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Sly5thAve is the stage name of Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger and composer.
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Rhapsody in Black

Sly5thAve brings together classical, hip-hop, jazz and more in his innovative arrangements

Rhapsody in Black: Sly5thAve
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Sly5thAve is a multifaceted musician from the greater Austin area of Texas. After studying jazz at the University of North Texas, he got involved with the creatives of ClubCasa House after moving to New York.

With time, the saxophonist tried his hand at beat-making, learning from his housemates. He blended that skill with his arrangement skills from high school marching band and started to find a new sound. 

But Sly hasn’t forgotten his roots. His hip-hop influences include OutKast and remixes out of Houston. His family’s traditional Nigerian spiritual practices bring a soulfulness to his sound. 

Sly has favorite classical influences, too. He has arranged an orchestral tribute to legendary hip-hop producer Dr. Dre, which opened the door to his recent album, Liberation. It’s his first album of original orchestral arrangements, all built out from a beat tape. 

Through his work, he's expanding the way we think about classical music. 

More on Sly5thAve

Written by Akshaj Turebylu

Liberation is Sly’s fourth solo LP and the result of a years-long transformation from jazz saxophonist to “jack of all trades” multi-instrumentalist, producer and arranger.

The child of a Nigerian immigrant father, Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II was raised with the expectation of becoming a lawyer, doctor or engineer — the options his parents laid before him as a “good Nigerian son.”

One day, he came home with an important announcement:

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Sly5thAve: Career Choice

Since then, his family has come around to his musical ambitions, and Sly has maintained his sardonic attitude. It’s a subtle yet integral element of his “take it as it comes” persona, a coolness of being that matches his voice: deep, resonant and reserved with a tinge of Afro-Texan grit. That wry attitude has helped him to make friends and be flexible as he made major transitions, moving across the country and across genres.

Sly5thAve grew up in Pflugerville — a suburb of Austin most recognizable as the filming location for the Texas TV cult classic Friday Night Lights. During high school, Sly was playing in the marching band and writing arrangements of pop songs:

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Sly5thAve: Arranging in High Scohol

He soon enrolled in one of Texas’ great musical institutions — the University of North Texas College of Music. The saxophonist would prove himself in this grueling environment with a stint in the legendary One O’Clock Lab Band — known for such alumni as Herb Ellis, Jimmy Giuffre, Billy Harper, Bruce Fowler and Tom Malone; plus the prestige of seven Grammy awards.

After college, he found mentorship from Philipp Lassiter, a Grammy-winning horn player and string arranger with an ambitiously funky approach to mixing musical styles, including gospel, jazz and soul. Cross-genre blending crept into Sly’s career early on. From this connection, he joined Prince’s renowned New Power Generation horn section and toured with the Minneapolis-based musician for two years.

When it came time to leave Texas, Sly moved to New York. The jazz saxophonist went to the city with the expectation of pursuing a career in performance in the usual circuits — big bands, jazz clubs and so on. Instead, he would find comrades in a wonderfully chaotic creative environment. It was a clubhouse atmosphere, and it would provide him the chance to pursue a years-long dream:

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Sly5thAve: Beat-making Dream

Sounding like something out of a Barbie catalog, the ClubCasa House (also known as the Clubhouse or BLKN1834) is a grand Victorian mansion based in Brooklyn and refitted as a communal living space for creatives. It turned out to be the perfect place for Sly to begin experimenting outside the bounds of saxophone performance:

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Sly5thAve: Inspiration from ClubCasa House

The ClubCasa House (from which Sly developed the ClubCasa Chamber Orchestra) has clearly left its influence on him. The community gave him the space and the inspiration to be experimental while also maintaining creative discipline. It’s also the place where he would get the moniker Sly5thAve, a half-joking suggestion from a friend that happened to stick.

Sly started releasing music that he produced and arranged. It took time to be comfortable with making rough, exploratory projects. Jazz school trains for perfectionism, after all.

It was in another One O’Clock Lab Band alum, however, that Sly would find a new mentor and a new approach to music:

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Sly5thAve: Blaxploitation

Bob Belden’s brash and bold approach cut through the sterile professionalism of jazz conferences and gave Sly a big, green light to pursue the inherently intoxicating world of Blaxploitation soundtracks, an oft-overlooked corner of film scoring.

