Having toured as a saxophonist with the legendary Prince for two years, rising star Sylvester Onyejiaka – known under the musical alias Sly5thAve – has done one hell of a job of kickstarting his career in the musical realm.
Now signed to Brighton-based Tru Thoughts (as well as the label’s across- the-pond equivalent), Sly is emerging as a composer in his own right with his latest album The Invisible Man – An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre the first record to put an instrumental twist on the iconic Compton rapper’s sounds.
Sly’s interest in music stemmed from a young age, with his choir director mother taking him to church each week. Outside of religion, he told us, music in everyday life always seemed to catch his attention. But it was a viewing of iconic film The Blues Brothers that inspired him to pick up the saxophone. “I was shown music for the first time and it was just love at first sight,” he said.
Inspired by his Nigerian decent of soul, his interest intensified after his parents gave him his first record, Blue Train by 1950s American jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Kirk Whalum stemmed Sly’s interest in contemporary saxophone playing further, the two sides of the jazz spectrum inspiring Sly to produce music combining both traditional and contemporary jazz styles in to one.
Sly was faced with choosing his career path at the young age of 16, torn between his options of American football or music. At 6’5, and weighing around 200 pounds, his football coaches were excited about the prospect of his future as a football player, however Sly was also juggling a part in the school’s marching band. The pressures of both commitments led him to having to choose one path.
He said, “I was being stretched way too thin, trying to get to every football practice and every band rehearsal. I soon realised I couldn’t serve two masters and needed to focus more on one.”
With his decision made, his music tutor inspired him to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional saxophonist, and would teach him everything he would eventually know about jazz, playing him recordings of jazz pianist Count Basie and other influencers in the genre.
Twenty years since he first picked up the saxophone, Sly’s passion remains – and he’s seen a multitude of successes since. From his time on tour with Prince, he met a whole range of talented people. He also helped with the arrangements and transcribing during his time in the band, leading him to record his first orchestral version of Kendrick Lamar’s Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe. The piece ended up being filled with the ClubCassa Chamber Orchestra and, after it was uploaded to SoundCloud, his career has not stopped flourishing since.
But it was six months later, after his first Tribute to Dr. Dre concert (held to raise money for a music school in Compton), that Sly was flooded with the emotions and feelings that would inspire the title to his upcoming album. With racially motivated police shootings rife, Sly was faced with the constant reminder of racial differences, his reading of Black literature (most influentially Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man) enforcing what he saw happening across the States in the present.
Sly still feels that the older generations don’t understand the prejudice faced by people of colour. He said, “They don’t see me for who I am, they just see me for this made up big thing that’s just in their head that scares them.” The frustration inspired him to make a difference in the same vein as the Doctor himself, who dedicated his early music to ‘the invisible people’. Sly added, “I needed to get off my ass and do something.”
Uninspired by modern hip-hop, he instead decided to rework some of Dr. Dre’s most influential tracks, adding orchestral features and elements, as well as a couple of his own personal mixes. The finished album includes 23 arrangements with appearances from Jimetta Rose, Quantic, Cory Henry and Mark de Clive Lowe, among others.
Along with providing a voice to ‘the invisible people’, Sly hopes for the chance to share his music across the world, making people aware of the inspiration behind the album. He is hopeful for a European tour, and holds out for the day his idol hears his tribute. “I just hope that Dre gets to actually hear it. I’m so thrilled to be able to share it all.”
Sly5thAve’s California Love feat. Cory Henry, the latest instalment to be lifted from his captivating The Invisible Man: An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre LP, is available now.