Wondagurl: Already Graduated
Most people probably think of YouTube as a distraction, but Ebony Oshunrinde saw it as a tutor.
People looking at the production credits for Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail saw many familiar names: Timbaland, Pharrell, The-Dream, etc. One decidedly less recognizable name was the one that was credited for the production of “Crown”— a then-unknown 17-year-old Canadian who went by the name of Wondagurl. How could a demure teenager from Brampton by way of Scarborough and Mississauga manage to have Sean Carter hear one of her beats, let alone choose it to make the album? It seemed like a rap fairy tale, a story whose moral would likely be something benign like “believe in yourself, and good things will happen.” But for Ebony Oshunrinde, this was the type of payoff that was to be expected after years of putting in work, starting from when she would make hip-hop beats at the tender age of nine, shunning socializing in favor of YouTube tutorials. "If you really want to learn, you will sit there and learn it. I was a bored kid. I had no friends, so I said, OK I’m going to make beats.’”
Sitting in her studio at The Remix Project in Toronto, it’s hard to believe that Wondagurl is only 17. She’s tall for her age, and her posture is upright and proud. She’s dressed sensibly, and is quiet and well-mannered, which causes most people who interact with her to guess that she’s in her mid to late twenties, instead of being born in 1996.
Not classically trained, Ebony learned everything she knows about production from the internet, due mostly to her impatience with having to keep at the pace of the rest of the class. "I can’t play piano, or drums. I went to training a few times, but I got bored. I get bored at lessons because I don’t like having a teacher—I’d rather watch Youtube.” It’s impossible for someone who started their existence in the tail-end of the 90s to be nostalgic about a world that existed without computers, or without the web. "I don’t remember when the Internet didn’t exist. The first memory I have of a computer is my aunt buying us one and we had to figure it out,” explains Ebony. "That was probably 2002.” It took only three years after that for Ebony to start messing around with the beat-making software on her computer with the aid of YouTube tutorials. "I would watch all this stuff on YouTube about home studios and people making beats. I’d just sit down and focus on it for hours, and I’d take a break whenever I stopped getting ideas.”
“If I started making beats when I was 14, I don’t think they would have been as good,” says Ebony. A true product of the internet, she uploaded her first beat to YouTube under 'EO Muzik’. "I put in the description, 'I’m not a guy I’m a girl'. My brother made a track on that beat, and it was the worst track ever, but it felt nice because that was the first time ever someone made a song to my music. That was a really big moment in my life, even if it sounds small now. I was probably 11, and that’s when I started taking things seriously."
With the internet as her tutor, Ebony began to draw from the music she heard growing up for ideas and influences. “My family is Nigerian, so we really like old-school dancehall,” says Ebony, “I like weird sounds. I sample dancehall songs sometimes just by going on YouTube and searching for new artists. I’m never really into what they’re talking about, but I like their flow, the way they sound on the beat, and the bass. I don’t care for new school reggae. Old school reggae is the most important thing, since it’s all about the bass and drums.” This influence is loudly evident on “Crown,” where Wondagurl flips Sizzla’s “Solid as a Rock,” but is more mutedly apparent on Travis Scott’s “Uptown,” where the sounds of both the White Stripes and Reverend WA Donaldson are slowed down and screwed until they resemble something you’d expect to hear from Capleton, Wondagurl’s favorite dancehall artist.
The Jay Z placement was a great jump-start for her career, but Wondagurl also understands that the pressure is on her to make everything she does from this point forward bigger and better. When I ask about her musical future, Ebony seems to be in good spirits due to having the right people in her corner. "My manager works for Disney, so I’m trying to get into some Disney stuff. That would be awesome if my music was in movies.” But at the moment, Ebony is more concerned with building a cohesive and high quality body of work, not about getting rich quickly. "I care about where my beats go. I have to think the artist is good.” On top of working in different mediums, Ebony is excited to venture into new genres. “I just want to build my catalog. I just started making R&B beats, and I’d like to get into the country world at some point too.”
For now, despite her frequent trips to Los Angeles, where she attends meetings and luncheons with a revolving door of industry people, Ebony’s main goal is to make the best beats she can, which often results in late night studio sessions. "Sometimes my managers in LA will try to get me to go to events because it’s such a good opportunity for me, but I just want to go to the studio. I went to three things last time I was out there, and it was a whole bunch of people I’ve never seen in my life. It was so big, with so many people. I hate crowds, so I just wanted to go work.” This attitude may run contrary to what you’d presume a teenage girl would think, but Wondagurl is focused to a fault. "I’m not good at making friends like that, I’m good at making friends through the internet. I’m afraid to talk to people. I always want people to come and talk to me. I never know what to say, I never know how to react. It’s something I worry about."
With all of this talk of Jay Z and Disney, it’s easy to forget that Ebony is still a 17-year old who is dealing with typical teenage problems. “I hate the question of ‘what are you going to do for the rest of your life?’ My mom used to ask it all the time, and she wants me to go to school after high school, but she also understands that it’s really all my decision, and she supports that.” But at this point in her life, it’s hard to imagine Ebony learning from anything that doesn’t have a pause button and a litany of related channels. Since she has grown up with the internet as her tutor, there’s little chance that Ebony has the patience to learn more from a formal education than on her own. Then again, as someone who has accomplished so much with nothing but a YouTube account, it would be interesting to see what effects formal training would have on the 17-year old. Either way, the future looks bright for Wondagurl, who is in talks to work with a number of pop artists whose names she would prefer us not to print, insisting that she doesn’t want to jinx anything. Secrets aside, it sounds like it’s safe to say that Ebony won’t end up a one hit wonder girl.
Slava Pastuk is a writer living in Toronto - @SlavaP
Want more cool producers? Check these out: