“I grew up having instruments in the house, so I used to play around with them, but I won’t say I was good or a young genius,” film composer and Anthill Studios’ head of audio production, Gray Jones Ossai tells me as we sit in a makeshift studio at Anthill Studios to discuss his Nollywood journey.
Ossai’s story betrays a popular narrative among virtuosic musicians. He wasn’t a prodigy; he was just a guy surrounded by music and musical instruments. And although music was never the plan, young Ossai was drawn to it. He filled in for his brother as keyboardist and drummer in their father’s church when the latter was unavailable, and in his teens, he and his friends often visited studios.
But young Ossai never took the art seriously; music was a way to pass time. Things got serious around the time he turned 19. He was playing around with FL Studios and producing for people. A stint with RnB singer Djinee followed.
The door to Nollywood came through his older brother, Jerry Ossai. Familiar with his brother’s cinematic tunes, Jerry used some of Jones’s songs and asked him to score scenes for his series, Our Best Friends Wedding. Ossai’s work on the series drew the attention of Jade Osiberu, head of Ndani TV at the time. He auditioned unsuccessfully for a series he thinks is Skinny Girl in Transit. His chance came when Osiberu needed an eleventh-hour hero to salvage the music for Isoken, and under two weeks, just in time for the premiere, he created the film’s score.
“I had to stay at her office,” Ossai says about that moment. “I was there for two weeks working on the film. It came out better than I expected, given that it was my first time working on a film project.”
For a series—My Nollywood Story—I was working on to explore the Nollywood journey of the different people in the industry, we spoke about his journey, Anthill Studios, and creating music for Nigerian films.
What were the childhood experiences that shaped your interest in music?
My dad owned a church, and I played the musical instruments in the church—the keyboard and the drums. I wasn’t great or a young genius. I just used to fill in for my older brother whenever he wasn’t around. So I grew up having instruments in the house. My dad also played a lot of African music – Fela, Sunny Ade, Sunny Okposo – and a lot of Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown. I grew up listening to music, but I didn’t pay attention to them until I started listening to Weekly Top 40s, and fell in love with rock music.
So how did you transition to film?
The film thing happened by chance. Before I went into the film industry, a lot of people told me my sound would do well in Nollywood, but I didn’t know my way in. I didn’t have the connect to anyone. I just kept making music. I struggled to make commercial music, so I decided to make music the way I understood, which was a lot of symphonies, orchestra, melodies and harmonies, stuff that was suitable for visual projects. That went on until my older brother [Jerry Ossai] directed Our Best Friend’s Wedding. He used a couple of my songs for it and asked me to score some scenes that didn’t have songs.
I started getting recognition from that point. That was when Jade Osiberu called me. We have a mutual friend, Victor; I think he pitched me to her. This was before Isoken. She was still at Ndani TV. They were working on a show; I think it was Skinny Girl in Transit. I went in for the audition, I didn’t get the job, but she noticed me. So when she did Isoken, she called me up. It was my first film, but I approached it like I had done a hundred movies. We worked on that even though it was on such short notice—two weeks to the premiere. I had to stay at her office. I was there for two weeks working on the film. It came out better than I expected, given that it was my first time working on a film project.
Why did she call you that late?
I think she had issues with the person she was working with. They didn’t get what she wanted. She wanted to experiment with sound. She felt I could help, and I did.
In layman’s terms, describe what a film composer does?
It’s simple. You interpret the scene and express it with music. You create music to help tell the story better.
Who are your favorite film composers in Nollywood and beyond, and why?
Of course, Hans Zimmer. Then Junkie XL, he did Mad Max: Fury Road. My third will be Ramin Djawadi, he composed the music for Game of Thrones. I like his work because he gave each house specific theme music, and when introducing a character from each house, the music created for that house was played. I learned that from him.
For Nollywood, Michael Truth Ogunlade, I love his work. There are some other young guys, Jakim, Kolade Morakinyo (Your Excellency).
What are the challenges film composers face in Nollywood?
