- Tells City People The Story Of His Life
Whenever his name crops up, many just think Chief Tony Okoroji, the Chairman of COSON is all about fighting for the royalties of music artistes alone. We can tell you authoritatively that he is deeper than that. He is one of the early pioneers of music that rocked the 80s, 90s. In this special interview with City People, SEYE KEHINDE and Music Reporter, DANIJI EMMANUEL, he reveals the story of his life.
Many know Chief Tony Okoroji. You are a big brand in the music industry. But many don’t know how you started off in music years back.
I was born in Imo state. I had my primary school in Port Harcourt, my Secondary school was in Enugu. I consider myself an Enugu boy, I went to the University when I was fairly old. I have done all kinds of things. I played music when I was 18. I actually have a record in Nigeria. I am probably the 1st to play all the musical instruments in a pop music album.
I was about 18, 19. At that time, there were no computers, and all that, and I was just doing tracking and all that. I did an album titled Big, Big, Sugar Daddy and played all the musical instruments.
But I also had challenges growing up even when I wanted to start music, I would go to the record companies and one of the questions I was repeatedly asked was: have you made music before? Have you recorded music before?
And I was always laughing; wondering when I was going to record my 1st music.
That was why I set up TOPs on Toyin Street in Ikeja. Tops is an organization I set up to help artistes who are talented but have no where else to go to. One of my artistes is a girl who lost her father at the age of 10 and almost didn’t have any one to help her. A lot of these people are practically adopted. So, what I do is to help them in my own little way to give them a chance to move forward. Its my duty. That’s part of my experience growing up.
I left University too late, I thought it was a little too late but I had to catch up. And in catching up, I was in 2 Universities at the same time. I was reading Management in Delta State University and I was reading Business and Industrial Law at the University of Lagos. Most times I had exams running at the same time. It was important to me that I caught up with those things and I am happy today. At the University of Lagos respectively, I did Diploma in Business and Industrial Law. I passed in 1st Class. I did and Advanced Diploma in Commercial Law and Practice. I had a 1st class at Delta State University. I was the Best Students not because I was more intelligent than anyone else but because I worked harder than most people.
When they leave class to go and play, I will leave class to go and study. When we all came back I will be the one teaching the students. What the lecturer taught. A lot of students come more to my class than they came to the regular classes. And I realized that I wouldn’t teach without knowing the subject. So that helped me prepare more. So while I was in school. I set a lot of record along the way.
When you set out to music what was the idea?
I was thrilled by what was going on in America with the setting up of Motown. There were a lot of black artistes coming up in the US then, like Micheal Jackson and the Jackson family then. We were probably the same age. There was James Brown doing his thing in his crazy way. There was Smokey Robbinson and then, The Temptation What happened then was extremely exciting. I knew we had to do our own differently.
We have to have a Nigerian sound that captured imagination. Once I got interested in music I had to go and learn how to play the keyboard.
But when I began to record I thought I had a kind of music that had a fundamental feel from the environment in which I grew up, but presented in such a way that it would cut across. That’s what is behind my music, like Juliana, Oriako, Mama and Papa, I Wish You Well & Co. But that fundamental formular is the formular that you find today in Nigeria, that has worked for people like Tuface, Timaya, my brother Flavour and Co. I mean the basic Nigerian sound.
Digital technology has helped a lot. With the digital technology, the cost or recording came down and the quality of the sound got better.
When did you start playing music?
I think I started playing music right from ‘Belle’. (Laughs) My first professional recording was at the age of 18. At that time, everybody was saying to me: where is you recording, if you want us to record you? At a time I found out that nobody was willing to record me. I probably would be the youngest Nigeria ever to start a record label I got frustrated so I had to start a record label not knowing how to run a record label. At that time, you didn’t have a digital studio where you could go to make records, you had to go to a proper recording studio and pay a lot of money. When I left secondary school I started work in the Civil Service. I was working for the Dept of Petroleum Resources in the Ministry of Mines and Power.
As a young person, I was given the job of calculating the oil Nigeria was producing and selling everyday. My job was to call all the different oil companies. I was the one who was releasing how many barrels of Oil Nigeria was producing everyday. So, If I gave a wrong figure, that was the figure that will be used. I really wasn’t trained for the kind of responsibility given to me. But I earned some little money doing all that and I saved every penny, I used to walk miles in Lagos just to save my money. So I could invest my money in the music I was going to make. I made a lot of mistakes, but in the mistakes I learnt a lot in the University of hard rocks.
A lot of the things I know today came as a result of working without any resources. Today, I can work as a Publicist for a musician. I remember I used to go into Daily Times in those days, packed with my LPs. I couldn’t afford a publicists. It was in the DailyTimes. I met Tony Momoh for the very first time and he became my great friends and he remains my great friends. He was my friend when he was the Minister for Information and Culture. He was really helpful in moving some of the ideas that helped the copyright law and copyright commissions.
Another public official I will respect till I die is Prince Bola Ajibola, He is one of the finest public officers that this country has ever had. I owe him a lot. He is old now. In 1989 or thereabout, the entire creative industry was upset and frustrated because we wanted a new copyright law. I was involved in producing a draft. But no one was interested in enacting the law.
So, I called my friends, I said to them? We have to do something drastic. So, we declared one day to protest. I was a young President of PMAN then. I was twenty something year old.
We needed to tell the government that it can not be business as usual. In November 1989 we declared one day as Anti-Piracy Day and we asked all the music shops across the country to close down and all the studios to close down and I led a demonstration.
Then, the government was still in Lagos. I led the demonstration that took over National Theatre, stopped traffic on the Marina, went into the Ministry of Justice at the Marina, blocked entrance, blocked the exist and these were crazily dressed musicians. We were not playing music, we were playing noise. While all these was going on, the Minister of Justice now, who is the Attorney General, Prince Bola Ajibola was wondering who are these guys who have taken over his office. This was at the time of the Military and he stepped out and we spoke. And we told him. Why we were there.
We were angry. People were afraid for me. I just got married not quite long. And before going I told my wife, if I come back its ok, if I don’t, just take it as one of those things, because the Military might just shoot us. After sizing up the situation, Prince Bola Ajibola worked like I have not seen a government official work before. He addressed us. And I told him we were not going to leave the Ministry. I told him we had come to take over the Ministry. We would not leave, unless we had clear assurances from him that before Xmas of that year we were going to have the Copyright Law. We were in November then. He assured us that we would have it as a Xmas present.
We told him if he does not give us a concrete response, we would sit on the floor there, start cooking with our stoves and be drinking, defecate in place. The man said to me: are you willing to work with me? If you are willing to work with me, resume here in 2 days time, we would sit down and work on the details of how to make it happen. I showed up on the appointed date and we began work. He had assembled all his draftsmen and we put those paper together.
My birthday is December 22. Then, a few days to Xmas I was driving on Ikorodu Road when I tuned to FRCN and I heard the news that the President had just promulgated the Nigerian Copyright Act. Prince Bola Ajibola delivered on his promise. I owe him everything I have done till this day.