Kobi Onyame: "The album only works for superstars"

As he swaps hip-hop for highlife on new album GOLD, we speak to Kobi Onyame about embracing his musical heritage and the benefits of being an independent artist

Feature by Nadia Younes | 14 Aug 2017

For over ten years, Glasgow-based musician Kobi Onyame has been gradually making a name for himself, under numerous different guises, as one of the most promising hip-hop acts in Scotland; but for his new album GOLD, he’s going back to his roots. “I wanted to challenge myself to do something that I haven’t done before because I feel like I did the hip-hop thing and I didn’t want to just make another boom bap hip-hop album,” says Onyame. “I’ve kept the hip-hop undertones but it incorporates a lot more percussion and that whole West African, Ghanaian highlife feel.”

Born to Ghanaian parents, Onyame’s earliest memories of highlife music come from hearing his mum and dad playing it around the house. It wasn’t until he spent three years doing his undergraduate studies in Ghana, however, that he became fully immersed in the Ghanaian music scene and met many of the artists who he went on to work with on GOLD. “For those three years, I started a hip-hop crew in Ghana, so I know M.anifest, M3NSA and Wanlov (the Kubolor) from those days, from 1998 or 1999,” Onyame tells us. “Each time I go out to Ghana, I try and make time to network with artists, soak up that energy and collaborate.”

Onyame’s interest in pursuing a more highlife-leaning sound though, stems mainly from his time working with Ghanaian producer and head of production company/record label Pidgen Music, Panji Anoff. “They’ve got artists that are very authentic to highlife and Panji’s a very big influence on my music,” says Onyame. “Just working with him and getting that vibe, I wanted to create something that reminded me of the old Fela Kuti, slightly over-saturated sound: that tape, almost vinyl sound, so the whole album was recorded that way.”

Rather than go down the route of a traditional album release format, Onyame decided to release GOLD track-by-track via streaming sites such as Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud to build up more of a buzz around the album before its actual release. “I feel like in this day and age, albums come out and just get lost,” explains Onyame. “I think the whole album structure only works for superstars, like Beyoncé and Jay-Z can put out a whole album and everyone gets excited about it but for lesser known artists, sometimes the whole release date thing makes the album get lost.”

Taking a leaf out of one of his hero’s book, Onyame’s method of releasing GOLD is much like the way in which Kanye West promoted his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the months leading up to the album’s release, West released a new song every Friday as part of his G.O.O.D. Fridays project, four of which turned out to be alternative versions of tracks that ended up on the album.

“I finished recording the album round about the start of December last year, and basically what I’ve been doing is putting out alternative versions, so when the album finally comes out some of the tracks will be different to the single versions I’ve actually released,” says Onyame. “I really believe that the album is something special and I’m saying quite a lot on it so I didn’t want an album release date to just come and go.”

Initially starting his music career as a producer, Onyame believes that being allowed time and space to develop on his own away from London, without the demands and pressures of record labels, has helped him grow into a more rounded artist and performer. “Up here, labels don’t have the time or money to develop people anymore so I guess we’re developing away from them and by the time they notice that, we’re way ahead of their acts,” stresses Onyame. “I would never say no to the right label or the right situation but I think in this day and age, being independent is the strongest position you can actually be in.”

Since moving to Glasgow to do his Masters degree at Strathclyde University, Onyame has found that being based in Glasgow has benefitted his music career, as there are just as many opportunities to get yourself noticed but there's not as much competition between artists. “I’ve always thought that being up here gave me an advantage because it’s kind of like being away from the hub that London can be sometimes,” says Onyame. “Obviously, there’s a disadvantage of being so far away from where everything happens but at the same time, there’s the advantage of being able to develop and being unique to your sound.”

Success may feel like a long time coming for Kobi Onyame, but if patience really is a virtue, then GOLD might just see him end up in first place.

GOLD is self-released 1 Sep