The number one thing is budget [laughs]. Time constraint too because many times, you’re working on projects with tight deadlines. For example, you’re working on a film that’s two hours long, and you’re given two to three weeks. It’s not enough time. In Hollywood, film composers take six months or maybe a year or two, depending on the project. We need producers to know a lot is going into the music to make it better than what it is right now. There’s a lot of good guys in the industry, but if we don’t get adequate time to work, we will find it harder to grow as an industry. And now that we have Nollywood films going to international markets—Netflix and Amazon—we must pay more attention to the music and sound because that will take us from this level to a higher level. We can compete with Hollywood. We just need to put in the time required for our sound and music to hit those levels. Also, many people find it hard to collaborate, but collaboration helps the work go farther. Those are the three top challenges.
Since Isoken, who’s had the most significant influence on your career?
Niyi Akinmolayan. He’s one guy that believes in taking Nollywood music to the next level. He is spontaneous and experimental. When we were working on Elevator Baby, he came to me and said, “Gray, I want you to approach this from an angle we haven’t heard before. Be free to express yourself.” He gave me some references regarding what he wanted to accomplish. Working with him opened my mind to a lot of things.
Akinmolayan’s Anthill Studios is like a hub for young creatives in the film industry…
That’s another thing I like about him. He is pro-evolution, always ready to work with young people if you’re good enough.
Why is this important?
In most fields or industries, people tend to work with known faces, and these same people are always in circulation. How do you encourage growth when you’re using the same people? If you don’t expand your horizon and involve young people, there won’t be growth. If you bring in new faces and ideas, then you are setting a future for the industry. So the more young people are involved and groomed, the better for Nollywood.
Describe what it’s like working with other young creatives at Anthill Studios.
It’s refreshing. Ideas are always flying around. We are energetic, curious, and continually exploring—so there’s a lot of exchange of ideas.
Tell us about the process of creating music for Up North and Sugar Rush.
For Up North, I worked with a specific theme, which is the Northern theme. Most of the songs were based on ClassiQ’s Gargajiya, and we focused on that song to create the theme of the music. I tried to make music that would appeal to Northern Nigerians but, at the same time, be contemporary. I also incorporated elements of electronic music, so it was diverse cultural music.
But for Sugar Rush, it was different because I had to create specific theme music for the key characters. Have you seen the film?
Yes, I have.
If you noticed, when Anikulapo came in, the music changed from happy, funk music to crime-type music, which is somewhat dark and has heavy bass. Working on a film like this, you need to emphasize on specific characters to tell the story better. When the other guy with a hat [Uzor Arukwe’s Igbo gangster] came in, the music changed to heavy bass music, so you know bad guys are around. Focusing on specific things like that helps to highlight key moments in the film, and that was my approach. It was the same thing with The Set Up, key moments and actors had their specific theme music.
What are you working on this year?
Right now, I can’t disclose some of the projects, but I am working on DOD. My table is not fully defined for the whole year, but as they come up, people will find out on my social media platforms. Right now, I can’t say because some of the projects are still being discussed. Nothing is final on papers yet. But I do know that I’m releasing a lot of music this year. I put out a mixtape already, and I am releasing more music. I’m trying to focus more on my music this year.
Your EP is very experimental. Are we getting more of that this year?
Yeah, I like to be experimental. I don’t want to be caught in one specific place. I like to move around.
Tell me three old Nollywood movies whose score you like.
Honestly, I don’t remember any that struck me, like this sound is lit, and I really can’t remember any old Nollywood right now.
Contemporary Nollywood films?
Of course, Up North. [laughs]. I like the score in Walking with Shadows. I’m not sure who worked on it, but I like it. (Sami El-Enany composed the music). I can’t remember any other one. The Set Up?
You did The Set Up
Yes, I know I made The Set Up, and I like it.
Give me something else.
I have not seen films recently.
Which film do you see last?
The last film I saw was Walking with Shadows. I went for the premiere [at AFRIFF].
Yeah, I have not been able to go out. I have been working. I’m mostly in the studio.
Looking at the film scores from both eras—old and new Nollywood—what will you say has changed and evolved?
I think music, generally, has evolved, and Nollywood reflects the times. That’s why we have more pop songs in films, so I think the industry is just reflecting the times and that’s beautiful to see.