You have a lyric where you’re talking to a girl who says that you do grime, and you say you do garage too. Can you explain the distinction between those two for someone who may not be as familiar with the different styles of UK music?
Grime is more unique. It’s more gritty. It can have these dark elements in there. Most grime songs are around 140 BPM, and I’d say garage is between 120 and 140. I think garage is more upbeat, you know—you do a little two-step to it. And grime is more like, bopping your head. I don’t know the best way to explain it. But grime is influenced by jungle music, dubstep, EDM, [and] garage as well.
Can you tell me how the different features got involved with this project?
On my last project, I had a song called “Places+Faces,” and I had Adia do the background vocals for that. I met her through this Chicago open mic event called YCA [Young Chicago Authors]. After we did that song, I was like, “We have to actually make something together where I can put your name on the song.” She has a boyfriend, who’s Jessek5k, and I’ve always thought he was really good. You could tell on that song it was like, “You are going HAM.” I gave him a garage beat because I thought they would sound good on that. And that’s how that came about.
I met Semiratruth the same way, actually. I saw her perform at the same YCA event. When I heard the “Fantasy” beat, I was like, “Okay, let me get a Chicago artist.” I like her style of rapping; I think it’s unique, it’s completely different from the way I rap. So she came over one day, and I think I played my verse first. And then she played her verse. And then we just wrote back-to-back from there.
Have you felt the need to change up your lingo for an American audience?
I’ve definitely thought about it because I’ve had questions about what this means or what that means. But I feel like the moment I’m like, “Let me tweak this for people, so they understand it more,” then I’m losing the reason I started making music in the first place, [which is] just to express myself. So, to answer your question, I have been mindful about it, but at the same time, I’m not gonna stop using British lingo just because a bunch of American people or Nigerian people are listening to me. I’m gonna rap the same, say the same stuff.
Do you have anything planned for your next project?
I’ve released a lot of songs in a span of just under a year. It’s a total of 22 songs, which I think is a bit much, in my opinion. So I think I’m gonna slow down, try and focus more on singles. Because I’ll be doing one song at a time, I can invest more and take my time with it. I want my next project to be 100% produced by me, but I haven’t really started thinking about that yet. I just want to focus on singles this year.