What sold Lil Durk manager Ola Ali on the opportunity to work with the young star was not only his talent as a rapper and singer, but his drive and hunger to succeed; something he also saw in himself.
When you think about Chicago hip-hop, it’s become synonymous with big names like Kanye West, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Chief Keef. But during the pandemic, another artist has been asserting himself in the game and taking Chicago to the masses―Lil Durk.
One of the men behind Durk’s mid-pandemic rise to superstardom is none other than Ola Ali, the Lagos, Nigeria born college football player turned music exec who is not only a part of Durk’s management team, but is the general manager of OTF, short for Only The Family.
Although he is now an executive at one of the more exciting, young movements in hip-hop, his path to the music business wasn’t necessarily a clear cut one.
After an injury brought his college football career to a screeching halt, Ali would pivot into a whole new industry―parties. It was during his time as a promoter that he was bitten by the entertainment bug.
“It started with throwing football house parties because I lived at football house”, he recalls. “It was like, ‘Alright, we’re going to do this to pay the electric bill, buy some groceries. You know, just playing around with it; just thinking about ways to make a little extra money on campus. Then, I did a homecoming party my senior year. Three thousand people showed up. I was in the middle of the party and it just clicked on me. ‘This is it. This is what I wanna do…I wanna be in the entertainment world.'”
From there, he made the connections that would change his life.
“When I was doing the nightclubs, I was working with a friend named Dilla, who is also currently on Durk’s management team. Dilla was promoting at one of my nightclub spots…He used to throw these hip-hop shows. So I was like, ‘What’s up with them hip-hop shows?’ and he was telling me, ‘It ain’t no real money in the parties but it’s something I do’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even care about the money. I wanna get into throwing these shows.'”
So the pair partnered up and started booking unknown artists and $500 headliners. One of those headliners was a young Big Sean.
“I wanted to get into the music scene. I didn’t mind starting at the bottom―the underground shows, the showcases.”
Ali then formed a close bond with Lil Durk’s older brother who frequented his club parties, although the two never talked music.
While Durk was releasing his debut studio album Remember My Name, his then manager, Chino (a friend of Ali’s), was killed. Dilla, who was already in the music industry, began working with Durk and Ali soon followed.
What sold Ali on the opportunity was not only the young artist’s talent as a rapper and singer, but his drive and hunger to succeed; something he also saw in himself.
“Even when we were just trying to work it out and get it right, you could see that he wanted it. You could see he wanted to prove people wrong…All of us, really, from Dilla to Jason, everyone on our management team…We got a chip on our shoulder. We do our thing. That’s what connected us. That passion to want to be great; to prove people wrong.”
And that they did. Not only did Durk and OTF weather the pandemic and the untimely murder of King Von, one of the label’s biggest stars, but they grew their budding Windy City empire in a time when many artists and labels were left scratching their heads wondering what to do.
“COVID really helped us out…My boy [Durk] went crazy during COVID.”
Among the new ventures Ali helped launch during the pandemic was OTF Gaming, the gaming arm of the company, and the non-profit Neighborhood Heroes that works with everyday heroes making positive change in the community.
But despite his growing list of business accolades, Ola Ali still has a lot more he wants to accomplish on his path to greatness, including some interest in the cannabis business, crypto currency, and even some work in his native Nigeria.
“I already got a plan; it’s just not time yet because I haven’t made my mark here…I know there’s a point when I’m gonna have to go back home. It’s just not now…”