The Secret Side of Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Chicago’s Weirdest Musician
The eccentric multi-instrumentalist took a confidently goofy approach to songwriting on his new album, 'Drool.'
Photos by Johnny Fabrizio
It's nearly 4 AM on the north side of Chicago, but Nnamdi Ogbonnaya is still awake writing, re-writing, and recording vocals for the title track off his next album Drool. About 2,000 miles away in Los Angeles, Nnamdi's father Adonijah is also still up and calling his son on the drive home from work. These calls are typical for Nnamdi: his father tells him about a friend in Chicago who can help him get a well-paying job, Nnamdi says OK, thanks him, and then his mind goes back to thinking about music. But this call ended differently than others. "Shit, shit, shit!" Adonijah frantically begins to mutter as he drops the phone in the car. On the other end, Nnamdi listens and begins to laugh as he realizes his father was lost in the life-coaching moment and is now getting pulled over for speeding. Instead of hanging up, Nnamdi sets the phone against the microphone in front of him and begins to sample what he remembers to be his favorite part of his new record.
Details like this are what make Nnamdi's art what it is: the music on Drool is outrageously goofy and devastatingly emotional all at the same time, with moments tip-toeing the line between hilarious, carnivalesque chaos and others reflecting heavily in a hall of self-aware mirrors. One second Nnamdi sings about a shapely ass and the next he's debating his relationship with God and consequently, his father—a traveling preacher. Drool hectically weaves in and out of the thoughts that consume Nnamdi's mind, from the absolutely absurd to the heart-wrenching and dark.
"It's my most personal album in a serious way," Nnamdi says, sitting in his Humboldt Park apartment after he stops laughing about the call with his dad. "I feel like the humorous stuff that I do is also personal to me too, because that stuff is silly but there's still a little bit of truth to it."
The silly stuff is what Nnamdi is known for. In his music, synthesizers bounce around like a retro videogame chase scene and his voice stretches to every note it can conceivably hit, replicating everything from a high-pitched schoolyard choir of children to deep bellows that sound like he's trying to talk to whales. The vocal melodies are odd and confusing, but undoubtedly catchy and make each song seem ready to ride wildly off the rails. Most importantly, though, they're molded from Nnamdi's equally active personality. Nnamdi's hyper presence is a lot to take in—he's constantly joking, making noises, and speaking in differently pitched voices to show excitement about nearly everything around him. When he calms down and takes a moment to formulate a deep thought, his neck begins to slowly bend back-and-forth between his shoulders like there's a ten-pound bowling ball rolling around inside his head. There's a lot going on in there—even more than his 13-track hybrid rap album hints at.
Nnamdi's energy doesn't go to waste, though. The 26-year-old multi-instrumentalist has been active in the DIY scene since he began drumming in his first suburban Chicago bands The Para-Medics and Albatross in 2006. In the last decade, he's experimented with everything from screamo to math-rock-inspired hip-hop, and done everything from touring across the globe to kickstarting his own record label, Sooper Records. During all that, he worked towards an electrical engineering degree which he earned last May from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"I was trying to be in a billion bands and when I get excited, I get super hyper," Nnamdi says, simultaneously strumming a small practice guitar while he talks. "I want to do so many things."
But Nnamdi knows things don't always work out for aspiring career musicians. In fact, they almost never do for DIY artists like himself. That fear is what has kept Nnamdi from completely pursuing his own music full-time over the past decade and kept him answering his father's calls with a hint of intrigue, hearing out every potential option for himself.
Despite their opposing views on religion, Nnamdi and Adonijah are eerily similar. Nnamdi describes Adonijah as a workaholic: He runs a Pentecostal church in Venice, California, owns multiple businesses, has two PhDs, teaches theology around the world, and helps build schools across Africa. The way Nnamdi simply puts it, "he's a busy man." Adonijah describes himself professionally as "an agent of mental transfiguration and spiritual revolution whose objective is cause seismic shift in persons." On Drool, Nnamdi says his main lyrical goal was to show people "that bad things happen, but also there can be change and it can be positive" and wants listening to his songs to be "experiences" that change people and their outlook on life forever.
Despite his father's hope that Nnamdi would pursue a career path using his degree like he did—hence the phone calls—another environmental influence always kept his tireless energy directed toward writing music with an end-goal not far off from his father's.
Nnamdi spent most of his childhood in Lansing, Illinois—a south Chicago suburb, just outside the city limit. When Nnamdi began going to college, his dad moved back to LA for work and left Nnamdi and his two siblings the family's house to themselves. With a love for music bubbling in his teens, Nnamdi turned the house into "Nnamdi's Pancake Haus"—a DIY show space that celebrated each punk show with plates stacked high with pancakes.
"That was definitely my favorite time to play music," he says. "Everything was new and I didn't overthink things. The older I get, the more I'm just thinking about shit and worrying more about survival. Back then I was like, 'I'm just going to make this music, go crazy, and invite everyone I know over.'"
The Chicago artist has met all his closest friends through music, Nnamdi says, sitting in an apartment where he lives with the other three members of his touring band. The rooms in there are riddled with guitars and the walls are filled with tour flyers. Nnamdi is almost always literally surrounded by music, which he says keeps him motivated to continue pursuing that rather than sinking into a full-time work schedule for something he's not passionate about.
"The people you surround yourself with help shape you," Nnamdi says. "If you surround yourself with a whole bunch of negative people, it's going to be hard to be positive. Once you realize that you can actually make a change to be around people that are positive, then there's no way you can't be confident when you realize you're in charge of your life."
Confidence is what drives Drool. Yes, the intricate songwriting and wacky noises make it stand out with a unique style but at times when the rapper flat-out says, "You could never be a Nnamdi / You couldn't even be around me / Everything I do astounding," it's clear in comparison to his past discography that the overall tone in the Chicago musician's voice has shifted to make a far more serious statement.
"There's a little bit of bitterness in everything I wrote on the album," Nnamdi admits. "There's a little bit of 'god damn, this is what I should have been doing this whole time.'"
By finally taking on music full-time behind the release of Drool, Nnamdi's scope has finally narrowed in on letting a project grow before rushing onto the next. This spring, he hit the road in support of his own music for the first time in over a decade of playing shows and will support Brooklyn pop-rock band PWR BTTM this summer on tour—the most active and patient he's ever been with music.
On another phone call earlier this year, Adonijah told Nnamdi he liked his song "let gO Of my egO"—the first single off Drool. The Chicago musician's voice gets noticeably calmer when he pauses to talk about his conversations with his dad. Adonijah calls to badger his son about work, but mostly to check-in, ask how he's doing, and motivate Nnamdi while he faces the seemingly impossible challenge of turning what you love into a career. Although Nnamdi captured the split second his phone call with his dad turned into an instant of hilarity, it was those moments before that he wanted to think of when he listened back to Drool.
"It just made me remember that he wants me to succeed even though I might be swearing and saying shit he doesn't agree with," Nnamdi says. "He wants good things to happen for me regardless of how we both perceive life and religion. He still wants me to succeed. I just wanted to remember that."