It was just over 18 months ago that Fireboy DML released the record that would change his life.
But the song — “Peru,” which, aided by a remix with Ed Sheeran, would ultimately reach No. 53 on the Billboard Hot 100, No. 2 on the UK Official Singles Chart and No. 1 on U.S. Afrobeats Songs — was almost never released at all. Standing in the lounge of EMPIRE’s studio space in San Francisco, where he originally cut the record in 2021 (memorialized by the line “I’m in San Francisco jamming”), he’s explaining how, if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of EMPIRE founder/CEO Ghazi pushing him to release the record, he might never have put it out due to his own perfectionism. (Which, as an EMPIRE staffer standing nearby points out, is due to him being an Aquarius.)
But four hours later, that alternate timeline where Fireboy’s single didn’t break through into the U.S. and help Afrobeats’ global takeover seems implausible, even absurd. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., Ghazi leads Fireboy into the studio’s white marble lobby, where two dozen EMPIRE employees, songwriters, producers and managers, as well as fellow Nigerian artists Asake and Olamide, the latter of whom also runs their YBNL record label, are waiting to surprise Fireboy with an RIAA plaque of platinum certification for “Peru.” After a short bow and a swig from a bottle of champagne, Fireboy gives in to the calls for a speech, thanking everyone in the room and calling the plaque the “perfect definition of success,” to a round of applause.
The impromptu ceremony is the highlight of another day at EMPIRE’s Africa writing camp, which the Bay Area-based independent music company initiated last month to bring together some of its leading African artists to record together at the ever-evolving studio space near San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s a space that currently boasts three studios and a live room, but one that is still being developed. When it’s finished, some time this summer, it will include two more recording studios, a pair of podcast studios, a gaming room with a massive, 30-foot LED screen along one wall and a swimming pool in the back yard, in addition to the lounge (which will eventually become a theater space with Dolby Atmos sound), kitchen and dining room, all of which is outfitted with EMPIRE logos, custom lighting and specially designed sound systems, which Ghazi has overseen.
“We’ll literally be able to create pieces of content around all these verticals, and then this becomes a hub of where you gotta visit,” he says, giving a tour of the space earlier in the afternoon. “There’s gonna be no way around it. It’s going to create too much energy, it’s going to be impossible to overlook.”
The studio serves as the center of the writing camp, with Fireboy, Asake and Olamide the resident stars of the show. It hasn’t all been work since the three Nigerian artists got to the Bay — over the previous few days, they sat courtside at a Golden State Warriors game, went to wine country in the Napa Valley and took in the sights on a tour around the city. But each day, starting around 3:00 p.m., it’s back to the studio to get back to business, building on the momentum of recordings from previous days and channeling the creativity that comes from working in an environment designed to let them simply exist as artists, with few distractions.
For us, however, this particular Tuesday started out with oysters and clam chowder at Hog Island Oyster Bar on the water (Shrimpy is the hookup; if you know you know) before braving the spitting rain to head to a photo shoot for Fireboy and the shoe company Clarks, where he’ll be part of a campaign that will result in a concert in the metaverse down the line. (In addition to the regular photo shoot, Fireboy was tasked with filming things like catching a rolled up magazine, which will be transformed into a microphone in the digital realm.) The shoot had been in progress since 10am, but the afternoon started to wear on, so soon it was into a sprinter van and off to the studio, where Asake and Olamide are holed up in Studio B, looping a section of a track that Asake is workshopping, with Olamide over Asake’s shoulder reading lyrics off his phone.
Forty-five minutes later, Olamide was holding court outside around an electric fire pit, while two engineers — one of them multi-Grammy winning mix engineer Jaycen Joshua, who EMPIRE flew up from L.A. for the occasion — worked on the mix to Olamide’s next single in Studio A, tweaking drums to get the punch just right. The room was still under construction just days before, and was finished just as the artists started to arrive in the city, having been rebuilt in just three weeks. In the lounge, Fireboy was talking about his new grill and his plans to dye his hair — while in the kitchen, a local chef, brought in to make okra soup, smoked mackerel, shrimp and garlic crabs and cornbread for the Nigerian contingent each night, was mid-cook, blasting Kevin Gates in the newly-remodeled space. But then it was back to work, with Asake and Fireboy disappearing into different studios, then swapping spaces a half hour later.
Shortly after 7:00, it was time to eat, with staff and crew at the long banquet tables and the artists sitting in the backyard, before EMPIRE’s regional head of West Africa, Mobolaji Kareem, brought a half-dozen of us into the live room to hear new Asake and Olamide records that the two have been working on over the past week. The songs are unmixed and only half done, he said, and I was the first non-EMPIRE person to hear them, and he danced through them and broke them down after each. We moved to Studio A — for the bigger speakers — to hear them again, as well as forthcoming records from Kizz Daniel, who is also working on his next release, albeit not in San Francisco at the moment. Eventually, EMPIRE’s senior vp of A&R Tina Davis kicked us out of Studio A — there was mixing to do, after all, and while listening to the records is exhilarating, there’s still work ahead.
Indeed, even as everyone gathers in the lobby for Fireboy’s plaque presentation, the celebration is short-lived; before long, Fireboy is back in Studio B, listening back to a song he had initially cut last night. It was after 10:00, but time hardly matters; the night before, they were in the studio until around 3 a.m., and the likelihood is that the evening will be trending in that direction again. But what comes of those late night hours will be the subject of another day, and another round of listening, tinkering and building, creating the next generation of records that will continue spreading the movement across the globe.