AMIR OBÈ CLAIMS THE SPOTLIGHT BY FALLING BACK
An interview with Def Jam’s new recruit
Amir Obè is as much of a creative director as he is a vocalist. He writes his lyrics and leads the production, but the effects that coat his voice and the music that weaves around it are of equal importance. The Detroit rapper is confident enough to let the instrumentation take the lead on occasion. Sure, there are many sections where his voice is high in the mix, commanding the attention of the listener, but only when it’s needed. Other times, he’s content to fall back a bit and let the beat or melody take the lead.
Obè has been bubbling for nearly 10 years, and briefly signed to Atlantic in 2009 during the late MySpace wave. Though that deal fell through, he continued releasing a reliable stream of well-received mixtapes produced by fellow Detroiter NYLZ and Bed-Stuy’s Eli Sostre. In the summer of 2015, Obè premiered some music on OVO Sound Radio and people started really taking notice again. This winter, he signed with Def Jam, and his second release on the label, “Wish You Well,” made it onto our Top 17 Songs Of 2017 (So Far) list.
Obè records mainly at NYLZ’s home studio these days, where they build songs that pair his vocals in a close partnership and symbiosis with the other elements of their music. Obè’s voice is often heavily colored by technology, sometimes resembling a synth more than a voice. All of this is built organically with Amir and NYLZ feeling out the tracks as they go, vocals and production added in a back-and-forth manner, fusing with each other tightly.
It’s a process that’s grown over time with the people he’s been making music with since his start. And with time has also come money, so they’ve been able to build out the studio and expand their options. “We’ve really learned how to use a lot of this equipment we bought with the money we made off music,” says Obè. “We got better through experimentation.”
The fruits of that work can be heard on his recent seven-track Def Jam EP, None Of The Clocks Work, which featured “Wish You Well” as the lead single. We recently caught up with Obè to talk process, life in Detroit, the time he spent in New York, and what’s next.
Are you in Detroit right now?
Yeah, I’m back in Detroit right now, just recording. I record at NYLZ home studio.
When did you two link?
About a year out of high school here. All the way back to the start. We connected through my sister who was also making music back then. They were working on music, she had a situation where she almost had a deal, too.
What’s the process?
It’s a collaborative process. The song builds personality. It’s a real organic build. Sometimes I work alone on songs because I’ve started recording some things myself. Then he’ll come back in and we’ll go back and forth on it until it’s complete. I feel like there’d be no real feeling if I just had a beat.
How do you deal with the effects on your vocals?
It’s evolved slowly over time. With plugins and stuff, it’s really whatever fits the track. Something might call for a drier vocal, something else more distorted. It’s always what sits on that canvas. We do that usually after I lay it down. He’s also my engineer.
Has that grown more over time?
It’s always been kind of the same, but now it’s just way more refined. We’ve really learned how to use a lot of this equipment we bought with the money we made off music. We got better through experimentation.
How do you build the song composition?
It’s just wherever the song takes me. I usually start with gibberish or a particular line. Sometimes it comes out naturally sounding like a hook and bridge or whatever, but we never go in purposefully making those sections. We haven’t really used formulas for any of this new project.
You start with gibberish?
Yeah, I like to first connect melodically. If I feel like the cadence is right and the melody sounds good, I’ll go back and articulate certain points and figure out what words I should use. The gibberish is a placeholder.
How do you perform the tracks with all those effects?
It just takes the right equipment and sound guy. We use all the stems for the shows and I work with a live sound guy who runs my sets through Ableton. We’ve started incorporating live instruments into the sets, too. We’re trying to hone that next.
Where in Detroit are you from?
I grew up on the west side. I kinda discovered myself after high school when I moved to New York, but in my formative Detroit years, it was free. You got to be a kid, you didn’t have to grow up so fast. I could ride my bike around town and play football in the street. It was a lot slower than New York.
What brought you to New York?
I moved there to look at design schools. I was trying to get into FIT or Parsons. My sister was already going to school there. She was the first one to leave Detroit. I was putting out little freestyles on MySpace and that’s how I got noticed and got my first deal with Atlantic. I didn’t really understand the business at the time, though.
How’d you meet Eli Sostre?
We had mutual friends and I was at his place in Brooklyn every day. He was really like a friend first. We had a little collective called Neighborhood PHCK$. That’s where it really started.
What’s the next project?
First will be visuals for this recent project and we’re going on the road in the summer. The album should drop end of the year. I’m very involved in the artwork and everything. We had art installations in L.A. and Toronto. They were like listening parties mixed with an art exhibit, so we’ll be incorporating those in the visuals. The first video should be wrapped up in late May.
What happened with OVO?
Nothing happened. Those are good friends of mine. We always built on some friendship levels. That’s like family. It was never a business opportunity. I could see why people thought it was going to be a label thing.
You’re with Def Jam beyond this new project?
Yeah, we’re working on an album right now. I didn’t sign the deal until I had my sound and name and knew where I was going and they accepted it. With them, it’s like a creative freedom.