Sly5thAve is the project of multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II, whose sophisticated compositions are shaped by his faith in hip hop, and deep understanding of soul and jazz. Sly5thAve’s projects and accomplishments over the last few years include; the inception of the first orchestral concert dedicated to Dr Dre, playing saxophone with Prince, leading the ClubCassa Chamber Orchestra, and his revered co-reworking of Herbie Hancock’s classic ‘Headhunters LP’ which was debuted on Tru Thoughts in 2015.
With a core underground following, Sly5thAve’s projects have been backed by Jarobi White (A Tribe Called Quest), Gilles Peterson (BBC 6Music), Downbeat magazine, Noisey, NPR, The Fader, Jazz Times, Indie Shuffle, Earmilk and more. He has also attained much respect from his work with a host of highly- fêted musicians including; Prince, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Quantic, Taylor Swift, Janelle Monae, and Freddie Gibbs.
Born in Austin, Texas, Sly5thAve moved to Pflugerville – a suburb outside of Austin when he was just a child. His father was from Nigeria and his mother was from Detroit, and together they exposed Sly5thAve to a mixture of West African music, soul and jazz. Sly5thAve grew inspired and aware from a young age and his passion to play music quickly unfurled. “I started to play in church, then all through high school —where I picked up the piano and a little bit of percussion— and then I decided I wanted to do it full time” he says. Sly5thAve received formal training at the University of North Texas, where he performed with ensembles and earned feature roles on recordings like the Grammy-nominated “Lab 2009” with the One O’Clock Lab Band.
Sly5thAve was mentored by sought-after songwriter (SESAC) and Jazz musician, Philip Lasseter – who’s achievements include the arrangement for seven Grammy winning projects with Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin, in addition to working as arranger and lead trumpeter for Prince. It was whilst working with Lasseter that Sly5thAve was scouted by Prince for his talented saxophone playing, and after a three-month back and forth process of heartbreak and excitement, Sly5thAve found himself in the elite horn section of Prince’s New Power Generation band for two years. “Prince was an absolute genius and a good person” Sly5thAve recalls. “He always treated us with respect and he didn’t have to – because not everyone that’s famous is human”.
“The first jazz record that left a mark was ‘Blue Train’ by John Coltrane” Sly5thAve says. “My mom was into Jazz so come home one day, handed me the record and said “listen to this”, and I did, and I still revisit that record to this day.” Sly5thAve also explains he is indebted to the creatives and movements that formed his musical education, citing jazz giants; Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, and hip hop legends as his inspirations.
Before signing to Tru Thoughts in 2016, Sly5thAve had released several acclaimed musical projects including his first solo album ‘Akuma’ [Truth Revolution Records, 2014] –inspired by his Nigerian decent - it focussed on replicating a meditative state to connect with something deeper, be it through jazz, hip hop or soul music.
He then went on to found the ClubCassa Chamber Orchestra –which was named after the house he lived in with a collective of Brooklyn’s creatives— and arranged orchestral covers of Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, Rihanna’s “Pour It Up”, and Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home”. Looking back at why he chose to cover Kendrick’s track, Sly5thAve cited that the temptation to deconstruct it came from the renewed faith in hip hop he felt after hearing the track and the others that followed.
Alongside acclaimed New York music maker Jesse Fisher, Sly5thAve released the “Vein Melter” EP on Tru Thoughts in 2015. The pair joined forces to cover four tracks from Herbie Hancock’s seminal jazz funk album ‘Head Hunters’, which was met with early support from Gilles Peterson (BBC 6Music) as well as KCRW’s Jeremy Sole and Anthony Valadez and more.
Sly5thAve is currently living in Brooklyn and in the process of recording a studio album of his orchestral tribute to Dr. Dre, as well as some new compositions which are set for release on Tru Thoughts in the new year. Sly5thAve is also a member of Quantic’s live band, and has spent much of the summer touring as well as working on multiple projects with Ghost Note (formed from two members of Snarky Puppy), Strawberry Jam, and funk project Igbo.
Portrait Photographer: Anthony Valadez
Background Photographer: Eric Coleman
Musician: Sylvester "Sly5thave" Onyejiaka