The multifaceted hip-hop artist performs Friday, October 29 at the Rathskeller.
Photos by Alex Kiander and Sam Molinaro.
Godwill Oke takes an at once ambitious and grounded view of the music he makes under the name Godly The Ruler. If there is a guiding spirit to the project, Oke sums it up with a line on “D Rod,” one of a trilogy of singles he released in March: “Fuck a genre, this whatever you call it.” Oke is branching out into new sounds and collaborations as he prepares for a live Godly The Ruler set this Friday, October 29 at the Memorial Union Rathskeller.
“I think it’s still in the early stages, 100 percent, but it’s really just been a lot of me having as much fun as possible,” Oke says of his musical endeavors so far. “I feel like a kid still.” On the other hand, he’s already developed a great deal of confidence in bringing together disparate musical ideas.
Oke, now a 22-year-old senior at UW-Madison, began putting together a home-studio setup when he was a 14-year-old growing up in Chicago. In his room, Oke spent endless hours teaching himself music production, developing the skill to mix and master his own tracks as well. Outside, after-school programs gave him the chance to gain experience in photography and graphic design. He also had opportunities to soak up the city’s vast wealth of art and music, in part through the youth-oriented music resources at the Harold Washington Library.
“From 14 to 22, it’s just been me honing my skills and sharpening the blade and getting my footing, and now I feel like I’m in a position where I kind of know how this stuff goes like the back of my hand. I’m really comfortable as an artist,” Oke says.
The over-the-top rapping and bristling synth bass on “D Rod” made it a cohesive fit with its companion tracks, “Olajuwon” and “Zion.” Those singles in turn built on the punchy, noise-streaked hip-hop of the Work In Progress EP, released in January. Taken together, the music Oke released earlier this year demonstrates that he’s more than capable of expanding a sonic palette and a lyrical persona across a cohesive body of work. It’s not a one-dimensional approach, either. On the Work In Progress track “Bull,” Godly The Ruler captures vulnerability and brash determination all at once: “I’ve been drowning in these motions so I’m unapproachable.”
He lets a lot more tenderness and melody come to the forefront on two recent singles, “Off With Your Head” and “Text Me When You Get Home.” These songs find a groove somewhere between rap and yearning post-punk.
“I think it’s counterintuitive to be like, ‘I am only making hard experimental hip-hop, whatever you want to call it,'” Oke says. “I have such a wide music palette of stuff that I’d like to listen to. I feel like I would get bored if I ever stuck to one specific route. I don’t have any of those reservations when I’m in a session, where it’s like, ‘OK, we have to make a hip-hop track today. I’m gonna make whatever I like that day.”
Even when working with instrumentals with other producers (including Wendigo, Solsa, and Sōsh & Mōsh on his early-2021 releases, and Erlax on “Off With Your Head”), Oke has tended to prefer working in a self-sufficient manner. He especially takes pride in the finer aspects of incorporating his vocals into tracks—a task unto itself, even if you already have great music to work with. “My bread and butter is vocal production, vocal arrangement, and vocal mixing,” Oke says. “I think production plays such a crucial role in making good songs, but I’m also really geeked out about vocals and vocal layering and sound design with vocals.”
You can hear that careful touch across Work In Progress. On “Gotham City,” Oke mixes his vocals crisp and clear to match his nimble, clipped rhymes. He uses double-tracking to layer the vocals, but it’s clearly intentional and intermittent. On opening track “Mortal Kombat,” the vocal tracks twist gracefully around a sinister guitar phrase, and Oke uses warped, pitch-shifted layers to give the performance an almost hallucinatory effect. On the last track, “1 Million Voices,” he balances an aching, sung vocal against a blur of scratchy vocal samples.
Oke has gradually become more open to hands-on collaboration. He found kindred spirits in Daniel Kaplan and Sam Molinaro, who produced “Text Me When You Get Home.” They layer a purring bass part, bright guitars, and big boxy drums. Oke supplies a vocal melody and lyrics that weigh both the euphoria of connection and the pangs of loneliness. “I promise I’m never leaving / Too far, too fast, goodbye,” he sings at the end of the chorus. The three also worked together on the music video for “Text Me When You Get Home,” a journey through blurry parties and frantic, solitary traffic tunnels.
Kaplan, an alum of UW-Madison’s First Wave program, has also explored a range of styles and approaches over the years, from exuberant hip-hop to introspective pop. During Oke’s freshman year, Oke was part of an arts-oriented learning community, and one day Kaplan paid a visit to hold a guest workshop. “I think I was the only one who went, and we were chopping it up for an hour,” Oke says. “We got into a session the following week and made a quick song.” These days, he says that working with Kaplan and Molinaro almost feels like “three heads on the same body.”
Godly The Ruler’s October 29 set might incorporate a few “special guests,” including one or two on live instruments, Oke says. Without spoiling too many details, Oke also hints that he’s getting more interested in stage design and is considering “some fun covers of songs that are really out of the spectrum of stuff that I make myself.” He plans to put out another short EP before the year is up, and wants to work on a longer, perhaps album-length project in 2022.
Going forward, Oke is both humble and excited about the future development of Godly The Ruler.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors. I just like recording, I like hearing my voice on these songs, and I like working with my friends to make cool projects, and I have the ability to share it with people,” Oke says. “That’s all it really is to me—I can do these things and I also have the chance to share them with people, so that’s what I’m doing.”
There’s more where this came from.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up for the Tone Madison email newsletter. It’s the best way to keep up with our work, and it hits your inbox every Thursday morning, complete with our special Microtones column and more.