When I decided to do an article on Octopizzo, I realized that I wasn’t sure if the rapper is a villain or a hero. This after all is the man who was accused of abandoning his crew after he became successful. No matter how much I tried to rationalize it, I could not see how he could be anything other than a villain for doing that.

The other thing was how he allegedly set the cops on fellow rapper Breeder LW. That made him a snitch in many fans’ eyes. How could a rapper snitch on another rapper to the cops, and for something as inconsequential as an Instagram post?

And finally, there was the buying views aspect. Octopizzo has been widely accused of using paid views to inflate his numbers on YouTube.

In my mind, Octopizzo was like Lex Luther, but in the rap world. Or like Fifty Cent, who is the biggest villain in the US rap scene. In contrast, I saw Khaligraph as the hero, the kid who survives in the world through grit, guts, and wits.

As luck would have it, while I was mulling over whether he is a hero or a villain, Octopizzo went on Mwafreeka’s Iko Nini podcast and gave everyone the tea on his life and journey. And this provided a lot of the information and perspective needed to shift my perception of the man.

On the interview, he addressed most of my concerns. For instance, he revealed that he didn’t actually call the cops on Breeder, those were Octo’s boys from Kibera.

What does Octopizzo have in common with Fifty Cent?

And on leaving his crew behind, he explained that this came about because of the mindset he had plugged into as a dire necessity for someone who wanted to leave the ghetto and make it in the big world of music. It is understandable that when you start making it, the friends you used to hang out with when you were broke might be unwilling to grow with you. In fact, there might be some resentment.

No one understands this more than rapper Fifty Cent. His crew G-Unit was supposed to become a movement. Each of the G-Unit rappers was supposed become a superstar on Fifty’s level and they were supposed to replicate the process with other rappers. That was Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson’s ambition for the group. But G-Unit, like Octo’s YGB, did not achieve its potential. In his book Hustle Harder Hustle Smarter, Fifty Cent writes with sadness:

“Both Power’s rise and G-Unit’s fall are testaments to how growth is often the key element to any successful journey. I always felt that if I had maybe done a better job teaching Banks and Yayo how to evolve and change their habits, they each would be in better places right now. Instead, they stayed stuck in their mindsets, and as a result, the success they desired has eluded them.”  

Fifty is explaining not why G-Unit failed per se, but why his friends were not able to grow their careers despite his attempts to help them.

Yayo wanted to stay dangerous as if he was still a street hustler, which of course scared off investors and corporates and others who might have wanted to put money in his pockets.

And Banks didn’t want to do things that felt like “selling out” or that to him were “corny”. When Fifty Cent advised him to join Instagram because it was a way to connect directly with his fans and build something, Banks refused because Tupac and Biggie wouldn’t have, never mind that Instagram didn’t exist in the nineties.

Buying views

As for the buying views thing, the writer Mark Wzrd Wandera gave me a good perspective, I will quote him verbatim:

“It is more of the effort that the team makes towards increasing sales that gives you millions of views, not buying of views among other conspiracy theories. We also hear from the American music industry how major labels buy records off the shelf or manipulate streams in order to get their music top of their charts, and the question has always been: if they are truly doing it, why don’t you get your label to do the same? This is like that time Jay Z sold a million copies of his album through Samsung and people cried foul on the unfair edge that gave him. The analogy of Octo buying views is made by lazy rappers to wish him away.”

On dumbing down

Everyone agrees Octo’s songs have perfect videos, catchy hooks, and immaculate beats. But then, as a friend, upcoming dancehall artist Don Chancy remarked to me, “Mnasifu Octo ju ya video na yeye si director.” Why is Octopizzo so keen about every other aspect of his craft but seemingly not so much about his writing?

The thing about Octo is he is not an idealist. He is a pragmatist. I was watching the third season of the HBO show Succession and in one episode, the old billionaire tells his rebellious son: “Not everyone can live this life. I know things about the world or I wouldn’t turn a buck. Not necessarily nice things.”

Octopizzo understands the average music fan. He knows that ciphers and boombap and street stuff are niche. He understands that the average Kenyan listening to music doesn’t know anything about hip hop and only wants feel-good dance music. Solution: dumb down the lyrics, lose the street grit, make his hooks catchy, jump on the Trap wave, and invest heavily in quality beats and production. To an idealist, this is untenable. To a pragmatist with a goal, it was the price of doing business.

Jay Z said it better: “I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars. They criticize me for it, yet they all yell ‘Holla’. If skills sold, truth be told I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli. Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense. But I did five mil. I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.”

Losing the street sound

Mark Wzrd Wandera had something to say when I accused Octo of losing the street sound:

“Octopizzo abandoned the street sound when he got access to better producers and better beats. Before you build a new sound, you will have to abandon and let go of sounds that you were comfortable with or that were associated with you. I actually like him for how brave he is with the sound. He is willing to take a risk with Ohangla beats and the song will be huge.

“He lost the recklessness of street music and went after the prize. And that requires doing stuff that no one really does. He is perfecting it.”

Rivalry and legacy

In 2010, Octopizzo became famous after he dissed the legendary Abbas Kubaff. Abbas did not respond and Octo kept rising. And it was not long before Abbas faded out along with the other legends of his generation. Octopizzo had successfully staged a coup, or so it looks looking back at that time. In any case, there was a transfer of power from one generation to the next.

Octopizzo has been dissed by just about everybody—as Mwafreeka aptly pointed out, dissing Octo seems to be a rite of passage. But what happened to Abbas has not happened to him. Khaligraph has definitely staged a coup, and taken over not just Kenya but the entire African continent as well. Yet Octo is still standing.

On the Iko Nini podcast Octopizzo revealed that the day Khaligraph beat him at the freestyle battle a decade ago was the last day he battled. After that, he would only MC/host. This was a conscious decision he made. The smart general knows when to retreat and regroup. Perhaps Octo realized from that early stage that this was an enemy he couldn’t fight lyrically. He had to find other means.

And over the years, he has found different means. For instance, his focus on sound and visuals could just be his way of showcasing that he is cut from a different cloth, setting himself apart from every other rapper in the country. His insistence on only working with international professionals for his beats and videos. His reluctance to do collabos. Perhaps all these are his tools of warfare. He wants us to judge him on his terms, on his strengths.

When Khaligraph got the BET nomination in 2020, and had so much heat on him continentally, I became convinced that Octo was dead and Khaligraph had taken over. The album Octo did in 2020, Jungle Fever, seemed to me conclusive proof of Octo’s demise. I mused that Khaligraph’s overwhelming popularity had forced Ohanga to abandon hip hop and embrace Ohangla. As a Khaligraph fan who spent 2020 engaging in spirited social media brawls with Octo fans, I was gloating.

But at some point this year, I decided to give Jungle Fever another chance. It was a work of genius: the beats, the immaculate fusion of hip hop with African rhythms … This was an album, I realized, for all time. Ten, twenty years from now Jungle Fever will still sound fresh.

Octopizzo, in my eyes, is no longer competing for the best rapper title. He has fought hard to create a different niche for himself. What he is fighting for is legacy. He is looking to make timeless music. The beats he chooses are not trapped in time, not something you will listen to in five years and say, “This song is so 2020”. Because the song is so well-made, has a spellbinding vibe, and you can play it on repeat without destroying its charm. It is a sort of magic he has tapped into.

Commenting on Octopizzo’s recently released album, FUEGO, Richard Oduor, the editor of this publication wrote: “Octopizzo’s albums always sound way better than your opinions of his pen game.”

And Khaligraph fan that I am, I can finally agree with Chinua Achebe: “Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too.”

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