Behind the scenes with Wash. U.’s Rhyme n Reason

Courtesy of Rhyme n Reason
Plenty of Wash. U. students can say they met a good friend hanging around the South 40—in their dorms, in Bear’s Den, on the Swamp. But juniors Jason Onugha and Chizom Okebugwu can say that this friendship lead to a collaboration. Nearly three years later, this collaboration is the hip-hop group Rhyme n Reason with a mixed tape and EPs, countless performances and hundreds of Facebook fans to its name.

“I was writing some lyrics for this one song we did…I didn’t know what it was going to be called then; I didn’t know him at all,” Okebugwu said. “I had the beat playing, and this man started freestyling, and the freestyle was good!”

After their initial meeting, Okebugwu sent some of his material to Onugha, and he was pleasantly surprised.

“Every time someone tells you they rap, you’re skeptical. Because some people just say it, and you think ‘Hmm, do you really?’ But then [the group] was born,” Onugha said.

After that meeting fall break of their freshman year, Onugha and Okebugwu began writing songs and making beats together informally. They didn’t have a way to record, but they wrote and rehearsed material anywhere they could.

“We didn’t have a place to record, and there was no performing direction really at that point…it was purely just about writing music because that was what we wanted to do,” Onugha said.

RnR’s trajectory changed when 2011 graduate Avi Silber heard the duo and offered to record some of their songs. To date, the group has recorded more than 30 songs— and those are just the pieces that made it through the production process.

“He was really the first music engineer we had,” Onugha said “That was really the [first time] we had people hearing our stuff, outside of the people just in our circle hearing us rap.”

As the songs began to circulate, RnR began small performances. Silber’s impact cannot be underestimated—Okebugwu added that he “brought life” to the group. After the recordings, they performed at the African fashion show, choosing a song Okebugwu had written with a “Nigerian pulse” to its beat. Recording continued, and the group had its first major performance at WUStock later that year.

In recounting that first performance, it’s clear that the story of RnR can’t be told by just one person. Okebugwu and Onugha exchanged laughs about how they were impressed with the performance at the time, but looking back is another story.

“We weren’t hyping up the crowd; we weren’t doing anything,” Okebugwu said.

“In terms of the quality we expect, it was not there,” Onugha added.

On campus, Okebugwu is a pre-law, political science major while Onugha studies anthropology and biology on a pre-med track. On stage, they are Ka’Boo and J.O. They are not only writing and performing partners but also were suitemates in Mudd House their sophomore year. That fall, they released a full mix tape entitled “Rhymes Down, Reasons Up.” Their performances continued to pile up: college council events, Team 31’s Second Stage, multiple performances at Ursa’s night life, an AIDS awareness benefit, the Gargoyle, Cicero’s. They’ve performed so many times that a wall in Onugha’s current room is covered in posters that publicized RnR events.

“If you wanted to characterize it, that first semester freshman year was wholly writing. Second semester freshman year was a little bit of performing, mostly recording…[We continued] to record over the summer,” Onugha said. “Sophomore year was categorized by performances. We were performing at a crazy rate.”

The amount of performances proved to be an invaluable learning experience in performing. The group grew into better performances, built a name for itself and changed its strategy for rehearsing.

“Practicing for a show used to be just practicing your bars, making sure you knew the words to your songs. [Now] there’s involvement of crowd, interplay on stage between the people you’re with, ad libbing on stage, movement.”

Ka’Boo and J.O. both say that performing together is a much more natural event now—they know how the other moves, they know how to back someone up when he’s losing breath, they know one another’s verses. At each performance, there is usually a combination of rehearsed songs and freestyle rap. There’s also a balance of song selection.

“You’ll start off with some kind of hype stuff, and then we’ll have another song that will bring the crowd down a little bit, but it will still be a pretty bumping song. The last one will be a culmination, a climax, whatever you want to call it,” Okebugwu said.

A recent post on the group’s Facebook page mentions “the team” of Onugha and Okebugwu as well as their current producer, freshman Allen Qiu (who the group credits with the quality of its current recordings), and other performers who work with them regularly. Despite their close friendship, they say it’s a healthy competition with one another that drives them to improve their rap; in November 2012, the group released the EP “Common Sense.”

“If he sends me something really good, it’s not a real anger, but I’m mad!” Onugha said. “So then you go back by yourself and you think ‘I gotta write something really good,’ and you’re sitting there pondering what you’ll write. The interplay of competition in the group is really what gets us better as we go…it creates growth within our work.”

After all the writing, performing and recording, it seemed logical to ask where the group would be headed in the future. But with eyes on careers in the law and medicine (Onugha said, “Since I was a boy I was going to be a medical doctor”), the long-term vision for RnR doesn’t extend far beyond Wash. U.

“This is an extracurricular,” Onugha said. “Every Wash. U. student is spread thin; I don’t feel like I’m doing any more than any other student here to be honest…I honestly think sometimes I’m under-doing what I need to be doing music-wise, school-wise. There’s always room to be doing more musically, academically. This is really just another part of our personal Wash. U. experience.”

Those interested in booking RnR for a performance may contact the group at

[email protected] and links to the group’s music can be found through its Facebook page: facebook.com/pages/RnR-Rhyme-n-Reason.

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