Alongside this, Sly’s arranging draws inspiration from certain classical favorites.

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Sly5thAve: Favorite Composers

Quincy Jones and Lili Boulanger are a match made in heaven. The Texas native has some hip-hop favorites to shout out, too, including a few H-Town heroes:

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Sly5thAve: Hip-Hop Favorites
Classical Feature

All of these influences came together to form Sly’s broad palette — a palette that has allowed him to successfully navigate the convolutions of multi-genre arranging.

While Sly had successful early arranging projects — such as his stripped-down, contemplative take on Kendrick Lamar’s “B**** Don’t Kill My Vibe,” performed by the ClubCasa Chamber Orchestra — his break in arranging came with an invitation to produce a retrospective orchestral album in honor of Dr. Dre, 2017’s The Invisible Man: An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre. Check out tracks such as “Still D.R.E.” and “Let Me Ride (feat. Jimetta Rose)” for a taste of soul-bathed classical arrangements staying true to their hip-hop origins.

With all of this in the rear window, Sly decided to strike out on his own. Starting with a beat tape, he began traveling around the United States to record arrangements with friends and colleagues from over the years.

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Sly5thAve: Producing Liberation

Truly, there is nothing like it. Liberation is grand and swinging and shocking — unbelievable except for the fact that it was created by the one person who could have brought these disparate musical worlds together into a supernova of genre-defying party music. The music is simultaneously cinematic and contemplative, driving and groove-infused, while taking the time to breathe and luxuriate. There are serious jazz licks alongside nonchalant rap flows from Kyle Rapps, wayward soul vocals, an occasional lo-fi ambiance and lush orchestral elements.

In the title track, the Blaxploitation influence is pungent. Liberation builds such a powerful scene that you wonder if Pam Grier might come swinging around the corner with a vengeance. There’s an intoxicating sense of driving towards something mysterious, dangerous and undeniable, whether it be a confrontation or a love affair. And you’ll have to be the hero to face it.

Partying and grooving aren’t all, though. With a title like Liberation, it’s obvious there are spiritual strains to Sly’s compositions. The opening four tracks form the Water Suite, which follows the spiritual arc of baptism from “Thirst” to “Drowning,” to a brief interlude in “Sanctuary,” and finally “Renewal.” The album opens with the sound of trickling water, calling upon a motif of the liberating and transformative power of water found in Afro-American music and art, from Ashley Jackson’s Take Me to the Water to Memphis Minnie’s When the Levee Breaks to Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. And don’t forget the pair of biblical tracks toward the end of the album, “Exodus” and “Proverbs”.

Sly does, in fact, draw from experience in multiple spiritual traditions. He speaks a little about his introduction to performance as a child through singing gospel:

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Sly5thAve: Musical Upbringing

Alongside this, his Nigerian heritage includes a set of spiritual practices that one struggles to define in American English. Our closest surrogates are lacking, including the clumsy titles “magic” or “witchcraft.” These traditions are a part of a family background that Sly hopes to bring with him as he ventures into uncharted musical and professional waters:

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Sly5thAve: Spirituality

Sly seems to be moving full-speed ahead in his idiosyncratic bridging of classical, soul, jazz, hip-hop and more. He’s even become interested in conducting after a recent stint with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during its Deaf and Loud Symphonic Experience concert.

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Sly5thAve: Conducting With Detroit Symphony Orchestra
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Sly5thAve: School for Conducting

Many paths lay open to Sly5thAve. He might pursue graduate school to hone a skill or two. He might find a new interest to obsess over. And he’s only made one of three parts of the full Liberation beat tape. The rest is waiting to be completed. He let’s us know with a wink that he wonders if an errant millionaire might not help him fund the expansion:

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Sly5thAve: Future of 'Liberation'

Regardless, it’s clear that Sly5thAve’s path is ascendant. For those who want a quick dose of the Liberation project, check out the tracks below.

Water Suite: “Thirst”

“Monoxide”

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Where we turn up the voices of Black artists in the world of classical music, with host Vernon Neal.

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